Raymond Aubrac was a French Resistance leader during World War Two. Aubrac gained a legendary status for his deeds and was a major target for the Gestapo in France. He helped to form ‘Liberation-Sud’ – one of the first organised resistance movements in France.
Aubrac was born in Vésoul in Eastern France on July 31st 1914. He was born Raymond Samuel and his family were Jewish shopkeepers. After leaving school Aubrac studied for a law degree and then went to Harvard University where he took a Master’s degree in Science. When World War Two broke out he was an engineering officer serving in the French Army on the Maginot Line. When the Nazis launched a Blitzkrieg attack against Western Europe in May 1940, France fell within six weeks. The conquered nation was effectively divided in two with the northern half under Nazi control and the southern half under the control of the Berlin-friendly Vichy government. Almost immediately, the Gestapo went to work arresting those who they thought would be a threat to the Nazis in France. In time Jews were also arrested, including Aubrac’s parents, who died in Auschwitz.
After the surrender of France, Aubrac travelled to southern France and joined the French Resistance under the pseudonym of Aubrac. He helped to organise ‘Liberation-Sud’, which was one of eight resistance movements across France. When he first got involved in resistance activities, it soon became clear to him that there was no organisation or planning given to any activities and everything was a bit ad hoc:
“I never joined the resistance because at the beginning there was never a resistance to join. It started off with us buying boxes of chalk and writing graffiti on walls. Then we progressed to tracts and putting them through people’s letter boxes. Then the third stage was our newspaper ‘Libération’. It’s when you first have an underground press that you can talk about organisation – because you need a proper structure for it to work.”
Aubrac’s primary work in the early days of ‘Liberation-Sud’ was to publish ‘Libération’. Publications such as this greatly angered the occupying Germans as they clearly showed that there were those in France who were not prepared to accept defeat and surrender.
However, working for the Resistance was fraught with dangers. The Gestapo used informants to their advantage and Aubrac became a wanted man. He was arrested on June 21st 1943 in a house in Caluire. Eight senior Resistance men were meeting to discuss ways in which the eight parts of the national resistance movement could be knitted together to form a more cohesive national unit. Jean Moulin had been parachuted into France to carry out this exact task and he was at the meeting as well. Aubrac believed that one of those at the meeting betrayed them. All except one were arrested by the Gestapo. This man, Rene Hardy, was not handcuffed like the others and escaped. According to Aubrac the Germans made a half-hearted attempt to shoot him and he managed to flee to scene. Aubrac later commented that he his arrest was “a shock but not a surprise.”
Aubrac was tortured by the Klaus Barbie, the notorious ‘Butcher of Lyons’. Many years later Aubrac recounted his time with Barbie:
“I had the impression that he was not really interested in the answers of the questions he was asking. His pleasure was to feel his power, his force, by torturing.”
Moulin fared worse. The last time Aubrac saw him at Montluc Prison, he had been so badly beaten that two SS men had to carry him down some stairs. Moulin was being moved to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin but he did not survive the journey and died of his injuries.
Aubrac was freed from his four month ordeal on October 21st 1943 by his wife, Lucie. He was being moved by lorry from Montluc Prison to the police headquarters in Lyons. Lucie led a Resistance attack on the lorry, which resulted in three Germans being killed and freed him. The rescue went down in Resistance history and became the basis for two post-war films: ‘Lucie Aubrac’ and ‘Boulevard of Swallows’. Hunted by the Gestapo, both were spirited out of France by SOE Lysander and made their way to London and then on to Algeria.
After the war, Aubrac was commissioned by the local government in Marseilles to take responsibility for the removal of German mines around the southern coast of France. Aubrac later became an inspector for reconstruction.
Many years later Klaus Barbie was extradited from South America where he had fled to at the end of the war. Barbie was put on trial in Lyons. During the trial he claimed that it was not Rene Hardy who had betrayed the others in Caluire but Aubrac. Barbie claimed that Aubrac had been ‘turned’ in March 1943 when he had first been arrested by the Gestapo. Aubrac vigorously denied the allegations and put himself and his wife up for ‘trial’ on the charges. One of those who assessed Aubrac was Daniel Cordier who had been a close friend of Jean Moulin. There can be little doubt that Moulin suffered greatly at the hands of the Gestapo and if there was any doubt as to Aubrac’s position, he would not have found a supporter in Cordier. However, Aubrac was cleared of collaboration and the story put forward by Barbie was seen as nothing more than the desperate doings of a desperate man.
After the war Aubrac was awarded the Croix de Guerre and made a Grand Officer of the Légion d’Honneur.
Raymond Aubrac died on April 10th 2012 aged 97.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that Aubrac was “a heroic figure of the resistance”. The leading French socialist and current French President, François Hollande, called Aubrac “righteous” who had “the force to resist Nazi barbarity”.