In May 1940, Cécile Rol-Tanguy’s father was imprisoned by the Vichy regime. Her partner, Henri, was off fighting, far away from Paris. Her daughter, Françoise, only a few days old, passed away just as the Nazis invaded the city. Shortly after, she found out that her father was sent to Auschwitz, where he passed away in 1941.
Instead of sinking into the depths of depression, Cécile decided to fight. Even before the war, she grew up as part of a proud Communist family. Her partner Henri even fought by the Communists in the Spanish civil way, and Cécile helped from Paris by translating and fundraising. But now that their own house was burning, they were fighting for their lives.
After the war, she was asked what motivated her. She shrugged and said, “What else could I do? What could stop me then?”
She began to write and translate fliers for the Communist Resistance and to distribute them throughout the city. She was also the liaison between the underground fighters, and made sure to maintain communication between the different fractions. She found replacements for anyone who was caught and arrested.
Henri returned from the front lines in 1943 and quickly became the leader of the Communist Resistance in Paris. Cécile became his deputy. On August 14th, she risked her life when she moved machine guns and other fighting equipment inside Paris, and hung up posters calling on the Paris residents to revolt.
On August 19th, 1944, Henri led a civil uprising against what was left of the Vichy regime. The revolt paved the way for the French forces to overthrow the Vichy rule and pave the way for the liberation of Paris.
At the end of August, Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces, threw a party to celebrate their victory. He invited key players in the fight to liberate France. Cécile was the only woman invited. Still, she wasn’t impressed by the celebration. She complained that it was a very small part, and “there wasn’t even a glass of wine to fend the evening with”. Indeed, a French tragedy.
After the war, de Gaulle changed drastically. He began to systematically erase the contributions of the Communist Resistance to the fight to liberate Paris and France. De Gaulle, who aspired to create a centralized government, didn’t approve of the contribution of other fractions to the liberation of France – especially that of the Communists.
Cécile wasn’t willing to take this lying down. She criticized the French authorities for the systematic erasure of Communists from the French history books. She interrupted the then-mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac (who later became the President of France) in one memorial service, and claimed that the erasure of the contributions of Communists was “a crime against French history”.
The public atmosphere began to change in the past few years. Cécile and the Communist Resistance received the honor that they deserved. Cécile became a sought-after speaker, and in 2017 she became the Grand Officer of the Legion d’Honneur – the highest award granted to a French citizen.
She died at the age of 101 on 75th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany to Allied forces.
For further reading:
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler and A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France.