Meeting Madame Cecile Rol-Tanguy
by Anne Sebba, The Times, March 2014
When Cécile Rol-Tanguy, French Résistante and young wife of Communist resistant leader Henri Rol-Tanguy, was crossing occupied Paris with weapons hidden in her baby’s pram, she believes ‘sangfroid’ was what ensured her survival.
‘Courage’ is a word she refuses to use about her years resisting the Nazis who had occupied northern France since June 1940. ‘It was just what you did,’ says the woman who in 2013 received the decoration of Grand Officier Croix de Guerre.
“I never had fear in my stomach. If you do, you can’t do anything,” explained the elegant 94 year-old when I met her recently in Paris. “If you arrive at a metro station with the Germans in front of you there’s no point in turning around as there are probably Germans behind you. I did nothing exceptional.”
But Cécile had immense personal courage, not just when she was being followed by German soldiers. One year after their marriage in 1939, their first child, a daughter Françoise, suddenly fell dangerously ill suffering extreme dehydration. Cécile, 21, and alone as Henri was fighting at the front, rushed the baby to the nearest hospital where she died on June 12th just a few months old.
‘I can still remember the terrible pall of burning smoke over Paris and wondering if that was what had made my baby ill. I left her in the hospital overnight and when I went back the next day there was another baby in her bed,’ recalled Cécile, closing her eyes as if the shock were yesterday. In addition, her father had just been arrested as part of a roundup of communists following a French decree legalising the death sentence for those accused of ‘demoralising the army’ in response to the Germans closing in on Paris. As the country was plunged into chaos with severe food shortages, panic and a desperate rush to get out of Paris, Cécile agreed to resume work typing political pamphlets for the Metal Workers’ Union, now forced underground.
“It was only later I realised how work had helped to assuage my terrible grief,” she said. “Françoise was buried on June 15th, the day after the Germans entered the city.”
Towards the end of 1940, following the French surrender and establishment of the Vichy government under Marshall Pétain, Henri was de-mobilised and returned to Paris. But his reunion with Cécile was short lived. After two comrades were arrested, he realised he had to go underground, moving around constantly, and the couple spent the rest of the war living apart, meeting whenever they could. Henri, a keen amateur cyclist before the war, was helped by staying with loyal cycling friends who were not politically active and therefore not suspect.
Cécile, now living with her parents (her father had been released), began working as Henri’s personal ‘Agent de Liaison,’ carrying orders around the city, delivering packets and political tracts as well as collecting revolvers (which she insists she did not know how to use) grenades and ammunition from depots and transporting them. At the end of May, 1941 the couple’s second child, Hélène, was born and Henri suggested she should think about changing to work in a different group, not for him personally.
“If I am arrested I’ll be shot and killed,” he explained. He was organising sabotage units and armed groups. There was only Cécile’s mother to look after the baby if something happened. “But although he gave me ten days to decide, I did not hesitate at all.” She carried on, sometimes carrying Hélène and hiding the weapons in a sack of potatoes which she pushed in the pram, other times burying papers underneath the pram bedding, baby on top.
Cécile le Bihan, a bright only child, was 17 when she first met Henri, a tall, handsome man eleven years her senior who had left school at 14 to become an apprentice foundry man and was now a union official in Paris where Cécile worked as a typist. Both were committed communists. “For me it was pure idealism,” she explains. Her father had been an early party member and she had grown up in a radical household. “I was anti-fascist. I wanted a better life for everyone. How could one support having Germans in Paris?”
But almost as soon as they met, Henri went to Spain to serve with the French section of the International Brigades in the Civil War. The couple wrote to each other constantly (letters which, much to Cécile’s regret today, had to be destroyed in 1940) and Cécile became Henri’s ‘marraine‘ – literally godmother but with the idea that she was his protectress. In November, 1938 Henri returned, wounded in the arm from exceptionally bloody fighting in the Battle of Ebro. His close friend Théo Rol was killed and he subsequently added the name Rol to Tanguy in his memory.
“He was always very proud of his Spanish war wound,” says his widow, the pride clearly transferred.
For four years from 1940- 44 the couple led an intensely dangerous existence in Paris taking enormous risks and bringing up a young family, lucky not to be arrested like many of their colleagues. In 1942 her father was arrested a second time, this time deported to Auschwitz where he was killed and the following year a son, Jean, was born. Cécile and her mother, to whom she now confided her resistance activities, lived together in a tiny studio with the two children struggling to find enough to eat. Cécile remembers being so thin at one point that her culottes often fell down. She had a number of aliases, Jeanne, Yvette and Lucie, and occasionally changed her hairstyle or wore a turban, but did little otherwise to disguise herself. “My strength was always in remaining cool. I think that was my character.”
In 1944 Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, commander of the Paris region FFI (Forces Francaises de l’ Interieur, the umbrella network for the military resistance) led the popular uprising in Paris which resulted in the surrender of the German military governor, Dietrich von Cholditz, and insured that he was a signatory, alongside General Philippe Leclerc, of the August 25 1944 surrender documents. De Gaulle later made his triumphal drive down the Champs Elysées and his famous speech about “Paris Liberated by her own people…supported by the whole of France.” But it had been an exceptionally bloody week with almost 1,500 Parisian deaths in the struggle to chase out 20,000 occupying soldiers.
This year, 2014, marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris and will be commemorated in many ways including a two day conference in London. There are not many who lived through those terrifying days still able to testify but Cécile Rol-Tanguy intends to be a voice at the conference. Today, a grandmother and great grandmother many times over, (two more children Claire and Francis were born after the war) Cécile lives in the Loire countryside but regularly travels around the country giving talks to school children about the need continually to fight for freedom. Spain is clearly still in her heart as she cites the Spanish plan to tighten the country’s abortion laws as a worrying example of freedom for women being threatened.
But she will not engage in the controversy about how active a role women played in the resistance – only six women were named Companions de la Liberation in 1945 – other than to insist it was not De Gaulle who awarded women the vote after the war but women themselves, many of them anonymous but who were an essential cogwheel of the resistance as she describes it, who had fought for that right. In August 1944 ‘Colonel Rol’ may have been leading the battle but his wife was typing out the posters calling for insurrection.
They were , according to former French President Jacques Chirac, an exceptional couple, such as Raymond and Lucie Aubrac and Georges and Mai Politzer, for whom it is now generally agreed that that their resistance participation would have been impossible or ‘unsurvivable’ without the support of their companion at their side .
“I worked alongside, not behind, Henri,” she says simply.
At the time of this writing, Anne Sebba was working on a book about Paris from 1939 – 49 through Women’s Eyes to be published by Orion.