Denise Vernay

”Patriotism and civic duty” are the two main reasons why I joined the Resistance.

Who was I then? Denise Jacob, 16 in 1940.

One of four siblings, brought up in Nice: I had one sister, Milou, a younger brother, Jean, a younger sister, Simone.

Our father was an architect… and very little building was going on between the wars. Our mother was the soul of the house. Family, school and scouting were the three centres of our lives, which weren’t easy but so full of tenderness, friendship and different activities.

The war broke out in September 1939. Then there was the “phony war” from October 1939 to April 1940. It was called that because most people had a wait-and-see attitude, the war seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. In May 1940 came the German invasion, the flow of refugees, the rout of our troops even though some of them were valiantly grouped together at certain defence sites, the debacle, Pétain’s quavering voice, the armistice, occupation and collaboration.

I refused to believe that it was final, that our British allies had become our enemies overnight. France was no longer France. It was inconceivable to imagine collaborating with the Nazis and their totalitarian, inhuman régime. For several years we had been hosting German Jewish refugees who had had to leave everything behind to save their lives. I can still remember the first decrees against the Jews, the one Pétain signed in August 1940, I think it was, handing political refugees over to their torturers, our “conquerors”. I felt ashamed, it was unacceptable, contrary to my idea of France.

In October 1940 I started secondary school, concentrating in elementary math. The press was censored, French radio was in the hands of the occupier and television didn’t exist. All we had was the BBC and the “the French speak to the French” broadcast. I and a classmate wrote the latest news from London on the blackboard at school. We copied and distributed tracts dictated by London. It wasn’t much, but what else could we do? There wasn’t a recruiting office where you could sign up against the occupier, no underground newspapers you could buy at newsstands! You needed more imagination than the teenager I was could have.

There were shortages of everything and daily life was hard. We were cold, hungry and always waiting on line for something. We went to school. In autumn 1942 the raids to round up foreign Jews got worse.

I went to the Union générale des Israélites de France (UGIF) on Boulevard Dubouchage in Nice. The idea was to hide Jewish children and often their parents, refugees from different countries blocked here by the sea, in families than ran great risks to take them in. Fifty years later those people were called brave, “just among the nations”.

In July-August 1943 the hunting of the Jews intensified. I was in a girl scout camp and decided not to go back to my family in Nice because I wanted to join a resistance network or movement. A friend who was a girl scout leader and elementary school teacher in Saint-Marcellin introduced me to the “Franc-Tireur” movement, where I became a liaison agent. It was part of the “Mouvements unis de Résistance” with Combat and Libération. Lyon was the centre. That’s when I went underground.”

Denise Vernay in Franc-Tireur, 23 August 1946