March 27, 2013

Brutus and the Naked Heroine

During some research into the Polish Interallié network I came across the extraordinary and moving life of Lydia de Korczak Lipski. She had no links to SOE, but she was clearly something special and her story deserves a mention.

Some background first. Interallié was the creation of a determined Polish staff officer, Roman Czerniawski, who chose to stay behind in Paris after the fall of France. He built up a formidable intelligence organisation across Occupied France and became an invaluable source for MI6, but in November 1941 he and more than fifty of his agents were arrested by the Abwehr. Some agreed to collaborate, but Czerniawski held his nerve and cleverly conned his interrogators into sending him to London as a double agent. There was one condition to his freedom, however: as insurance against any further treachery, Czerniawski's agents would be held as hostages. If he cooperated, his comrades would be safe. If he decided to change sides again or renege on the deal in any way, they would suffer the consequences.

But once in England Czerniawski did turn again, and as MI5's agent “Brutus” he became one of the heroes of its double-cross system and a crucial player in the success of the D-Day deception strategy. His MI5 case officers did a tremendous job in fooling Czerniawski's handlers, and to the end the German High Command's faith in Brutus's reports remained unshakeable. But what happened to those he had left behind in France? In his recent book Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, Ben Macintyre states that “When Paris was liberated, so were the hostages”. Unfortunately the truth is much darker.

The Abwehr did not keep its promise. Beginning in March 1943, a total of forty of Czerniawski's agents were packed aboard trucks and deported to concentration camps in Germany; classed as “Nacht und Nebel” (Night and Fog) prisoners - political opponents of the Nazis - they could expect the most brutal treatment and were unlikely ever to see France again. Among them were two Polish émigrés, Wladimir de Korczak Lipski and his teenage daughter Lydia, both of whom Czerniawski had personally recruited. For nearly a year they had worked together as a team, collecting details of troop movements, noting the positions of anti-aircraft batteries, running errands, quietly doing whatever was asked of them. Lydia's passion was for dancing but she also discovered a talent for technical drawing and often copied blueprints of factories and German military installations for Interallié's regular courier to London; the network codenamed her Cipinka.

Lydia de Lipski
Lydia de Lipski

On 18 November 1941, Czerniawski was arrested with his mistress, and the collapse of Interallié soon followed. Within hours his deputy, the extraordinary Mathilde Carré, began giving up nearly everyone she knew, and four days later she led the German secret police to the de Lipski's Montmartre apartment. Not yet seventeen, Lydia would spend the next eighteen months in miserable conditions in La Santé and Fresnes prisons, sometimes in solitary confinement. Smuggling in notes to her, Wladimir tried to keep up her spirits; in one he wrote, “Do not forget that you have great talents, and that one day you can have a beautiful and happy life”. They were reunited briefly at the fortress at Romainville on the outskirts of Paris, but in July 1943 Lydia was deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. There she spent several months in the punishment block, which regularly supplied human guinea-pigs for medical experiments. She later recounted how she had received a mysterious injection from a doctor (possibly the prominent SS surgeon Karl Gebhardt, who was later tried at Nuremberg and hanged) who told her that its effects would not appear for at least twenty-five years.

Lydia after liberation in 1945
Lydia after liberation in 1945
In April 1945 she was saved when a Red Cross transport evacuated her to Denmark (a later one also saved SOE agent Yvonne Baseden) and Wladimir, having himself endured two years in Mauthausen, was reunited with his daughter at a convalescent home in Switzerland. Remarkably, only seven of the forty Interallié agents deported did not return: Wladimir's friend and fellow agent Lucien de Rocquigny had been beaten to death in Mauthausen's dreadful quarry, while others had lived to see liberation only to succumb to typhus before they could be repatriated.

Still only twenty-one, Lydia slowly began to live again. She regained her health, gave birth to a son, and returned to her first love, dancing. By 1950 she was appearing at the Folies Bergères as “Lydia Lova” and quickly became one of its star performers. With the exception of Josephine Baker nude dancers were not associated with Resistance work and some thought her profession undignified, but she could not have cared less.

Lydia Lova
Lydia Lova
In 1960 she was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur (she had already been awarded the Croix de Guerre and a string of other medals), and in 1963 Daily Telegraph correspondent John Izbicki raised her profile still further by publishing a popular biography, The Naked Heroine.

Lydia receiving Légion d'Honneur, 1960
Receiving the Légion d'Honneur, 1960
It led to more press attention and a successful season in London at Soho's Casino de Paris; then in early 1966 she died suddenly, at the age of forty-one. Tests run by doctors never identified the substance she had been injected with at Ravensbrück twenty-six years before: some preferred to believe that it must be the cause, but perhaps her death had been a natural one. Survivors, even ones as defiant, vivacious and inspirational as Lydia Lova, often died before their time.

Further reading:
Roman Czerniawski, The Big Network, George Ronald, 1961.

John Izbicki, The Naked Heroine: From the French Resistance to the Folies Bergeres, Umbria Press, 2014 (first published by Neville Spearman, 1963).

Ben Macintyre, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, Bloomsbury, 2012.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

It takes all kinds.