His commitment to the Resistance reminds us of the major role played by immigrants in the history of France. At a time when the extreme right is becoming ever more threatening, Humanité magazine relays the voices pleading for the pantheonisation of this Armenian worker and poet, a member of the FTP-MOI. More than a symbol, the entry for the first time in the republican necropolis of a communist resistance fighter would constitute a just recognition.
His features still retain the curves of childhood, in the photo taken in 1919 at the Jounieh orphanage, some twenty kilometres north of Beirut, on the Mediterranean coast. Dressed in white tunics, huddled together, the boarders stare straight at the camera. His gaze turns away from it, gets lost elsewhere, dark and charged, too soon, with obscure reminiscences. Missak Manouchian found refuge here four years ago, with his older brother Garabed – from their line of peasants in Adiyaman, on the banks of the Euphrates, they are the only survivors.
When some people ask about “French identity”, it is essential to remember the commitment of these foreigners.
Pierre Ouzoulias, PCF senator for Hauts-de-Seine
Missak was 9 years old when his father, Kevork, fell to his death in the midst of his family, massacred in 1915 by Turkish soldiers, in the second genocide of the 20th century.
His mother, Vardouhi Kassian, succumbed shortly afterwards to the famine that decimated the survivors. First taken in by a Kurdish family, the two children were, at the end of the war, taken in charge by the Armenian community to be sheltered in this Lebanese Christian institution. The Ottoman Empire broke up; the Syrian regions of the Levant were placed under the French mandate; Missak learned the trade of carpenter. He worked with his hands, but already the taste for words blossomed in the heart of this solitary adolescent.
From this orphaned childhood, he kept a raw wound, which emerges in one of his poems, “The Mirror and I”: “Like a tortured convict, like a slave who is bullied/I grew up naked under the whip of embarrassment and insult/Battling against death, living being the only problem…/What a stubborn watcher I was of glimmers and mirages.”
In 1925, like many Armenians in search of a new life, far from the spectre of genocide, the two young brothers set sail. They disembarked in Marseille as illegal immigrants, without asylum, without resources. In La Seyne-sur-Mer, the youngest brother’s work in the shipyards provides a meagre living for a while. But this was only a stopover on the way to Paris, where Missak was hired as a turner at the Citroën factory.
From all over Europe, foreigners flocked.
In the 1930s, some three million immigrant workers came to France, fleeing poverty, racism, massacres, pogroms and political repression.
They saw in this “land of revolution and freedom”, which they chose as their second homeland, a refuge, a window into the night of fascism and war, which was still falling inexorably on Europe.
As early as 1924, the young Communist Party set itself the priority task of “political and trade-unionist organisation of the masses of foreign-speaking workers”. The group name Immigrant Workforce, the MOI, was founded to unite them and enable them to defend themselves at a time when xenophobic campaigns were multiplying, accusing foreigners of being responsible for unemployment.
A tenacious companion of the young exiles, misfortune again befell Missak and Garabed. The latter’s frail health finally got the better of him, and he breathed his last in 1927. The Great Depression plunged the working class world into misery; Missak, who had been dismissed, lived of illegal work, wrote his first poems, devoted himself to sport and enrolled as an auditor at the Sorbonne. With compatriots, he participated in the creation of literary reviews, translated Verlaine, Baudelaire and Rimbaud into Armenian. Deeply affected by the Reichstag fire, which the Nazis accused the communists of committing in order to consolidate their power, and by the fascist riots of 6 February 1934, he joined the Communist Party. At the same time, he joined the HOC, the communist organisation of Armenian immigrants. It was within this organisation that he became a member of the “Manouchian Group” in support of the Spanish republicans.
Missak the literary takes over the reins of the HOC magazine, named “Zangou”, after the river running through Yerevan. The publication relays Soviet propaganda, takes Stalin’s side during the Moscow trials, and shares the hope that blows over France under the Popular Front. But the storm that was about to fall on Europe was already rumbling. Missak takes part in the Committee for the Aid of Spanish Republicans. The one his comrades now call “Michel” is an ardent militant until his first arrest, on 2 September 1939, shortly before the banning of the PCF. Released two months later, he was integrated into the army and posted to a factory near Rouen.
After the debacle, he returned to Paris, but was arrested again on 22 June 1941 and placed in detention, under German control, at the Royallieu camp in Compiègne. No charges were finally brought against him: he was released after a few weeks of imprisonment. Between the hideouts and the flat in the rue de Plaisance that he shared with his wife and comrade Mélinée, clandestine life took its course.
In February 1943, this early resistance fighter joined a detachment of the FTP-MOI under the pseudonym of “Georges”, number 10,300. He soon became technical and then military commissioner of the Parisian FTP-MOI, under the authority of Joseph Epstein.
These armed groups attracted a youthful, heroic and courageous group of freedom-loving people:
foreigners, stateless people, Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants driven underground by the Gestapo and its Vichy supporters, Spanish republicans, brigadists, partisans who had fled Mussolini’s Italy, Armenians who had survived genocide. The FTP-MOI performed hundreds of operations against the occupier. Attacks, train derailments, executions of Nazi dignitaries involved in the roundups of Jews. One of their most resounding feats of arms was the execution of SS Colonel Julius Ritter, head of the STO (compulsory labour service).
A real urban guerrilla war was launched: during 1943, resistance actions multiplied. It was so intensive that the German officers no longer dared to strut around in uniform in the streets of Paris for fear of being targeted.
The German police, supported by the Vichy services and the Milice, joined forces to hunt down these resistance fighters. The president of the court martial, referring to the network that would later be named the “Manouchian group”, praised the “great dedication” of the French police. The operation owed a lot to the special intelligence brigade, the pre-war spearhead of the anti-communist struggle: it mobilised around a hundred men in this hunt. The arrests multiplied.
Missak Manouchian, who had been shadowed for weeks, was betrayed and fell on 16 November 1943. Joseph Epstein, the luminous “Colonel Gilles”, fell with him – the latter, under torture, would not give up a name to his executioners, not even his own. The two men had an appointment on the banks of the Seine. They were both apprehended at the Evry-Petit-Bourg station; their capture paved the way for the dismantling of MOI groups in the capital.
On 21 February 1944, in the clearing at Mont-Valérien, twenty-two foreign resistance fighters faced the machine gun fire of their executioners. The twenty-third, Olga Bancic, was deported to Germany and beheaded in Stuttgart on 10 May – her birthday.
When he collapsed, shot, Missak Manouchian was 37 years old. Neither he nor any of his comrades were old enough to die: they were driven less by a taste for sacrifice than by an irrepressible zest for life.
And then the Liberation was so close… On the eve of his execution, Missak Manouchian sensed it.
“I had joined the Liberation Army as a volunteer soldier and I died within a stone’s throw of victory and the goal. Good luck to those who will survive us and taste the sweetness of tomorrow’s freedom and peace (…) At the moment of death, I proclaim that I have no hatred against the German people. The German people and all other peoples will live in peace and brotherhood after the war, which will not last much longer”, he wrote in his last letter to his beloved Melinée.
On the Eastern Front, the Nazi armies cracked. Everywhere in France, soldiers from the shadows rise up, preparing the uprising in broad daylight, the signal for which would come from the landing. In such a context, the occupying forces intended to make the most of the execution of Manouchian and his companions.
“Anti-Semitism and xenophobia, associated with anti-communism, became in 1943 the main spring of the propaganda of the occupiers and the Vichy regime to divide the Resistance and isolate it from the population. The episode of the Red Poster, the staging that it reveals and the repercussion that the Nazis and their collaborators give to the execution of foreign Communist Resistance fighters clearly reveal this project that aims to discredit the Resistance in France,”
notes historian Serge Wolikow, in his preface to Pascal Convert’s book, “Joseph Epstein, bon pour la légende”.
On the Red Poster, which was supposed to infame these freedom fighters that Nazi propaganda presented as “the army of crime”, a den of “foreign terrorists”, Missak is designated as “Armenian, leader of a gang”. His face, ravaged by the torturers’ abuses, broad forehead, hollowed cheeks, jet-black eyes, seems to look far away, beyond the horizon of the war. And this proud gaze is as if charged with an indefatigable hope, that of the first lines of this child of genocide and exile: “A charming little child/Thought all night long/What he will make bunches of roses in the purple and sweet dawn.”
Before dying, Manouchian said he was “sure that the French people and all freedom fighters will know how to honour our memory with dignity”.
In the cockades and the bluster of victory, however, the names of the foreign communist resistance fighters are lost, faded away. The historian Annette Wieviorka underlines, in her book “Ils étaient juifs, résistants, communistes” (re-edited by Perrin in 2020), “the partial occultation of their role”, even before the Liberation, “as if it was necessary to undermine their fight”.
For nearly two years, a committee, led by Katia Guiragossian, the grand-niece of Mélinée and Missak Manouchian, and advised by the historian Denis Peschanski, has been pleading for the transfer of the ashes of this hero of the Resistance to the Pantheon. While endless laws are being drafted to make immigrants a threat to public order, the Élysée Palace is considering this, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the execution of the twenty-three.
Missak Manouchian would then be the first communist resistance fighter to enter this republican necropolis.
The recognition of its memory, of that of foreigners in the Resistance, was a long road. And this recognition owes much to the poets. Paul Éluard, first of all, who dedicated these verses to them in 1950, in his collection “Hommages”: “It is that foreigners as they are still called/Believed in justice here below and in reality/They had the blood of their fellow men in their blood/These foreigners knew what their homeland was/The freedom of a people guides all peoples/Any innocent man in irons chains all men.”
And then, twelve years after the martyrdom of the twenty-three, their memory finally appeared on the front page of “L’Humanité”, with the publication of Louis Aragon’s “Strophes pour se souvenir”.
Thirty-five alexandrines, fed by the last words of Manouchian and, later, the voice, the melody of Léo Ferré, to inscribe the moving epic of the FTP-MOI forever in the collective memory:
“You had your portraits on the walls of our cities/Black with beard and night shaggy threatening/The poster that seemed a stain of blood/Because pronouncing your names are difficult/You were looking for an effect of fear on the passers-by/ (…) They were twenty and three when the guns bloomed/Twenty and three who gave their hearts before time/Twenty and three strangers and yet our brothers/Twenty and three in love with life to death. ”
This text has been first published in French by l’Humanite, who is Cross-Border Talks’ partner within the Media Alliance animated by transform!italia. It has been translated into English by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.