In late April 2011, I sat in a room in the thousand-year-old abbey in Pontlevoy, France, with a group of faculty, students, and visitors. That day, the University of Southern Mississippi’s Abbey Program, then directed by my friend and former professor, Dr. Doug Mackaman, hosted a very special event. We heard the stories of Maurice Cling and Geneviève Guilbaud. For those of us in the audience, this was a proverbial “once-in-a-lifetime” moment.
The only one of his immediate family to survive Auschwitz-Birkenau, Cling spoke unforgettably of his time there as a laborer. When he narrated the horrendous death march which followed the extermination camp’s evacuation, a collective shudder gripped the crowd. It was so vivid that I could barely hold back the tears. Cling finished his talk describing the imperative of witnessing and how Nazism must be regarded as an assault on civilization itself. He also implored us to remember the contributions made by the Resistance to the anti-fascist struggle.
Seated next to him, Guilbaud had appeared fully absorbed in Cling’s narrative, a story, we later learned, she knew quite well. In his introduction of the two speakers, Doug had noted with great emotion that she had lost her husband not too long before. When the floor was hers, Elizabeth Anglin, one of the Abbey Program’s superb French instructors, translated her remarks. Gradually, Guilbaud began to recall her time as a child messenger in the Resistance. That tasking children with such responsibilities was not unusual for underground groups made clear to listeners the bizarre and unrelenting “normal” of that war. Very quickly, though, she hesitated and stopped speaking. She said she felt overwhelmed and asked for our understanding. The expression on her face evinced a torrent of memories resurfacing.
As the event then shifted to questions from the audience, I was terribly disappointed to not hear about Guilbaud’s activities in the Resistance. Quickly, I realized, though, just how selfish a sentiment that was. Her experience of being overpowered by remembrance, so palpable to everyone in attendance that day, communicated so much.
After joining The National WWII Museum in 2017, I began to research and write about the Resistance, not only in France but across Europe. Recently I thought again about Guilbaud and Cling. I came across the sad news that Cling died in the fall of 2020, at the age of 91. And I started to piece together something about Geneviève Guilbaud’s life.
Indeed, Guilbaud, as I discovered, was still very much a messenger. She was only 10 years old when World War II ended. For her, the cessation of fighting and VE-Day, May 8, 1945, were caught up with care work. Several times a week she accompanied her mother to the Hotel Lutetia in the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris. Built in 1910, the luxury hotel on the Left Bank had long attracted affluent tourists and famous artists enjoying their time in the City of Light. Among those who frequented were André Malraux, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. After France’s defeat in June 1940, German occupation authorities stayed at the hotel. Now, on orders from General Charles de Gaulle (who had spent his honeymoon there), it became an essential site for resettling French Displaced Persons (DPs) and reuniting families separated during the war. Up to 2,000 DPs arrived at Hotel Lutetia each day for several months in 1945.
Guilbaud recalled her own first impressions of the DPs. “I was afraid of the deportees,” she admitted. “I was a 10 year old, and they were starving, lost, grayish. They seemed out of time.” Among those returning were individuals who had been tortured by the Gestapo and hurled to the bottom of the Nazi terror system, survivors of Dora-Mittelbau, Buchenwald, or Auschwitz-Birkenau. Despite the terrors they had endured, more than a few of Paris’s inhabitants felt just as the young Guilbaud did. “No one knew what they had been through,” she said, “and a lot of Parisians wondered why they were staying there.” Many of these same Parisians, who did not have the excuse of youth, later became deeply ashamed of their initial perceptions. Monuments to the “deportees” now dot the villages, towns, and cities of France.
Geneviève’s life became completely intertwined with these survivors. Maurice Cling, bereft of his family, was one of those who journeyed to Hotel Lutetia in 1945. So was 25-year-old Jacques Guilbaud (1920-2006). A member of the Resistance, Jacques Guilbaud was arrested by the Germans in November 1942. On May 12, 1944, the Gestapo transported Jacques and 2,000 others connected to resistance activity to Buchenwald. There he joined the secret organization operating in the camp. It is no small thing that Jacques survived.
In 1944-45, overcrowding and disease, combined with the usual SS depravity and brutality, made conditions in the camp truly catastrophic. Some 56,000 human beings perished in Buchenwald before the war’s end. Jacques took part in the liberation of the camp in mid-April 1945, when the American 6th Armored Division arrived on April 11, 1945.
After the war, Jacques joined the Association Française Buchenwald Dora et kommandos, an organization established by deportees for mutual aid and support. That organization (which has been an invaluable source of information for this article) also espoused a resolute politics of memory. Its members worked to ensure that deportees were not forgotten as France rebuilt and recovered from World War II. In 1950, Jacques met Geneviève, who had had several years of experience with Nazism’s victims by this point. A relationship blossomed between them. They married in 1952 and had two children, Danielle and Serge.
Both Geneviève and Jacques became very active members in the Association and entered its National Committee. For decades, they spoke to audiences about the Second World War, the Occupation and Resistance, and survival. The passing of Jacques in 2006 was the loss of another irreplaceable witness. Geneviève has continued the labor of remembrance.
With this knowledge of her life and work, I believe I understand better what Guilbaud went through that day in Pontlevoy. As Doug Mackaman generously related to me when I asked him for any recollections of her, Guilbaud “has not easily accepted any sense of herself as having been heroic. Rather, she has consistently asked that the mantle of heroism be seen only in the life stories of those who perished in the camps or survived their torture in them.” In short, she has lived a life of remembrance, an existence always confronting the forgetting and trivialization of the horrors of Nazism. We are fortunate she is still with us and should honor what she has stood for.