Women in the French Resistance: Virginia d’Albert by Donna Coulson

Posted by on Dec 6, 2013 in Tributes and Remembrances

Women in the French Resistance: Virginia d’Albert by Donna Coulson
Virginia D’Albert Lake with her infant son

Virginia D’Albert Lake with her infant son

Virginia d’Albert-Lake was born on June 4, 1910, in Dayton, Ohio, the daughter of Franklin and Edith Rousch. Her father was a physician while her mother headed a country day school. The family later moved to St. Petersburg, FL where Virginia worked as a teacher in her mother’s school. She attended an education conference in the UK during the 1930s where she made a side trip to see France. It was there she met and then married her husband, Philippe d’Albert-Lake on May 1, 1937. The couple lived in Paris and also had a cottage in the country. During the Occupation, Virginia kept a detailed diary with postcards and news clippings starting in October 1939. After the war, she would reconstruct her diary. Virginia and Philippe joined the French Underground. Their personal mission was to protect, feed, and help Allied Airmen, who were downed, to escape occupied France. They escorted downed airmen through a hidden forest encampment—handing them off to other protectors called Maquis—as part of the Comet Escape Line. Virginia purchased train tickets for them, walked arm in arm in Paris or in the countryside with the Airmen as if they were good friends.

On June 12, 1944, Virginia was arrested by Feldgendarmes—German police—when a double agent revealed her identity. She carried a list of names and addresses in her handbag that would be of interest to the enemy. So she tore up the papers and swallowed them! She declared to her fellow Maquis: “If they shoot me, they shoot me.  I won’t talk.” She was escorted with Al Widemann of her group to the Gestapo Headquarters in Chartres.  There they were fed bread, soup and cheese that were grey and wormy. The prisoners were required to empty the chamber pots of the Nazis guards.

Next, Virginia was driven back to the southern part of Paris and imprisoned in Fresnes which housed mostly Special Operations Executives (SOEs) and members of the French Resistance. Many Resisters were tortured, kept in dark holes and later executed. Al Widemann went to Staglag Luft I in Barth, Germany. He survived. Neither Al nor Virginia revealed anything to the Nazis. Virginia’s cellmate was Austrian and interrogated in rue des Saussies, The woman was strung from the ceiling by her arms and legs as torture. The Nazis took all lipsticks and mirrors away from the women and allowed them to keep a comb. They were put in Cell 431 on the top floor.

In August 1944, Virginia was imprisoned at Romainville Prison which was a stopping off point for Germany. The inmates were taken to Ravensbruck Concentration camp near Berlin by train and escorted by the SS—loading 60 women per car along with 30 horses and 40 men. The train passed Buchenwald where 43,000 of 240,000 prisoners would die. The Allies were fighting in Ramboulet, 100 miles away from Paris. The City of Lights would be liberated two weeks later. Virginia was also in Torgau prison through October 16, 1944. There they were given one dress which was never washed along with underwear. Virginia was prisoner #57631.

Between October 16, 1944 and February 2, 1945, Virginia was at Konigsberg prison where she met Genevieve DeGaulle, the niece of Gen. Charles DeGaulle. They were both taken to a Repatriation Camp in Strasberg, France, where they were liberated in mid April 1945. Of the 250 imprisoned women, just 25 lived. The other women were shot, gassed, starved or froze to death. In 1997, Germany granted reparations to prison camp survivors.

Virginia Albert being honored for her service to France.

Virginia d’Albert being honored for her service to France.

Virginia was honored for her service to France where she died at age 88 in 1997. Her husband Philippe passed in 2000.

Judy Barrett Litoff wrote a book about Virginia’s war experience, An American Heroine in the French Resistance: The Diary and Memoir of Virginia D’Albert-Lake. (NY: Fordham University Press, 2006.) Another book of interest about the downed airmen is Sherri Green Ottis’ book Silent Heroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground (KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001). For more about the women in the French Underground, see Margaret Collins Weitz’ book, Sisters in the Resistance: How Women Fought to Free France 1940-1945. (NY: Wiley, 1995)

Judy Barrett Litoff wrote a book about Virginia’s war experience, An American Heroine in the French Resistance: The Diary and Memoir of Virginia D’Albert-Lake. (NY: Fordham University Press, 2006.) Another book of interest about the downed airmen is Sherri Green Ottis’ book Silent Heroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground (KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001). For more about the women in the French Underground, see Margaret Collins Weitz’ book, Sisters in the Resistance: How Women Fought to Free France 1940-1945. (NY: Wiley, 1995)

Donna Coulson participated in the Normandy Allies International Experience in 2004, 2007, and 2009.  In 2009, Donna began researching Women of the Resistance.  She has presented her findings to groups in New Jersey.  Future editions of Amitié will feature her continuing research.

Originally published in Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies.
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