Stéphane Hessel (1917-2013), war hero, diplomat, writer

It is with pride but also with great sadness that the Alliance Française de Londres pays homage to one of the last surviving members of the France Libre Londonienne who has just died at the age of 95.

We list below links to French and British newspapers which celebrate his life. Here we focus on Hessel’s connection with our historic building at 1 Dorset Square, the RF Section of SOE, and our Marseille research project.

This Grand Résistant made his way to London out of Marseille in early 1941 with the help of his friend Varian Fry, an American who helped many intellectuals and artists to escape the Nazis. (more on Fry and Marseille in 1941 here) In London, Hessel joined Général de Gaulle’s Free French and became the deputy head of its intelligence services and as such, he was a regular visitor to 1 Dorset Square.

When the Director of the Alliance Française de Londres met him, he exclaimed: « J’ai tellement de souvenirs merveilleux de Dorset Square, j’y venais pour rencontrer des amis…! » Indeed, he was witness to the engagement into the Free French Forces of Charles Gimpel, another of our very special agents, both of whom were part of London wartime social scene.

Hessel volunteered for a secret mission and was flown into occupied France in March 1944. Arrested in July, he was interrogated for 29 days, tortured and then deported to Buchenwald with other secret agents and resisters, many of whom knew each other from their special training and work in London.

He owed his miraculous escape from hanging to Wing-Commander Forrest Yeo-Thomas, a senior agent of RF section based at 1 Dorset Square. To implement his escape plan, Yeo-Thomas chose Stéphane Hessel and Harry Peulevé (an SOE F agent), along with himself, to take the identities of 3 dying prisoners. All the others were subsequently executed. In his memoirs, Hessel wrote:

« C’est à Yeo-Thomas de choisir ceux qui en seront les bénéficiaires. Un seul ? Deux? Trois est le maximum. Il choisit un Anglais, Harry Peulevé, et un Français, moi. Pourquoi moi ? Pour qu’il y ait un officier français ? Parce que je parle l’allemand ? Qui sait ? Par amitié peut-être. »

When the Director of the Alliance Française de Londres told him of a Yeo-Thomas classroom at 1 Dorset Square he said, with tears in his eyes:

« Yeo-Thomas, c’est mon sauveur, c’est grâce à lui que je vis encore. C’était un type exceptionnel! »

In his latter years, Hessel encouraged the young to recapture the spirit of the wartime Resistance movement. In 2010, at the Salon du Livre in Aix-en-Provence, he told students « Mon rôle, désormais ? Dire, jusqu'à mon dernier souffle, ce que je dois dire".

A source of inspiration to all generations has left us and we find ourselves bereft.

© CH 2013


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