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Culture

Arsène Tchakarian, Last Surviving Member Of French Resistance Unit, Fought Relentlessly For Liberty

Arsène Tchakarian, a French Resistance fighter who survived the execution of much of his unit in 1944, died August 4 at the age of 101. He was the last surviving member of the Groupe Manouchian, a communist Resistance faction composed mainly of immigrants and Jews that did substantial damage to the Nazi occupation of France beginning in 1943.

“There was such a friendship between us, between all these people coming from everywhere, Jews, Spanish, Italians, Germans, Armenians and French of course,” Tchakarian said in a 2002 speech at a school near his home in Vitry-sur-Seine, France, The Washington Post reports. “A brotherly friendship which surpassed all that you can imagine.”

As Jacobin reports, Tchakarian was born in 1916 in the Ottoman Empire, while his Armenian family was fleeing the genocide orchestrated by that state’s ruling Pashas against the Armenian Christian minority. By 1930, Tchakarian made his way to France with a refugee passport issued to stateless peoples by the League of Nations. He soon became involved with the worker’s union the Confederation of Labor (CGT), the parent organization for the Immigrant (or Foreign) Workforce (MOI), a polyglot division of foreign-born laborers. Both organizations were allied closely at the time with France’s official Communist Party and advocated for worker’s rights. Around 1933 Tchakarian met a fellow Armenian, the Communist poet Missak Manouchian, who would later launch his eponymous Groupe Manouchian from the MOI’s ranks to defy the Nazi incursion.

The MOI first became involved in armed conflicts when they mobilized their membership during the Spanish Civil War to fight Franco’s fascist uprising. But the group was forced to move underground in 1939 when the French Government, then entering World War II, dissolved the Communist Party. While at first the MOI remained on the sidelines of the war, in keeping with the Soviet Union’s then-official policy of neutrality, Tchakarian and some other members fought in the Ardennes in the summer of 1940 to stop the German advance across the border. When Tchakarian returned to Paris in August of that year, he found the city in an eerie state.

“You saw nothing but German tanks and trucks on the Champs-Élysées,” Tchakarian recalled in a 2014 interview with L’Humanité, translated by Jacobin. “People were shaking. The curtains were shut. Everyone had left.”

Soon, Tchakarian reconnected with the MOI and began printing propaganda critical of the Vichy Government and German occupation. While Tchakarian was working as a tailor in 1942, Manouchian approached him and suggested they become more aggressive in light of the Soviet Union’s defense against the German breach of its borders. The policy of the party was now anything but neutral, and the Resistance was beginning to come together in France. The same year that Manouchian began discussions with Tchakarian, the Romanian Jew Boris Holban formed an armed branch of the MOI in Paris in collaboration with the Communist-led Francs-Tireurs et Partisans resistance movement. Called the FTP-MOI, it also had units in the Marseille and Lyon.

As a member of the FTP-MOI, given the code-name “Charles,” Tchakarian first saw combat on March 17, 1943. Under the command of the 19-year-old Polish Jew Marcel Rajman, Tchakarian fired a grenade at a column of 26 German military police at Levallois-Perret in the suburbs of Paris. From there Manouchian took over Holban’s command of the Paris branch of the FTP-MOI in June of 1943. The three city-based resistance units under his charge became known as the Groupe Manouchian. The same month Tchakarian began to serve the reorganized group as the leader of one of its so-called “commando triangles,” entities charged with uniting resistance groups into a consolidated “Secret Army.”

The Groupe Manouchian were among the most audacious saboteurs in the Resistance community, orchestrating over 100 operations in the summer and fall of 1943. These guerilla maneuvers included an assassination attempt on General Ernst von Schaumburg, Germany’s Commander of the Greater Paris region, and the successful killing of SS officer Julius Ritter, who was in charge of recruiting forced labor for the German weapons industry.

Because the group was so successful, they were monitored closely. On November 16, 1943, 24 of its members — a third of their total number — were arrested by the pro-Nazi police. All but one were put to death on February 21, 1944. Rajman and Manouchian were among them. The roundup was a coup for the German occupiers, who produced a xenophobic poster following the mass execution that cited the unit’s overwhelmingly Jewish and immigrant makeup. The poster was accompanied by leaflets and aimed to convince the occupied French that Resistance was an “Army of Crime” working for the interests of foreign powers.

On trial shortly before his execution, Manouchian emphasized his mostly-refugee unit’s commitment to a free France. “You inherited French nationality,” he proclaimed to Vichy officials, “we earned it!”

Tchakarian was tipped off to the imminent arrest when a Romanian Jewish contact named Olga Bancic failed to show up to a rendezvous point. He managed to escape with the help of a policeman who relocated him to a hideout in Paris. After the purge of his unit, Tchakarian fled to Bordeaux. By August of 1944 he had joined with another resistance group as a lieutenant, and he marched alongside US troops to Montargis, 70 miles south of Paris. Leading 20 men, he helped liberate the town, securing a German command center run out of a post office.

After the war Tchakarian resumed his work as tailor and became a historian of his own experience, dedicating several works to his Resistance unit, famous during and after the war for their efficacy and well-publicized trial. He became a French citizen in 1958, and in 2005 was made a knight of the French Legion of Honor. He was upgraded to a commander of the same legion in 2017.

“I may well have been a little Armenian immigrant. but I had suffered the occupation just like everyone else.” he told L’Humanité. “I was a tough one. I fought more for France than some French people did.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at grisar@forward.com

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