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French Controversy Flares Over Role of Communist Party in Resistance

October 25, 1985|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — In February, 1944, the Nazi occupation force, preparing to execute 23 members of the French Resistance, slapped copies of a poster on buildings throughout Paris that pictured and identified 10 of the condemned men.

Not one had a French name: Manouchian, Grzywacz, Elek, Wasjbrot, Witchitz, Fingerweig, Boczov, Fontanot, Alfonso, Rayman. All were immigrants. The Germans identified the leader, Missack Manouchian, as Armenian, and the others as five Polish Jews, two Hungarian Jews, one Italian and one Spaniard. All were Communists.

This "red poster," venerated in a 1955 poem by the French writer Louis Aragon, has a hallowed place now in the annals of immigrants who fought against the Nazi occupation of France, for it is a glorification of their role and of their martyrdom. The poster was pasted up all over town for a far different reason, however.

The Nazis wanted to sully the name of the Resistance by making it seem Communist, foreign and Jewish. There was enough truth in that assertion to trouble the French then and to continue to trouble them now.

Party Accused

Now, more than 40 years later, a controversy has erupted over the arrest and execution of this band of anti-Nazi battlers, known, from their leader's name, as the Manouchian group. The French Communist Party has been accused of allowing these Communist resisters to fall into the hands of the Nazis.

According to the accusation, denied vehemently by the party, the Communist leaders wanted their comrades out of the way to make sure that, as liberation approached, the Communist wing of the Resistance would be controlled by native French and not foreign immigrants. This may have seemed even more necessary toward the end of the war when the Communists were in competition with the native French followers of Gen. Charles de Gaulle for control of the Resistance movement.

Many historians doubt that any kind of blatant and cynical betrayal took place, but they still question the Communist attitude toward the immigrants. At the least, the party seems lax about protecting them.

This summer, a documentary about these resisters was scheduled, banned and then finally shown on national television. A two-hour debate followed the documentary on television, and for a time arguments about the role of the immigrants and Jews in the Resistance filled the national newspapers and magazines of France.

Fall From Grace

The troubling controversy reflected both the great difficulty that the French have in dealing with their behavior during the Nazi occupation and the extraordinary, recent fall from grace of the Communist Party, which now faces challenges to some of its most cherished myths of World War II.

The documentary's director, Serge Mosco, may have erred in trying to touch both nerves. Even some of those who lobbied for the telecast of the film, such as the prominent Jewish lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, believe Mosco was wrong to bring up the Communist betrayal issue. Klarsfeld says that the controversy has drawn attention away from the real issue of the film--the nature of the French Resistance.

"It was mostly immigrants--and most of them were Jews--who killed Nazis," Klarsfeld said in a recent interview. "In the first year of the war, France was like a sanitarium for the Germans. They could go there for a rest." It was not until the Jews and immigrants began battling that the Resistance got under way.

"What is important for us," Klarsfeld said, "is that everyone should know that Jews were among the most important members of the Resistance of France."

Image Doesn't Fit

All this conflicts with an image that most French like to have about the Resistance--the image of many native French abhorring the Nazi occupation, secretly supporting the cause of De Gaulle and his Free French Forces outside France, and early on joining the Resistance in France to battle the German oppressors. The image does not fit the historical record.

Until June, 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, there was no resistance at all inside France. The majority of the French supported the pro-Fascist Vichy government of Marshal Henri Petain. De Gaulle discouraged acts of terrorism by his followers for fear of reprisals against innocent civilians. The Communist Party was not going to attack Germans so long as the Soviet Union had a nonaggression treaty with Germany.

After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, however, the Communists began the French Resistance. A large number of their recruits were young immigrants, many of them workers with Communist backgrounds.

After the summer of 1942, when the French police rounded up thousands upon thousands of foreign-born Jews and turned them over to the Germans for deportation to extermination camps, many children of these Jews joined the Communist-led Resistance.

Irregulars and Partisans

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