Obituary of Annette Beaumanoir, an anti-fascist, anti-imperialist heroine of our times
Annette Beaumanoir was born in Brittany, France, in 1923. Her father, Jean, came from a wealthy family but was cut off with a shilling when he insisted on marrying his beloved, Marthe, the daughter of a lowly farm worker. The family was progressive and anti-fascist, with Jean and Marthe supporting the International Brigades in Spain and participating in a solidarity committee to help people escaping the Franco regime. As a young person she learnt about the horrors being perpetrated against Jewish people in Nazi Germany, although this was information that was largely suppressed in France at the time, as it was in Britain. This was important in persuading her to join the French resistance at the age of 17, in order the better to fight the Nazis.
In July 1940 the Nazis occupied her town. Beaumanoir was mobilised by the Resistance to distribute anti-German leaflets. Around the same time she became a medical student in Rennes but transferred to Paris in 1942, where she acted as a messenger for the communists and herself joined the French Communist Party. While in Paris, she took it upon herself to rescue two Jewish teenagers who were being hidden in a house in an area she learnt was about to be subjected to a Nazi search. She was able to get the two of them away to her parents’ house in Britanny where, not without some scares, they were able to survive the war.
She formed a romantic relationship with another Resistance activist, a German Jewish communist, Rainer Juresthal, codenamed Roland, and became his fiancée. Unfortunately in 1944 he was caught hiding in a barn and shot by a Nazi-affiliated French militia.
She had been moved to Lyons to organise an operation that involved “stealing shoes and blankets” and in August 1944 she took part in the liberation of Marseilles, the only time, she said, she fired a gun, recalling: “I missed.”
She continued with her missions, using code names such as Odile and Soyer. She was in Paris at the time of the final days of the German occupation, manning the barricades. This was where she met the man who was to become her husband, Joseph Roger. They were married in 1948 and had three children: two sons, Jean Henri and Gilles, and a daughter, Myriam. After the war the couple settled in Marseilles where she resumed her medical studies. In time she became a distinguished professor of neurology. By 1957 she had acquired an international reputation and was the first woman to be invited by the Russian Academy of Sciences to study in a Soviet laboratory.
However, she was not destined to resign herself to the respectable life of a renowned medical expert as her anti-fascist conscience soon led her to support the struggle of the Algerian people against French imperialism and colonialism. She visited some friends in Algeria in 1954 becoming appalled at the behaviour of the French colonialists, which she equated entirely with the behaviour of the Nazis in France whom she had fought for so long. She despised every form of racism and couldn’t stand its prevalence among the French colonialsts. She became active in the struggle of Algeria to free itself from French imperialism and colonialism.
Her contribution involved rallying support in France for the Algerian resistance, which included assisting Algerian revolutionaries when they were in France for whatever reason. In November 1959 “the red doctor”, as she became known, was arrested on terrorism charges, after being stopped driving a car in which, Mohamed Daksi, a leading member of the FLN, a terrorist organisation in the eyes of the French government, was a passenger.
She was put on trial which, bearing in mind her high status as an internationally renowned medical expert, generated a great deal of publicity. The trial resulted in her being convicted to 10 years in prison for treason.
As it happened, she was pregnant with her third child at the time and when some months after conviction she had to go into hospital to give birth, then, having done so, she escaped and made her way to Tunisia. In so doing she was forced to leave her husband and three children behind, a necessity that saddened her throughout her life.
In Tunisia she was appointed to work as a psychiatrist for the Algerian army, working with soldiers who had been traumatised by their experience of war. Upon Algeria gaining its Independence, she was appointed as an adviser to the Ministry of Health of the Ben Bella government and was responsible for setting up a whole system of medical and health education.
However, on 19 June 1965 the Ben Bella government was overthrown in a coup by Boumedienne, after which Annette had first to go underground and then leave the country. She could not return to France as she would have been taken straight back to prison to serve out her sentence, but instead went to Geneva, from where she was able to resume her position as a world-renowned doctor, serving as the Head of Mental Health at the Geneva University Hospital, specialising in the treatment of epilepsy.
It was not until the 1990s that Annette received an amnesty from France and was permitted to return home, though she continued until the age of 90 in such works as helping undocumented migrants.
She was asked in her old age whether she would do anything differently if she had her life again. She responded: not at all.
Annette Beaumanoir, French resistance fighter and neurophysiologist, was born on October 30, 1923. She died on March 4, 2022, aged 98.