A Slave’s Legacy Lives On in World War II

In this excerpt from Freedom Papers, learn about a European woman of color's bravery in the 1940s.

Journalist Fay Jackson (University of Southern California); Freedom Papers (Harvard University Press)

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The precise Resistance activities of Marie-José Tinchant, however, are nearly impossible to reconstruct, though later files on her contain an unconfirmed reference to the Réseau Zéro, a noted intelligence network. Marie-José seems by all accounts to have been an exceptionally determined young woman, adored by her father, respected by her twin brother, and prepared to take on the world. Her boldness in her interviews with the press at the time of her marriage suggests a consciousness of her own ancestry that added a new note to her family’s carefully constructed story of Mexican identity. The “colour” to which she referred in London brought her closer to the “Negro” identity invoked by the journalist Fay Jackson, and to the Jamaican or Barbadian migrants who might come to mind when her father was first described in the London press as a tobacco merchant from “the West Indies.” In addition to the nationalist and anti-fascist sentiments that motivated many Belgian recruits to the Resistance, Marie-José had additional reasons to find Nazi ideology repugnant.

In early 1941 Marie-José’s brother José Pierre — who spoke Flemish, German, and English in addition to his native French — managed to persuade his German captors that he was in fact Flemish. As part of a larger strategy of rapprochement with the Belgian region of Flanders, the Germans had decided to treat Flemish prisoners of war as privileged vis-à-vis their francophone Belgian counterparts. The Flemish identification attributed to José Pierre thus conferred the right to be repatriated to Belgium along with other prisoners of war in the same category. He was dropped off at the train station in Antwerp at 5:00 a.m. on January 26, 1941.

As he later recalled it, José Pierre made his way home and found his wife, who had been struggling in his absence and relying on her parents to help raise their daughter Michèle. Unemployed and unwelcome at his in-laws’, José Pierre seems to have been uncertain where to turn next. He soon learned that Marie-José had moved to Brussels. Unable to reconcile with his wife, José Pierre followed his sister to the capital. Having been released from a German prison camp under false pretenses, he was presumably discreet about his precise identity once in the city. By his own account, he too now became involved with the Resistance.

During the first year of the occupation, the German police received many unsolicited letters from Belgians who saw fit to denounce their neighbors for imagined subversive activity. It was perhaps not a propitious moment for Marie-José Tinchant to be living as a single mother in an apartment in central Brussels, presumably with furtive visits from her brother and others. Marie-José left the apartment at Rue du Damier after just five months and was next registered as living at 12 rue du Théâtre, about half a mile farther out, just beyond the city’s ring of boulevards. This corner of the Quartier du Nord was lively and full of small stores, but its buildings had been slated for destruction for at least a decade, and the neighborhood had been losing population. After the German invasion, however, refugees from the countryside sought accommodation in its many empty apartments, seeking safety in numbers. Marie-José now did the same; perhaps it was not a bad place to find allies and avoid attention.

Then, on November 30, 1941, the ax fell. Marie-José Tinchant was arrested by what her brother referred to as the Gestapo. (The precise administrative term in Belgium for the overarching unit of which the Gestapo was a part was the Sipo, short for Sicherheitspolizei, or security police.) Surviving records confirm that Marie-José was first held in the St. Gilles prison in Brussels, and then, on December 10, transferred to Antwerp.

José Pierre, believing the police to be on his trail as well, escaped occupied Belgium through France to Barcelona and then Lisbon. After presenting himself to a sympathetic consul, he declared his intention to reenlist with the Belgian forces in exile. The consul advanced him some money to enable him to reach Gibraltar, and take a boat for Britain. Pierre José subsequently trained in England as a member of the Special Air Service and would be parachuted into the Ardennes in September 1944.

In 1940-1941, mindful of experiences in World War I, the occupying Germans were somewhat reluctant to hold Belgian women as prisoners, for fear of creating martyrs. At some point after December 10, 1941, the police apparently released Marie-José, perhaps for lack of proof. She and the children were subsequently entered into the civil registry as residing at 27 rue Frère Orban, in Brussels. An inquiry after the war, however, turned up no recollection of her among the neighbors at Rue Frère Orban. It may be that the registration had been done by a complaisant local official, and that she was living clandestinely elsewhere. As of December 1942 there was no further trace of Marie-José in the civil registers anywhere in Brussels. Her children seem to have been cared for by her sister Liliane and by their paternal grandparents. She had presumably gone fully into hiding.

In Marie-José’s absence, her husband André V. filed for divorce, alleging improper personal behavior on her part; he made no mention of politics. He listed her residence as Rue Damier in Brussels, although she had long since left that address. On June 8, 1943, the court granted a divorce to André V., ending his marriage to Marie-José Tinchant, “whereabouts unknown,” hence receiving no formal notice of the proceedings.