Liberté in Carcassonne

Memorial to the Resistance fighters

It was 75 years ago today that the Nazi troops who had been occupying Carcassonne for almost 2 years received their orders from Hitler to abandon the city. His wishes were carried out the next day by the departing soldiers who had one last despicable act to accomplish. In a compound outside of town where members of the French Resistance were being held prisoner, the Germans detonated all of their remaining munitions in one giant explosion that leveled the building and took everyone inside with it. Several streets in the center of town now bear the names of some of those killed in the blast. While that prison no longer exists, we searched for other buildings that are still standing with stories related to the resistance movement and while this compilation won’t be exhaustive, we did find it as a sign of hope in dreadful times.

Breighthaupt bookstore on rue de Verdun

Since 1932 the bookstore in downtown Carcassonne has been keeping local citizens entertained and informed. Owner Jules Breighthaupt expanded that role in 1940 when he allowed the shop to become a clandestine post office for the Resistance where members were able to leave and/or retrieve messages. The code phrase was to ask for a book by an author who did not exist. The inquirer would then be directed to a high shelf in the back where the “book” could be found. The bookstore continued as an exchange point throughout the war.

Only a block from there is a pharmacy, then owned by the Billot family, that had a reputation for healing ointments. It was these medications, aided by morphine for the pain, that were administered by daughters Madeleine and Geneviève to injured Allied aviators. Once these soldiers had recovered enough to travel they were helped with transportation to Spain. Madeleine was arrested by the Gestapo in July 1944 and sent to a concentration camp in Germany. After the camp was liberated by the Russians, Madeleine returned to Carcassonne where she married and resided until her death in 2009.

St. Francis high school

Albert Louis Joseph Gau was ordained as a priest in 1934 in Carcassonne’s cathedral St. Michael. He joined the resistance movement in 1940 feeling that, “too many dignitaries preached submission to established duty.” Gau lived and worked in what is today the private high school St. Francis on rue des Amidonniers where he used rubber stamps stolen from the Gestapo to create false identity papers. He also drew up fake certificates of baptism for Jews who were trying to get out of France. Sometimes he hid these people in his own apartment but often housed them in what was then the Hotel Vitrac on rue du Pont Vieux that is now occupied by a Russian restaurant. 

Villa Odette on the canal

Along the Canal-du-Midi in the direction of Narbonne is Villa Odette, a tiny summer house that was used to escape the summer heat by the Courtine family who had a handbag shop on the main shopping street in the early 1900s. A later resident was Jesus Rios, a refugee from the Spanish civil war and instrumental in helping to form inside Villa Odette the XIV Corps of Spanish Guerrillas whose mission was to “deliver France from the Nazi invader.”

American parachutist Sully de Fontaine was in charge of rescuing a downed bomber pilot who was being cared for by the Resistance. The escape route would take them over the Pyrenees and Carcassonne was one of the stops. For two nights in March 1944 de Fontaine was hidden in the crypt of the Basilica St. Nazaire despite the Nazi occupation of the medieval walled city. Special Forces officer de Fontaine went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam before settling in Las Vegas until his death this year.

Today, like every year at this time, a solemn ceremony will be held at both the memorial to the Resistance fighters in town and 8 kilometers away at the former prison site that the Nazis blew up and killed all of those imprisoned. I just read about a study released in January of American millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) of whom 49% had little if any knowledge of the Holocaust and as a result were more likely to tolerate neo-Nazism than their counterparts who knew about the murder of 17 million people from 1941 to 1945. The significance of these annual ceremonies in Carcassonne just became apparent.

Sources for today’s post included the three newspapers that serve our area and the blog Musique et Patrimoine de Carcassonne:

Pharmacy once owned by the Billot family
Former Hotel Vitrac
Basilica St. Nazaire

6 thoughts on “Liberté in Carcassonne

  1. Sometimes we sit on our back deck and marvel, in horrified awe, that nazi soldiers marched down our country road just a few short decades ago. Many elderly people in our village recall being children whose families were forced to allow the nazis to sit around their farmhouse tables drinking plonk (all the good wine had been hidden) and who were sworn to silence by their parents during those “visits” lest they inadvertently speak of the Resistance. My English father-in-law was an RAF pilot who was shot down – twice – over France a lived to tell the tale, though he never said much.
    To think that we risk it all again because of a lack of proper education, as well as greed and misplaced power, is horrific. Thanks for the reminder of how brave the resistors in Carcassonne, and all over France, were.

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  2. Hello Bill and Bob, It’s always fun to see my sister and brother-in-law featured in your posts! Hope to see you in December! Hugs, Nancy

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