The last great résistant standing in France, Raymond Aubrac, died on April 10. He was 97. With his passing, France has lost a political and moral figure who helped redeem the nation’s past and stood witness to its present. At the same time, France’s Jews have lost one of their own who courageously, though not always successfully, reminded them of their own moral duties toward the powerless and impoverished in France and abroad.
The child of assimilated Jewish parents, Aubrac — the nom de guerre he took when his family name, Samuel, proved too dangerous in Vichy France — considered himself, quite simply, French. In this regard, he closely resembled other celebrated members of the Resistance who happened to be Jewish: historian Marc Bloch, politician Pierre Mendès-France and political theorist Raymond Aron.
In his book “Strange Defeat,” completed just before he was captured and killed by the Gestapo, Bloch offered a credo that spoke for Aubrac, as well: “I was born in France. I have drunk of the waters of her culture. I have made her past my own. I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests.”
A novelist could not invent a more propitious event to launch Aubrac’s life than the one life itself provided. He was born on July 31, 1914 — the same day that Jean Jaurès, the great Socialist pacifist and tribune, was assassinated. Along with Emile Zola and Bernard Lazare, Jaurès had championed Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer wrongly convicted of treason in 1894. For Jaurès, the “affair” had nothing to do with Dreyfus’s religion and everything to do with France’s revolutionary legacy and republican principles.
As Aubrac wrote in his memoir, “Where Memory Lingers” (“Où la Mémoire S’attarde”), family debates over Dreyfus not only “nourished” his childhood, but also rooted his political convictions in the republican values of the French Revolution. When the time came to choose between resistance and resignation in the summer of 1940, Raymond and Lucie Aubrac — they had married at the end of 1939 — had in fact made their choice many years before. In the weeks following France’s catastrophic military defeat, they were already planning for the country’s liberation.
From our distant historical and moral perspective, their decision might seem predictable, even normal. Nothing, however, could be less true: The vast majority of French men and women placed their faith for many long months, even years, in Marshal Philippe Pétain, the elderly head of the Vichy regime. Crawling from under the ruins of their suddenly collapsed political and social institutions, suffering from sharp material want, worrying over the fate of more than 1 1/2 million men— husbands, sons, fathers — who were taken as prisoners of war, most French no more thought to resist than to sprout wings. This was true for Jews as well as for non-Jews.
Indeed, in 1940 there wasn’t a Resistance to join. The Aubracs, along with philosopher Jean Cavaillès and journalist Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie, created one of the first resistance movements, Libération-Sud, on the Mediterranean coast, where the Aubracs had fled to live with an aunt. Two years later, Jean Moulin, serving as Charles de Gaulle’s emissary, was trying to bring the various movements under the same organizational umbrella. On June 21, 1943, the Gestapo invaded a house where Moulin was meeting with representatives from several groups, including Aubrac.