In Nazi occupied France during the dark days of WWII, there was a group of valiant and daring individuals known as the French Resistance. They dared to defy the vice-grip of Nazi Germany (as well as the French collaborators) using stealth, reconnaissance, infiltration, and whatever means necessary to save their beloved country and fellow man from destruction. Most of these brave souls were subject to betrayal, unspeakable torture, or death. One of these members of the French Resistance appeared to be an ordinary housewife, but Berthe Fraser was anything but ordinary.
Berthe Fraser was among hundreds of people who rose to the treacherous task of defending France. Be they a housewife, a mother, a Catholic, a Jew, a communist, an artist, or a politician, these resistance fighters came from all layers of society, both male and female, young and old, and without their heroic acts, Hitler’s march through France may not have been halted.
The French Resistance took many forms, from groups of armed guerilla bands who escaped to the mountains, known as the Maquis, to organizers of escape networks for Jews and other targets of the Nazis, to publishers of underground newspapers, to those who carried out sabotage operations, to couriers who carried coded messages back and forth between Allied members.
Mrs. Fraser’s story begins with her birth in 1894 as Berthe Emilie Vicogne. She married an Englishman and thus became a British subject. When the rumblings of WWII hit France, Berthe Fraser was going about her domestic life in her hometown of Arras, France, all the while organizing an underground network that saved the lives of countless English agents and pilots. Her husband reported later to an English newspaper:
My wife was the head of a great movement, which worried the Germans stupid. She was the hub of this big wheel. Her first work was in 1940 when there were hundreds of British soldiers roaming around France. My wife started a movement which grew until it was a sort of underground channel. She sent dozens of British soldiers by devious means to the coast where they were smuggled to England.
Twice betrayed but never broken, Berthe Fraser was an unshakable woman for whom I have the utmost awe and respect. I can relate to where she was in life; a woman in her 40s, tending to her home. I don’t know if she had any children, but as a woman, I feel the risks of undertaking the work of the Resistance were doubly perilous.
I wish there was more information available about this woman. I know she suffered extreme torture during her second capture, and this trauma surely accounts for the lack of details. Who wants to recall the horror? I can find no record of a public interview. I discovered in the back matter of the book SOE in France by M.R.D. Foot, that Berthe Fraser died in 1956, her health never restored.
In 1941, someone betrayed Berthe, and she was arrested by the Gestapo. She spent 15 months in a Belgian prison, and was released in December 1942. Did this imprisonment deter her? No. Berthe immediately jumped back into the work of fighting Hitler’s campaign of death and terror.
No sooner had she got out than Berthe immediately contacted the officers sent into France from England, and embarked on a new phase of anti–Nazi activity, helping the Allies by supplying English agents with a complete support network of Resistance fighters. She looked after the foreigners, providing them with shelter, transport, and safe hiding places where they could engage in their clandestine missions. She arranged liaisons, transmitted vital messages, and took on the very dangerous role of courier, travelling far and wide by car, sometimes on foot, laden with documents, arms, and occasionally the dynamite required for sabotage operations.
Somehow she managed to evade discovery, collecting the supplies of weapons that were dropped by night at secret locations by British planes, hiding the vital goods in safe houses where they could only be released on presenting her signature.
Berthe had to go to great lengths to protect her English charges. Once, entrusted with the care of the well–known English agent Wing Commander Yeo–Thomas, known as “The White Rabbit,” she arranged a funeral cortege to transport the senior officer, hidden inside the hearse. He says she was “one of the great Resistance heroines…. She worked impartially for any French or British organisation that needed her.”
Berthe was betrayed again in 1944, unbelievably by one of the very English agents whose life she saved. She spent six months in solitary confinement at Loos where she was tortured every day. She was stripped and flogged in front of Nazi troops and condemned to death. Never did she betray her friends in the Resistance or the English army. How many lives she saved through her own afflictions will never be known.
When the Allies stormed the prison on September 1, 1944, Berthe Fraser was just hanging onto life, and she is reported to have said, “Thank you boys, you are just in time.”
The story of Berthe Fraser stands as just one of the many heroines of WWII. If you’re interested in further accounts of the women of the French Resistance, I highly recommend the following resources:
Sisters in Resistance, a documentary film by Independent Lens.
SISTERS IN RESISTANCE tells the story of four young women who risked their lives to fight Nazi oppression and brutality in occupied France, not because they themselves were Jewish or in danger of being arrested, but because it was the right thing to do. Within two years of the start of the Occupation, they had all been arrested by the Gestapo and were deported as political prisoners to Ravensbruck concentration camp.
The documentary follows the paths of the four women — Geneviève de Gaulle Anthonioz, Jacqueline Pery d’Alincourt, Anise Postel-Vinay and Germaine Tillion — from before the war to the present. The women speak about what compelled them to resist, their roles in the Resistance, their arrests, deportation and liberation. They talk about the struggle to rebuild their lives after the war, their desire for children and their continued battles in the name of justice.
Charlotte Gray, a Warner Bros. film.
Set in Nazi–occupied France at the height of World War II, Charlotte Gray tells the compelling story of a young Scottish woman working with the French Resistance in the hope of rescuing her lover, a missing RAF pilot.
Based on the best–selling novel by Sebastian Faulks, the film stars Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon and Rupert Penry-Jones. Charlotte Gray is directed by Gillian Armstrong and produced by Sarah Curtis and Douglas Rae.
For Freedom, a novel by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. An excellent young adult book for grades 6-12.
Life for Suzanne David, a 13-year-old French schoolgirl and music apprentice, dramatically changes in May, 1940, when she and her best friend witness the brutal death of a neighbor when a bomb drops directly in front of them. Soon the Germans take over Cherbourg, and the Davids are forced from their home into poverty. Then Suzanne is given the opportunity to help the Allies. Bravely, she risks her life, family, and singing career in order to spy for the Resistance. The pace of this suspenseful novel, told in first person and based on a true story, moves swiftly into action within the first chapter, showing the young heroine as strong, courageous, and clever. Filled, but not laden, with the events of the war, and peppered with French language and the culture of music, this novel will appeal to readers who enjoy history and espionage.
Outwitting the Gestapo, a memoir by Lucie Aubrac.
A suspenseful rendering of Aubrac’s experiences as a French Resistance fighter during WWII. This memoir owes its existence to the 1983 extradition to France of Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon.” In order to refute Barbie’s defenders and former collaborators, Aubrac told her story publicly for the first time- -and it became a bestseller in France. Focusing on a nine-month period that begins with the conception of her second child, Aubrac looks back 40 years at experiences of enduring intensity. During the war, the author, her Jewish husband Raymond, and other “resistants” published and distributed underground newspapers, found new identities and homes for fugitives, forged permits, stole guns, and blew up roads and bridges–all routine Resistance activities.
What makes this account special, however, is Aubrac’s irrepressible energy and resourcefulness, and the graceful way in which she interweaves her separate but parallel lives. As a mother and wife struggling in a wartime economy, she bartered for hard-to-find items; as a devoted schoolteacher, she applied the lessons of history to current events; as a secret member of the Resistance, she couldn’t disclose her true identity even to her most trusted colleagues, switching names and identities like a quick-change artist. Three times, she helped free her husband from prison. The last incarceration was the most harrowing: Walking into a trap, Raymond was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to die by Barbie himself. Despite her anguish, Aubrac tricked her husband’s captors into meetings and masterminded an intricate rescue. The Aubracs’ escape by airlift to London, where their baby was born, is tremendously exciting. A breathtaking account that feeds the soul as much as it satisfies the appetite for vicarious danger.
Sisters in the Resistance by Margaret Collins Weitz.
Weitz makes an important and unique contribution to the literature of the French Resistance and the history of World War II. Although countless studies have documented the heroic exploits of Resistance leaders during the course of World War II, few have focused on the pivotal role women played in the various underground organizations. Based on interviews with surviving resistants, this oral history contains the harrowing and often previously unrecorded testimony of a remarkable set of women. The author’s sensitive narrative places these riveting anecdotes and reminiscences into proper historical and sociological context as she examines and analyzes the ever expanding duties and assignments undertaken by women as France’s war-within-a-war continued to rage. An absolutely stunning and compelling chronicle of dauntless courage and unflagging patriotism.
Code Name Christiane Clouet: A Woman in the French Resistance by Claire Chevrillon.
A witness to the bleak fate of French Jewry in Nazi-dominated France, this remarkable author recounts her experiences from 1939 to 1945 in a personal though emotionally reserved way that makes her family’s tragedies particularly poignant. Her parents were upper-class, assimilated Jews; her father, Andre Chevrillon, was a member of the French Academy, a man Edith Wharton called “the first literary critic in France.” An English teacher in Paris when war broke out, Claire gives abundant details about the first days of the occupation, when France became a nation divided between the Petainists and those less willing to accommodate Hitler’s designs. In 1942, as repressive laws limited Jewish freedom (Claire’s mother was effectively imprisoned by her fear of leaving home wearing the yellow star), as her brother-in-law languished in a POW camp and her cousins were persecuted and eventually deported, Chevrillon joined the resistance, first in air operations and then in the code service, where she encoded and decoded messages between the free French government in London and de Gaulle’s Paris delegation. Chevrillon, who had contact with some of the most prominent members of the resistance, was betrayed in 1943 and spent four harrowing months in prison. The author’s goal was “to set forward the facts… not to analyze myself or my characters.” But her story, told without elaboration, is as dramatic and compelling as any fiction.
An American Heroine in the French Resistance: The Diary and Memoir of Virginia D’Albert-Lake by Virginia D’Albert-Lake.
In 1937, Virginia Roush, a strong-minded young woman from St. Petersburg, Florida, married a Frenchman, becoming Virginia d’Albert-Lake, and moved to Paris. During the war, she kept a diary, including almost larkish reports of her Resistance work. Part of an escape line that smuggled downed Allied airmen out of the country, she took them on secret sightseeing tours of Paris. In June, 1944, she was arrested by the Germans and sent to a sequence of concentration camps that included three spells in Ravensbrück. (The third time she was transferred from Ravensbrück, she weighed seventy-six pounds.) This book, comprising a diary written before her capture and a memoir written after her liberation, is an indelible portrait of extraordinary strength of character. In the diary she seems naïve and spirited; in the memoir she is sombre, reflective, and attentive to every detail.
This compelling memoir is testament to how extraordinary circumstances can transform a life-and how an extraordinary person reacts to difficult circumstances. Cohn was a typical French-Jewish teenager when WWII broke out, but as it did for millions of others, the war transformed her life in unimaginable ways. “There was no time to be frightened,” she and Holden, a veteran journalist, write. The first part of the book chronicles her family and friends’ response to the war. That countless other books have described the effects of the Nazi onslaught – the life-and-death consequences of the unthinkable decisions many were forced to make – makes her descriptions no less powerful and tragic. The narrative turns into a quasi thriller in its second half, depicting how the death of Cohn’s fiance led her, now a nurse, to join the Free French forces in the fight to defeat the Nazis. A blonde, fluent German speaker who never mentioned to her superiors that she was a Jew, she went on several life-threatening missions into German territory, earning France’s highest military honors. But she describes her actions without self-aggrandizement. What comes through is the importance of courageous individual action in the most dire situations. This is the amazing story of a woman who lived through one of the worst times in human history, losing family members to the Nazis but surviving with her spirit and integrity intact. Cohn now lives in California.
Carve Her Name With Pride is the inspiring story of the half-French Violette Szabo who was born in Paris in 1921 to an English motor-car dealer, and a French mother. She met and married Etienne Szabo, a Captain in the French Foreign Legion in 1940. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Tania, her husband died at El Alamein. She became a FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and was recruited into the SOE and underwent secret agent training. Her first trip to France was completed successfully even though she was arrested and then released by the French Police.
On June 7th, 1944, Szabo was parachuted into Limoges. Her task was to coordinate the work of the French Resistance in the area in the first days after D-Day. She was captured by the SS ‘Das Reich’ Panzer Division and handed over to the Gestapo in Paris for interrogation. From Paris, Violette Szabo was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she was executed in January 1945. She was only 23 and for her courage was posthumously awarded The George Cross and the Croix de Guerre.
Vera Atkins, a legendary figure of British wartime intelligence, died in 2000 at the age of 92, but her secrets did not die with her, thanks to the brilliant investigative reporting of Sarah Helm, a noted British journalist and editor. Her book, A Life in Secrets, combines the history of a pivotal era with the nail-biting drama of the heroic operatives who were dropped into Nazi-occupied territories to contact and help form a resistance army.
Atkins worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was formed in the dark days of 1940 after the British retreat at Dunkirk. Its mission was to wage a secret war until regular forces could be amassed to retake the continent. Her responsibilities were to recruit and train agents for SOE’s French section. Some 400 men and women were dispatched, and of these about 100 ended up “missing presumed dead.” Of special concern to Atkins were 12 female agents whom she could not account for after the war. Much of the book details her dogged pursuit of clues to their fates, leading to revelations of their incredible bravery when they were captured, sent to concentration camps and put to death.
The true story of women agents of the secret World War II Special Operations Executive, mandated by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze” by organizing resistance in occupied Europe during the prelude to D Day. Intrigue and heroism, adventure and betrayal figure in this account of British-led efforts to defeat the Nazis in wartime France, based on extensive research in records, documents, letters and memoirs, and the author’s interviews with surviving agents and officials. Despite sporadic defeat and betrayal, SOE leaders managed to delay the arrival of German reinforcements to the Normandy beachhead, contributing to the eventual Allied victory. Details of the operations of SOE recounted here remained secret for decades after the war, finally revealing the human cost of the reconnaissance and sabotage efforts that helped to shorten the conflict.