Lise London: Political activist and veteran of the Spanish Civil War and French Resistance

 

When the journalist Jesús Rodríguez, writing for El País, did one of Lise London's last interviews, in December, he asked whether her lifelong political struggle – her fight for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, her participation in the French Resistance during the Second World War, her hardship and husband's Stalinist show trial in Czechoslovakia, followed by years of campaigning – had been worth it. To which, even at 91, her answer was resounding: "Yes – we were fighting for the freedom of Europe."

That answer is perhaps more surprising than one might think because the personal price exacted on London – born Elisabeth Ricol in France in 1916 to Spanish parents – was painfully high. In wartime France, she was arrested, tortured and sent to a concentration camp, and in 1930s Spain and 1950s Eastern Europe too, she and her husband found their lives almost constantly in danger. Indeed, according to the Spanish International Brigades Association, London was the last surviving female member of 35,000 or so Brigadistas who came from all over the world to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Her childhood had been tough: her parents, agricultural workers from Aragon in Spain, had moved to eastern France looking for employment in the mines there. London's father was a long-standing Communist Party member. By the time Lise joined at 15, she had already started her first job, selling ice creams, before working in a factory and becoming the secretary of the Lyon branch of the Communist party.

Her natural passion for political struggle did not go unnoticed and she was taken by the Party to Moscow in 1934, where she worked in the Comintern's offices. There she met her husband, Artur, a Czech Communist whose laidback character contrasted radically with London's fiery personality – and who fell for Lise at first sight. "I saw a young man, tall and good-looking, standing in the middle of the room, as if he were petrified," Lise recalled. "He started to stare at me so hard, he had no idea that the tea he was holding was dribbling all the way down his wrist."

When war broke out in Spain in July 1936, she and her husband were based in Paris, and they helped co-ordinate the first International Brigade volunteers as they headed through France. She then trekked across the Pyrenees in October 1936 in the last convoy of Brigades before the French police closed the frontier as part of their infamous "non-intervention" policy, and she took part in the defence of Madrid. She then remained active in the Brigades in Spain until July 1938, when she gave birth to their first child, Françoise, back in Paris.

Following the Republic's defeat, Artur joined Lise in Paris, where they formed part of the French Resistance during the Second World War. Lise became an officer in charge of a snipers unit, but was arrested in 1942 for leading a protest against the Nazi occupiers, mostly by women, in the Rue Daguerre markets. She was condemned to death by the Vichy state for taking part (the only person to receive this sentence), and the fact that she was heavily pregnant with her second child, Michel, was all that saved London from execution.

After giving birth in prison, and having her child taken away from her, London was handed over to the Gestapo in April 1943, and spent the rest of the war in Ravensbruck concentration camp. She quickly –unsurprisingly, given her past – became involved in resistance to the Gestapo, before taking part in the terrible forced "death marches" of prisoners as the Allies closed in.

Just as it seemed as if the worst was behind the Londons, after the liberation of Europe by the Allies in 1945, Artur received instructions from the Czech Communist Party to return to his homeland for a government post. Following a spell as deputy minister of foreign affairs, in 1951 he was accused of spying and treason at the notorious Slansky show trial.

Lise herself had to hold a family together in the most appalling circumstances. Thrown out of the party and forced to work in back-breaking factory jobs, she had no idea from one day to the next whether her husband – held in solitary confinement for 27 months, tortured, frequently deprived of food and subject to brainwashing techniques – would be summarily executed.

London was finally freed and "rehabilitated" in 1956, following Stalin's death, and the couple left for France, where Artur wrote The Trial, based on notes Lise had smuggled out of jail, about his terrible experiences. In 1970 it was made into a film by Costa-Gavras, starring Simone Signoret as Lise and Yves Montand – after losing 15 kilos –as the half-starved Artur.

Far from opting out of politics, Lise London remained loyal to the French Communist Party and continued to work hard for left-leaning, progressive causes. She wrote her memoirs during this time, La Mégère de la Rue Daguerre ("The Shrew of the Rue Daguerre", 1995) and Le Printemps des Camarades ("The Comrades' Spring", 1996) and after Artur died in 1986 she regularly appeared at congresses and wrote articles seeking to inspire the next generation of left-wing activists.

According to the French newspaper L'Humanité she would repeatedly tell her youngest listeners to "keep your eyes open, don't stick to dogma, fight injustice and don't let [your] communist ideals be twisted. Be yourself". It was a philosophy she followed for the best part of a century.

Elisabeth Ricol, resistance fighter: born Montceau-les-Mines, France 1916; married 1933 Auguste Delaune (marriage dissolved; died 1943), secondly Artur London (died 1986; two sons, one daughter); died Paris 31 March 2012.

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