Remembering Jeannie de Clarens
A critical link in helping the allies defeat Nazi German, she pursued a career in conference interpreting after the war – and never uttered a word of German again.
Jeannie de Clarens (née Rousseau), who died peacefully at the age of 98 at her son’s home in France on August 23, 2017, was a Paris-based colleague and an AIIC member of long standing. Many will remember this stylish French A, English B, Spanish C interpreter – and indeed her “Cours d’expression française” at ESIT left a lasting impression on numerous former students. Few, however, knew that her main foreign language had been German because after the war she never uttered a word of it, nor about the circumstances that had led to her deportation to Ravensbruck. And yet it was thanks to her knowledge of German that she joined the French Resistance in 1940, later becoming an active member of the Alliance intelligence network, which worked directly with the British Intelligence Service. And it was through her espionage activities that the Allies obtained vital information about the V2 rocket-testing facilities at Peenemunde, leading to massive RAF bombing raids. The ensuing delay in completing the V2 programme saved many lives.
It all started at Dinard, in Brittany, where Jeannie’s father had taken his wife and daughter when the German armies invaded France in May 1940. Jeannie was a brilliant young Sciences Politiques graduate with good knowledge of languages, particularly German. Her father had been in the Diplomatic service and had seen to it that his only daughter would be capable of exploring broad horizons. So when his friend, the Mayor of Dinard, said that he needed someone to help him in his dealings with the occupying forces, he immediately “volunteered” Jeannie. Soon after she was passing on information to the Resistance, but as time passed the Germans grew suspicious and in 1941 she was arrested and imprisoned at Rennes. She was released for lack of proof, and also because several young German officers vouched for her – such a charming girl wouldn’t harm a fly! She was forced, however, to leave Dinard.
She returned to Paris and got a job with a section of the Chamber of Commerce engaged in constant negotiations with the occupiers who controlled everything, including all purchases of raw materials and imports. She was therefore a regular visitor to the Hotel Majestic, the headquarters of the German Military High Command (and which was to house UNESCO after the war). She realised that she was beginning to hear, and see, things that could be useful to the Allies - but she had no contacts. And then one night on a train she met a man she had known at the Sorbonne, Georges Lamarque. There were no empty seats, so they stood talking quietly in the corridor. And that is how Jeannie became Amniarix in a small outfit called the Druids that Lamarque was setting up in the Alliance network. Having an excellent memory, she picked up a lot of information from listening to German officers talking among themselves; they enjoyed the company of this charming and apparently harmless young French girl who spoke their language.
At the same time she became indispensable to her French employers, who even sent her to Germany to further their industrial undertakings. And that is how she was able to gather information about Peenemunde. The reports she drafted on her return were passed on through the Alliance network to the British. There was a fair amount of disbelief - rockets were unknown at the time - but Reginald Jones, the scientist in charge of RAF intelligence, was impressed with the precision of the reports and sent them on to Churchill. Hence the massive raids in August 1943. After the war, through a BBC television programme, Jones met the author of the remarkable reports. They were both honoured by the CIA in 1993.
In April 1944 the British decided they wanted to debrief Jeannie, who certainly had a lot to say beyond what went into her reports. She and several others were to be picked up in northern Brittany by a British patrol boat, but the Germans got there first and they were all arrested. Fortunately, Jeannie’s captors never connected the Madeleine Chauffour of her ID card, who was peddling nylon stockings (!), with Jeannie Rousseau… All the same she was deported to Ravensbruck on August 15, 1944.
Jeannie’s life in the camps is an epic story in its own right. Speaking fluent German, she was the natural spokeswoman for her comrades in misfortune, including when 400 of them refused to work in a German ammunition factory. The camp authorities singled her out for special “treatment” as a ringleader, and when she was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in April 1945 she was suffering from severe tuberculosis and barely alive.
After the war, she spent some time in a sanatorium where she met her future husband, Henri de Clarens, who was recovering from Buchenwald and Auschwitz. She returned gradually to normal life and became a conference interpreter, first with SHAPE, then as a freelance.
I first met Jeannie in 1946 in Auvergne, where she was convalescing. When she felt well, she would take several of her young admirers to tour the lakes in the German BMW convertible the Americans had given her – they knew of her exploits. She was already engaged to Henri; she knew she could live only with someone who didn’t need to be told about what she had been through.
Years later, when we had both long since retired, I used to go and see her regularly in Paris. And like many others, I urged her to write about her amazing experiences. She always demurred, with a variety of excuses, saying that what she had done was nothing extraordinary – information was put in her way and obviously she had to pass it on… And then there was a fire in her apartment and her note-books were lost… She accepted, however, to talk to me and be recorded. But the only real interview she ever gave was to David Ignatius, for the Washington Post. It appeared in 1998 and can be found here on the Mémoire de guerre website. When she died, the New York Times published this long article about her.
Whatever Jeannie might say, what struck me most, apart from the real courage she had shown, was the extraordinary self-discipline required to keep up a totally fictitious personality, to be able to respond naturally to an unexpected question about what you were doing on such and such a date, in such and such a place… Lies, all lies, ever at her fingertips. She told me that after several years of lying 24 hours a day, getting back to normal human relations had not been easy.
Jeannie was made a member of the Légion d’Honneur in 1955 and a Grand Officer of the same in 2009.
We owe you a lot, Jeannie. It is thanks to people like you that today we are free.
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