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May 12, 2016

Siân Rees on the challenges of researching her biography of French Resistance heroine Lucie Aubrac

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ReesFrom the invasion of Paris in June of 1940 to the end of World War II in 1945, Lucie Aubrac and her husband, Raymond Aubrac, and the rest of the French resistance waged a constant, clandestine war against their German occupiers, including feared SS officer Klaus Barbie, notoriously known as “the butcher of Lyon.” Lucie herself ran guns, passed along secret communiques, and fooled the Nazis face-to-face more than once by taking on fake identities to help her husband escape imprisonment. She was a hero for decades after the war, until Barbie accused her and her husband in 1983 of collaborating with the Germans, and the public began to pick apart the competing mythologies about her exploits. In her new book Lucie Aubrac: The French Resistance Heroine Who Outwitted the Gestapo, author Siân Rees attempts to nail down as much of Aubrac’s real, definitive story as possible. Here Rees discusses the challenges of researching a book on covert operations and what she found most fascinating about Lucie herself.

When did you first hear about Lucie Aubrac, and when did you decide you wanted to turn her story into a book?

I first heard about Lucie Aubrac in 1983 or 1984, when I was a budding historian—in my first year at university—and Klaus Barbie was extradited from Bolivia to France. It was clear this was history in the making. I discussed it with my grandmother, who was an adult during World War II, and my parents, who were born in 1932. Both then and during Barbie’s trial in 1987—my last year at university—it was fascinating to see how the historical record is made: the coming together of so many different claims, interests, points of view, and agendas, from which melting pot some version of the truth had to be established by the courts. A lesson for anyone reading the received truths stated in history books: they’re all just someone’s point of view.

Living in France as an adult many years later, I was reminded of that youthful interest by seeing a Lucie Aubrac primary school, and I reflected on how the agreed historical “truths” had continued to change since 1987. When I saw the feature film Lucie Aubrac starring Carole Bouquet, I thought how much more nuanced and interesting the real story was and that it should be written up.

You drew from a variety of research materials for the book, including letters, newspaper articles, and interviews, but many of the acts and meetings you described were conducted and held in secret. What sources did you rely on the most to ensure the accuracy of your account?

Given the controversy around Lucie Aubrac and her claims, this was one of the hardest parts of the book, and I drew heavily from a mass of painstaking spadework done by certain French historians over the last few decades. The hard archival work had really already been done for me, albeit a lot had not been translated. Many resistance fighters have published memoirs or autobiographies, and I excavated a lot of detail from books by Serge Ravanel and Emmanuel d’Astier, as well as an account of a series of interviews with Lucie’s husband, Raymond, at the end of his long life. The least reliable sources, as readers will find out, were those written by Lucie herself.

What information was the most difficult to verify?

The information most difficult to verify was that concerning a major betrayal during a resistance meeting that was a pivotal moment in Lucie’s story. In 1943, General de Gaulle’s representative Jean Moulin went undercover into France to hold a top-level meeting with resistance leaders, Raymond Aubrac among them. Klaus Barbie arrested Moulin, Raymond, and others at that meeting, which led to Lucie’s spectacular rescue of her husband and Moulin’s own death. Who betrayed the arrested resistance leaders to the Germans remains one of the most contentious questions in recent French history. The only people who knew the truth are dead now.

Lucy and her husband, Raymond, employed a number of classic spy tactics, including disguises, swapped suitcases, messages tucked in matchboxes, and clues left in crosswords. What was your favorite trick of theirs?

Definitely my favorite of Lucie’s many ruses was stuffing a teddy bear full of explosives in order to get them across the Demarcation Line separating Occupied France from “free” France in order to get them into the hands of the resistance in Paris.

Lucie_3D_cream_croppedYour book shows that even though they were eventually discredited, the accusations that the Aubracs secretly aided the Germans during the war brought the couple’s past into question. What did you find out about the Aubracs that they might have wanted to keep from the public or play down?

One of the saddest parts of Lucie’s story is that she had truly performed some extraordinary, and extraordinarily brave, exploits, yet she still needed to embellish her own story—to the point of telling outright lies. The most humiliating things for her—and the most incomprehensible for me—were the tiny lies she told about, for example, getting outstanding grades in her teacher training exam when she was 19 (she actually failed) or being born in a romantic country village (she was, in fact,born in the drab Paris suburbs).

Lucie herself died in 2007. What’s the one thing you most wish you could go back and ask her about her life?

Why? Why did she have this urge to make things up? Because when these little, unnecessary lies were uncovered, it threw into question all the rest of her life, about which I believe she told a version that, if embroidered, was basically true.

-Geoff George


“A refreshing addition to World War II literature.”Kirkus Reviews

Lucie Aubrac: The French Resistance Heroine Who Outwitted the Gestapo officially publishes on June 1, 2016 and is available where books and e-books are sold.

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