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Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier's father, Lucien Vogel, an editor, created the magazine Vu in 1928; her mother, Cosette de Brunhoff, sister of the creator of Babar the Elephant, was a fashion photographer.
Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier chose to be a photographic reporter, at the time when the trade was uniquely male, which earned her the nickname of “the lady in Rolleiflex”. In 1934 she joined the Communist Youth Movement of France, and in 1936, the Union of the Girls of France. In 1934, she married Paul Vaillant-Couturier, founder of the Republican Association of Ex-servicemen, a communist and chief editor of L'Humanité, who mysteriously disappeared in 1937. She entered the photo service of L'Humanité, for which she later took the responsibility, and got to know Gabriel Péri and George Cogniot.
Attached to the magazine Vu team, a photographer but also a Germanist, she took part, with the others, in an investigation in Germany into the rise of Nazism. It was at the time of this voyage in 1933, two months after the accession of Adolf Hitler to power, when she reported on the stereotypes of the concentration camps of Oranienburg and Dachau, published as of her return to France. She also carried out some reports for “"Regards”, in particular on the International Brigades. The prohibition of L'Humanité in September 1939 due to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, influenced her change of activities.
Resistance and deportation
She engaged in the resistance and participated in clandestine publications: leaflets such as l'Université Libre (first issued in November 1940), Georges Politzer's pamphlet Sang et Or (Blood and Gold) which presented the theses of the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg (November 1941), a clandestine edition of L'Humanité with Pierre Villon (whom she married in her second wedding in 1949). She strengthened the connection between the civil resistance (Committee of National Front Intellectuals to fight for the Independence of France) and the military resistance (the OS, later the FTPF) and she even transported explosives.
This resistance activity caused her to be arrested in a trap by Marshal Philippe Pétain's police on 9 February 1942, with many of her companions, among whom were Jacques Decour, Georges Politzer, Georges Solomon, Arthur Dallidet, all of whom were shot by the Nazis at Fort Mont-Valérien. She was interned until 15 February at the Dépôt de la Préfecture, and on 20 March was placed in secret at La Santé Prison - here she stayed until August when she was transferred to the camp of Romainville, an internment camp under German authority. Like her companions, among whom were Danielle Casanova and Heidi Hautval, she was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau via the internment camp of Compiègne in the convoy of 24 January 1943, said to be the convoy of "31000" (see the Memorial of the deportees of France to the title of repression, by the La Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Déportation, 2004 and The Convoy of 24 January, by Charlotte Delbo, Midnight Editions, 1965). Singular by its composition, this convoy of 230 women, Resistance members, communists, Gaullist wives of resistance members, was illustrated in La Marseillaise by crossing the entrance of the camp of Birkenau; only 49 of these 230 women would return from the camps after the war. She stayed in Auschwitz for 18 months, where she witnessed the genocide of the Jews and the Gypsies and took part in the international clandestine resistance committee of the camp. She was then transferred to the concentration camp of Ravensbrück in August 1944: first of all assigned to earthworks, she was transferred to Revier (the camp infirmary) because of her knowledge of the German language. Ravensbrück was liberated on 30 April 1945 by the Red Army; however, she returned to France only on 25 June 1945. During these weeks, she devoted herself to the patients' repatriation. A 16 June 1945 article in Le Monde read, “Each day, this magnificent Frenchwoman makes the rounds, uplifting courage, giving hope where it is often but illusion. The word "holiness" comes to mind when one sees this grand sister of charity near these men and these women who are dying every day."
Social and political engagement
In 1945, she sat successively at the Provisional Consultative Assembly and at the two Constituent Assemblies and was elected French Communist Party (PCF) Member of Parliament for the Seine (1946-1958 ; 1962-1967), then for Val de Marne until 1973. She twice (1956-1958 ; 1967-1968) held the function of vice-president for the French National Assembly, for which she later became honorary vice-president.
In 1946, she was elected Secretary General of the International Democratic Federation of Women and, in 1979, was elected vice-president of the Union des femmes française (today Femmes Solidaires). She notably filed bills for the equality of wages between men and women. She was also allied with the Peace Movement.
In 1951, at the time of his trial against the newspaper Les Lettres Françaises (at the time a close relation of PCF) opposed to David Rousset after the latter had been accused of being a “trotskyste falsifier” by the newspaper (following the comparison by David Rousset of the Soviet Gulag with the concentration camps). Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier declared “I indisputably regard the Soviet penitentiary system as the most desirable in the whole world”, a controversial declaration glorifying the impact of the Gulag.
A leading member of the National Federation of Resistant Deportees and Internees and Patriots since its creation in 1945, she became its vice-president, then co-president in 1978. She was also one of the first presenters of l'Amicale d’Auschwitz. A witness at the Nuremberg Trials, she said later, “by telling of the sufferings of those who could not speak any more, I had the feeling that, through my voice, those who they had tortured and exterminated, accused their torturers.” However, she returned from the trials “shocked, worried,” “exasperated by the procedure,” dissatisfied, in particular denouncing the absence, on the dock, of the leaders of the firms Krupp, Siemens, IG Farben, firms which had largely taken part in the economic exploitation of the deportees. But in spite of these insufficiencies, she underlined later how much the definition crimes against humanity was “progress for the human conscience”.
In 1964, Paul Rassinier, father of negationism, a critic of the verdict of the trials and a holocaust survivor, accused her of having survived only by dispossessing her companions. Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier took action against these accusations and the lawsuit against Rassinier made justice of the charges. Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz declared to the bar of witnesses “We entered the infirmary buildings not to hide, but because we needed courageous German speaking comrades. […] When we gave back this ration of bread deducted from our own ration, this bulb, we knew that she would give it well to those who needed it most and without any political appreciation […] I know few women as courageous as Marie-Claude, who always gave the feeling that her own life was nothing if she wasn't with the company of her comrades.” The manager of the extreme-right magazine Rivarol and Rassinier were condemned. During December of the same year, she defended in front of the French National Assembly the concept of imprescriptibility of the crimes against humanity, thus opening the way with the ratification, by France in 1968, of the Convention of United Nations on the imprescriptibility of these crimes.
In 1987, she called all the civil parties to testify against Klaus Barbie. During the creation of the Foundation for the Memory of the Deportation, in 1990, she was unanimously designated President, then President d' Honneur until her death on 11 December 1996.
Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur from 20 December 1945 - Officer in 1981, Commander in 1995 -, she was also a holder of the title of Combattante Volontaire de la Résistance et de décorations étrangères (Croix de Guerre Tchécoslovaque).
- Jean Sévilla, Le terrorisme intellectuel, Paris, Perrin, 2004, ISBN 978-2-262-02149-8, p. 29 (French)
- Benoit Cazenave: Marie Claude Vaillant Couturier, in: Hier war das Ganze Europa, Brandenburg Memorial Foundation, Metropol Verlag, Berlin 2004, ISBN 3-936411-43-3 (German)
- Vaillant-Couturier's hearing at the Nuremberg Trials Retrieved May 3, 2010