History at first hand

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Students of A-level French studying the Occupation created their own unique resource with the help of a modest hero. Carolyn O'Grady reports

Four years ago, Neil Strowger, head of modern languages at Oxted School, a comprehensive in Surrey, read a book by Roger-A Lhombreaud, a Resistance fighter in the Second World War. He came across the author's email address and began a correspondence with him.

They discussed issues and questions arising from the book, and also, Neil says, "explored the philosophical themes, such as if the end is just are the means, whatever they may be, justified (Lhombreaud thought not), and existential themes such as whether men are free to act and whether they are known or identified by their acts (Lhombreaud was not a fan of existentialism)".

So when his French A2 group chose to look at l'Occupation through text and film as one of their topics in module 5 (the cultural and social landscape in focus), it seemed only natural that he should mention this to his friend Lhombreaud.

The result was an invitation to meet the Frenchman, and last November seven Oxted students journeyed to Paris: two to interview Lhombreaud about his experiences, at his house just outside Paris, and the others to research the Resistance in museums and libraries.

In preparation for the visit, Neil planned a list of questions in French for Lhombreaud with the whole class (not just those going to Paris). The students also studied passages from his book, Memoire et Destin, with Neil supporting them in the translation and interpretation of the narrative.

Watching several films (in French) deepened their understanding.

The interview was a coup and a privilege. Sixty years after the war, few Resistance fighters are still alive - of Lhombreaud's 1,500-strong Resistance network in south-west France, only 24 remain - and the importance of first-hand accounts of their life is recognised. Already La Biblioth que de la Fondation de la Resistance has requested a copy of the video Neil has made of the interview. In the two hours Lhombreaud spent talking to students Suzy Lloyd and Joanna Bainbridge, a vivid tale emerged.

"Je n'etais pas General de Gaulle", began Llombreaud, a large animated man looking younger than his 80-odd years. "I only played a small part." He had already received the list of questions from the class and was well prepared. Born into an anti-war family - which initially supported Petain - his Resistance career began when he was 16 (the same age as his interviewers, he noted) with small acts of rebellion, including tearing down notices and inserting tracts into books, but gradually escalated to full-scale sabotage - cutting telephone wires and using explosives.

He told how Resistance operatives delivered messages written in invisible writing, on paper which was used to wrap up food.

Twice he narrowly escaped imprisonment and death, once when the Germans, looking for people to shoot in retaliation for an assassination, chose the man in the prison cell next to him.

Called up for forced labour in Germany in 1943, he finally admitted to his father that he was in the Resistance, and recounts how, on hearing the news, his father cuffed him round the ear, and then revealed that he too had joined a Resistance network.

His family hid him for a year, persuading the Germans that he was already in forced labour by showing them letters written by a cousin (who was in Germany) in Lhombreaud's name.

After the war, Lhombreaud studied at Oxford and Edinburgh before teaching in Paris. Since then, he has worked for Unesco, acted as president of the European Association of Teachers and spoken at numerous conferences, usually on international understanding.

While Suzy and Joanna were listening to his engrossing story, other students were visiting a library and museum in central Paris, studying the exhibits and the French interpretive texts. And at the Centre Historique des Archives Nationales (le CHAN), they saw a small temporary exhibition on safeguarding documents relating to resistance and deportation during the war.

Examples of materials included instructions on methods of sabotage; false ID cards; drawings from the concentration camps; and slips of paper flung from trains by those on their way to the camps in the seemingly impossible hope that they would reach their loved ones. "Don't worry our morale is good", exhorts one found in a garden along the railway.

Their next stop was the Musee Jean Moulin Museum, with its absorbing account of the life of the man chosen by de Gaulle to run the Resistance in occupied France. Accompanying the exhibition is a film on the liberation.

Oxted student, Rachel Judge, aged 17, found lots to help her with her planned coursework on the effect of the Resistance on the general population in south-west France, and "a lot of quotes from the film".

The group returned late on Eurostar, tired after a long day, but pleased with their researches and glimpses of Parisian life, past and present.

* Email: nstrowger@oxted.surrey.sch.uk

* Memoire et Destin - fin d'une adolescence en temps de guerre, by Roger-A Lhombreaud (Gutenberg)



Lacombe Lucien (Louis Malle, 1974)

Lucie Aubrac (Claude Berri, 1997)

Petain (Jean Marboeuf, 1993)

Un heros tres discret (Jacques Audiard, 1995)


* La Bibliotheque de la Fondation de la Resistance, 30 bd des Invalides, 75007 Paris.

(Closed on Saturdays.) Contact Marie-Camille Magdelaine, bibliothecaire Tel: 00 33 1 47 05 67 90

Email: bibliotheqfond@club-internet.fr .

* Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Cour d'Honneur de l'Hotel de Soubise, 60 Rue de France-Bourgeois, 75003 Paris. Free entry.

* Musee Jean Moulin, 23 Allee de la 2e DB, Jardin Atlantique, 75015 Paris.

Permanent collections free; temporary exhibitions 2 euros (for 14 to 26-year olds).

Tel: 0140 643944

* Memorial du Marechal Leclerc de Hauteclocque et de la Liberation de Paris, Jardin Atlantique, 75015 Paris Tel: 0140 643944 www.musees.paris.fr


Oxted School has plans to put the interview on its website: www.oxted.surrey.sch.uk

Memoire et Espoirs de la Resistance: www.memoresist.org

Association pour des Etudes sur la Resistance Interieur: www.aeri resistance.com

Centre Regional Resistance et Liberte www.crrl.com.fr

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