“Killing someone is a terrible thing to do. It is never good to kill anyone, even an enemy, you should know that,” says Madeleine Riffaud, poet, war reporter and teenage resistance fighter in occupied Paris reflecting sombrely on the moment when she did just that.
Riffaud, now in her 92nd year and almost blind, has paid a heavy price for her activism. She lives alone in the centre of Paris in a fifth floor flat without a lift so hardly goes out. Exotic birds, singing in cages in various corners of the apartment, punctuate our interview and bring music into her life. For almost fifty years Riffaud refused to talk about her role in the liberation of France, but these days the memories come tumbling out.
Madeleine was just 19 in the summer of 1944. Although the Allies, three months after D Day, were fighting their way up through France, many resistance groups were feeling demoralised by the recent execution of twenty three members of one small but exceptionally courageous group, the Manouchians. These were Riffaud’s friends. They were demoralised, too, by the response of the discredited Pétainiste government, which organised posters around Paris denouncing the armed resisters as foreigners, Jews and criminals engaged in a conspiracy against French life and the sovereignty of France.
“I have no hate. It was a mission. We had to do it in daylight, to encourage the population. To show them there was an opposition to the German occupation and it was French. I wanted to do more than simply harangue people in queues, telling them the truth of what was happening and I was cross at being told always to carry weapons across town for the men to use, (she worked for the Communist resistance group, the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, FTP) so I asked for permission to use a gun myself.” It was granted. One sunny day in July, Madeleine cycled up to a German soldier, standing alone near the Solferino bridge, admiring the Seine, engaged him in conversation in a way no man would have been able to, and, when he turned round and looked her in the eye, shot him with two bullets in the temple.
“He died instantly. It was important to me not to shoot him in the back.”
Madeleine quickly remounted her bicycle but was knocked over by a French Gestapo car, driven by a Milicien who had watched her. “As I fell to the ground, I made a grab for my gun, hoping to kill myself rather than be arrested. But the man handcuffed me before I could do anything.” She was taken for questioning to Gestapo headquarters at Rue des Saussaies and for the next month or so, ferried between there and a solitary cell in the prison at Fresnes, and subjected to brutal torture which included being forced to watch the torture of others.
“What kept me going was saying to myself: I am not a victim. I am a résistante.”
She never gave away names, insisting that she was not part of a group, but was a foolish young girl who had acted purely out of revenge for her boyfriend, who had been killed by the Nazis. Nonetheless she was condemned to death, with a date set for her execution. Minutes before this was due, as other comrades were led to their deaths, she was brought back inside the prison for further questioning.
Somehow Madeleine survived until mid-August, when, on the eve of her 20th birthday, (Eds August 23) she was freed as part of a prisoner exchange. Immediately she went back to join her friends fighting to liberate Paris. After she and her group managed to take 80 Germans as prisoners of war she became something of a symbol of female heroism. An unknown American soldier in Paris who saw her sitting atop a tank, waving and smiling, her thick black hair flying behind her in the wind, captured the moment in some amateur footage which appears in a new documentary film examining the hitherto often unsung role of female resisters. For a brief moment she became ‘the girl who saved France,’ as the film’s director, Pierre Hurel, commented.
Sensing the approaching victory, Madeleine then asked to go to Berlin with the rest of her resistance group, now part of the French army, to finish the war. But, at a time when women in France did not yet have the right to vote, she was refused. “I did not have permission from my father to do that, I was told. That was a shock,” she recalled. “And after that depression set in. Depression and amnesia and I could not sleep because of memories of the torture. Still today I cannot get to sleep until 5 am.”
Madeleine, who had grown up in a village near the Somme, now went home to her parents, both school teachers who had a deep horror of war, living so close to the trenches and cemeteries of World War One. For the last four years they had worried constantly about their precious only child believing her dead after her father, listening to the forbidden BBC, heard a report from London announcing that she had been killed. Now they had her back they told her to put away her gun in a drawer, to forget about war and to return to life. But she could not just forget and her experiences drew her away from her parents.
“I was alive but destroyed,” she told me. “I wanted to die. If anyone even touched me I couldn’t bear it.” She took an overdose, an attempt at suicide, then decided the only way to survive was never to talk about the traumas she had suffered.
After a year some equilibrium returned to her life when, back in Paris, she met a group of artists and writers including surrealist poet Paul Éluard, the author Vercors, and Picasso, who ‘adopted me’ and encouraged her to write. Picasso drew her portrait for the cover of her first book of poetry, Le Poing Fermé (the Closed Fist) published in 1945.
She married a fellow resistant, Pierre Daix, with whom she had a child, but the child died and the marriage did not last. And then, since she could not extinguish the spirit of resistance, she found a vocation as a war correspondent, reporting for the Communist daily, l’Humanité from Algeria during the country’s fight for independence from France in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In Oran, Madeleine was involved in a serious accident when a large truck on a main road rammed into the car in which she and a colleague were travelling. Having used her right arm instinctively to protect herself, her hands were smashed and she lost a finger. In addition her forehead was damaged, in particular the bones around her eyes, leading to the loss of sight in one eye and limited vision in the other. Today, when she is not wearing dark glasses her eyes are almost entirely closed. She smokes, likes an occasional gin and is permanently in pain. But after Algeria she had some of the happiest years of her life living with the Viet Cong resistance for about seven years and reporting on the struggle for national independence and reunification in Vietnam. The damage done by Agent Orange (Dioxin), a powerful chemical defoliant used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War in an attempt to eliminate forest cover for the North Vietnamese, which has had devastating long term results for the local population, is still a cause close to her heart.
In 1994, almost fifty years after the Liberation, a museum curator found some of Riffaud’s poetry, some of it written when she was in prison, and persuaded her to add some memoirs to give context to the poems which she wanted to republish. The resulting book was called On L’appelait Rainer – Rainer had been her nom de guerre in homage to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to demonstrate that she had no argument against the German people. This had the effect of unlocking her memories. Nowadays, still strikingly beautiful, her grey hair pulled back into a long plait, she talks freely about World War 2, especially the moment in 1940 when immediately after the German invasion, thousands of French took to the roads to escape Paris for the unoccupied South, L’Exode. Madeleine, aged 16, was helping her sick and elderly grandparents travelling along clogged roads with frequent bombardments from German planes when suddenly a German soldier kicked her in the backside as a way of getting her to move.
“That moment,” she says calmly, “decided my whole life.”
Anne Sebba’s latest book, Les Parisiennes, how the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in July 2016