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Faces of Courage, Jacques Lusseyran

Jacques Lusseyran

Jacques Lusseyran was only seventeen years old when he organized the “Volunteers of Liberty” (Voluntaires de la Liberte) an underground resistance group of university and secondary school students. The “Volunteers” became part of the “Defense de la France”, a major underground resistance network affiliated with Charles De Gaulle and the free French government. The Germans occupied Paris from June 14, 1940 until August 25, 1944.

Blinded in an accident when he was eight years old, Lusseyran was a brilliant student and courageous leader who led a double life as resistance fighter and brilliant student until his arrest by the Gestapo and internment at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The story of Jacques Lusseyran is based on historical accounts of the French resistance and his own autobiography.

Jacques and his family were living in Toulouse when the German army marched up the Champs Elysee, took over the center of the city and threw Paris into chaos. Thousands of people crowded the roads trying to leave and those who remained were relieved that there was no destruction, bombing or shooting. Jacques’ father, an engineer, was ordered to return to Paris in September 1940.

The family settled in an apartment on the Boulevard Port-Royal in the Latin Quarter, a part of the city known for centuries as the place where poets, writers, and artists lived, worked and met with one another in the cafes that lined the streets. After the Nazi occupation, the city was wrapped in a silence, broken only by the ringing of the church bells. The familiar sounds of automobiles, buses and trucks had vanished along with the lively chatter that made the streets of Paris so lively. The silence made the streets seem wider and the houses taller.

Ever since he lost his sight in an accident when he was eight years old, Jacques relied on sounds to bring him information and create images in his mind. Without sight, Jacques learned to concentrate his attention to sounds, touch and smell. His family encouraged his independence and never isolated him. He mastered Braille reading and
writing in six weeks and returned to his school his friends. When his family lived in Toulouse, he was as much at home on country roads and mountain hikes as he was on the streets of Paris.

Life in Paris in the autumn of 1940 had become a struggle; food shortages forced housewives to stand in lines for hours waiting to purchase their share of the meager food supplies. The fuel shortage caused constant cold and Paris clocks were turned to Berlin time. Logic seemed to have vanished along with the hustle and bustle of the streets.

No one was talking about the occupation. People turned away from one another when the words “Nazi” “Gestapo”, “torture” or “killings” were mentioned. Jacques wondered if people were simply afraid to talk or afraid to face the reality of the occupation. But like other boys, he was eager to get on with his life. Blind students were required to take a special exam to prove they could keep up with their studies A good student and well prepared, Jacques passed the exam and was accepted to the Louis Le Grand Lycee, a well known secondary school in the Latin Quarter. Impatient to begin his studies he had to wait a month before the lycee opened. The new fascist government had closed all the schools in Paris.

Jacques spent his time rediscovering the Paris streets with his friends, Jean and Francois. His parents gave him the two small rooms in the back of their apartment. A long corridor separated the rooms and this gave Jacques the privacy he needed to study and meet with his friends. Jacques arranged his furniture and stacked his Braille books
neatly against the walls.

The school opened in October and school life resumed in a normal fashion, in spite of the new rules imposed by a government eager to conform to Nazi ideology. The principal read announcements from Marshall Petain and other government officials over the loudspeaker.

Jacques walked to the lycee with Jean and Francois every morning, and could never understand why he attracted so much attention. Groups of other boys seemed always to be trailing behind him and when he reached the school, the concierge greeted Jacques by shouting, “It’s the Lusseyran parade”.

Enrolled in philosophy, psychology and history classes, Jacques found his history class to be the most interesting. His history teacher commanded Jacques’ attention with his rapid speech and warm resonant voice. He told class about the war and Hitler’s ambitions. One by one, the Germans occupied Austria, France, Holland, Denmark and Norway. Hitler’s plan was to make all of Europe subservient to Germany and 85% of the agricultural and industrial production of France was being sent to Germany.

Incidents of Nazi brutality were becoming more and more obvious and they were happening to people Jacques knew. Francois was almost in tears as he told Jacques of Mr. Weissberg’s arrest. Weissberg was Francois’ good friend and tutor and when he arrived for his weekly biology lesson, Weissberg’s rooms were empty. The concierge told Francois that the Gestapo had arrested Weissberg that morning. Weissberg was Jewish. Soon after Jacques heard about other Jewish friends who were taken away by the Gestapo.

The French police were acting like Nazis, there were book burnings, arrests and racial laws. Paris newspapers were censored and carried only German news. Some boys at Louis Le Grand joined Nazi youth clubs and boasted that the Nazis were good for France. Jacques’ school was closed for a month after a demonstration by university and lycee students. Twenty students were shot and killed.

It was freezing cold in his little room; Jacques felt his fingers stiffening and had to stop reading. The frightening events that were happening around him dominated his thoughts; something had to be done to arouse the conscience of the French people. The idea of forming a resistance group of young students took shape in his mind.

Knowing his friends as well as he did, Jacques was not surprised that Jean and Francois readily agreed and they began to organize a resistance group made up students from Louis le Grand and the university. In school the next say, they spoke with trusted classmates.

A few days later, ten boys crowded into Jacques’ room, and the next week 52 boys showed up. The student resistance group called the “Volunteers of Liberty” became a reality.

From now on there was to be no turning back and no giving in to fear. Jacques warned the boys to say nothing about the meeting, even to their families. Gossip was dangerous and would give them away. No more than three boys would meet with one another at any one time. A Central Committee was formed to keep the students in touch with one another. Their task was to inform the French people about the brutality of Gestapo arrests, the persecutions and torture of captured resistance fighters and the arrests of Jewish people. News of the War was to be gathered by listening to forbidden radio broadcasts from England and Switzerland. The “Volunteers of Liberty” planned to write and circulate a secret paper that they called “Le Tigres”. Before they could begin, more students had to be recruited.

Jacques was elected to the Central Committee and went to the first secret meeting with Francois. The meeting was held in an old apartment house in a working class section of the city, the old building was chosen because there were always people coming in and going out and the arrival of strangers was not likely to arouse suspicion. Jacques was to be responsible for interviewing everyone who wanted to become a “Volunteer”. The other boys trusted his ability to judge people.

The “Volunteers” sent word out about the secret resistance group to the lycees and university. Students who wanted to join were watched for several days or sometimes weeks by one of the original 52 members. Those who were considered trustworthy were told “to visit the blind man.”

Jacques conducted the interviews in his rooms. Two short rings and one long ring of the doorbell told him that a perspective volunteer had arrived. The rules were strict. No one was interviewed if he was not expected or did not appear within five minutes of the specified time. No one was given Jacques’ name. Forced to rely on his instincts, Jacques knew he was not infallible and was constantly on guard. It was too easy to be trapped by an informer or spy. He planned the interviews carefully and discussed nothing of importance for the first 10 minutes. Sometimes he conducted the interview in the dark because he forgot to turn on the light.

Taking his time, Jacques listened intently to the words and the silences. Elaborate explanations and well-rehearsed speeches aroused his suspicions. He knew they covered lies and deceit. He also knew that anger was a difficult emotion to disguise. If Jacques considered a boy trustworthy, he gave his name to the Central Committee and he was admitted to the “Volunteers of Liberty”. At first, only young students between 17 and 19 appeared, but after a few weeks, older students from the university began coming. Jacques interviewed 600 young men in less than a year

The Volunteers did not think of themselves as a professional group, they were simply young students eager to liberate their country from the terror of Nazism. They wrote, mimeographed and distributed their bulletin, “Le Tigres”, to houses all over Paris. One boy watched the exits while the other went from floor to floor, carrying his shoes in his hands and slipping the paper under doors.

The French government no less than the German characterized the Resistance as a gang of terrorists. Denouncing them was seen as a civic duty, for which informers received money. Jacques and the other leaders were aware of the dangers; resistors who were caught were arrested and punished severely. It was also disappointing that so few of Jacques’ classmates were willing to join the Volunteers, only 6 boys of the 90 enrolled in the elite classes at Louis Le Grand joined. In every class, there were 2 or 3 boys willing to report them to the police. Some of the
teachers were also Nazi collaborators and they had to be careful never to talk about their activities at school. There were many narrow escapes.

Surveys, discussions, choosing articles for the bulletin and frequent Central Committee meetings kept Jacques busy. Meetings were never held in the same place. Always by Francois or Jean, Jacques traveled on the routes set up for safety. Schoolwork occupied his daytime hours, but at 5 PM, Jacques became a resistance fighter and
sometimes did not return home until 11 PM.

Keeping up his grades while devoting so much time to the “Volunteers” took all his energy, but he succeeded and graduated from Louis Le Grand in the Spring of 1941. He enrolled at the University and planned to take the special exam to qualify for “Ecole Normale Superieur”, the highest institution in the French educational system. The Vichy government and its Nazi racial laws, declaring students with disabilities to be ineligible, dashed his hopes Disappointed and angry, Jacques wanted to fight the ruling, but he knew that he would put the “Volunteers” in jeopardy by calling attention to himself, so he put his ambitions aside and decided not to appeal the ruling.

In 1943, the work of the “Volunteers of Liberty” caught the attention of the “Defense de la France”; an official Resistance group connected with Charles deGaulle and the Free French forces. The “Defense de la France” had more funds, its own print shop, trucks disguised as delivery wagons, an organized editorial board, a radio transmitter and a channel to the deGaulle government in London. The “Defense de la France” had everything the Volunteers lacked.

When Jacques was contacted by a leader of Defense de la France, he agreed to meet with him. Accompanied by Georges, they met Phillipe, the leader in the back room of a small restaurant. Jacques immediately liked the relaxed manner of the big man with the warm friendly voice, calm manner and keen sense of humor. Phillipe had solutions to difficult problems and talked of the advantages of merging the “Volunteers of Liberty” with the Defense de la France”. Their main task would continue to be the distribution of a secret newspaper. “Le Tigres” was to become a real newspaper called “Defense de la France.

The “Volunteers” merged with the “Defense” and for the next six months, Jacques and Georges met with Philippe every day. They planned a complicated system of drop-offs, mailboxes and hidden communication and both Jacques and Georges became members of the executive committee.

As part of a major group, Jacques no longer felt alone or isolated, but he found the work to be harder and more demanding, One hundred thousand copies of “Defense de la France” a two page newspaper were to be printed and distributed all over France. Every article was carefully reviewed for its power to impress readers and make them aware that there was an active French resistance. The paper was filled with articles telling people of the brutal treatment and torture of arrested resistors, the slaughter of Jews in the death camps and appealing for
passive resistance to Nazi orders.

On February 16, 1942 the Nazi government issued the order, demanding that all young Frenchmen over 21 years be sent to Germany as forced labor. Thousands of young men were sent to Germany, the only exceptions were students and heads of families. The order strengthened the Resistance movement and the “Defense de la France” grew. Eighty young people, including Georges became professional underground operators. Francois was placed in charge of resistance in Brittany.

The members of the “Defense de la France” were young men and women who carried the secret to all parts of France at the risk of their lives. Georges and Jacques were responsible for the distribution of the newspaper in Paris. The two friends agreed that if one were arrested, the other would carry on the work.

The office where the newspaper was printed came under Gestapo suspicion and for three days, everyone who came out of the office was followed. The young people working with Jacques learned how to avoid being followed, they would go into a bakery and leave by the back door, board a subway train and exit at the next stop. They led the spies down false trails, while the equipment was packed up in small trucks with signs, “fragile” “meteorological” or “optical” equipment” were pasted on the outside of the trucks and a new print shop was prepared and the distribution of “Defense de la France” was resumed.

The government of Free France, established in Algiers, asked resistance groups to coordinate their efforts as much as possible. Jacques met with leaders of other groups including the famous writer, Albert Camus, who worked for the group called “Combat “. The work was dangerous; the students could be betrayed at any time. Still in charge of recruitment, Jacques was taken by surprise a young man named Elio, who came to his home without prior notification.

The group was looking for someone to coordinate the distribution of the newspaper to the industrial and mining communities in the north and Elio, a native of the north was willing to give up his studies to devote himself full time to the resistance movement. Elio had good recommendations, but something about him aroused Jacques’ suspicions. His heavy handshake and low voice lacked honesty and conviction and Jacques did not trust him. Phillipe said they could not afford to be too cautious and against his better judgment, Jacques reluctantly agreed and Elio joined “Defense de la France, ” went to the city of Lille in the north and established a network for the distribution of the newspaper.

Thousands copies of “Defense de la France” were being distributed throughout France. Jacques and Georges were busy with distribution activities in Paris until the morning in July 1943 when two officers and four armed soldiers knocked on the door of the apartment in the Boulevard Port Royal. Heading straight for Jacques’ rooms, they sent his Braille papers flying. Jacques worried that his parents would be arrested too. They knew of his activities and never did anything to discourage him. He felt relieved that he was the only one arrested.

At Gestapo headquarters, Jacques discovered that the Nazis had a record of every one of his activities from the day Elio joined “Defense de la France”. When they took him to the Fresnes prison, his suspicions were confirmed. It was a mass betrayal; every one of his friends except Philippe had been arrested.

He was taken from Fresnes to Gestapo headquarters 38 times, he was threatened with death, beaten, and questioned from 7 o’clock in the morning to 7 o’clock, but he was resolute and determined not to give them any information. In July, he was sent to Buchenwald. Starved and sickly, Jacques tried to keep up his spirits and those of his friends. Knowing German and Italian, he even translated for other prisoners.

The United States Third Army liberated Buchenwald in April 1945. Jacques was one of thirty survivors of the 2,000 people who were arrested at the same time he was. He and Phillipe were the only leaders of the “Defense de la France” to survive the war. The newspaper of the “Defense de la France became the “France Soir”, one of the most important daily newspapers in France.

Jacques returned to the university and his studies and his fight to be admitted to the Ecole Normale Superieur. Finally admitted to the elite school, graduated and took a teaching position in Paris. In the 1950’s he moved to the United States and taught Literature at Western Reserve University and the University of Hawaii. He was tragically killed in a tragic automobile accident when he was only 47 years of age.

References

Ehrlich, Blake, Resistance France, 1940-1945, Boston, Mass.: Little Brown and Company. 1965.

Lusseyran, Jacques, And There Was Light, New York: Little Brown, 1963

Perrault, Gille & Azema, Pierre, Paris Under The Occupation New York: The Vendome Press, 1989.

Pryce-Jones, David, Paris in the Third Reich: A History of the German Occupation, 1940-1944 New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1983.

Shiber, Etta with Anne and Paul Dupre, Paris Underground New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943.