by Dan Thu Nga
|Raymond Aubrac and his daughter Elizabeth visit General Vo Nguyen Giap shortly after the general's 97th birthday on Independence Day, September 2, 2007.
When Raymond Aubrac, a leader of the French Resistance during the Second World War, died in April, it was not only France that mourned, Viet Nam did too. Aubrac was a long-time friend of President Ho Chi Minh. He hosted the Vietnamese delegation to the Fontainebleau Conference in 1946 at his home for six weeks, and President Ho became godfather to his youngest daughter who was born during that period.
Aubrac visited Viet Nam in 1955 and 1967 during the wars in search of a peaceful solution for the country.
He was awarded the Friendship Medal and the Ho Chi Minh Medal, the highest honour bestowed by the President of Viet Nam.
He visited Viet Nam in 2008 as an honourable guest of President Nguyen Minh Triet and became an honorary citizen of Ho Chi Minh City. He last visited Viet Nam in 2010 when he was 95 years old. Earlier this year, the President awarded him the Ho Chi Minh Medal, the first time the honour had been bestowed upon a foreigner.
It was a day of profound sadness when I learned that Raymond Aubrac had passed away. At 97, he appeared to be in good health and spirits. There weren't any visible signs that he would be gone so quickly, only two short months after my last visit to Paris last February.
There is a lot that has been said and written about Mr Aubrac and his wife Lucie, so there is no point of me rehashing the history. However, this is a story about my personal encounters with the man who was not only a storied leader, a heroic figure of the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied period during World War II, but also an eminent friend of Viet Nam, of President Ho Chi Minh, and most important to me, of my family.
I called Mr Aubrac in February to ask if he had time to see me. He immediately recognised who I was because we had already met in 2009, plus the simple mention of my grandmother's name, Thai Thi Lien, was enough to remind him of who I was. He was delighted to learn that I was in town and invited me to come over for lunch. I was eager to see him again because I needed to find out as much information as possible for the documentary I have been working on about my family. Mr Aubrac was the only one alive who knew both my grandparents during their time in Paris in the late 1940's.
I showed up at Mr Aubrac's apartment on a sunny but freezing cold day. It was during an intense Siberian cold wave that swept through Europe last winter. Having lived in Montreal, Canada for a long time, I thought I could brave this weather, but that cold was so biting outside that I was relieved to arrive at Mr Aubrac's warm apartment. He greeted me with two long kisses on my cheeks and complimented me on my winter coat as he was helping me take it off. He also told me how much I reminded him of my mother whom he met in Ha Noi for its 1,000th anniversary in 2010. It was the second time that I met Mr Aubrac. He hadn't changed much since 2009 when I first met him. He was still a tall man with big hands, a charming smile and tender eyes that were so captivating. He spoke slowly and eloquently and was complaining to me that because of the cold, his doctor did not allow him to go out to a local school that day to talk about the Resistance.
He had such an extraordinary memory and attention to detail. He had documented all the events in his life in pocket notebooks. He remembered clearly the exact date he had met Uncle Ho and my grandparents for the first time. He showed me the painting that Uncle Ho gave him for his 32nd birthday. It's a stunning painting of a Vietnamese mother caressing the head of her child by painter Vu Cao Dam. Mr Aubrac said the painting had a striking resemblance to the image of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. He also walked me around his modest apartment to show all the memorabilia that he and his wife had collected over the years from all over the world. The collection included an impressive selection of pipes which he referred to as his guilty pleasure. He told me: "If I've survived until now smoking heavily, I don't see why I have to give it up at 97 just because the doctors say so."
That day, he asked his caretaker to treat me to a three-course meal beginning with a delicious beetroot salad, followed by a grilled veal liver on a spinach bedding and mashed potato, and finished with an exquisite selection of cheeses, each one as pungently delicious as the next. We talked for hours about his time during the Resistance, but mostly about the times that he met Uncle Ho [President] and my grandparents because he knew that was what interested me the most. Mesmerised by his stories and anecdotes, I forgot about the food and Mr Aubrac asked me teasingly if I wore dentures like him because of how slowly I ate. Another trait of Mr Aubrac that I remember well is his incredible sense of humour.
Raymond Aubrac's life was intimately tied to Viet Nam on several occasions. At the declaration of war in 1939, France had sent several thousand workers from Tonkin, Annam, Cochin-China, Cambodia and Laos to replace French workers. After the defeat of 1940, they were grouped in camps where they spent years under the Occupation. One camp near Marseilles comprised of several thousand men, and he had learned in September of 1944, in his capacity as Commissioner of the Republic, that the camp's leaders "tolerated" networks of illegal gambling, prostitution and black market sales of rice that they were supposed to be distributed among everyone. The camp was always in the hands of powerful mob bosses. The mortality rate amounted to an intolerable level. Mr Aubrac took charge of the situation quickly by eliminating the old leadership with new and honest people. He was later elected by the workers to be on the advisory committee that would represent them to manage the camp.
Since then, workers in Indochina, including the Vietnamese group which was the largest and most organised group at the camp, showed him great signs of gratitude.
In 1946, when Mr Aubrac was introduced to Uncle Ho for the first time during a visit to Paris, he said to Mr Aubrac: "I know what you did two years ago in Marseilles for my countrymen and I thank you for that." On the same occasion, Uncle Ho asked to move into the Aubracs' house for six weeks because he liked that their house had a nice garden. Mr Aubrac described Uncle Ho as someone who was extremely intelligent and curious. Every morning, he would read several newspapers in French, English, German, and Russian among others to keep himself abreast of what was going on in the world. Mr Aubrac's house was also a place for the Vietnamese delegation to hold meetings to discuss the future of Viet Nam. It was in the same house that my grandparents had their wedding reception, hosted by the Aubracs. In the mid 40's, my grandmother Thai Thi Lien, a native of Sai Gon, went to Paris hoping to pursue a formal pianistic training and to explore different opportunities. There, she met my grandfather Tran Ngoc Danh. He was the deputy chief of the Vietnamese delegation seeking independence from the French at the 1946 Fontainebleau Conference. Since my grandfather worked under the directions of Uncle Ho and took part in several meetings with other members of the Vietnamese delegation in Paris at the Aubracs' house, he and my grandmother were introduced to the Aubracs and later, the two couples became very good friends.
When asked about my grandfather, Mr Aubrac described him as someone with great intelligence and sensitivity. As for my grandmother, he answered with a little twinkle in his eyes. "Oh, your grandmother was beautiful and had such a great energy. Lucie and I were big fans of her." While showing me several pictures that he had taken during that period, including snaps of Uncle Ho napping on the lawn in his garden, he showed me one I had never seen before of my grandparents' wedding reception.
Another important involvement of Mr Aubrac with Viet Nam was when he participated in a little known 1967 Pugwash backchannel initiative on Viet Nam (code named PENNSYLVANIA by the US). This initiative involved US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Ho Chi Minh, Herbert Marcovich (a French microbiologist) and US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and others including President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The purpose of the Pugwash Conferences, a Nobel Peace prize-winning organisation, is "to bring together, from around the world, influential scholars and public figures concerned with reducing the danger of armed conflict and seeking co-operative solutions for global problems. Meeting in private as individuals, rather than as representatives of governments or institutions, insights from Pugwash discussions tend to penetrate quickly to the appropriate levels of official policy-making". (Pugwash.org) That was why Kissinger approached Marcovich and Aubrac (who was known as a close friend of Ho Chi Minh) to deliver the message of negotiations between North Viet Nam and the US. Even though the efforts failed, the elements of proposal that were put forward secretly through Kissinger, Aubrac and Marcovich to Ho Chi Minh were the foundation of the San Antonio Formula which started peace negotiations between the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (North Viet Nam) and the US.
In 1975, the secretary general of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, used Mr Aubrac as a channel to communicate with the North Vietnamese authorities during the war's last struggles.
After World War II, the Aubracs travelled to schools across France to talk about the French Resistance. In 1983, allegations were made by Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo Chief Officer in Lyon, accusing the Aubracs of collaborating with the Nazis after he was arrested in 1943.
Being Jewish with parents that died in Auschwitz, in 1998, the Aubracs won a libel suit against the author of a book based on Barbie's so-called "testament". They were finally able to clear their names with any ties with the Nazis during the Occupation.
The story of Raymond and Lucie Aubrac has been the subject of several movies and books. As French president Nicolas Sarkozy said at Mr Aubrac's state funeral, "The Aubracs and their colleagues operated behind the scenes and saved the honour of France, at a moment when it seemed lost."
I can see why Ho Chi Minh felt a strong affinity towards Raymond Aubrac and his wife Lucie. Just like Uncle Ho, their story is about the heroic courage and the indomitable spirit to fight for their country's independence.
What also deeply moved me was his extraordinary love and respect for his wife. He told me in the last few minutes that I spent with him: "Thu Nga, in life, there are only a handful of decisions that you have to make carefully, and one of them is to find the right life partner. I had the fortune to make that one right in marrying Lucie. Everything else in my life was purely luck."
Before I left, he gave me some books about the Resistance and his biography, Ou la memoire s'attarde (Where the memory lingers), in which he talks in depth about his involvement with Viet Nam and his friendship with Uncle Ho and my grandparents. These books will remain on my bookshelves for as long as I live in memory of one of the most honourable men I ever had the privilege to meet. — VNS