French resistance hero Raymond Aubrac dies aged 97
France mourns ‘last great witness’ of the second world war, who defied the Nazis and survived torture by Klaus Barbie
|Raymond Aubrac with his wife Lucie in 1987. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images|
France is mourning the death of Raymond Aubrac, one of its last great heroes of the resistance, whose bravery and exploits with his wife Lucie against the Gestapo became the stuff of legend and film.
Aubrac, who died aged 97 in the Val de Grace military hospital in Paris on Tuesday evening, was, along with his late wife, a leading figure in the underground fight against Nazi occupation.
He was a Grand Officer of the Légion d’Honneur, held the Croix de Guerre and Rosette de la Résistance, and was one of only around 20 surviving members of the Compagnons de la Libération.
He remained politically active to the end, visiting schools and colleges to talk about his wartime experiences.
Aubrac was born Raymond Samuel, into a family of Jewish shopkeepers, on 31 July 1914 – the day the French Socialist leader and celebrated pacifist Jean Jaurès was assassinated, just after the outbreak of the first world war.
After studying law, then a master’s degree in science from Harvard, he was an army engineering officer on the Maginot line on the German border when the second world Wwar broke out.
His parents, Albert and Hélène Samuel, were deported from France and died in the Nazi concentration camps.
After marrying Lucie, whom he met in December 1939 as a student in Paris, both joined the French Rresistance using the pseudonym Aubrac.
Raymond Aubrac was involved in creating one of the eight movements that made up the National Resistance Council. The main activity of his movement was to publish a secret newspaper called Libération, the forerunner of today’s daily paper.
Aubrac was arrested in June 1943 at Caluire, near Lyon, with Jean Moulin, head of the Resistance Council, and 12 other fighters. He was interrogated and tortured by the notorious head of the Gestapo, Klaus Barbie – nicknamed the Butcher of Lyon. Moulin died after the ordeal.
In an interview with Paris Match in 1983, Aubrac recounted Barbie’s pleasure at making his victims suffer. “I had the impression that he wasn’t really interested in the answers of the questions he was asking. His pleasure was to feel his power, his force, by torturing.”
Aubrac was freed four months later when Lucie led a daring commando raid on a lorry moving him and other resistance members from jail in Lyon. The episode was later made into a film.
Hunted by the Gestapo, the couple fled for London, from where Aubrac travelled to Algeria. After the war, he became regional commissioner of the Republic at Marseille, responsible for de-mining the coastal area, before taking up the national post of inspector general for reconstruction.
Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to “a heroic figure of the resistance”. In a statement, the French president said: “These quiet heroes who saved the honour of France at a moment when she seemed lost are dying, one after the other. We have a duty to keep their memory alive at the heart of our collective remembrance.”
The Socialist presidential candidate, François Hollande, whom Aubrac had openly supported, said: “In the most sombre periods of the history of our country he, with Lucie Aubrac, was one of the righteous who discovered in themselves, and in the melting pot of universal values that is our republic, the force to resist Nazi barbarity”.
Serge Klarsfeld, a lawyer and president of the Association of Sons and Daughters of the Deported Jews of France, saluted the “last great witness” of the resistance. “They were extraordinary people”, Klarsfeld said.
Lucie died in 2007 at the age of 94. The couple had three children and 10 grandchildren.
In an interview in Le Monde in March last year, Aubrac said the decision he was most proud of was choosing his partner. “You know,” he said, “in life there are only three or four fundamental decisions to make. The rest is just luck.”
Kim Willsher in Paris