Madeleine Aylmer-Roubenne: Resistance fighter who gave birth in a Nazi death camp


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The Independent Online

Madeleine Aylmer was a 20-year-old Resistance fighter, newly pregnant by her fellow-maquis husband, when she was captured in 1944 and sent by the Gestapo to the Ravensbruck concentration camp for women, north of Berlin.

There, despite brutality and a typhus epidemic, she became one of the few women to give birth to a child which did not starve to death or be murdered by the camp's mostly female SS guards.

Liberated during the advance of the Red Army in April 1945, mother and child survived; daughter Sylvie is now 67. She never saw her father, Jean Aylmer, who died in another concentration camp, Dora-Nordhausen, part of the Buchenwald complex, during the last days of the war.

In her 1997 book J'ai Donné la Vie dans un Camp de la Mort [I Gave Birth in a Camp of Death], Madeleine Aylmer (she added the name Roubenne after her post-war marriage) put her survival down to an "expecting-to-die" solidarity among women POWs, notably her French compatriots. These included Geneviève de Gaulle (later de Gaulle-Anthonioz), niece of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle-Anthonioz, who died in 2002, wrote the preface to Aylmer-Roubenne's book and wrote her own memoir of the camp: La Traversée de la Nuit, published in English as God Remained Outside – An Echo of Ravensbruck. Aylmer recalled that Geneviève de Gaulle had often been kept in solitary confinement because of her surname. The two women both wrote of how, from Jewish inmates, "we learned the Jewish soul trick – that doing unseen kindnesses warms the heart."

An only child, Madeleine Llusca-Guignard was born in 1924 on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. She went to a religious school before working in a library and helping her family run a small shop selling porcelain tea and dinner sets, much in demand as the hardships of the Great War eased. But another war was in full swing, and much of her country under Nazi occupation, by the time she joined the Civil and Military Organisation (OCM), a major network, within the National Council of the Resistance. She became a full-time "P1 Agent" with the rank of second-lieutenant, carrying out numerous dangerous missions before marrying résistant Jean Aylmer in April 1944. Their wedding vows were based as much on freeing their country as on pledging their own union.

While they were underground, the danger came not only from the Gestapo. They were in hiding close to the Versailles-Chantiers railway station west of Paris on 24 June 1944 when RAF Bomber Command attacked the area around the station, a marshalling yard for German troops and tanks headed for Normandy. The RAF held back details of the raid but local people reported several hundred casualties – mostly French civilians – a propaganda windfall for the Nazis and the Vichy régime.

On 3 August 1944, after being denounced by French neighbours, Madeleine and Jean were detained by the Milice, the paramilitary anti-Resistance group set up by the Vichy regime, who passed them on to the Gestapo. Jean was shipped to the Dora-Nordhausen camp in Saxony, where he was forced to work in tunnels to hide V-1 and V-2 rockets which would be launched against London and Antwerp. How he died, apparently just a few days before liberation by the Allies, was not clear.

Madeleine was sent first to the Fresnes penitentiary south of Paris, where she faced the standard Gestapo interrogation. The records show that she revealed nothing about her husband or her Resistance network. As a result, she was sent to the Natzweiler-Struthof camp in Alsace, the only Nazi concentration camp in present-day French territory. Still refusing to talk, she was transferred by train to the infamous Ravensbruck, where she found herself alongside women from other Nazi-occupied territory, notably Poland, and including many Jews. Given the number 61-162, she remained silent despite physical abuse and provocation from her female SS guards, known by the dreaded title Aufseherin [Overseer].

"My decision was taken," she later wrote. "I will not work in the factory [she later learned the "factory" was a stepping stone to the newly-built gas chambers]. I will not collaborate. Sabotaging the work was constantly on our minds. We became experimental saboteuses. For the number count, they would often force us to stand all night. But we made ourselves into a flock, like sheep. Those on the outside protected those on the inside. This simple solidarity saved many from death. When an inmate found a human thumb in her broth, she continued to eat. Many times I lay down and waited for death. My camarades gave me their tinned sardines, knowing I was pregnant. At Christmas, 1944, hundreds of my camarades died. I was part of the burial brigade. As we carried the corpses, we sang American 'swing' tunes we'd heard while we were still free."

On 21 March 1945, she gave birth to a girl, Sylvie. Had she been born a few months, even weeks earlier, the camp guards might well have killed her. But the Red Army was closing in and the guards knew the game was up (many were later convicted by war crimes' tribunals).

As the Soviets approached Ravensbruck, most of the SS guards fled after opening the gates and Madeleine carried her baby until they ran into the first allied troops, who marked them in chalk with a single white cross for immediate evacuation by the Swedish Red Cross. Via Sweden, mother and child found themselves back in Paris. It would be several months before Madeleine learned that Jean had not survived.

In 1948, she married a businessman, Roger Roubenne, worked in the French Ministry of National Education and had three more children. She died in the war veterans' home, L'Institution Nationale des Invalides, in Paris, where she had spent the last nine years. She received the highest honours of a Resistance fighter, including Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, the Croix de Guerre avec palme and the Médaille de la Résistance.

Madeleine Llusca-Guignard, Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor: born Paris 16 February 1924; married 1944 Jean Aylmer (died 1945; one daughter), 1948 Roger Roubenne (one son, two daughters); died Paris 19 June 2012.