When Napoleon III came to Vichy to take the waters for the first time in 1861, the town had only one church, the church of Saint-Blaise. Its priest, Father Dupeyrat, wanting to preach in a more majestic setting, asked the emperor to build a larger and better-situated church. Napoleon accepted and the church of Saint-Louis opened in 1865.
During the Second World War, the church of Saint-Louis played a key role in government protocol in Vichy. Official masses were held there, including for the funeral of General Huntziger, France’s war minister, in November 1941, in the presence of Marshal Pétain.
Marshal Pétain not only attended official events there, he also often went to Sunday morning services. Since the Catholic Church played a major role in the moral recovery the government wanted to achieve, he had to set an example.
Although most Catholics were favourable to the changes proposed by the new regime, several priests, including Father Dillard, objected to its increasingly radical measures.
Father Dillard regularly officiated at the church of Saint-Louis from 1942 and in his sermons subtly criticised the government’s anti-Semite measures and economic policies. When the Service du Travail Obligatoire* – Compulsory Work Service – was implemented in February 1943, he went to Germany to organise a clandestine chaplaincy for French workers. He left Vichy disguised as a worker.
After several months in Germany, he was denounced and arrested by the Gestapo. He was deported to Dachau, where he died in January 1945.
* STO: In February 1943 the French government passed a law obliging all young men born between 1920 and 1922 to do compulsory work service in Germany.
Roger Kespy was born to a Jewish family in Algiers in 1908. He moved to Paris in the middle of the 1920s and then to Vichy in 1935. As a radio set manufacturer, he owned a workshop on 25 rue Durand, where he lived with his family.
Kespy enrolled in the Resistance as early as 1940. He made portable radios and salvaged arms that had been abandoned by the French Army and which he hided in a safe place in both Vichy and Cusset. In 1942, after joining the Armée secrète, he organized and guided a maquis in the Bois Noirs, located around 100 kilometers from Vichy. In 1943, his maquis was integrated into the Mouvements Unis de Résistance and Kespy became the leader of a local action group.
He was arrested by the Milice on January 24, 1944 in Lapalisse and was handed over to the Germans. After spending seventy days in the hands of Vichy’s Gestapo, he was transferred to the “Mal-Coiffée”, the German military prison of Moulins. Being both Jewish and a Resistant, the guards did not spare him from any physical suffering whatsoever. After several days, he was reduced to no more than “human rags.” Yvette Monceau, held in the same prison, explained that he was “so horribly treated that the bones in his legs were showing.” Each time he lost consciousness, he would be taken out of the room and left in the vestibule. After questioning another prisoner, the Germans “[went back] to the miserable Kespy who, undressed and chest exposed, straddling a chair, was called a ‘dirty Jew’ [and was] hit again with anything they could get their hands on until he once again lost consciousness.” *
Kespy would be finally executed on July 25, 1944 in the forest of Marcenat.
A commemorative plaque was placed on his home/workshop one year after his death. In 1944, a square was named in his honor (“Place Jean Epinat”).
* Yvonne Henri Monceau, Une prison militaire allemande à Moulins. La Mal Coiffée, p. 53.
The Marco-Polo network was a part of 266 intelligence networks having operated in France during World War II. It was created in November of 1942 by Commander Pierre Sonneville. Subordinate to the Central Bureau of Information and Action of Free France, the network evolved rather quickly. In Vichy, its members could count on the unfailing help of several individuals, among whom were the Police Commissioner Marc Juge, Madame Chabrol, Henri and Yvonne Moreau, as well as René Chabrier and his companion Yvette Poucy.
René Chabrier and Yvette Poucy lived at 44 Avenue Paul Doumer. One of their missions consisted of identifying civil servants or employees from ministries and public administrations which were the most susceptible to damage or harm the Resistance. The information gathered by the couple and by the Marco Polo agents were assembled, summarized, and then sent to Lyon or Mâcon before being transmitted to superior authorities of the Resistance.
On 18 January 1944, Commissioner Marc Juge, who played a key role within the network (and lover of Yvette Poucy), was arrested. His friends and collaborators would only hold out for one month longer. On 23 February, it was Henry Moreau, René Chabrier and Yvette Poucy’s turn to be arrested by French agents of the Gestapo.
The couple was quickly separated. While Yvette was transferred to the Moulins Prison, then sent to Fort de Romainville and deported to Germany, René Chabrier was interrogated for several hours by the Sipo-SD of Vichy, before being transferred to Moulins then to Clermont-Ferrand, where he was referred to the German Military Court accompanied by Marc Juge and Henri Moreau. The court condemned them to death “for espionage at the expense of an enemy power”. They were shot by the Gestapo on 25 March 1944.
Yvette Poucy, detained in Ravensbrück, would not learn of their death until after her liberation in April of 1945.
On 2 June 1941, the Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs (housed in the Algeria Hôtel) adopted the second Statute on Jews.* This decree specified the definition of “Jew,” lengthened the list of professions Jews were prohibited to exercise and ordered a census of the Jews living in the Unoccupied Zone. In Vichy, this census was carried out at the Ecole Carnot. 2,050 Jews were identified. Xavier Vallat, head of the Commissariat, considered this number too high and all “undesirable” Jews were pursued and expelled from the town. The methods the government employed were effective because in 1943 there were only 650 Jews in Vichy (595 of whom were French). At the end of the war, only a handful remained.
When the 1941 census was carried out, Fernand Lafaye was a teacher at the Ecole Carnot. Disagreeing strongly with French government policies, he applied for early retirement and joined the Resistance. Initially, Lafaye helped in the transport of weapons and established contacts between several resistance groups. At the end of 1943, he joined his daughter Anne-Marie and his son-in-law Max Menut in the Auvergne maquis. Aged 57, he was one of the eldest members of this resistance group. He took charge of their radio broadcasts then in May 1944 joined the health service of the Mont-Mouchet maquis. Shortly afterwards he was caught in an ambush and died.
In 1944, the Ecole Carnot was renamed the Ecole Fernand Lafaye. In 1972, after renovation work, the Ecole Fernand Lafaye (a boys’ school) and the Ecole Sévigné (a girls’ school) merged to become the Ecole Sévigné-Lafaye.
* The first Jewish Statute was decreed on 3 October 1940 (see the Algeria Hôtel for more information)
Meeting with Fred Scamaroni
When France signed the armistice with Germany in June 1940, Fred Scamaroni, formerly private secretary to the prefect of the Doubs, decided to continue the fight. Hearing General de Gaulle’s appeal, broadcast on BBC Radio on 18 June, he went to London and joined the Free French Forces.
He was immediately sent on a mission to Dakar but was arrested as soon as he arrived. He was interned in several local prisons, then transferred to the military prison in Algiers. When he was finally freed in late December 1940, he went to Vichy, where he found employment as a clerk in the Supply Ministry. In parallel, he created the “Copernic” intelligence network.
In Vichy, he became friends with Hélène and Alphonse Juge, who gave him bed and board. Alphonse Juge, who was personnel manager at the Ministry of Information, provided him with priceless intelligence. With the aid of Hélène and Alphonse Juge, at their home Scamaroni organised a meeting with delegates of the “Combat” and “Liberté” resistance movements. For Scamaroni, who was attempting to structure the Resistance in the Free Zone, these contacts were crucial.
Scamaroni was recalled to London in December 1941. A year later, he was sent on a mission to Corsica. In March 1943, he was arrested by Italian counter-espionage agents. He was horrifically tortured then committed suicide rather than reveal anything. He cut his throat with metal wire and before he died he wrote these words with his blood on the wall of his cell: “Vive la France, vive de Gaulle.”
In 1842, this large mansion, until then the private residence of its wealthy owners, was transformed into a hotel. In order to attract an up-market clientele, its new owner claimed that Madame de Sévigné stayed here when she came to take the waters in Vichy. This has never been proven but it was a successful marketing ploy… And when it became a luxury hotel at the beginning of the 20th century, it was naturally renamed the “Hôtel Sévigné.”
During the First World War, the building was used as a temporary hospital.
It was requisitioned again in 1940. Early in July, it became the temporary residence of the President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun. It was subsequently allotted for Marshal Pétain’s private use, but he lived there rarely, preferring the more central Hôtel du Parc. Nevertheless, the Pavillon Sévigné was still regularly used by the Head of State, who held several cabinet meetings and official receptions there. On 17 December 1940, for example, Pétain chose the Pavillon Sévigné rather than the Hôtel du Parc, to host the German ambassador, Otto Abetz.
Despite the mansion’s requisition, the owners, Élisabeth François and her brother, were allowed to keep a few rooms for their personal use. As the war was intensifying, they allowed Éclaireurs de France, France’s scouting association, of which they were members, to use these rooms as their provisional headquarters. Until the end of the war and despite Pétain’s regular presence, scouts who had taken refuge in Vichy actively aided Jews and STO (Compulsory Work Service) deserters to leave France or go into hiding.
In 2010, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, honoured Élisabeth François and her husband Pierre François, as “Righteous Among the Nations.”