A cell in the WWII resistance network
In May 1944, three German officers knocked on the door of 11 Avenue Foch. Phillip Jackson, then aged 16, opened the door and the officers told the family that they were under arrest. Phillip and his parents, Sumner and Toquette, were taken to concentration camps a few days later.
In order to lure more people, the officers first laid a “mousetrap”; they waited in the house, hoping to arrest anyone who came to visit. The Jackson residence had been a Resistance information centre during the Nazi occupation of Paris.
“Nobody was arrested because of me and my mother and her maid,” says Phillip Jackson. “We were very fortunate. The apartment was on the ground floor with several windows on the street. We took turns at the window.”
Phillip Jackson sits in a wheelchair in his room just across the river from his old home, in Paris’s Hôpital des Invalides, where he has lived since he lost his balance after falling off a ladder 10 years ago. His eyes fill with tears at times as he remembers his life. His strong voice occasionally cracks, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of the story.
“I didn’t go out in the métro with a dagger between my teeth,” he says. “We were in charge of information, not action. Our apartment was a rendezvous for messages and money – never arms – and it was useful, it being a doctor’s apartment where people could come and go naturally.”
Messages, money and sometimes even people were dropped off and picked up by a network of underground resistance workers. Messages were sent to Vichy, sometimes sewn into stinking cheeses by a man called Renaudot, or, more commonly, R. From Vichy, inside information on the German positions, the results of allied bombings or advice on targets were broadcast by wireless to London.
“There are many things my parents did at the apartment concerning resistance work and that my father did at the hospital that we never talked to each other about, because if we were arrested and tortured we could have given things away,” he says. “Even at the end when we were in concentration camps together at the end of my father’s life, there were things he never told me, which I only found out later.”
Toquette and Sumner protected their son from knowledge as much as possible, but when R. asked for him, Phillip became a 15-year-old resistance spy. The Allies needed photographs of a German submarine base, the 15-year-old Phillip was sent to Saint-Nazaire and pressed into action. The Germans did not allow anyone near the base except schoolchildren, who were taken there for field trips.
Phillip and his father spent a year in Neuengamme camp after being arrested on Avenue Foch. At the end of the war, they were moved onto a ship in the Baltic Sea. The British ordered all the ships to return to port and sank the rest. Sumner and Phillip Jackson were on board; 10,000 people were killed, most of them prisoners, including Sumner Jackson.
“I escaped because I was good swimmer and I was very lucky,” says Phillip. “I was, of course, naked, and it was very cold in the Baltic Sea, I can tell you, on 3 May 1945.”
The swimmers were rescued by German boats and were taken to shore near Lübeck in northern Germany.
“They lined us against the wall to get rid of us,” he says. “As they were getting their machine guns ready, the English tanks arrived at the end of the road. That was in the afternoon, the next day. I was naked. I took a blanket draped it around me and I went out in the street and I happened on a British captain and I said, ‘Sir, can I do anything for you, I’ve escaped and I’m alone now’.” Jackson then enrolled in the British army and only came back to Paris in September 1945.
Jackson’s mother met him at the Etoile of the Arc de Triomphe when he came back to Paris after the end of the war. He was wearing a uniform and carrying a little suitcase filled with pistols.
“The first thing she said was ‘what do you think of Poles?’ and I said, ‘the same as you!” says Jackson. Toquette had been in Ravensbrück concentration camp, where survival was almost miraculous. Mother and son had both had a bad experience of Polish prisoners of war, who had become intermediaries between the Germans and the other prisoners, making life in their respective camps more difficult.
Phillip Jackson is quick to point out that he has nothing against Poles, and what he doesn’t mention is that after the war he spent years of his life encouraging Franco-German relations.
The two then returned to the flat on Avenue Foch, which the Germans had left untouched.