Teenagers helped launch the WWII French Resistance; many paid with their lives
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Author interview'It wasn't an army, it was just a group of young people'

Teenagers helped launch the WWII French Resistance; many paid with their lives

In his new book ‘Sudden Courage,’ author Ronald Rosbottom reveals just how young many founding members of the underground fighters were — as well as how diverse

  • Young màquisards, or Resistance fighters, in the Haute-Loire, France. (Mémorial de la Shoah/ Ronald Rosbottom)
    Young màquisards, or Resistance fighters, in the Haute-Loire, France. (Mémorial de la Shoah/ Ronald Rosbottom)
  • Jewish children in hiding in France during WWII working the fields. (Mémorial de la Shoah/ Ronald Rosbottom)
    Jewish children in hiding in France during WWII working the fields. (Mémorial de la Shoah/ Ronald Rosbottom)
  • A derailed train lying on its side, the result of sabotage by Resistance fighters in France, June 9, 1944. The photo was taken by a German officer who would be killed by another Resistance ambush minutes later, and the film recovered and developed by the operatives. (Public domain)
    A derailed train lying on its side, the result of sabotage by Resistance fighters in France, June 9, 1944. The photo was taken by a German officer who would be killed by another Resistance ambush minutes later, and the film recovered and developed by the operatives. (Public domain)

French youth willing to join the underground battle against the Nazis during World War II faced rigorous screening from Jacques Lusseyran. The experienced operative made on-the-spot assessments of their capabilities and character that would determine whether they could join the Resistance or not.

While the idea of youth taking up arms is strange enough, even more noteworthy is the fact that Lusseyran was blind — the result of a childhood accident — and, as a teenager himself, was as young as many of his interviewees.

Lusseyran is among the young resisters featured in a new book by Amherst College professor Ronald Rosbottom, “Sudden Courage: Youth in France Confront the Germans, 1940-1945.”

The book employs its title phrase throughout its pages, and finds plentiful examples in the youthful energy shown by those in their teens and 20s when older generations were still stunned by the events of 1940 — the Fall of France, Marshal Pétain’s collaboration with Nazi Germany, and the establishment of Vichy.

“The Resistance was not an army, it was a group of young people who just got together here and there, and in effect created their own tactics,” Rosbottom told The Times of Israel. “It was not a group of adults who rose up… It began from the ground up, which is what’s remarkable. That’s a reason why I got the title ‘Sudden Courage.’ Courage was suddenly needed.”

‘Sudden Courage’ author Ronald Rosbotom. (Courtesy Harper Collins)

As Rosbottom notes, “young people were the most active in the Resistance,” setting an example throughout the war, from the fall of Paris to its liberation by the Allies four years later. In addition to Lusseyran, the author profiles other youth who rose up, including Adolpho Kaminsky, a Jewish teenager who became the most gifted forger of the Resistance, and Geneviève de Gaulle, niece of Resistance leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle.

As the book shows, Vichy and its Nazi accomplices did not spare youth, with many young resisters, including Lusseyran and de Gaulle, being caught and deported — Lusseyran to Buchenwald, de Gaulle to Ravensbrück. While they both survived, others did not, including former child star Robert Lynen, who was killed by the Nazis in his early 20s.

Variety of reasons, variety of actions

The book profiles about a dozen subjects — Jews, Protestants, and Catholics — who ran the spectrum from middle-income to descendants of the monarchy. The author conducted research through such means as visiting archives, including the Shoah Memorial Library in Paris, and reading firsthand accounts, from memoirs to letters — including from those about to be executed by the Nazis.

Throughout, Rosbottom tried isolate exactly what motivated the youth to stand up against the powerful forces running France at the time.

A street art mural of resistance fighter Geneviève de Gaulle by Paris artist Ernesto Novo. (Wikimedia commons/ CC-SA-2.0/ Nelson Minar)

“I think it’s the variety of reasons, the variety of actions, that probably surprised me the most,” Rosbottom said. “As you read, you see how different the episodes were… Some people forged, some people shot [enemies], some people hid arms, some people escaped France [for] England.”

Rosbottom is well-versed in the history of France during WWII. It’s also the subject of his first book, “When Paris Went Dark,” which was longlisted for the National Book Award.

The French are still very nervous about their history

A descendant of French immigrants to Louisiana, Rosbottom has made numerous trips to France. On one, he met his future wife, Betty, an American cooking teacher and cookbook author. He understands the sensitivity of writing about a time in French history when some of its government officials and ordinary citizens made questionable decisions.

“[To] anyone at a certain age, [to ask] what it was like living in Paris during the occupation, at a certain age you don’t ask, ‘By the way, were you in the Resistance? If not, what did you do?’” Rosbottom recounted. “The French are still very nervous about their history.”

Rench Resistance operative Thomas Elek, photographed by the Germans holding a wrench he used to sabotage rail lines during WWII. (Mémorial de la Shoah/ Ronald Rosbottom)

Of the dozen or so youth whom he profiles, there are examples of ambivalence toward the Germans, and in some cases romantic interest. But on the whole, there is a theme of collective resistance that began soon after the fall of Paris on June 14, 1940.

“One thing I found was that in some places they were very careful in what they did, and some were very spontaneous — at the last minute, they did something,” Rosbottom said. “Some were supported by their families, others were not supported at all. Their families themselves were imprisoned or even executed because of what young people had done.”

The book’s youngest resister is Jean-Raphaël Hirsch. At age 10 when the war began, he bicycled across the southwestern French countryside, liaising with groups hiding Jewish children from Vichy. During one mission, his parents were arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Only a friend’s warning saved Hirsch from capture; Hirsch subsequently assumed responsibility for the safety of groups hiding Jewish children.

“For two years, at age 13 and 14, he biked all over the area as a messenger,” Rosbottom said. “He was quite an extraordinary young man… just imagine, a 13-year-old taking on this responsibility.”

While Hirsch survived the war, his mother did not.

A derailed train lying on its side, the result of sabotage by Resistance fighters in France, June 9, 1944. The photo was taken by a German officer who would be killed by another Resistance ambush minutes later, and the film recovered and developed by the operatives. (Public domain)

Females sometimes found their path to the Resistance blocked by sexism, Rosbottom said, adding that the Communist Party was more welcoming than other groups. He cites the example of Maroussia Naïtchenko, whose father was a Ukrainian communist and whose mother was French and from the upper class. At 12 years old, she lied about her age to join the Party and became a successful Resistance operative, later writing a postwar memoir of her activities.

“Many of the non-Communists were more conservative groups that did not trust young girls at first. They did not see what they could do,” Rosbottom said, adding that women received mixed recognition in France after the war, finally getting the right to vote but being considerably underrepresented on the list of Resistance heroes.

During the war, Rosbottom said, “The Communists were more imaginative. They encouraged them to work with young men… They trained young women in a good deal of responsibility. It took two to three years for non-Communist groups to catch up.”

Jewish children in hiding in France during WWII working the fields. (Mémorial de la Shoah/ Ronald Rosbottom)

By that time, the Nazis had occupied all of France, including the previous Vichy-controlled zone. Anti-Semitic policies worsened: Jews over the age of six were forced to wear a yellow star and an infamous mass roundup was held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in 1942, its victims deported to concentration camps in which thousands died, including many children. For young resisters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, the risks increased.

Betrayal and capture

When Lusseyran turned 17 in 1942, his group had become the largest group of youthful resisters in France, with its blind leader having interviewed 600 would-be operatives over that span.

“He was exceptional because of his handicap,” Rosbottom said. “He did not consider it a handicap at all.”

However, the one misjudgment Lusseyran made among his interviewees turned out to be costly, leading to his betrayal and imprisonment at Buchenwald, where he survived the war.

Executions at Mont-Valérien of young Resistance members. (Mémorial de la Shoah/ Ronald Rosbottom)

In 1943, ex-child star Lynen — who had rejected offers to appear in Nazi propaganda films — committed a prank that resulted in his arrest after using his trucking company to transport arms for the Resistance. He was executed in Germany, his body thrown into a mass grave in which over half of the slain were individuals age 24 or below. That same year, 22-year-old de Gaulle was captured after Resistance activities that included sending Jews out of France. She was deported to Ravensbrück in 1944, where fellow prisoners greeted her name at roll call with shouts of “Vive de Gaulle!”

The book’s subjects, Rosbottom reminds readers, were “all young people” who under normal circumstances might have been “students, going to places, finding out who was hanging out with whom, some would already have a job.”

Many represented a particular category of young people — adolescents, a term that Rosbottom said he believes first came into use through Vichy when it rationed food among the population.

“I think it’s the first time any government officially addressed the kind of physiological needs of teenagers,” Rosbottom said.

One of the most interesting things in the book, he said, is that its subjects were “growing up physically and psychologically at the same time they participated in the Resistance, [someone who was] 13 in 1940, and 18 in 1945. It’s a big gap in our physical and psychological development; for many, it’s basically [going from] puberty to being a young man or young woman.”

History repeats?

Jewish Resistance fighters in France during WWII. (Mémorial de la Shoah/ Ronald Rosbottom)

Rosbottom said that today, there has been no slackening in courage among the millennial counterparts of the long-ago resisters. He’s particularly inspired by the actions of teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, but worldwide, he sees numerous contemporary echoes of the young Resistance members.

As he explains, young people in France in 1940 worried about the future because the present did not look very good, a situation he likens to that of young people today, “no matter what the problem,” whether gun violence in the US or the threat of nuclear war.

“All of these things are scary,” he said. And, he asked, “Who’s taken to the streets? Who’s fighting communists but kids in Hong Kong? Who’s fighting authoritarian governments but young people in Algeria, in Moscow?”

“Young people force us to address issues that we, right now, [would rather] have someone else attending to than ourselves,” Rosbottom said.

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