Raymond Aubrac, French Resistance leader, dies at 97


(Museum of National Resistance/Champigny-sur-Marne)

Raymond Aubrac, a French Resistance leader who escaped Gestapo torturers with help from his pregnant wife — an episode that became one of the most celebrated triumphs of the underground and also an enduring love story of World War II, died April 10 at a hospital in Paris.

His death, at 97 and of undisclosed causes, was reported by the French media.

“Raymond and Lucie Aubrac” have long been household names in France. French President Nicolas Sarkozy counted Mr. Aubrac and his wife among the “heroes of the shadows who saved France’s honor at a time when it appeared lost.”

The couple’s wartime exploits — replete with sabotage and danger, sex and a shoot-out — made good movie material. Several French films, most prominently Claude Berri’s “Lucie Aubrac” (1997), have immortalized the Aubracs in the country’s collective memory.

Mr. Aubrac, then called by his birth name of Raymond Samuel, was a young French army engineer when he met Lucie Bernard, a schoolteacher, in the late 1930s. It was “love at first sight,” Mr. Aubrac once said, and they were married in 1939.

They settled in the central French city of Lyon, which was controlled by the collaborationist Vichy government after the German invasion in 1940. Lucie established contacts with the nascent Resistance. Raymond also joined, and “Aubrac” became their principal nom de guerre. Together they helped found the Liberation Sud, an early local chapter of what became the national resistance movement under the leadership of Jean Moulin.

Mr. Aubrac was among Moulin’s chief organizers in Lyon, which fell under Nazi control at the end of 1942 when German troops occupied Vichy France. Klaus Barbie was installed as Gestapo chief. His brutality toward Jews and Resistance fighters earned him the moniker “the Butcher of Lyon.”

On June 21, 1943, Mr. Aubrac, Moulin and other collaborators arranged what was to be a key organizational meeting. The group was betrayed by an informant. The Gestapo stormed the meeting, arrested the men and took them to the Montluc prison in Lyon for interrogation and torture.

“Barbie had a whole collection of instruments of torture,” Mr. Aubrac once told the New York Times. “He had whips and billy clubs and two-by-fours. He beat me a lot, and there was nothing intellectual about his methods. He just asked the same questions over and over and over again.”

Moulin was tortured and died. Today he is remembered in France as the great martyr of the resistance movement.

Mr. Aubrac was sentenced to death by a Paris court, but the order was not swiftly carried out because the authorities still hoped to obtain intelligence from him. In the meantime, Lucie, four months pregnant with their second child, formed a plan for her husband’s release.

She approached Barbie and said she was Mr. Aubrac’s unwed lover. Feigning desperation, she begged Barbie to allow her and Mr. Aubrac to marry before his execution so that her baby would not be born an illegitimate child.

Barbie turned her away. She tried the ploy with another Nazi official and — after bribing him with a silk scarf and champagne — succeeded.

Mr. Aubrac was taken to the police headquarters for an impromptu wedding ceremony on Oct. 21, 1943. She secretly relayed her plan to her husband: On the way back to prison, his truck would be ambushed by the Resistance.

During the ensuing combat, several Gestapo officers were killed, and more than a dozen prisoners, including Mr. Aubrac, escaped from the truck. The couple, along with their son, Jean-Pierre, was later flown by the Royal Air Force to London. Their daughter Catherine was born a few days after their arrival.

Mr. Aubrac worked in England for French Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s government-in-exile before returning to France and becoming a high-ranking official in Marseille.

Long involved in leftist politics, he created an institution that pushed for economic ties with Communist nations. He also was an official with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

At least twice during the U.S.-Vietnam War, Mr. Aubrac was used as a go-between for communication with Ho Chi Minh. Mr. Aubrac’s friendship with the Communist Vietnamese leader dated to 1946, when Ho visited Paris when seeking his country’s independence from France. Then a rising politician, Ho stayed in Mr. Aubrac’s home and became “the unofficial godfather” to one of the couple’s children.

The trauma of the German occupation rushed back in the 1980s, when Barbie was discovered in Bolivia, extradited to France and convicted on war crimes charges. In the early 1990s, a posthumous statement from Barbie alleged that Mr. Aubrac had been the informant who tipped off the Gestapo about the Resistance meeting on June 21, 1943. Mr. Aubrac vehemently denied the accusation.

In 1998, the Aubracs successfully sued a historian for libel for suggesting Mr. Aubrac had collaborated with Barbie’s police. A panel of scholars — convened at Mr. Aubrac’s request — found no reason to believe Barbie’s charges.

Raymond Samuel was born July 31, 1914, to a Jewish family in Vesoul, in northeastern France. His parents died in Auschwitz. He studied engineering in France and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before the war.

Survivors include three children, Jean-Pierre Aubrac, Catherine Vallade and Elisabeth Helfer Aubrac; and 10 grandchildren.

Lucie Aubrac died in 2007, at 94. As a widower, Mr. Aubrac devoted himself increasingly to speaking to schoolchildren about the war.

“I can’t stand solitude after 67 years of married life,” he said after Lucie’s death. “So when I found myself alone, I was happy to have invitations to schools which gave me the feeling I was still a bit alive.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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