Few 97-year-olds produce two new books in a single year, but then, French-Jewish Resistance hero Raymond Aubrac, who was born July 31, 1914, is not like most 97-year-olds. Aubrac was a protagonist of the 1997 film, “Lucie Aubrac,” directed by Claude Berri in memory of his wife, who died in 2007. Together the couple valiantly combatted the Nazis, as recounted in Lucie’s highly personalized and impressionistic 1984 memoir, “Outwitting the Gestapo” (University of Nebraska Press). Aubrac, who previously published books on the French Resistance and his life experiences, now adds two co-written volumes to the historical record.
The first is “Raymond Aubrac: Resisting, Reconstructing, and Imparting,” published this past spring by Les Éditions du Seuil with Pascal Convert, a sculptor and documentary filmmaker whose 2007 book from Les Éditions Séguier, “Joseph Epstein: Valid for Legendary Status,” recounted the life of a Polish-Jewish Resistance fighter. Aubrac’s second new book, “Passing the Baton,” from Les Editions Calmann-Lévy, consists of conversations with his grandson, Renaud Helfer-Aubrac.
Both volumes recount how, setting aside his day job as a civil engineer, Aubrac managed to fight the Nazi foe and repeatedly escape captivity, which included being tortured in Lyons by Klaus Barbie.
A piercingly intelligent, feisty personality, Aubrac has occupied a number of government and supra-governmental positions but has always had a gift for friendship. One of his most notable alliances was with Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh, whom he met when Ho visited France to arrange French recognition for the fledgling state of Vietnam. Aubrac and Ho immediately got along, and Ho asked to stay at Aubrac’s modest home at Soisy-sous-Montmorency rather than at a hotel, because Ho missed having a garden where he lived.
Not only did Ho stay with the Aubracs in their home outside Paris, he also stood as godfather to their daughter, Babette. Twenty years later, during the Vietnam War, French and American political strategists hoping to negotiate a peace treaty would play upon Aubrac’s fondness for Uncle Ho, whom he praises as a “practitioner of maieutics” — the philosophical belief that truth is latent in the mind of every human being. Aubrac served as messenger between the American and Vietnamese governments until, in 1972, he was repulsed by Henry Kissinger’s broken promise never to bomb Laos.
Now living in a small apartment in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, crowded with hundreds of patriotic miniature porcelain roosters that his wife collected (the Gallic rooster being France’s unofficial national symbol), Aubrac informs his grandson that one of the problems of being old is that “nobody tells me off. I get too much respect.” Weekly, Aubrac still visits schools around Paris, often in disadvantaged areas, where he hears a “funeral oration” from a teacher introducing him, and after he speaks about his wartime deeds, he tells his audience: “‘I expect to hear some criticism.’ But none ever comes. What use is any activity which is never criticized?”
A questing spirit, Aubrac bridles against his current status as a must-see monument of moral authority whose only apparent human weakness is his inveterate pipe smoking. He explains to Helfer-Aubrac that a dozen Berlin high school students on a Paris tour recently visited him with their teacher: “I was part of the trip; there was the Eiffel Tower, the museums, and me.”
Things were not always so. Born in Vesoul in northeastern France to Hélène Falk and Albert Baruch Samuel, haberdashery storeowners, he would adopt the name Aubrac as a wartime alias while in hiding. As a youngster, he formed a Jewish studies group, which he tells Convert was “doubtless more a pretext to meet some young women rather than to dive into the complexities of the Kabbalah, ‘The Book of Zohar’ or [Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhav of Portugal’s] ‘The Candelabra of Lights.’”
Aubrac also became aware of his Judaism through heated family discussions of the then-still-recent Dreyfus Affair, and at dinner one night in 1932, at a cousin’s home, where a French guest praised Hitler on a human level; Aubrac recalls, “Since no other guest reacted, I got up and left.” A world traveler early on, by 1937 Aubrac was already touring America, including a stint as a graduate student at Harvard, where he briefly studied with the American Jewish legal scholar and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. In “Resisting, Reconstructing, and Imparting,” Aubrac talks about Frankfurter:
“He could be something of a show-off…. It was the first and last time I ever saw a man dictate two different texts to two secretaries at the same time. He wrote an article with one secretary and replied to correspondence with the other.”
Enjoying American-style hospitality, young Aubrac gave five lectures to Boston-area audiences on Molière’s comedy “The Doctor in Spite of Himself” without ever having read the play in question. Aubrac also noted the ambient racism at Harvard and especially the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where, he states, not a single African-American student was then admitted. A “very sympathetic” MIT dean even warned Aubrac to stop socializing with African Americans lest he become persona non grata in Boston homes.
This combined sensitivity to social justice and gift for kibitzing served Aubrac well after France was invaded by Germany and the underground struggle commenced. Aubrac offers some useful tips for surviving prison, such as feigning illness to be transferred to less secure hospital units, and, perhaps surprisingly: “Learn poetry by heart. If you know a poem by heart, no one can take it away from you, and you can take advantage of it anytime.” Aubrac quotes the first line of José-Maria de Heredia’s 19th-century poem “Les Conquérants,” (“The Conquerors”) about soaring gyrfalcons, calling its winged imagery “a vital escape in-the-making.”
Once he had in fact escaped Barbie’s clutches — as always, with the help of his wife, Lucie — Aubrac remained in hiding before reaching London and Charles de Gaulle’s Free French government in exile. He states that he passed the time perusing long Russian novels: “Reading helps. You know that during wartime, it’s a little like when you are in love, a lot of time is spent waiting!” In 1944, once he was in London, Aubrac faced anti-Semitism from some of de Gaulle’s circle, who blocked his appointment as de Gaulle’s director of political affairs for the sole reason that he was Jewish.
Courageously combating anti-Semitism, whether French or German, Aubrac kept an upbeat attitude, always reflecting that since imprisonment in 1943, “I realize that every day is a little something extra” (Aubrac uses the military term “du rab,” meaning “from supplementary rations”). His ongoing motivation as a man of action derives from the attitude that “it’s very comforting to know that you are faced with a difficult job. If someone gives you a job which shows every sign of being easy, then you are a prisoner of effortlessness.” The necessity of optimism, and a “never say die” attitude, made up the spirit of the Resistance, Aubrac underlines, among people with “self-confidence, positivism, and a belief that battles are worthwhile.” Surely history has proved that Raymond Aubrac’s battles have been worthwhile.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.