The Manouchian Group 1944

The German Military Tribunal Judges 24 Terrorists Who Committed 37 Attacks and 14 Derailments

By Pierre Malo

Source: Le Matin, February 19, 1944;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor

An Armenian, Missak Manouchian Led this International Mob, Which Murdered and Destroyed for 2300 francs per Month

Twenty-four defendants have just taken their seats before a German military tribunal composed of a presiding judge and two assessors. It’s 9:10 when the first session opens, in accordance with the sober ceremonial customary in all military courts. To the left the prosecutor, who will present the indictment. To the right six non-commissioned officers and German soldiers with whom they can discuss matters at the end of the hearings. Each is charged with the defense of four defendants. The preliminaries are wrapped up quickly; the swearing in of the assessors and the designation of lawyers. The presiding judge, after having stressed the moral and political importance of the trial, proceeds without delay to the identifying interrogations, whose most characteristic elements will be found below.

Eight men before their judges

After the reading of the indictment the presiding judge gave the order to sixteen defendants to leave the courtroom. There thus remained only eight men. So this is probably the moment to rapidly indicate the order of the trial. The attacks the judges will learn about were grouped in series.

Aside from the leader, Manouchian, who we will find in the other affairs as well, Witchitz and Fontano, the two principal executors, and their accomplices, Rouxel, Salvadori, Luccarini, Cloarec, and della Negra, will have to answer for their crimes.

“All the detainees,” the presiding judge declares in substance, are accused of having participated in France in many attacks against the German army or against the French government and the railroads, without having made themselves recognizable by their regulatory insignia as belonging to a the enemy armed forces, as is prescribed by legal regulations. The investigation reached the following conclusions: after the war of 1914-1918 the MOI (Mouvement Ouvrier International or Main-d'Oeuvre Immigré) was founded. Foreign communists, who expatriated themselves as a result of political or common criminal offenses, moved to France and came together in the MOI. The latter distributed them to distinct sections in accordance with their nationality, while the leadership was entirely Jewish. By 1941 within the MOI a terrorist group was founded (Francs-Tireurs Partisans). The leaders proposed the carrying out of a particularly active fight against elements of the army of occupation and to serve as models for the French groups of the FTP. The groups of the MOI are organized militarily and the leader of the military sector was the accused Manouchian.

A horrifying leader

It must have been difficult for those who saw him once to forget Manouchian’s face. Jet-black hair, eyes dark as night, bushy eyebrows that reached his temples and touched his sideburns, the lower part of his face protruding like a snout. Intelligent – or at least seeming to be so alongside the appalling stupidity of his accomplices – you don’t have to ask him twice not only to get him to tell you his life, but also to casually lay out the mechanism of an organization he entered in July 1943.

“I met Gérard on the train. He spoke to me of the secret army of liberation. Then I met Léon... How many men are in a detachment? Five. Originally I was administratively responsible for five men, then I was confided another task, that of the military leader. Oh, the names changed often! My chief? His name was Ernest. [1]
“And who was Ernest’s chief?”
“All I know is that the French National Committee was under the leadership of the Algiers committee. Our sector, Sector I, was the Paris sector. The MOI provided the cadres.”

Secret Arm Depots

“What was your role?”
“That of an officer (sic). To take orders from my superiors and transmit them to my subordinates. I received intelligence concerning certain objectives and I communicated them to the detachment charged with their execution. Each detachment had its arms and explosives depot, but only one man knew where the depot was hidden.”

Due to space considerations we can’t give a full listing of all the attacks. Pistol attacks succeeded grenade attacks. The victims were many. Killed: 13 German soldiers, 4 French, and 2 Italians; wounded: 30 German soldiers, 30 French, and one Italian.

Witchitz and Fontano shared responsibilities. It was sometimes one, sometimes the other who threw the grenade or pulled the trigger. It even happened that one worked in Paris while the other was in Argenteuil. Fontano one day went as far as Denain.

How were the attacks organized and executed? Nothing could be simpler. As soon as the intelligence was provided by the relevant service (intelligence service) one or two scouts went ahead to reconnoiter the terrain. On the day and hour fixed the executors entered in to action and fled, protected by their accomplices. Who killed? Me, said Witchitz. Who threw the grenade? Me, said Fontano.

“Who gave the orders?”
“Who provided the weapons?”

One must come to terms with this. The only ones who bear names are the arrested accused. The others are only known and designated by a first name: Françoise, Ricardo, Jean Léon, Batiste, Daniel, Gilbert.

One day Fontano was designated to kill a “traitor.”

“How did you know he was a traitor?”
“I didn’t know, sir. I was told this and I believed it. I had faith in my leaders.”

During this time the accomplices weren’t sitting around doing nothing. They “protected.” One of them sometimes forgot if he forced or not. It happed so often!

But let’s move on... So many questions arise. What is the attitude of the accused? How do they answer the questions the presiding judge poses? What is the tone of their confessions?

Twenty-year old bandits

I admit that an unspeakable fear takes hold of me when I try to satisfy the reader. I seek... and I continue seeking. One expression alone answers for my impressions: the accused behave like children caught misbehaving! And that is what is horrible!

Witchitz is twenty, Fontano 22. Their recklessness is dizzying. “I'm the one who fired, sir – I'm the one who threw the grenade” They answer for a murder as if it were a peccadillo. I even saw them smile, a pinched smile, a silly smile, a dreadful smile.

Listen to them tell how they joined the group. Listen to Fontano:

“I didn’t want to go to Italy. My class had just been called to the colors. I didn’t want to be a soldier. So you understand that I got involved so I wouldn’t have to go. I was told I'd be left in peace, that I'd have papers, that I wouldn’t work. Sure, they spoke to me of attacks, but you know...”

He was paid 2300 francs per month. And a few bread tickets!

Listen to Witchitz:

“I was supposed to go to Germany. But I was told that I shouldn’t go.”

2300 francs per month.

Finally, listen to Della Negra:

“Me, you know, I was ready to go to Germany. To work there or here was the same to me. But I love soccer and it was my ambition to go professional. So I stayed here... I knew people who offered my false papers, and...”

He was only paid once, 500 francs.

Let’s stop here. Let’s resist against vertigo. Perhaps we'll someday know what pitiless machine was hiding in the shadows, what monstrous force was hidden behind such lovely names. [2]

The special group, composed of Rajman, Alfonso, and various persons unidentified except for first names, committed eleven pistol and grenade attacks against the German army between February and October 1943 , among them that which cost the life of vice-president Dr. Ritter, generalbevollmashtigter for the employment of French labor. (In total, killed: one German and one French soldier; wounded: 34 German soldiers, one French, and two foreigners).

The tone of the questioning quickly changes. Rajman, who has thick lips and a pale complexion, Alfonso, whose cruel smile causes his thin lips to rise, at least look like killers.

But let’s not return to the preparation and execution of the attacks, which is unchanging. Even though Rajman claims never to have been in any way involved in political activity, he began his career in October 1942 by pasting flyers on walls of the capital. He finally joined a group.

“It was a question of life or death for me,’ he said. “I saw no other way of joining the fight against the army of occupation.”

He doesn’t hide the fact that he joined the fight from racial hatred and desire for revenge. He was paid 2300 francs per month.

“I consider myself a soldier and still consider myself mobilized.”
“But you didn’t conduct yourself like a soldier.”

As for Alfonso, who barely knows how to read and write, he was a commissar in the Red Army during the Spanish Civil War with the rank of captain. The word “red,” used by the presiding judge and repeated by the interpreter (whose virtuosity, it must be said in passing, allows the press to follow the questioning with great ease) doesn’t seem appropriate to Alfonso. He corrects with an ardent voice: “Of the Republican army.” He belonged to the group since June 1943.

“Why did you accept the committing of these attacks?”
“I was obliged to. I was designated by my comrades.”
“And naturally, you knew the goal pursued by the group?”
“Naturally. I was always told I belonged to the French army of ‘liberation.'”
“But you're Spanish.”
’the workers must defend their interests wherever they find themselves.”

Alfonso doesn’t seem to have worked very much over the course of hs life. He, too, was paid 2300 francs per month.

And so went the two first sessions of the trial of Manouchian and his accomplices. Our next article will be dedicated to the activities of the other detachments, whose members will be interrogated in the presence of their chief, Manouchian, the man with the inky gaze.

1. All the names here are fictional [Footnote in the original – Tr.]

2. We know for certain that the Gerard who brought Manouchian into the Resistance was Artur London, later to be a defendant at the Slansky Trial and the author of the famous book The Confession. – Tr.