On June 23, 1943, a 30-year-old woman dressed in a checked suit and pillbox hat walked into Gestapo headquarters in Lyon, France. After presenting false identification papers, she was ushered in to see Klaus Barbie, a senior officer in the German secret police who would become notorious as the “Butcher of Lyon.” The encounter with Barbie was only the first step in Lucie Aubrac’s daring plan to rescue her husband, Raymond, and other members of the French Resistance from Nazi imprisonment. A schoolteacher, wife and mother who lived a dual life as an active resister of the Vichy government and Nazi Germany during World War II, Lucie would win international fame for her wartime heroics. After the Allied liberation of France in August 1944, she spent the rest of her life teaching French schoolchildren the lessons of hope and resistance in the face of the most brutal oppression.
A Born Rebel
Lucie Bernard was born in 1912 in the small commune of Châtenay-sur-Seine in north-central France, southeast of Paris. As a teenager, she rebelled against her parents’ wishes by refusing to train as a primary school teacher, a solid position that would have helped her working-class family move up the social ladder. Instead, she moved to Paris by herself at the age of 19 and began studying to gain entrance to the elite Sorbonne.
The principle of refusal—le refus, in French—that would define Lucie’s life developed early, according to Siân Rees, author of the recently published “Lucie Aubrac: The French Resistance Heroine Who Outwitted the Gestapo,” the first English-language biography of Lucie. “She never deviated from her principles or political beliefs, the most important of which was the guarantee of liberty,” Rees writes.
Troubled by the poverty she saw in Paris during the Great Depression, Lucie became an enthusiastic member of the French Communist Party. She finally qualified to enter the Sorbonne in 1937 and graduated in only a year, winning her first teaching post at a lycée (one of France’s state-funded secondary schools) in Strasbourg, located on the Rhine River just two miles from France’s border with Germany.
Wartime Love Story
In 1939, she met and fell in love with Raymond Samuel, an engineering student from a well-to-do Jewish family. Later that year, she was preparing to leave for the United States, having won a scholarship grant. But on September 1, four days before Lucie was to sail for New York, German troops invaded Poland, prompting Britain, France and other Allied nations to declare war on Germany. Lucie canceled her voyage, managing to get across France and smuggle herself into Strasbourg—by then off-limits to civilians—by convincing army medics to carry her on a stretcher. Reunited, she and Raymond married that December.
After nine months of facing off with French troops across the border, Germany attacked France in the spring of 1940, and Raymond was one of nearly 2 million French soldiers captured in only a few weeks of fighting. The humiliated French government turned to Marshal Phillipe Pétain, the 84-year-old hero of World War I, who promptly signed an armistice with Germany.
Knowing she had to rescue her husband before he was transferred to a Nazi POW camp in Germany, Lucie again made a perilous crossing through France to where he was being held in Sarrebourg. During a brief visit, she discreetly passed Raymond a drug that would cause a fever; when he was transferred to a hospital, she was able to smuggle in a disguise that allowed him to escape. The young couple stayed in a hotel (where most of the other guests were German officers) before fleeing on a train to Lyon, the most important city in France’s so-called “free zone.”
Joining the Resistance
Unlike many in France, Lucie was never under any illusion that Pétain’s government headquartered in the spa town of Vichy, was legitimate. In the fall of 1940, following her tried-and-true principle of le refus, Lucie became one of the earliest members of the French Resistance, the growing movement dedicated to undermining the Vichy regime. Even as she apparently lived a dutiful life as wife, mother (Jean-Pierre, known as Boubou, was born in 1941) and teacher, Lucie was also an underground freedom fighter, helping to publish the journal Libération, delivering packages, distributing propaganda and helping imprisoned resisters escape.
By the end of 1942, the Germans occupied all of France. Large-scale deportations of Jews had begun, though no one was aware of the horrific reality of the Final Solution at that time. That winter, Klaus Barbie of the Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo, arrived in Lyon. In an effort to infiltrate and crush the Resistance, he favored interrogating and “turning” captured resisters into double agents. In March 1943, the Gestapo arrested Raymond, who was by then using the surname Aubrac. Though he was in charge of recruitment and training of soldiers for the Resistance organization Libération-Sud, Raymond (arrested under the alias François Vallet) was released after convincing the Germans he was only selling things on the black market.
Outwitting the Gestapo
On June 21, however, Raymond was arrested again, along with the chief Resistance leader Jean Moulin, in a Gestapo raid in the Lyon suburb of Caluire. Barbie and his officers beat and tortured both men; Moulin would later die from his injuries. It was while Raymond was being held in Montluc prison that Lucie—pregnant with their second child at the time—visited Barbie to ask that her “fiancé” be released due to his ill health. After Barbie flatly rejected her pleas, Lucie returned again, and he informed her that Raymond (or rather, “François Vallet”) had been sentenced to death.
Even as Lucie visited Lyon’s morgues, hoping not to find her husband’s body, she didn’t give up on her rescue plan. She gained access to another German officer and won his sympathy, citing a French law allowing prisoners condemned to death to marry. The ruse worked, and on October 21 the “wedding” took place at Gestapo headquarters. An hour later, as the Germans transported Raymond back to prison, Lucie and several other armed members of the Resistance attacked the van, killing several German officers and freeing Raymond along with 16 other prisoners.
Exposed and wanted by the Nazis, the Aubracs went into hiding with their young son, moving from safe house to safe house until they were finally evacuated to Britain in February 1944. (Lucie gave birth to a daughter, Catherine, only days after their arrival.) The Allied press celebrated the couple—and especially Lucie—for their heroism, and held them up as symbols of the valiant French Resistance.
Soon after June 6, 1944, when British and U.S. troops landed successfully in Normandy, Lucie traveled back to France as a representative of the Free French government of Charles de Gaulle. She was on hand in Paris on August 25, when the German garrison in that city surrendered to Allied troops and General de Gaulle addressed the jubilant crowds outside the Hotel de Ville.
Post-War Legacy (and Controversy)
The Aubracs’ triumphant post-war return was tinged with sadness, as Raymond’s parents had been deported to Auschwitz in January 1944. Lucie began teaching history again, and would spend the rest of her life speaking to thousands of students about the Resistance. She also campaigned against discrimination, and on behalf of progressive causes, such as Algerian independence. In 1996, she was presented with France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, for her role in the Resistance.
Controversy threatened to cloud the Aubracs’ legacy after Klaus Barbie was arrested in Bolivia, where he had lived undercover since the 1960s. In 1984, while on trial in Lyon for his role in the deportation of Jews and the Final Solution, Barbie claimed Raymond Aubrac was an informant, and had been responsible for the arrest of Jean Moulin in 1943. To respond to such claims, Lucie wrote her own memoir of her wartime experiences, “Outwitting the Gestapo,” which became a bestseller in France. Historians have generally rejected Barbie’s claims (made between 1983 and 1991, when he died in prison) and the Aubracs fought steadfastly to disprove them. In 1998, the couple won a libel suit against the journalist Gérard Chauvy, who published a book based largely on Barbie’s information.
A biography of Lucie Aubrac published by Laurent Douzou in 2009, two years after her death, delved deeply for the first time into her history. Despite his evident admiration of her work during the Resistance, Douzou uncovered a number of distortions of fact in Lucie’s memoir, including information about her birth and childhood, as well as events in her past that she seemingly misremembered or made up to lend more drama to her story. Rees, who drew on Douzou’s work to write her own account of Lucie Aubrac’s story, notes that one possible explanation of these fibs was that after such an eventful and amazing life, “Lucie herself no longer really knew which of her own stories were true and which were fantasy.”