A Life on the Front Line

Emmanuelle Anizon
David Broder

One day in 1944, Madeleine Riffaud saw a German officer walking through Nazi-occupied Paris and shot him dead in broad daylight. At 93, she is one of the last survivors of the French Resistance.

Madeleine Riffaud with Hô Chi Minh. Madeleine Riffaud Collection

Madeleine Riffaud was twenty years old when she was arrested for assassinating a German officer.

Back then, in 1944, she led a unit of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP), a Resistance formation created by the French Communist Party. The aim was to liberate Paris from the Nazis; the order was short and sharp: “everyone get a German.” As she recalls, “I was the only girl in the group. It was easier for me to approach a soldier without arousing suspicion.”

That sunny Sunday, with a culotte skirt and with her hair flickering over her shoulders, Madeleine pedaled in search of her target. At the Solférino bridge she picked out an officer, looking out over the Seine. “I waited for him to turn around — I did not shoot anyone in the back. He was killed instantly.”

As passers-by looked on astonished, she just got back on her bike. A member of the Nazi-collaborationist milice chased her down, and ultimately handed her over to the Gestapo.

Upon the liberation of France, Madeleine Riffaud was decorated with the garlanded Croix de Guerre and asked to attend countless commemorations and ceremonies in her honor. Most of the time, she turned them down: “I refuse to be a symbol — write that! I was just a young girl caught up in history.”

She traces her trajectory back to one day in 1941. Then sixteen, she was headed back to her parents’ house in Amiens. German soldiers blocked her path.

“I was cute with my little skirt. They wanted to play around with me — I was afraid.” An officer sent her packing with a kick up the backside. “The humiliation! I said to myself, we can’t let them stay.”

The same year she set off for Paris to train as a midwife — only to join an FTP Resistance group.

She became an agent linking together different partisans, transporting weaponry, and carrying messages. She took the pseudonym Rainer because she loved the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, and wrote some herself. “A lot of the FTP were killed — there was a rapid turnover.” She was noted for her courage and soon promoted to a command post.

A plaque in one Paris street today recalls the events of August 23, 1944, when she, together with what she calls a handful of “mates,” managed to stop a train and arrest eighty Germans. The plaque does not recount what happened next, with her descent into hell. Once Paris was liberated, the combatant Riffaud wanted, just like her male comrades, to get into the final fight through eastern France. She was rejected.

“I was a minor, I didn’t have my parents’ consent … and I was a girl!” she recalls. “With the return to legality I was overwhelmed by misery. I found myself very alone. I had no work and had tuberculosis. Every morning I asked why I was still alive. I even thought about suicide.”

How could she live in peace, when she lived with the war still inside her? How could she justify her existence? Madeleine is a survivor. She has survived her mates from the FTP, like the young violinist whose photo still presides over her writing-desk. She survived the Gestapo; survived a month and a half in the “House of Death” on the Rue des Saussaies in Paris’s 8th arrondissement. “They tried to make me go crazy,” she recalls.

After torturing Riffaud, in a vain attempt to make her squeal on her contacts, the Gestapo tortured others in front of her. Such was the case of the young woman whose arms and legs the Gestapo methodically broke with an iron bar. Or the boy of “fifteen or sixteen, his face bloodied” who “shook his head to insist ‘No,’ I must not speak.”

Riffaud says can still hear the officer whispering in her ear: “Don’t you like children?” “The words are what stays most clearly in the memory.” But Madeleine survived. She was meant to be executed on August 5, 1944, together with two other women.

On the eve of the planned execution, in her cell in the Fresnes jail, she wrote a poem:

… Seven steps long/In my cell/And four small ones/In width/She has matured — more light — /The window of my dungeon/And the door, it is locked. … Seven steps long/And then a wall/And the lock/They could stretch my hands/I never gave up your names/They’re meant to shoot me. Tomorrow/You’re very afraid, you say?/Yes or no? … Blindfolded eyes/The blue handkerchief/The clenched fist raised/The great farewell.

Head Over Heels

Her death was officially reported on the radio. But in fact, the torturers had changed their minds at the last minute.

On August 15, she was on the last train to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She escaped, thanks to the help of women who wanted to “save the young one.” “They never came back from the camps. I spent a long time looking for them. That haunted me.” But the Nazis found her at the station, and it was back to prison. Three days later came Liberation.

A meeting soon after changed her life. Madeleine took part in the partisans’ parade of November 11, 1944 and was introduced to the writer Paul Eluard as “the young poet who killed a German officer.” He looked at her: “That won’t do. Show me your eyes.” She began to cry.

He set a meeting for the next day. She went to show him her poems. “You know how to write — you’re going to make it your craft.” He published a collection of her texts, “The Clenched Fist,” and presented her to Pablo Picasso (who drew her portrait) and Louis Aragon, at that time the editor of Ce Soir daily newspaper.

“Eluard was always there for me,” she recalls. “When he lost his wife and things were going very badly for him, he would often ask me to go and buy him a rose. Just one. Because just one was enough.” Seventy years later, Madeleine still asks anyone visiting her to bring a single rose.

She made a go of “normal life,” although only briefly. She married the communist intellectual Pierre Daix in 1945, after meeting him at the sanatorium. Daix had escaped the camps: “He told me about Mauthausen and I told him about the Rue des Saussaies. We mixed our hells together. That does not lead to the erotic.”

A girl was born. “I was happy, but I passed on my tuberculosis. The hospital made me think I wasn’t able to cope.” In her head, her torturers’ line continued to ring out: “Madam, you don’t like children.” The attempt at a normal life fell apart, the couple divorced, and Madeleine ran away from being a mother: “You are in a paradoxical condition,” a psychiatrist explained. “You need to be in extreme situations.”

So she became a war correspondent.

In Algeria, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the reporter with her long brown plaits cheated death. With every conflict she immersed herself in places where most journalists didn’t, where she felt alive and most useful, as close as possible to soldiers and populations. Bodies fell dead all around her.

She was one of the first French journalists to report on her country’s use of torture, in the pages of La Vie ouvrière in 1952. “The Algerians were being tortured on the Rue des Saussaies, in the very place that I had been! For me it was unbearable to find that my own country was doing that.” She made clandestine visits to Algeria and signed her reports with her old Resistance pseudonym, “Rainer.”

But the far-right Organisation Armée Secrète would ultimately unmask her. In Oran, Algeria in July 1962, a big truck smashed directly into her while in her car. She sustained multiple fractures and a crushed hand and went into a coma. Rainer was hidden in a hospital for three days, before ultimately being snuck out. She laughs about it now.

In the photos in Madeleine’s house, we see one man cropping up repeatedly. Nguyen Dinh Thi, in Berlin in 1951. At an international meeting of youth for peace this young — “and handsome!” — Vietnamese man came to see the French delegation and asked, “Do you know if Madeleine Riffaud wrote any other poems before being shot, apart from the ones published by Eluard?” Again, she laughs about it: “He thought me dead, even though I was there in Berlin!”

The head-over-heels romance would last for fifty years. He lived in Vietnam, she in France. It made things simpler. She went to see him when she was covering wars. And she even moved in with him, when he was the Vietnamese equivalent of the Minister of Culture. The mixed, glamorous, media-friendly couple caused a stir. Riffaud recalls that Ho Chi Minh very much liked her but was forced to ask her to leave the country.

Their tale continued at a distance. The poems that Nguyen Dinh Thi dedicated to her throughout his life made her an icon in Vietnam. The voice of this grand old lady, so imperious when she recounts the war, becomes more hesitant when she mentions him: “He was the love of my life. He died in 2003.” She had survived yet another one.

The Roll of Honor

Madeleine long kept her silence. “In 1994, everyone was getting excited about the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation of Paris. [Raymond] Aubrac told me ‘You have no right to keep quiet. In the name of the comrades who were shot, you have to say what happened!’ Well for me, it was a bit of a nuisance to have to bring all that up. In the end I spent ten years giving talks! That gave me a meaning in life. I realized I had a duty, of remembrance.”

Today, the storyteller opens her door to all those who ask — high-schoolers, researchers, documentary makers. And she feels an even stronger sense of duty given her worries over the present era: “The people who waged the Resistance, like me, acutely feel an environment similar to the prewar one. This rising antisemitism is very worrying. And this extremism.”

Madeleine lives not far from the Bataclan, where the 2015 Paris massacres took place. She heard the sound of machine-gun fire, recognizing it right away. In the hours that followed she received phone calls from young people asking her, “How do we resist?” She replied: “We came up with it for ourselves in 1940, that’s what you have to do today.” “We can have our commemorations, but good god, where is the spirit of resistance? Jews forget that they were resistance fighters. Half of [General Charles] de Gaulle’s general staff were Jews, my mates Vercors and Aubrac were Jews. They were not victims!”

For Madeleine, resistance today is also “being old and ill in a world that doesn’t give a damn about you.” With age, the traumas of back then return. The body has a memory, and it exacts its revenge.

The crushed hand no longer wants to hold anything. The ruined cornea has left her blind. The tortured inner eye gives her dizziness, the arms give way and the bones break. She acknowledges as much, without any pathos. Rather, with humor: “Most important of all, never make me out to be a victim!”

To resist is to continue to live at her own place, to sleep temporarily on the sofa “which is my own Waterloo, the bed of my defeat,” for she is no longer able to climb the stairs to her real bed on the upper floor. To resist is to walk without a white stick and have people read her books. To resist is to live on her little pension, at €1,200 a month: “I sold everything, I live in beastly conditions. And these tossers from the condo want €30,000 to redo the facade!”

To resist is to call her “mates” every afternoon, up until very late in the evening. To smoke her cigarillo, drink a gin, to put her rose in a vase. And always to have fresh projects: a cartoon strip, a documentary. “I would like to live for another year, to finish things.”