1944: Joseph Epstein, Polish Communist French Resistance hero

Add comment April 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Joseph Epstein* was shot with 18 others at Mont-Valerien outside Paris for their parts in the World War II French Resistance.

Joseph — “Jurek”, really — was born in Poland, but his communist politics got him harried out of Poland and Czechoslovakia and onward to France in the early 1930s.

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 notorious “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.

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1941: Forty-eight French hostages

1 comment October 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On “a beautiful autumn day” this date in 1941, four dozen French leftists were executed by that country’s occupiers as punishment for the murder of a German officer.

On October 20, 1941 — sixteen months into the German occupation — a pair of Communist commandos assassinated the Feldkommandant of Nantes, Lt. Col. Karl Hotz (French link).

News of this crime went straight to Adolf Hitler himself, who personally ordered a fearful reprisal.

The list of the executed hostages as published Oct. 23 in L’oeuvre

Accordingly, the collaborationist Petain government was induced to select 50 persons from among the ranks of detained German political prisoners. Pierre Pucheu, who would later be executed himself,* intentionally selected Communist types in an effort to confine the retaliation to fellow-travelers.

On this date, those 50 — well, 48, but who’s counting?; the numbering can get dodgy in these mass-execution scenarios — were put to death at three different locations: five at Fort Mont-Valerien; sixteen at Nantes; and most notoriously, 27 internees of Choisel (French link) at Chateaubriant.**

In three different batches of nine, the 27 reds and trade unionists were fusilladed into the ranks of Gallic martyrdom. They remain among the most emblematic French martyrs of the occupation; there’s a cours des 50-Otages named for them in Nantes, and various streets that bear individual victims’ names — such as Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud in Paris. (Timbaud was a Communist steelworker.)


Monument to the martyrs of Chateaubriant. Image (c) Renaud Camus and used with permission.

The youngest, 17-year-old Guy Moquet (you can find his name on the Paris Metro) was the son of an exiled Communist parliamentarian (French link).

He made headlines in 2009 when current French President Nicolas Sarkozy had added to the educational curriculum the reading of Moquet’s brave-but-sad last letter to his family: the decision drew some rather mean-tempered fire because of Moquet’s political persuasion. In the end, the text bore a fairly universal reading that could play inoffensively to posterity — like its postscript injunction,

“You who remain, be worthy of the 27 of us who are going to die!”

There’s a thorough roundup of the Oct. 22 executions (including poetic tribute) here.

* Vindicating Winston Churchill’s prophecy to the Times upon receiving news that “These cold-blooded executions of inocent people will only recoil upon the savages who order and execute them.” (Oct. 25, 1941, as cited in the The Churchill War Papers, vol. 3)

** Fifty more were supposed to be executed if the assassins weren’t promptly turned in, but that second batch never took place. (There was, however, a different batch of 50 executed on October 24 in retaliation for a different political assassination. Maybe they just all ran together.)

Part of the Themed Set: Illegitimate Power.

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