In May 1943, a young pregnant Frenchwoman called Lucie Aubrac engineered the escape of her husband Raymond from the clutches of Klaus Barbie, the feared Gestapo chief later known as the ‘Butcher of Lyon’. In July, she defied Barbie again, ambushing the prison vans in which members of the French Resistance were being driven to an almost certain death. Spirited out of France by the RAF at the end of 1943, nine months pregnant, she arrived in London a heroine.
After the war, Lucie and Raymond Aubrac became a celebrity couple: writing and lecturing on their wartime experiences, they both incarnated and kept alive for a younger generation the spirit of la vraie France – the France which had resisted, and eventually expelled, the Nazi occupier.
In 1983, when both Aubracs had retired, Klaus Barbie was extradited from Bolivia and put on trial in Lyon for crimes against humanity. In a 63-page ‘testament’ submitted to the judge, Barbie claimed that the Aubracs had been ‘turned’ in 1943, become Gestapo informers and betrayed their comrades. The French press and the couple themselves furiously denounced this ‘slander’, but as worrying inconsistencies emerged in the tales the Aubracs had been telling ever since 1945, doubts emerged and have never quite gone away.
Who was Lucie Aubrac? What did she really do in 1943? And was she really the spirit of la vraie France, or a woman who could not resist casting herself as a heroine, whatever the cost to the truth?
Siân Rees was born and brought up in Cornwall, spending much of her childhood in boatyards and at sea. She read Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford and then spent a decade travelling and living abroad. Her first book, The Floating Brothel: the extraordinary true story of the Lady Julian and its cargo of female convicts bound for Botany Bay was written after living in Melbourne, Australia, and published in 2001. It was followed by The Shadows of Elisa Lynch: how a nineteenth-century Irish courtesan became the most powerful woman in Paraguay (2003) after a stint in South America,...
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