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Le Groupe Manouchian

Mitchell Abidor
May 2, 2015

Betrayed Heroes of the French Resistance?

by Mitchell Abidor

From the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

PosterIT WAS LATE FEBRUARY, 1944 when the German Occupation authorities in France decided that the time had come to stage the trial of a group of Resistance fighters they’d captured the previous autumn. Under ordinary circumstances, trials of partisans weren’t held, and if they were, they were never public; fighters were captured, tortured, and sent before the firing squad. But this group was different: The twenty-four on trial were members of the Communist Resistance group Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP). Unlike the Gaullist resistance forces, the FTP believed it was wrong to wait for liberation at the hands of the Allies, and that the French people needed to take the fight to the enemy by whatever means available: sabotage, derailing of trains, bombings of buildings, attacks on German soldiers...

These twenty-three men and one woman were members of the group’s foreign branch, the FTP-MOI (Main-d’oeuvre Immigré) — and their trial, covered by the press and newsreels, had a larger purpose than simply executing enemies of the occupier. It was an attempt to show the French public that the Resistance itself represented the anti-France, that it was nothing but a nest of Communist troublemakers with strange names. In fact, the name “Manouchian Group,” which these twenty-four carried into history, was invented by the Germans in a further attempt to tar them with the brush of foreignness.

The collaborationist daily Le Matin said it all in the opening line of its trial report: “Twenty-four defendants, nineteen foreigners! And even then, should we count men like Missak Manouchian, of Turkish origin, Robert Witchitz, of Polish origin, and Della Negro, of Italian origin, as French?” Their roots made them suspect, as did the quality of their spoken French: “One of the defendants, it was reported, answered his questioner in a kind of pidgin: ‘Me explain. Me protest. Me know. Grenade no toy...’” These were clearly not Frenchman, and had no right to speak or fight in the name of France.

Yet the Germans included Frenchmen among the defendants; there was no point in the Germans’ denying that there were French members of the Resistance. It was important, however, to show them as dupes, shamelessly led down the garden path by a band of Jews, Spanish and Italian Communists, and Armenians. As Raymond Rouxel, a young French defendant, told the judges: “I’m 18 years old, I was dragged into this. I thought it was my duty.” On the other hand, another of the defendants, Wolf Wajsbrot, was reported to answer the question why he fought by saying, “It’s normal for a Jew to fight the Germans.”

The French journalist covering the trial made the point of the mise-en-scène clear:

I saw the condemned leave in rows, two by two. I approached Rouxel. He was chained to Witschitz. The same handcuffs united two very different men in the same terrible fate: a French citizen of Polish origin who, lacking in grandeur, with the obstinate brow and the fleeting gaze we saw on him at the hearings, coldly executed the victims pointed out to him; and the Frenchman of France, a Parisian, who wasn’t even 18 when, dragged in by bad company and misled by unspeakable teachers, he was on several occasions forced to carry out lookout duty and protect his comrade’s flight. Two very different men... The same handcuffs!

A collaborationist flyer of the time read: “If the French pillage, steal, sabotage and kill, it’s always the foreigners who command; it’s always the unemployed and professional criminals who carry it out; it’s always the Jews who are behind them. It’s THE ARMY OF CRIME against France.”

executionEVEN AFTER THEY WERE EXECUTED, the Groupe Manouchian was made to serve Nazi propaganda purposes. A poster was quickly prepared and posted on walls throughout the country: Against a blood-red background, with images of bullet-pierced bodies, a weapons cache, and derailed trains, the words appear: “Liberators? Liberation by the Army of Crime!” There are also photos of members of the group, taken on the first day of their trial, accompanied by their names and acts: “Fingerweig [sic] Polish Jew 3 attacks — 5 Derailments”; “Witchitz Polish Jew 15 Attacks”; ‘Elek Hungarian Jew 8 Derailments”; “Fontano Italian Communist 12 Attacks”; “Manouchian Chief of the band 56 Attacks 150 dead 600 Wounded.” Every town of France was to be reminded that this was the real face of the Resistance: foreigners all. The true nature of their acts: pure brutality.

It’s impossible to know if the poster had any effect at the time, but it granted them immortality: In later years, the poster and the group would become one. These “pariahs of the Resistance,” as an early book on them was titled, would become a symbol of French inclusiveness, of internationalism — and also of the ambiguities of the struggle.

The FTP-MOI was the outgrowth of Communist organizations formed during the interwar period, when political and economic refugees streamed into France as a land of asylum. Joining the French Communist Party (PCF), they were directed to “language groups,” the Jewish one being perhaps the strongest, with social organizations, sporting clubs, and its own newspaper, Die Naie Presse (which still exists as a French-only monthly, La Presse Nouvelle). Although some Jews were placed in the Czech group (like future Slansky Trial defendant Artur London) or the Romanian group, those with a Yiddish background were directed to the Second Division, the Jewish division, founded in November 1941, which had about forty members, a number equaled only by the Italians.

The war’s outbreak, in the aftermath of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the banning of the PCF in France, left these Communists every bit as confused as every other Communist in the world. Even after the German invasion and conquest of France in June, 1940, the PCF followed a line that was, to put it charitably, ambiguous, even going so far as to seek to have the party newspaper, l’Humanité, authorized by the occupying authorities. Although armed resistance to the occupier was not yet the order of the day, the sections of the MOI were engaged in work that was perhaps even bolder: Travail Allemand, “German work,” printing and distributing propaganda for the German troops, who were viewed simply as deluded workers.

The German invasion of the USSR on June 21, 1941 freed Communists everywhere for the task they hungered for, and the French Communists entered the struggle with a vengeance. However, while their activity changed to armed struggle, it shouldn’t be thought that Communists gladly killed Germans on the streets, in theaters, and in cafes: Veterans spoke later of how these killings violated their ethics as working-class revolutionaries, and how, given the former strength of the German Communist Party, the man killed might well be a German comrade.

It was foreigners, particularly Jews, who dominated the armed Resistance in Paris. The reason for this is obvious: If unions, for example, refused to join the fight, considering it suicidal, Jews, who were endangered by their very origins, shared no such qualms. The PCF, in short, relied on those who had nothing to lose, and they found them most in numbers among foreign Communist émigrés and Jews, among whom they particularly sought those between ages 16 and 21.

Jews who flocked to the FTP-MOI were men like Josef Boczov, who had walked from his native Romania to Spain to join the International Brigades. He was imprisoned in the French camp of Gurs after the Republican defeat, and escaped and joined the FTP’s First Detachment, Romanian-Hungarian. There was Shloime Grzywacz, a shoemaker who spent five years in a Polish jail for his political activities, went to France in 1936, joined the fight in Spain, was imprisoned in Gurs, escaped, and worked in Paris as an underground union organizer among Jewish furriers in the early days of the occupation. Feeling this to be too “peaceful” a task, he joined the Jewish detachment of the FTP-MOI.

Marcel Rayman, whose family left Poland when he was a child, was one of the leaders of the Young Communists in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. He is remembered and has been memorialized as the most ferocious of combatants, shooting down officers on the streets of Paris and attacking a Wehrmacht unit in broad daylight.

Maurice “Fifi” Fefferman, Willy Szapiro, Wolf Finkelstein, Henri Bajtsztock... their names spoke clearly of their origins, and all of them with graves marked “died for France.”

THE FIRST ARMED ATTACK on a German soldier took place at the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station on August 21, 1941, when a squad led by Pierre Georges, better known as Colonel Fabien, killed a German officer, avenging the death of their Jewish comrade Samuel Tyszelman, who had been executed by the Nazis shortly before.

The life of the Resistant was both dangerous and active, the fighters being called on almost every other day. One list of actions by the FTP-MOI claims credit for attacks on ninety-two hotels with time bombs and thirty-three with grenades; fifteen recruitment offices set on fire; 125 military trucks destroyed; grenade attacks on seventeen groups of officers and seven German barracks; ten trains derailed; two anti-aircraft cannons destroyed; grenade attacks on thirty-one military formations; eleven traitors and four superior officers killed.

ManouchianThese newly-French veterans of the struggles in Eastern and Central Europe served the final months of the Resistance under the leadership of a man from the east, the Armenian poet Missak Manouchian. Turkish-born, he moved to Marseilles in 1925. In France he worked in factories and organized the Armenian community for the MOI. Originally part of the political apparatus of the Resistance, he was moved to the military wing in the spring of 1943, despite the fact, as his widow Mélinée would write in her memoirs of Missak, “He’d never touched a grenade in his life and it was Rayman who taught him to handle one.”

The Manouchian Group’s most notorious act was the killing of Dr. Julius Ritter, who was responsible for sending French workers to carry out mandatory labor in German factories, the Service du Travail Obligatoire. Abraham Lissner, another Jewish Communist veteran of Spain and the FTP-MOI, tells of the assassination in his memoirs:

The preparation for this operation took more than two weeks. September 28 [1943] at 9:00 a.m., 3 partisans... were at the designated spot near a garage on the rue Petrarque: Marcel Rayman, the Spaniard Alfonso, and the German Jew Marcel. As he did every morning, at 9:00 Dr. Ritter came out of the garage in his car. Something in the attitude of our men looked suspicious to him and he attempted to leap from his car on the opposite side. The operation looked to be doomed to failure. Rayman, whose role was covering the retreat of his comrades charged with the execution of the attack, realized this and, without wasting a minute, gunned down Ritter, shooting him two times.

This would be the final hurrah of the FTP-MOI. Nearly two hundred of their fighters would be arrested, tortured, and ultimately killed within two months of the attack. After their show trial, all except the lone female defendant, Olga Bancic, were executed immediately by a firing squad, photos of which were recently discovered. Bancic would be beheaded a few months later.

THE MANOUCHIAN GROUP REMAINED in the shadows of history for over three decades, locked in a ghetto for foreigners, with few books written about them aside from those written by people who were themselves veterans of the FTP-MOI for small, mainly left-wing Jewish publishing houses. The great poet Louis Aragon wrote a poem in their honor when a street in Paris was named for them; the anarchist singer Leo Ferré set it movingly to music; the filmmaker Frank Cassenti made a beautiful film about them in 1977, L’Affiche Rouge; and the leftwing martyr Pierre Goldman spoke of how he influenced them in his angry memoir, Dim Memories of a Polish Jew Born in France. Manouchian’s moving final letter to his wife appeared in the Communist Party’s official collection of final letters by Resistants (though his first name was given in the book as Michel).

Then, in 1983, the filmmaker Mosco Boucault made his documentary film, Terrorists in Retirement, which visits some elderly Jews who, as young men and women, fought and led the armed struggle against the occupier. These immigrants, in heavy Yiddish accidents, reenact their attacks on the very streets upon which they occurred; they again make their homemade devices, carry out reconnaissance, take weapons from handbags carried by female comrades. Until this point, the film is simply a necessary corrective to the oblivion into which these people had fallen.

Then, in its final ten minutes, the tone of Terrorists in Retirement changes: The brother of Marcel Rayman, perhaps the most daring of the fighters, as well as Missak Manouchian’s widow both state that the members of the group were knowingly left to die by the leadership of the Communist resistance. Although it was known that a captured comrade named Joseph D. had squealed under torture (and had been executed by the Resistance for doing so), and that the Germans were on the Manouchian Group’s trail because of this, nothing had been done to remove them from harm. They ask: Why?

Louis Grownowski, the military leader of the FTP-MOI, simply says in the film that in war, people are sacrificed. The Communists needed to maintain a presence in Paris, since it was clear that the Germans were going to lose the war, and the Manouchian Group, who by this time constituted virtually the only fighters in the capital, had to stay. Boucault’s film goes further, however, speculating that Manouchian and his comrades were left to die because of their names, backgrounds, nationalities. The PCF wanted to make sure it had a place in post-war France thanks to its role in Execution of members of the Manouchian Group, February 21, 1944 at Mont Valérien. the Resistance, and though there is no question that the bulk of the armed Resistance was Communist (the PCF was known as the “party of the executed” for its wartime sacrifices), men with names like Grzywacz, Boczov, Rayman, Manouchian, and Fontano were simply unacceptable representatives of the PCF in the eyes of France. If anyone was to be sacrificed, it was them. So they died, and in death became heroes. Safely dead. Discreetly heroes.

THE ACCUSATION CAUSED A FIRESTORM, with the PCF protesting loudly against the film’s broadcast over public airwaves. A jury of former Resistance fighters decided against showing it on Antenne 2. Books were published on both sides of the issue, with veterans defending the leadership of the FTP-MOI and others, not directly involved, condemning it.

The notion that the Communists would willingly sacrifice their own had been made during the war in another context. The anti-Stalinist revolutionary Victor Serge, from his Mexican exile, wrote in his notebooks upon hearing of the execution in 1941 of Gabriel Péri and other important Communist leaders: “Stalin is keeping [some] ... in reserve and is allowing the Nazis to rid him of the rest. As a bonus, this makes for martyrs. The calculation is obvious, for it would have been simple to warn them in time and order them to go into hiding.”

One of the theories put forth by Philippe Robrieux, the historian of French Communism, is that Jacques Duclos, who supervised the French Communists throughout the Nazi occupation — and was mentioned by Victor Serge as one being held “in reserve” by Stalin — had given the orders to abandon Manouchian and, indeed, sent him to his death as a suspected Trotskyist. Despite Robrieux’s scholarly efforts to prove that the Manouchian Group’s deaths were an intentional sacrifice if not murder, however, the idea that they were left in place because someone had to hold the line remains commonly accepted — but that they at least weren’t protected is certain.

IT SEEMS SOMETIMES THAT NO HATRED ever dies in France. A bust of Missak Manouchian, placed in a public square in Marseilles and a regular site of commemorations, was defaced in September, 2014, a few months after it had already been covered in swastikas. In December, two neo-Nazis were arrested and charged with the crime of “violation of a monument to the dead.” At a demonstration held in front of the bust, neo-Nazis called the Manouchian Group “terrorists” and said “Manouchian was a piece of shit and we don’t want that in Marseilles.” On January 9, 2015, the final day of the drama in Paris, they were sentenced to 100 hours of public service. A prosecutor participating in the case said in his final plea: “To these clowns of an absolute stupidity, to these cowards who know nothing of our history and who offer us a hateful spectacle, one must say, ‘I am Missak Manouchian.’”

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his forthcoming translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His latest book is Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology of anarchist writings by Victor Serge.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.