|Members of the French Résistance|
When we think of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation, we probably conjure up an image of clandestine activity – men in black sneaking out in the darkness of night to lay explosives or ambush some “Boche” soldiers. Indeed this did happen; however, I would like to give you another image to consider...one of a woman pushing a stroller or walking hand in hand with children down a Parisian quay or riding her bicycle through a quaint rural village. If that does not sound like resistance to you, read on…
Women in Résistance Ignored?
In her article, “Women in the French-Jewish Underground,” Renée Poznanski points out that most scholarship about the Résistance has focused on the male-dominated military and political pieces of the movement, thereby overlooking the roles of women. Because women’s roles within the French-Jewish Résistance typically involved traditionally female contributions such as social services, education, and humanitarian aid, they are often given second billing, if any billing at all. Poznanski explains, “Because the social infrastructure of the Resistance is not discussed in most of the documents and archives that historians use in their work, this particular ‘history from below’ relies more heavily than most on oral sources.”
Another consideration is that because the Communists played a large role in the various resistance groups, they have heavily influenced France’s collective memory of resistance. Therefore, one must take into consideration the fact that the success of their male-dominated, post-war political platform shaped what and how resistance was recorded. In most instances, this was achieved by glorifying their own contributions over those of foreigners, Jews, and women. When this is combined with the fact that Jewish women who participated in the resistance shied away from the postwar political and social limelight, it is no wonder that women’s stories have remained buried until recent years. One such story is that of Paulette Oppert Fink.
|Paulette Oppert Fink ca. 1931 Photo Source: jwa.org|
Paulette Oppert Fink (née Weill) was born to loving, upper-class Jewish parents on 22 October 1911 in the Alsace region of France. She was educated at the prestigious Sorbonne and was a proud fourteenth generation Frenchwoman who felt a deep sense of patriotism for her country. In January 1934, she married Yves Oppert. Yves was also a French-born Jew and the son of a rabbi. Together, they had two daughters, Nadine and Francelyn.
Yves managed a chain of “five and dime” stores, but when World War II broke out in 1939, he became a lieutenant in the French army. Paulette and their two daughters remained in Paris while Yves fought the Germans. France quickly fell and in the summer of 1940, Yves was taken as a prisoner of war but successfully escaped the POW camp on his fourth attempt and found his way back to Paulette in December 1940. As an assimilated Jew, she consciously chose to stay in France during the period of Nazi occupation (1940-1944) and joined the French Jewish resistance, the Eclaireurs (Scouts) des isréalites de France (EIF). As a patriot and Jew, she explained, “If we leave when the boat is sinking, then who will keep it afloat?”
Her role as daughter, mother, and wife impacted many choices she made throughout the dark years of occupation, including the choice not to flee to safety with her parents, her role within the Resistance, her difficult decision to place her own children in hiding, and her courage to persevere when faced with her husband’s brutal murder.
|Paulette & Yves Oppert with their daughters Nadine & Francelyne, at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, 1943. Photo Source: jwa.org|
Yves and Paulette immediately decided to open one five and dime store during the occupation. Paulette recalled that in the attic there were thousands of pounds of dried beans and grains. Yves advertised a date and time when people would be given rations at his store. Food was in short supply, so people clamored to get their hands on these precious rations. This was against the law and by the end of the day, Yves was arrested and sent to prison. This moment’s significance is twofold. First, it was Paulette and Yves’ first act of open resistance. Second, it established a trend that emphasized gender because although Paulette participated in the grain distribution, Yves was the one punished. This supports the concept that many resistance groups believed women had a “natural disguise.” In other words, their femaleness ensured that neither Nazis nor collaborators would suspect them of sabotage, and the Resistance used this to their benefit.
In France, there were several groups and dozens more subgroups of resistance. Groups such as the French Forces of the Interior (FFI, Free French, or Gaullists), the Front National (FN), and particularly the Communist cells like the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP or “free shooters” and partisans) had more military training than others. Paulette and Yves chose to join yet another group, the Eclaireurs des isréalites de France (EIF), or the Jewish French Résistance. All groups, especially communists, utilized women in their resistance efforts.
While she claimed to have assisted Yves in sabotage missions a few times throughout her testimony, Paulette never discussed with any specificity what that meant. This would be consistent with the fact that often times women’s participation involved daily activities associated with being a woman, so they were “more difficult to pinpoint” than men’s military or political activities. For example, the Resistance relied on women to transport across town explosives nested in their prams for sabotage missions, because no one would ever suspect that beneath the bundles of precious baby and soft blankets lay explosives.
|Members of La Sixieme - EIF - provided hiding places and documentation for Jewish children. Photo Source: USHMM|
Paulette did discuss at length that her main contribution to the EIF was to hide thousands of Jewish children in safe homes until the war’s end. This was typical of most women’s roles within the various resistance movements, particularly that of the EIF whose women regularly risked their lives to transport and hide children with safe families, typically farmers, all over France. Eventually, she had to place her own children in hiding. “That was the worst,” she recalled, “having your own family and trying to hide it.” Her daughters found refuge in what is perhaps the best-known example of humanitarian resistance during the years of occupation in France. This happened in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon under the direction of Huguenot pastor André Trocmé and his wife, Magda. Le Chambon, which had a population of only 5,000, managed to successfully hide 5,000 people, approximately 3,500 of which were Jews.
|André and Magda Trocmé. Photo Source: Yad Vashem|
In June 1944, she met her husband clandestinely in Lyon on his 35th birthday. She did not realize she had been followed. The next day, shortly after Paulette’s departure, Yves Oppert was arrested by the French militia. Paulette’s beloved Yves was tortured and died only a few weeks before liberation. Paulette proudly noted that he died as a Resistance fighter and not as a Jew. After the war, his body was returned to Paris for a proper state burial where her ten-year-old daughter asked, “Mommy, was it really more important that Daddy died for France than lived for his children?” Later in the testimony, the interviewer asked Paulette how she responded to this. Paulette said, “I don’t think there was any answer…” she paused and said, “I must have said we have to live without Daddy but remember him and his courage…”
|Yves Oppert. Photo Source: USHMM|
At 32 years old, Paulette was a widowed mother of two girls under the age of ten. While grieving her husband and raising her daughters in a now liberated France, she continued to help the hidden children find their way back to their parents. She joined the Bricha and helped thousands escape, albeit illegally at first, to Palestine.
Like many women in the Resistance, Paulette Oppert Fink did not consider her deeds as heroic and downplayed her role in the EIF. Instead, she credited the men who did the physical fighting. “This was not being heroes…the men who really fought against (the Nazis) and really made the war machine weaker were heroes….We were scattering human beings around trying to protect them, not knowing what the result would be…but that was not heroism. It wasn’t. It wasn’t. I still had a life with my children…”
Although she did not view herself as a hero, she was just that to many - myself included. The brutality of the war and subsequent occupation gave many women of France the opportunity to break down gender barriers by using their femaleness to the advantage of the resistance movement. Paulette Oppert Fink was a great example of this new kind of woman. Furthermore, her testimony reaffirms the ongoing need to delve more deeply into oral testimonies in order to obtain a more accurate and honest view of life in the French Resistance. As Poznanski stated, “By reassuming their place in the history of the Resistance, Jewish women reintegrate civilian society into the heart of history and superimpose a pluralist vision of French society.”
Paulette Oppert Fink went on to live a happy, productive life. She died 2 April 2005 at the age of 93.
Renée Poznanski. “Women in the French-Jewish Underground."
Sandra Bradley. USHMM Video Archives. “Oral History Interview with Paulette Fink.”
Ronnie Caplane. JWeekly.com. “Rescuer from French Resistance recalls hidden children, terror” (22 May 1998).
University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, “Paulette Weill (Oppert) Fink”
USHMM, “Le Chambon-sur-Lignon” Holocaust Encyclopedia
Margaret F. Dickinson, “Paulette Fink member of French Resistance, dies at 93” The American Jewish World, Obituary