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April 5, 2013

Heroine of French resistance

Author’s namesake was murdered at age 32 by the Gestapo.

There is a lovely tradition among Jews to name newborns in honor of their departed relatives. In keeping with this tradition, I was named after my father’s aunt, my grandmother’s youngest sister, Olga Bancic.

Like so many European Jews last century, Olga was murdered during the Holocaust. She was not a helpless victim, however, and she did not perish in a Nazi death camp. Instead, she was a heroine of the French Resistance who was executed by the Gestapo.

When I think of Olga, my memory flashes to a page in my grandfather’s photo album: Olga, young and beautiful, looks straight at the viewer. We had precious few photos of her, because her lifestyle was rather nomadic: she was often on the run, evading arrest or spreading communist propaganda. Olga died very young, at only 32 years of age, but she packed a lot of life into her brief years – tragedy and hardships, triumphs and disappointments, love and motherhood.

She started her working life at 12 years old as a laborer at a factory in Bessarabia. Soon after, she joined the communist movement, outlawed at the time in Romania, and she became an active party member. Several times, Olga was imprisoned by Romanian authorities, and beaten in jail, but she considered those imprisonments to be a badge of her communist membership.

With all her young, uncompromising heart, Olga believed in communist ideals. Her sister Liza, my grandmother, didn’t share Olga’s views, and no surprise. Liza was 12 years older and married to my grandpa, who was a manager of a large winemaking estate in Bessarabia. Unlike Olga, my grandparents were firm believers in capitalist values. Nevertheless, sometimes they hid Olga from the Romanian gendarmes, gave her a few days or weeks of respite from her troubles. Her visits never lasted for very long.

“Olga and your grandma never saw eye to eye,” my grandpa used to say when he was in a storytelling mood. “Olga was too young and stubborn, too steeped in her communist theories, and your grandma thought them stupid. They were both outspoken, so they argued a lot.”

According to my grandfather, more than anything, Olga wanted to live in Russia, among people who shared her convictions, away from the constant confrontations with the Romanian police, but the Soviet government denied her request for citizenship.

“They wanted her back in Romania, spreading communism there,” my grandpa said acerbically. He was never a proponent of the communist regime, especially after the Soviet Union annexed Bessarabia from Romania and established the Moldavian Socialist Republic in 1940. By then, Olga was already in France. Unending persecution by Romanian officials finally forced Olga to leave the country.

My grandparents didn’t have any news of her for a long time afterward; they didn’t even know of her death until a letter from her widowed husband arrived from Romania several years after the war. In those times, Soviet citizens were discouraged from maintaining a connection with a foreign country, even Romania, a part of the communist bloc, so the correspondence fizzled out after a few years.

By chance, recently I was reminded of Olga. I read an article about her on the Russian Israeli website I contacted the author, Julia Sister, and she granted me permission to translate parts of her article for this story.

Sister wrote that Olga left Romania for France in 1938. She was active in the illegal smuggling of weapons to Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, Olga married a Romanian writer, Alexander Jar, and they had a daughter, Dolores, named after Dolores Ibarruri.

When Germany occupied France, Olga left little Dolores with her friends, a French family, and became a member of one of the resistance cells. Her group, comprised mostly of communist immigrants, was involved in multiple partisan actions and acts of sabotage. The French-Armenian poet and communist militant Missak Manouchian led the group, while Olga, under the code name Pierette, was the group liaison.

In November 1943, Olga and 22 other members of the group were arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. In February 1944, the Nazis organized an open trial in Paris, where all the group members were sentenced to death. The men were shot by a firing squad the next day, but not Olga, the only woman in the group. French law prohibited the execution of women by firing squads, so she was transported to Stuttgart and beheaded there in May 1944.

During transportation, she wrote a letter to her daughter on a scrap of paper and pushed it out of the train window in the hope that someone would find it. The letter was found and delivered after the war.

She wrote: “My darling daughter, my little love. This is my last letter to you. My dearest girl, tomorrow, on May 10, I will die. My beloved, don’t cry, as your mother doesn’t cry. I’m dying with a clean conscience and I believe that your life and your future will be much happier and brighter than your mother’s. Be proud of me, my darling. I keep your sweet face always in my heart. Goodbye, my love. Your mother, Olga Bancic.”

The letter had a note attached: “May 9, 1944. Dear Madam, I’m asking you to be so kind and deliver this letter after the end of the war to my daughter Dolores. These are the last words of her mother, who has only several more hours left to live.”

Olga’s memory is still alive in France. Two movies were made about her and the Manouchian group, Affiche Rouge (Red Poster) in 1976 and L’armée du Crime (The Army of Crime) in 2009. A street was named after her in the small town of Vitrolles in the south of France. The Jewish cemetery d’Ivry in Paris boasts a memorial plaque with her name. There is also a commemorative stele with the names and photos of Olga and her comrades – Bessarabian fighters in the French Resistance – at the cemetery Bagneux near Paris. The vignette alongside their photos states: “Bessarabian heroes who died for freedom. Eternal Glory.”

Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].