There he completed his law studies, but was unable practice since he wasn’t a Frenchman.
But he was a perfect recruit for the international republican brigades of the imminent Spanish Civil War (he commanded an artillery battery named in honor of Tudor Vladimirescu).
War would drive Joseph Epstein hither and yon for his remaining years. After a spell in a French POW camp for Spanish Civil War refugees, Epstein signed up for the Foreign Legion, got captured and sent to a German POW camp, escaped to Switzerland, and returned to France.
There as “Colonel Gilles” of the communist resistance organization Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, he became the commissionaire of military operations for the capital and pioneered a shift in tactics towards guerrilla strikes using larger teams. Resistance fighter (and later, historian of the Resistance) Henri Nogueres explained:
Most of the comrades adopted the three comrades system. But in Paris there were policemen and German soldiers everywhere: Joseph Epstein preferred to engage fifteen to twenty fighters per operation … [because] if in Paris during daylight, three persons only had to attack a military unit, there will always be a danger to be arrested that could lead to a partial or complete failure. By contrast, with a larger group, it was possible to gain a superiority if adopting a discrete strategy. The operations in Paris conducted in 1943 were placed under Colonel Gilles’ authority.
Epstein was arrested in the autumn of 1943 at a meeting with Missak Manouchian, and withstood months of brutal torture without so much as revealing his real name or national origin.
While this is a standard accomplishment in a Resistance martyrology, the proof of it in this case was that the ensuing “Manouchian Group” show trial, and the resulting famed “Affiche Rouge” poster, took great pains to depict Resistance members as foreigners and criminals.
As a Polish Jew who regularly ordered assassinations, Epstein would have made a fine exhibit … if the Nazis had known who he was. Instead, he’s conspicuous only by his absence.
The ironic consequence, according to another Resistance veteran, was that “The man who, by far, was the greatest officer in all of France, the greatest tactician of the People’s War, is unknown to the general public. Of all military leaders, he was the most audacious, the most capable, the one who gave the French Resistance its originality compared to other European countries.”
* Not to be confused with the writer of the same name.