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Fordham University Press
An American Heroine in the French Resistance: The Diary and Memoir of Virginia D'Albert-Lake / Edition 3

An American Heroine in the French Resistance: The Diary and Memoir of Virginia D'Albert-Lake / Edition 3

by Judy Barrett Litoff
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This fascinating book tells the remarkable story of an ordinary American woman’s heroism in the French Resistance. Virginia Roush fell in love with Philippe d’Albert-Lake during a visit to France in 1936; they married soon after. In 1943, they both joined the Resistance, where Virginia put her life in jeopardy as she sheltered downed airmen and later survived a Nazi prison camp. After the war, she stayed in France with Philippe, and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and the Medal of Honor. She died in 1997.

Judy Barrett Litoff brings together two rare documents—Virginia’s diary of wartime France until her capture in 1944 and her prison memoir written immediately after the war. Masterfully edited, they convey the compassion and toughness of a nearly forgotten heroine as they provide an invaluable record of the workings of the Resistance by one of the very few American women who participated in it.

“An indelible portrait of extraordinary strength of character . . . [D’Albert-Lake] is sombre, reflective, and attentive to every detail.”—The New Yorker

“A sharply etched and moving story of love, companionship, commitment, and sacrifice. . . . This beautifully edited diary and memoir throw an original light on the French Resistance.”—Robert Gildea, author of Marianne in Chains: In Search of the German Occupation, 1940-1945

“At once a stunning self-portrait and dramatic narrative of a valorous young American woman . . . an exciting and gripping story, one of the best of the many wartime tales.” —Walter Cronkite

“An enthralling tale which brims with brave airmen and plucky heroines.”—David Kirby, St. Petersburg Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823225811
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 03/27/2006
Series: World War II: The Global, Human, and Ethical Dimension , #9
Edition description: 3
Pages: 322
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

JUDY BARRETT LITOFF’s books include We’re in This War Too: World War II Letters from American Women in Uniform and, from Fordham, Fighting Fascism in Europe: The World War II Letters of an American Veteran of the Spanish Civil War. She is Professor of History at Bryant University.

Read an Excerpt


Outbreak of War to the Fall of France

OCTOBER 11, 1939–JUNE 23, 1940

Vincennes — Paris

* * *

October 11, 1939

In commencing this story — "my" story of the war, I plan that it be a diary of personal experiences, reflections and impressions. It should have had its beginning on Sunday Sept. 3, the day that the war was declared, first by England, then a few hours later, by France. But I was not in the mood to write then — it was even difficult to write meager post cards home. Now I have adjusted myself to this new strange state of living, diving in a kind of suspension, just waiting and hoping, while time itself seems to have neither a yesterday nor a to-morrow. Time is standing still.

At this writing I have the one with me who gives my life its real fullness. Since the international tension first started on August 22nd we have been separated only once during a period of two weeks. One cannot complain at that! When I think what it may have meant or what it might be, even at this early stage of the war, I realize how unbelievably fortunate we are to be together.

To deal briefly with a bit of past history, in order that this record may be more complete, I will add that Philippe was mobilized Wed., Aug 23rd. When he came home to Nesles the evening before he felt uneasy about international conditions, and the foreboding increased when we heard over the air that French men taking part in sport events at Monte-Carlo were being called back. On Wed. morning I went in to Paris with Philippe, to learn the news immediately, that he was mobilized and called to Vincennes. He went the next morning, and tho I was without him for the next two nights, I had him after that from 5: PM until 6:30 AM, until Sat, Sept 2nd, the day I left for Cancaval. On Friday the day before, general mobilization was called, and Sunday Sept 3, when Hitler would not withdraw his troops from Poland, war was declared.

Cancaval — Dinard.

At Cancaval we were quite a party, Grandmère, Mum, Miss Sparrow (a lovely woman who lost the man she loved in the last war), Jeanne Clarck, whose husband was mobilized with the requisitioning of his business house in Paris, Louise Lobitz, an American girl from Cincinnati who has been studying and teaching in France for the past year, and myself. At Cancaval it was so beautiful and we had such perfect weather. It was impossible to believe that war existed. Philippe and I had always said it would be that way. We started knitting, all of us except Mum, in order to pass the time and employ it to some advantage. We had offered our services to the Red Cross in Dinard but had not yet been called. However, some days later we were called to a meeting at the Gallic Hotel which was being transferred into a Hospital and it was then I felt for the first time, the realness and horror of war. In the same building, which six weeks before we had seen full of gay people, holiday makers in sports attire, we now saw instead, hospital beds with boards for springs, mattresses piled ten feet high, medical officers striding nervously about, and all this climaxed by the rumor that two hundred wounded were expected the next weekend. But I was not on hand to see whether or not the rumor became fact for that same evening I received a telegram from Philippe saying, "Try to come and see me at Dammartin-en-Goële, Seine & Marne, 35 Kms from Paris. I can put you up"!!!

It was as if an armistice had been declared! I was so happy. Everyone said that I suddenly lost ten years off my looks, which of course left me practically a child. To think that it could be really true. I was afraid to believe it until I really had arrived. The mail had been so bad all this time. I had had no word from Philippe until I had been away from Paris ten days. Then two days later word came that he was being sent to Dammartin. But it never seemed possible that I could really go to him.

So the next day the adventure started! Certain papers were necessary.

October 14th a "sauf conduit" or "laisser passer," and my fingerprints taken with the indexes. By inquiring at one of the Dinard Hotels I was fortunate in finding a ride to Paris with several Americans. We spent the night in Alençon which was crowded with mobilized men. We reached Paris the next morning at 10:30, and I caught an afternoon train to Dammartin. Paris seemed quiet and empty, but nevertheless gave a certain impression of gay fantasy all due to the geometric designs traced by paper stripping on every show case window and glass store front. The paper keeps the glass from splintering when bombs explode. Philippe's office, the P & O, had been unusually clever and artistic in the use of paper stripping. They had designed boats and palm trees on their windows; it brought them newspaper publicity which is very rare in France.

My train coach was crowded with newly mobilized men, middle-aged men recruited for the building of trenches and fortifications. We hear that a new Maginot line is being built to encircle Paris, within 60 Kms of the City itself. They indeed will need men ...!

The train stopped at a station 3½ Kms. from Dammartin, and the only way to reach the town at that hour of the afternoon was either by foot or by "the" taxi, across from the station. By calling and rapping I finally unearthed my driver from some place behind his "bistro" and was driven in state to D[ammartin], for a fee of 10 Frs. Having no idea as to what D[ammartin] would turn out to be in the way of a town, and not knowing just what to do to find Philippe, I was a bit unsettled, but it did not last long. As I descended from the taxi in the center of what turned out to be a small town with one main street, I found myself in front of the town hall. Soldiers seemed to be every place, and I was conscious of their faces being turned toward me in friendly interested welcome. One rather independent soldier stepped up to me, as I'm certain I looked quite bewildered, and started conversing. "Bonjour Madame. Est-il assez large, assez gros, et un peu roux?" (Is he rather tall, rather stout and rather red headed?) I laughed an answer in the affirmative, because he was in a gay mood too; and when he said, "Follow me," I did so with much eagerness, and there down the street 100 yds. I found my honey on guard. He never looked so big and good to me in his life! He had a huge khaki colored coat on, one of immense dimensions, which fell in great folds from his belt! But oh that smile!

Some one took his place at guard and he took me "home" on down the street, past the soldiers' monument, up a little rutty road, and there, protected by two huge walnut trees and an old blind dog 10 yrs. old, was a cute little house.

Thus commenced my month's stay in Dammartin-en-Goële, Seine & Marne, 35 Kms. from Paris.

The little house was owned by a widow, who only occupied the one room in which she slept, as all during the day she managed a little notions store in the village. Hence we were free to use the kitchen, a fact that meant a great deal! Our bedroom was really the "salon," the one other bedroom being occupied by another soldier, André Delille, and for the present his wife too, who had arrived just the day before. Christine and I managed beautifully together, and as long as she was there (approximately a week) we took turns planning and cooking the dinners.

At Vincennes, Philippe had been requisitioning trucks, cars, and motorcycles, here he was mobilizing workmen, the kind I had seen on the train. Dammartin was the center of mobilization and from there the men were sent to different points. Philippe's regiment, C.S.M.C. 21. (Centre Secondaire Mobilisateur de Cavalerie), consisted of approximately one hundred men, who were living in various buildings and private homes where they had considerable freedom. I saw Philippe often twice a day, and had him every night also. He had lunch with the men (and wonderful lunches too, even turkey and rabbit) but dinner at home. There was always Delille, and very often Donald Tritsch, a boy half English, half French and who used to work for the Canadian Pacific in Paris, also from time to time, Steilhin, a lawyer from Dieppe. Other men came in for Apperitifs or coffee, so we had some happy evenings crowded into that gay little red and white kitchen.

Christine returned for two short stays, once bringing her fifteen-year-old sister, Jacqueline, and Donald's charming sister, Betty, spent several days at the time. Mum too came for a couple of days, sleeping in a lovely old 15th century Château now become a hotel. The Château had belonged to the Prince de Sax and had recently been used as the setting for an historical moving picture of him and his time.

So I loved my four weeks in Dammartin. The day I left I felt very sad. The town in itself was not very significant but its setting was on a hilltop set in the center of a flat fertile country side. There were lovely views from many angles, and one was from our bedroom window. It was harvest time, but there were not enough men to work, and as a result the sugar beets were being neglected, and the apple, pear, and peach trees were bending with the weight of their fruit unpicked. A few days before leaving, a truck loaded with blank sad faced Algerians arrived. They were to help harvest the beets, while as Delille said "It's they, the French, who must go to the front."

In doing my shopping every day at the same time, I became quite friendly with those who ran the little shops. They were always sweet and friendly, and seemed to get a certain amusement out of talking with me and trying to understand my highly accented French. The lady butcher always gave me the best meat "bon marché," the produce lady gave me the freshest, biggest eggs which she kept hidden under the counter, the bakery lady lent me her umbrella the day of a downpour, the cute little old man in the grocery always ground my coffee and gave me an onion when I only needed one. The last day at Dammartin, a neighbor gave me two baskets of peaches, and a cabbage as large as two basketballs. The milk lady who honked her presence and that of her cart and donkey all over town was so sweet, and sat in front of me at church on Sunday. I loved all these people; they were always so cheerful, friendly and honest.

Speaking of honesty. One day the husband of the produce lady greeted me with, "I took 45 centimes from you yesterday. I only realized my mistake after you had gone." (45 centimes is about 1½ cent!!)

But better still: I missed a thousand francs note one day! I knew that the last time I had opened my bill purse was the evening before at a restaurant. We went there at once, and yes, the proprietor had found it. The amazing part was that it had been found many hours after we had left, besides the table, and in the meantime the room had received many clients including soldiers! What luck it had been overlooked by all except the owner of the place who was honest! But to have proven time after time the honesty of the French is not unusual. This story traveled quickly all over town, and turned up in amazing places and from the mouths of people I had never seen! I don't suppose that there are many folks in that town who ever see a thousand francs note. (about $30!)

We went to church on Sunday. It was full of town people, officers and soldiers. The kindly faced white haired old priest was a picture, but I was disappointed when he said that the Mass was held for the victory of France, and I was not the only one. We would have preferred him to say "For Peace."

Philippe was always thrilled, and I must say I was too, by the magnificent fighter planes that flew over Dammartin. The strength of their pulsating motors, the beauty and grace of their design would thrill anyone. On the edge of Dammartin was a battery of anti-aircraft guns, and one of these planes, evidently flown by an ace judging from the way he handled his ship, came very often to practice attacking anti-aircraft machinery. From a height he would dip and roar down upon these guns at terrific speed, seeming just to miss touching the ground, and then climb again suddenly at a steep angle that dived over the main street of the town, and once over our little house that seemed to settle a bit to avoid being struck. I easily saw the pilots.

Having seen these planes disappear into the landscape and hearing that they were kept tunneled under the ground we decided to go exploring, so one day Philippe, Donald, Delille and I started off across the fields. When we were so tired of walking and not yet having found our destination we almost gave up, but a little rise showed us it was only a bit farther. There we found the planes, 22 of them dotting a field, the pilots being harbored in buildings connected with a beet refinery. We talked with the pilots, and "my" soldiers seemed to envy them their dangerous but free life, and the cleanliness of that branch of the army. Then we started back, stealing a ride in a beet wagon for a bit of the way, but the going was so rough over the cobble stones that we were not relieved of our fatigue. On reaching Dammartin we found that we had walked nearly ten miles.

I did not feel war or see many serious signs of it at Dammartin. At first, all night long it seemed, trains in the valley passed, going, as we were told, to the front loaded with armaments and supplies. Planes passed too at intervals of fifteen minutes from the N.W. to the S.E., making us think they were English planes coming from Britain to an aviation center perhaps at Meaux where there are said to be English planes.

My only air raid warning up to date was experienced one morning, or hardly experienced because being shut up in the kitchen and on the edge of the town, I did not even hear the sirens! Philippe arrived suddenly and breathlessly to get his gas mask as required, and announced the warning. Mum was there then, so we went out in the garden to scan the North Eastern horizon to no avail, and the end of the alert was announced thirty minutes later. In the paper the following day I read that a reconnaissance plane had crossed the frontier; that was all!

I have said practically nothing of the attitude of the soldiers toward the war. Every night at dinner there were deep discussions on all sorts of subjects but the present war always poked its nose in sooner or later. I think the morale of the men wonderful, especially in considering that they are going into this war with their eyes open. They do not hate the Germans and would kill only in self- defense. Philippe said that if he saw a German come out of a trench to go to the "Johnny" he would give him the wound that he himself wishes in the leg! The men laughed at the newspaper propaganda because they recognize it so easily, they are not being taken in! An American journalist at the front writing for the "Paris Soir" told how a lone Frenchman attacked forty Germans all by himself, killing some of them, and receiving three wounds himself. Guillon, the humorist of the group, remarked dryly, "He forgot to say that all the Germans had for defense were spades." The men go into detailed explanation and discussion on wounds, the horror of war at the front, etc. calmly and without display of fear, apprehension, or alarm. Philippe, who presumably has to face war in an armored car knowing that shells are made these days expressly for cars and tanks, shells that pierce the metal sides and explode in the interior, blowing everything to pieces, is the perfect example of calmness and fortitude. He has overcome all fear of death, to the point when he can say frankly, "It does nothing to me to think of having one of my legs blown one direction, the other in another, and my head someplace else!" I think that is wonderful. I really can't say what my reaction would be were I in his shoes. Delille is the pessimist, the fatalist. Where Philippe knows in his heart of hearts that he is coming back, André is just as sure that he himself is not! André is not fighting for any worthwhile reason, whether it be false or no, nor has he an ideal of any kind. He believes that the whole state of things, war included, is caused by the Jews. He loves to argue and is intelligent as well as being gifted in expressing himself, but he is an extremist. What the others are seeking is some sort of equilibrium, in this topsy-turvy world; hence André makes himself unhappy and unpopular. He is to be pitied.

Donald Tritsch is a nice fellow, kind and a gentleman. In discussions he has fixed ideas, almost stubborn ones, and hence is incapable of arguing broadly and intelligently. He is not a thinker. Steilhin is always gay, seeing both sides of a question and perceiving clearly when it comes to evaluation of ideas.

Philippe may be my cute husband but I can see his abilities in an unprejudiced light, believe it or not. He is the sanest man I know. If in a discussion he takes part as he usually does and seems to enjoy, he is just and well balanced in his judgement. If he stumbles upon a prejudice, he says so at once! How many people do that, or can do it? What a pair he and André make, André lacking idealism, Philippe full of it.


Excerpted from "An American Heroine in the French Resistance"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Judy Barrett Litoff and Jim Calio.
Excerpted by permission of Fordham University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note,
Introduction: Women and the French Resistance: The Story of Virginia d'Albert-Lake Judy Barrett Litoff,
Remembering My Mother Patrick d'Albert-Lake,
Part I: The Diary, October 11, 1939–April 1944,
1 Outbreak of War to the Fall of France, October 11, 1939–June 23, 1940,
2 Life after the Fall of France, June 24, 1940–August 29, 1940,
3 Life after the Fall of France, September 1940–April 1944,
Part II: The Memoir, "My Story",
4 Working for Comet Escape Line and Arrest, Fall 1943–June 14, 1944,
5 Imprisonment at Fresnes and Romainville, June 15, 1944–August 15, 1944,
6 Deportation to Ravensbrück, August 15, 1944–August 22, 1944,
7 Internment at Ravensbrück and Torgau, August 22, 1944–October 16, 1944,
8 Internment at Könisgberg, October 16, 1944–February 2, 1945,
9 Return to Ravensbrück, February 2, 1945–February 28, 1945,
10 Liebenau, February 28, 1945–Late May 1945,
11 Epilogue,
Afterword Jim Calio,
Further Reading,

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An American Heroine in the French Resistance: The Diary and Memoir of Virginia D'Albert-Lake 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Leonard/Trudy Kane More than 1 year ago
This was a great book. The details were fantastic! I loved the set up of the "footnotes", which were easily accesable as I read. I found them very informative and helpful to read as I read the book. It took a little bit longer to read but helped make the book more informative. It made it very easy to get back to the place where I was reading. The struggle that Virginia went through and her strength was amazing. She helped so many people without any selfish motives. It made me appreciate more the sacrifices that men and womem did during WWII. My life is blessed because God put these people to help rid this world of the tyranny of those years!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a personal account of life as a political prisoner in German Nazi encampments and is not a dry recitation of history, but rather a passionate, real and often unbelievable account of the strength of an American woman, married to a Frenchman and how she survives her ordeal guided by the love of her adopted country and her man. The writing is superb and the book a page turner. I teared many times and, as with most great books I read, I didn't want it to come to an end. Yes, I highly recommend this book.