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Former resistance fighter Noëlla Rouget dies aged 100

Noëlla Rouget is congratulated by former Swiss cabinet minister Pascal Couchepin after receiving the Grand Cross of the National Order of Merit, one of the highest French distinctions. The ceremony was held at the French consul general in Cologny, near Geneva, on February 7, 2020. Keystone

The former resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor Noëlla Rouget, who pardoned her fiancé’s Nazi executioner, has died in Geneva at the age of 100.

This content was published on November 23, 2020 - 15:03
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French President Emmanuel Macron hailed Rouget in a statement on Monday as “a champion of freedom who was the highest embodiment of the values of fraternity and forgiveness”.

Born on Christmas Day 1919 into a family of devout French Catholics, Noëlla Peaudeau was 20 when she joined the Resistance, forwarding parcels and weapons for the Gaullist “Honneur et Patrie” (honour and homeland) movement and for a network of British spies.

In June 1943, she and fellow resistance fighter Adrien Tigeot, to whom she had just got engaged, were betrayed and arrested. Tigeot was tortured and shot; Peaudeau was deported to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women in northern Germany.

Weighing 32 kilos and suffering from tuberculosis, she was released from Ravensbrück in April 1945 as part of a prisoner swap with interned German civilians. After being transported in a convoy through a Germany still at war, she ended up in Kreuzlingen in northeastern Switzerland.

She then spent time recovering in a Swiss sanatorium, where she met and married Genevan pacifist André Rouget, who was very much engaged in the international peace organisation Service Civil International. She and her husband, who died in 2005, moved to Geneva in 1947 and had two children.

Plea for leniency

Like many survivors of the war, Rouget didn’t talk about her experiences for many years. However, in 1962 her past caught up with her with the arrest of Jacques Vasseur, a former French member of the Gestapo who was responsible for 310 deportations, including her own, and 230 deaths, including that of her fiancé.

Rouget, opposed to capital punishment and the idea of revenge, pleaded for leniency before the State Security Court in Paris, which nevertheless sentenced Vasseur to the guillotine in 1965. She then asked French President Charles de Gaulle to pardon Vasseur. De Gaulle agreed, and Vasseur’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

She wrote regularly to Vasseur in prison, without him ever expressing the slightest sign of repentance.

Importance of vigilance

In the 1980s, as Holocaust denial spread, including in Switzerland, Rouget visited schools and parishes in Switzerland and France, bearing witness to her experiences.

From 1997 until 2017 she took part in Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Geneva, participating with young people in the lighting of the six candles representing the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. On several occasions she also accompanied school classes from Geneva to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Meeting students at the International School of Geneva in 2013, Rouget said: “When I speak to you of the suffering we experienced at Ravensbrück, I speak to preach the importance of vigilance among the younger generations, because if Auschwitz was possible, Auschwitz remains possible as long as hatred of people who are different and racism reign in the world.”

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