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Homegrown courage

A new book celebrates a former St. Petersburg resident's heroics with the French Resistance, and her bravery in the face of Nazi captors.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF
Published July 24, 2006


The 34-year-old woman was within miles of her destination, a camp in the woods to hide the American pilot she was smuggling out of German-occupied France. Then she saw the black car.

The country road they traveled on bicycles was otherwise deserted. The car stopped, and three German police officers got out. Virginia d'Albert-Lake told the officers she was out searching local farms for fruit and eggs. She presented her identity papers, then hopefully pushed her foot against a pedal.

"Stop," roared one of the officers.

The airman attempted to fake the French citizenship shown on his documents, but he could not speak the language.

Virginia knew, on that summer day in 1944, that she was doomed.

"Something broke inside me," she wrote later. "The sun that only a few minutes ago was so bright and warm, now seemed eclipsed by a grey fog. Disappointment and fear clothed me in a hot vapor. Sweat started in my armpits; my scalp tingled; I had no choice but to stand there in the center of the dusty road, grip my handle bars, and wait."

The girl who had grown up in a citrus grove in St. Petersburg, dabbled in theater at St. Petersburg High School and helped her mother start a school on the family's farmhouse porch would spend the next 11 months in German prisons. She had worked with the French Resistance for two years, defying the Nazis who overran her beloved adopted country. After her capture, she would defy starvation and despair in their brutal work camps.

She decided "to cling to the border line between life and death."

 

***

 

Virginia d'Albert-Lake received France's highest civilian award, the Legion of Honor, for her work with the Resistance in 1943 and 1944. She and her husband, Philippe d'Albert-Lake, are credited with saving 66 airmen downed behind enemy lines during World War II. The Resistance smuggled an estimated 4,000 airmen out of France, Belgium and Holland.

Virginia died Sept. 20, 1997, at the age of 87. Philippe, a native of France, died about two years later.

"What's so striking about Virginia is that there were so very few American women in the Resistance. Most returned to the United States during the war," says Judy Barrett Litoff.

Litoff is the editor of the newly published An American Heroine in the French Resistance: The Diary and Memoir of Virginia d'Albert-Lake Fordham University Press, 2006. The book contains Virginia's diary of wartime France, kept until her capture, and her prison memoir, written soon after she was freed by the Allies.

Litoff began work on American Heroine after Virginia's death, when son Patrick d'Albert-Lake gave Litoff access to the family papers. A history professor at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., she has written 10 books about women's lives during World War II. In American Heroine, she provides an introduction and extensive footnotes to give historical context to Virginia's story.

"She never revealed the nature of her work in two months of interrogation in prison in France," says Litoff during a phone interview. "This was a woman who did the right thing." 

***

Virginia was born in 1910 in Dayton, Ohio, the first of three children of Franklin and Edith Roush. The family moved to St. Petersburg when Virginia was 11 and lived in a farmhouse in a 10-acre citrus grove on the border of what is now Gulfport. Her father, a doctor, later established a medical practice. But he suffered from poor health when they arrived in Florida.

"My mother was in charge of everything," Virginia's younger sister, Eleanora Smith, said in a recent interview.

Mrs. Roush made lemon and mulberry pies for sale. The children collected oranges on the ground and sold the fruit by the bucket. "We kids ran the filling station at the end of our property. We could change your oil. I could do everything," said Eleanora, now 92 and a resident of Reston, Va.

Virginia attended St. Petersburg High School and St. Petersburg Junior College and graduated from Rollins College in 1935. She helped with her mother's small private school. Frank, the youngest, would be a doctor and, like his father, practice medicine in St. Petersburg after serving in the medical corps in the Philippines.

As the middle child, Eleanora said, she was "very quiet." Virginia was not. "She would say things that no one else dare say."

On a trip to Europe in 1936, Virginia met Philippe on a blind double date. She fell madly in love with the Frenchman, who worked for a British shipping company. Her mother took to her bed for a week at the prospect of her daughter moving so far away.

Virginia would reside in France the rest of her life. As the Germans pushed closer, she wrote newsy letters home, and her mother would get them published in the St. Petersburg Times. On May 31, 1940, she described the retreat of the French army, enclosing a photo of a street clogged with refugees, ox-drawn carts piled high with belongings.

"It seems to me that we've had one shock after another," she wrote. "It's about time the enemy had one."

 

***

 

Virginia's first entry in her diary was in October 1939, Litoff says. It makes no mention of her work with the Resistance. It would have been too dangerous to put it in writing: Resistance was punishable by death.

In fall 1943, Virginia and Philippe were building a hideout for themselves at their cottage in Nesles, fearing the Germans who had arrested so many would come for them. As they worked to disguise a piano box with moss and pine needles, they were surprised to see the village baker drive up. He asked them to come to his shop.

They met three American airmen shot down over France, young and homesick and overjoyed to meet another American. Virginia and Philippe spent a sleepless night. They decided to work for the Underground.

"It would be worth every risk run just to meet more boys like those tonight," wrote Virginia, "and lead them right under the German noses back home."

By 1944, there were 100,000 members in resistance movements in France, some gathering intelligence, others sabotaging railways. The d'Albert-Lakes worked the Comet escape line, extending from Brussels to Paris and south to Spain. They hid airmen in their apartment in Paris and their home in Nesles, says Litoff, until they could get them to the train or another guide.

The Americans were smitten with Virginia. She had blue eyes and sang American songs. She taught them how to eat and dress to pass as French. She would walk arm-in-arm with them through the streets of Paris, chatting in French and keeping them quiet, until it was safe to send them on the next leg of their trip.

"She had no fear whatsoever," recalled Thomas Yankus, a pilot shot down over France, in comments printed in the book.

Virginia recounted the arrests of two airmen on a train to Bordeaux, betrayed by a German spy in the Resistance. "One (of) the most courageous men on our line followed our rat into a hole . . . a small bistro in Paris where they both ordered dinner," she wrote. When the spy left the table to make a phone call, a poisoned tablet was dropped in his drink.

"What a relief!" wrote Virginia. "Now we could start work again!"

 

***

 

On the day of her capture, Virginia, Philippe and other Resistance members were escorting 11 aviators 75 miles to a camp hidden in the woods. To deflect attention, they were divided into small groups. Virginia was escorting one airman; Philippe was traveling in another group.

Standing on the country road with the airman and the Germans, Virginia watched as one officer opened her purse, then realized in horror that inside, along with her compact and nail file and fountain pen, was a list of addresses of members of the Underground. To her amazement, the officer put everything back and returned the purse.

Virginia and the airman were taken to the station at Chateaudun. As she waited, she took the list she had managed to sneak out of her purse and shred it inside her pocket, then swallowed it bit by bit. She was thrown in a cellar and told she would be shot at dawn. When she was not shot, she hoped she would be freed before they could take her to Germany. Instead, Litoff says, Virginia was moved Aug. 15, just 10 days before Allied troops entered Paris.

She was one of more than 130,000 women - Germans, Jews, Poles, Russians, French, Jehovah's Witnesses and gypsies - who were imprisoned at Ravensbruck, a labor camp north of Berlin, during the war. Many were starved, shot, strangled, gassed, sterilized and mutilated in medical experiments.

Virginia was transferred to other sub-camps and assigned work details that grew increasingly difficult. At one, she had to dig tree stumps on an airfield with 800 other women in the bitter cold and snow.

"We were doing manual labor from dawn until dusk with hardly anything to eat," she wrote. "We were so hungry we would reach through the fence to get ahold of grass or bushes or anything to eat or chew."

By January 1945, conditions were unbearable. Women would fall unconscious in the snow during roll call. Inmates scavenged in the garbage heap for rotten vegetables.

"The others were skeletons. Their eyes were immense and lifeless," she wrote of friends in camp. She did not know she looked the same.

On the afternoon of April 21, 1945, Virginia was liberated from the prison at Liebenau by Allied and French troops. A fellow prisoner described her as a "terribly emaciated woman" who looked "absolutely ancient." Virginia's head was shaved. She was covered with lice and open sores. She weighed 76 pounds, says Litoff, 50 pounds less than when she was captured.

Her husband, Philippe, was safe. He had made it to the forest on the day of Virginia's arrest and later escaped to London. He told Virginia's mother what had happened in a cable. Mrs. Roush peppered acquaintances, government officials and the American Red Cross with letters pleading for a prisoner exchange. Her brother Frank requested a transfer from the South Pacific to Europe to be closer to Virginia, to no avail.

Mrs. Roush died before her daughter was released. When Virginia began work on her prison memoir, she wrote it as a letter to her mother. She was often asked how she survived.

"You couldn't let them see you weep," she once told an interviewer. "The women who wept at night usually were dead by morning. You couldn't give in."

 

***

 

For a long time, Virginia could not bear to be in the same room with a German, said Eleanora. The airmen she'd rescued sent her birthday and Christmas cards, and she wrote to them.

After the war, Eleanora and Frank traveled with their sister to a reunion in the French countryside with others who had worked in the Resistance. They visited the homes of the people who had helped her. They went to the spot on the road where she had been arrested. Virginia got out of the car.

"She stood there," recalled Eleanora, "then she turned and turned and turned. She didn't say anything. We didn't, either."

Susan Aschoff can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or aschoff@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 23, 2006, 20:55:31]


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