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Jews of the French Resistance in Their Final Hours
Translated by Mitchell Abidor
From the Autumn 2015 special issue of Jewish Currents on the theme, "Honoring the Jewish Resistance."
THE MEMBERS of the Manouchian Group, twenty-three mostly foreign-born men and women fighting in the Communist Resistance in France, were captured in the fall of 1943. Tortured and interrogated, they were sentenced to death after a brief show trial. (See my article in the Spring 2015 edition of Jewish Currents.) Before they were executed on February 21, 1944, they were allowed, as was Nazi custom, to write farewell letters to their loved ones.
1. Missak Manouchian
Written by the leader of the group which came to bear his name, Manouchian’s farewell letter to his wife is among the most famous of the last letters by martyred Resistance fighters, and is included in the Communist Party’s “official” collection of these letters. One of France’s great poets, Louis Aragon, included sections of it in the poem he wrote to commemorate the naming of a street in Paris after the Manouchian Group, “Stanzas in Remembrance,” which was later set to music by one of France’s most popular singers, the anarchist Léo Ferré.
My dear Melinée, my beloved little orphan,
In a few hours I will no longer be of this world. We are going to be executed today at 3:00. This is happening to me like an accident in my life; I don’t believe it, but I nevertheless know that I will never see you again.
What can I write to you? Everything inside me is mixed-up, yet at the same time clear.
I joined the Army of Liberation as a volunteer, and I die within inches of victory and the final goal. I wish happiness on all those who will survive and taste the sweetness of the freedom and peace of tomorrow. I’m sure that the French people and all those who fight for freedom will honor our memory with dignity. At the moment of death I proclaim that I have no hatred for the German people or for anyone at all; everyone will receive his due, as punishment and as reward. The German people, and all other people, will live in peace and brotherhood after the war, which will not last much longer. I wish happiness for all...
I have one profound regret, and that’s of not having made you happy. I would so much have liked to have a child with you, as you always wished. So I would absolutely love for you to marry after the war and, for my happiness, that you have a child and, in fulfillment of my last wish, that you marry someone who will make you happy. I leave all my property and affairs to you and my nephews. After the war you can claim a war pension as my wife, for I die as a regular soldier in the French army of liberation.
With the help of friends who’d like to honor me, you should publish those of my poems and writings that are worth being read. If possible, you should remember me to my family in Armenia. I will soon die with 23 of my comrades, with the courage and the serenity of a man with a conscience at peace, for I’ve personally done no one ill, and if I have, it was without hatred. It’s sunny out today. It’s gazing at the sun and the beauties of nature that I loved so much that I will say farewell to life and to all of you, my beloved wife and friends. I forgive all those who did me evil, or who wanted to do so, with the exception of the man who betrayed us to redeem his skin and those who sold us out. I embrace you fervently, along with your sister and all those who know me, near and far; I hold you all against my heart. Farewell. Your friend, your comrade, your husband.
P.S. I have 15,000 francs in the valise on the rue de Plaisance. If you can get it, pay off all my debts and give the rest to Arméne. MM
2. Tomas Elek
Nineteen-year-old Hungarian-born Tomas Elek, who had sabotaged materiel, thrown grenades at soldiers, and destroyed a German bookstore, wrote two letters, one to a family friend and then one to his own friends.
Dear Mme. Verrier:
I send you this farewell letter in the hope that you’ll find my family one day. Tell them that I didn’t suffer, and that I died thinking of them, and above all of my brothers, who’ll have a more beautiful youth than mine.
I die, but I ask you to live.
Farewell; may my memory remain in the heart of those who knew me. My friends should all live their lives, and my last wish is that they not feel any sorrow over my fate, since I die so that they will be happy.
I write you this farewell letter to confirm to you, if there was any need, that my intentions were pure.
I don’t have the time here for long, empty phrases.
All I have to say to you is that you shouldn’t be sad, but rather joyful, since for you there will be a brighter tomorrow.
Farewell; keep my memory in your hearts and speak of me from time to time with your children.
3. Maurice Fingerczwayg
Maurice Fingerczwajg, 21, was a Young Communist who joined the Resistance in 1942. His family had been taken by the Nazis, so he wrote to a neighbor.
I’m writing you these last words from my hand to tell you of my farewell to life, which I hoped would be more beautiful than it was.
If my parents and my brothers have the luck to one day return alive from the torment tell them that I died bravely and thinking of them. The life I led before was not a life, and I don’t know how to express all the confused ideas which scramble about in my head. I’m also sending you some articles of clothing, which you should give to my parents, who will perhaps return one day. Knowing of your devotion, I thought of you for these final tasks.
The day of deliverance sounds for me in this land which I loved and where I will now rest. I embrace you with all my heart, including in this embrace my dear parents and my dear brothers. My thoughts also go out to your husband, who was always so kind to me, and to my school chum Robert, who’ll tell all his school friends that I haven’t forgotten the good times we spent together. My thoughts stop at the tip of my pen, hoping you will think from time to time of little Maurice.
P.S. I also embrace with all my heart your little Jean and Suzanne, who served me your delicious dishes.
4. Leon Goldberg
Leon Goldberg, a 20-year old from Lodz whose family had been swept up in the infamous round-up of Jews on July 16-17, 1942 known as the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv, wrote to his parents and his fiancée.
If you return (and I think you will), don’t cry for me. I fulfilled my duty by fighting as I could.
I would have liked to see you one last time and hold you in my arms, but that just isn’t possible. At least you have two more sons who will become men. I fought so that you, Henri, and Max could have a better life if you return, and also so that they not see yet another war in twenty years. They are young; the future is theirs. I don’t know what else to write. There are so many things to say.
Dear parents, Henri, Max, dear brothers, I embrace you with all my soul.
My last letter and my last remembrance for you; I’m going to go before the firing squad at 3:00. It’s 11:30. In the first place, I would like for you not to cry and that you be courageous, as I am myself: I’m not afraid to die. I even think that it’s all a bit much. Quite a terrific birthday present, don’t you think? [Goldberg’s birthday was February 24.]
You’ve known since Saturday from the newspapers what awaits me. Your picture is before me this morning, as always. I’m taking it with me on this long journey from which I believe no one has ever returned. Console yourself quickly; we knew each other so little. I fulfilled my obligations and I regret nothing. All I would like is that from time to time all of my friends think of me.
Now, I kiss your parents, Fanny, and yourself, my dearest, as well as all my friends. When my parents return you should return my affairs to them. Take care of all of this when everyone has returned.
They got a little carried away for my birthday present, don’t you think? I’m not writing anything very important, I don’t have anything important to write. It’d be better if we talked of our friends...
I don’t stop eating now. What would you like me to say, my dearest, we all have to die someday. I loved you very much, but that’s no reason for you to forget that life goes on.
Within a short while I hope you’ll have recovered and that life will go on as before.
Farewell to you all: life will be better for you. I embrace you all, your family and you, Ginette. I ask forgiveness of all the friends I may have forgotten. My Ginette, I leave with your name on my lips.
Vive la France.
My Ginette, a few more words. For a little while I had hope, but I know what I risked. We should regret nothing. Regrets serve no purpose. We could have been together. Be strong, you and your parents. I kiss you all one more time.
One last time, my thoughts go out to all of you, my friends, my family, and everyone I know. Farewell.
We have won the war.
5. Szlama Grzywac
A 35-year-old Polish Jew who participated in the bombing of the Paris-based German newspaper Pariser Zeitung, Szlama Grzywacz, unlike the other members of the group who are buried together at the municipal cemetery of Ivry, is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, along with many of the heroes of the French working-class movement, facing the wall where the last fighters of the Paris Commune fell.
At three o’clock today I go before the firing squad. I’ve kept my calm up to the last minute, as befits a Jewish worker.
I die, but you’ll never forget me.
If any of my family members are alive, tell them about me.
I die, but you live. I send you my best wishes. I bid farewell to you and to all my friends.
Courage, courage, and more courage.
A better future isn’t far off.
I kiss you a thousand times. I embrace all my friends.
6. Marcel Rayman
Marcel Rayman, 21-year-old member of the Equipe Speciale, the Resistance’s elite Special Team, and one of the most daring of all Resistance fighters, wrote two letters. Both his brother Simon and his mother had been deported, so his first letter was to his other family members.
Dear Aunt, Uncle and Cousins:
When you read this letter, I’ll be no more. I’m going before the firing squad today at 3:00. I regret nothing that I’ve done. I am completely peaceful and calm. I love you and hope you will live happily. Please give the following note to Mama and Simon if they return some day, as I hope they will.
My dear aunt, I would so much have liked to see you again, as well as my little cousin, who I’ve almost never seen. I’m together right now with twenty-three of my comrades who will meet the same fate as me. We’ve just received a package from the Red Cross and we’re eating like kids all the sweets I so love. I kiss you all one last time; you, my aunt, my uncle, my little Fernande, my little Madeleine, and also my little Elise. Here we are all in...
I’m sure this will cause you more pain than me.
When you read this letter, I’m sure it will cause you extreme pain, but I will have been dead for a while, and you’ll be consoled by my brother who will live happily with you and give you all the joy I would have liked to give you.
Forgive me for not writing at greater length, but we are all so joyful that that it’s impossible to think of the pain you will feel. I can only say one thing, and that’s that I love you more than anything in the world, and I would have liked to live for your sake alone. I love you, I embrace you, but words can’t describe what I feel.
Your Marcel who adores you and who’ll think of you up to the last minute. I adore you, and long live life.
My dear Simon. I’m counting on you to do all I can’t do myself. I kiss you, I adore you, I’m content, live happily and make Mama happy the way I would have had I lived. Live the beautiful and joyful life that you will all have. Tell all my friends and comrades that I love them all. Don’t pay any attention if my letter is crazy, but I can’t remain serious. I love everyone. Long Live Life! May everyone live happily.
Mama and Simon, I love you and would love to see you again.
7. Willy Szapiro
Szapiro was a Polish Jew, a former member of the Palestine Communist Party, and a Communist militant in Austria after the Anschluss. He headed a labor organization in France before joining the Resistance. Facing execution, he wrote twice to his pregnant wife.
My beloved child,
After four months I can at last write a beautiful but, alas, sad letter, for I’m going before the firing squad.
I had four tough months, but I never weakened, for I knew what cause I had dedicated my life to. Naturally, it’s painful to abandon beautiful life. I hope that by now our child has entered the world, but he can’t know his father.
I send you many dreams, my dear, as well as to our little darling.
Bring our children up in the same spirit.
I am not alone in giving my life in this struggle.
Dear Little Henriette,
This is my last letter. This afternoon we’ll be executed. Not very agreeable, but that’s the struggle. Naturally I would have preferred the battlefield, but unfortunately I didn’t have the luck. Too bad, no need to cry. I confide to you my two little ones. I die tranquilly for I know we have many friends especially personally in you [sic].
I regret that I can’t see you and kiss you before dying. The last three days after my condemnation I was with two young Frenchman and I learned to love France even more. What noble spirits!
Farewell my little one, farewell all my friends, farewell beautiful France.
I can’t write because I’m too cold and a thousand kisses to all of you.
Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, and the translator of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff, for which he received a Hemingway grant from the French Ministry of Culture. His recent books include an anthology of Victor Serge’s writings, Anarchists Never Surrender, and a translation of A Socialist History of the French Revolution, by Jean Jaurès.
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.