TALE OF THE COMET

Angels of the Resistance (and a Serial Killer) in Nazi-Occupied Paris

Brave women helped downed Allied flyers escape the Germans. But more than that, they showed Hitler’s white nationalists they would not surrender, would not submit.

12.11.16 5:01 AM ET

PARIS — History sneaks up on you. Stories of love and courage, cruelty and atrocity, of survivors and those who do not survive—they reach out to you from a plaque, a monument, or maybe bullet scars on the face of a building: shadows of the past that are half remembered or, more often, were forgotten entirely.

In Europe, where two enormous wars were fought within the last 100 years—where a generation was wiped out in the hellish mud pits and gas-filled trenches of the first “great” war, and the Aryan savagery of the Nazis in the second not only led to tens of millions of deaths on the battlefield, but to the systematic extermination of more than six million people whose religion and “race” supposedly set them apart: all that will come back to haunt you if you let it, if you know anything about it, if you look around you for half a minute.

And yet, even here in France one walks by that history every day without letting it register, as I had done perhaps a thousand times over the years on a street called Rue de Courcelles among Belle Époque buildings in a quiet Right Bank neighborhood a few hundred yards down the hill from the Arc de Triomphe.

It was only last summer that I noticed at 93 rue de Courcelles one of the many historical plaques on Paris buildings that tell you a writer lived here, a composer died there, a hero of the Resistance was killed fighting—but this plaque, above a perfume store, was smaller than many.

Translated, it said:

Here lived and was arrested

in March 1944

Elizabeth BUFFET

Heroine of the Resistance

who died at the camp of Ravensbrück

I took a closer look at the building, and around the windows above the plaque saw what appeared to be dozens of bullet scars in the stone façade, including many that were heavy caliber.

And so I began what was at first a casual, and eventually a passionate investigation into what happened there. In the months since, it has brought me into contact with some extraordinary researchers, most importantly Bruce Bolinger in far away Nevada County, California, who has spent decades studying the events that took place in this Paris neighborhood and beyond.

Among other things I learned that in December 1943, Christmas in this corner of la ville lumière witnessed amazing love and courage—and a determined struggle against those who would make of race and religion an ideology of hate and destruction.

***

Who was Elizabeth Buffet? That Christmas of 1943 she was 51 years old, the divorced mother of four children, the youngest of whom was in his teens. Her former husband, a Monsieur de Cizancourt, was from the French aristocracy. Her mother’s family was from the distinguished line of De Boisguilbert. In official records her occupation is listed simply as “nurse,” but she had studied music, and it is said she had a beautiful singing voice. She was widely known as “Tante Zabi,” Aunt Zabi.

The one photograph I have of her, probably taken a few years earlier, is of a woman in a simple print dress who appears to be somewhere out in the countryside. She has dark hair, a kind face, an easy if slightly enigmatic smile, and strong, elegant hands.

Elizabeth Buffet “Tante Zabi”

Courtesy Bruce Bolinger / WWII Netherlands Escape Line

Precisely when Tante Zabi began to work with the French resistance against the Nazi occupation is not clear. In one of the post-war debriefing papers collected by Bolinger, a concierge of Buffet’s acquaintance on a street near her apartment said that by the summer of 1943 people in her neighborhood already knew that Buffet was involved with the Resistance, helping to forge documents.

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In this neighborhood, in fact, there appear to have been many people, from the concierges to the shopkeepers to the aristocrats, who could not stomach the German presence. Occupiers always are hated, but the Nazi occupiers were a special and especially loathsome breed.

Among the multiple sources of French resentment, despite the widespread and sometimes almost casual anti-Semitism of those times, many could not stand to see their Jewish neighbors driven out of their businesses, forced to wear yellow stars in the street and, later, rounded up and held in hellish conditions before being deported to the final, fatal infernos to the east. At first the Nazis and their collaborators deported mainly foreign-born Jews. Then French Jews. And eventually many non-Jews learned that such a fate could be reserved for them and those they loved as well.

People here felt they had to act. And a great many of those people who did act were women.

By the fall of 1943, Elizabeth Buffet had joined one of the most famous and extensive underground operations of the war, a network rescuing and smuggling to safety Allied aviators who were shot down as they took the fight to the German heartland.  

***

The Comet Line, as the network was called, was the brainchild of Andrée “Dédée” de Jongh, the 23-year-old daughter of a schoolmaster in the Schaerbeek neighborhood of Brussels. She was petite, hugely energetic (her father called her “the little cyclone”) and looked years younger, even, than she was.

Dédée had grown up hearing stories of the nurse Edith Cavell, who was put before a firing squad in World War I for helping British soldiers escape the Germans, and in the summer of 1940 her father had briefly hidden some of the British survivors of Dunkirk. By then, the Wehrmacht had overrun Belgium, and Paris had fallen to the Nazis.

In the months that followed, the rumble of bombers from Britain’s Royal Air Force became familiar background noise in the Low Countries as squadrons began flying over Belgium and the Netherlands to attack targets inside Germany. But up against the Luftwaffe’s fighters and walls of exploding flak, many were shot down. The surviving pilots and their crews were quickly captured by the Nazis—or, if they were lucky, they found themselves protected by the brave charity of farmers and townspeople.

Dédée quit her job as a commercial artist, moved in with her father, and started working as a nurse tending wounded British soldiers in hiding. But she knew that the good people protecting them could not shelter them for long, and if caught by the Nazis, they could pay with their lives. So she began studying the Nazi regulations, and how to get around them, and looking at escape routes. She decided the safest would be one of the longest.

Allied soldiers and flyers would be moved secretly across the border into France, taken to hiding places in Paris to rest and recover, then, accompanied by discreet “guides,” moved as passengers on trains to the far southwest of France and taken along rugged smugglers’ trails through the Pyrenees to neutral Spain.  From there, they could be moved to British Gibraltar, and, finally, home.

Some of the flyers moved by the Comet Line, including Wiggins and Applewhite

Courtesy Bruce Bolinger / WWII Netherlands Escape Line

In August 1941, Dédée turned up at the British consulate in Bilbao, in the Spanish Basque country, with a young Scottish soldier, and announced that she had brought him down from Brussels through occupied France and over the Pyrenees.

The men of British Military Intelligence, MI6, instantly decided she must be a German plant or provocatrice. But, then, there was something about her — something so improbable about this very young woman with intense eyes and extraordinary persistence — that they decided to see what kind of “parcels” such a “Postman,” as they called her, might deliver.

If she could truly start to evacuate downed flyers, that would boost the morale of those forced to crash land or bail out of their planes. It would also encourage them to try to escape rather than risk spending the war in a POW camp. And if they succeeded in getting back to Britain, highly trained aviators could be sent back into action.

A special subdivision of British intelligence, MI9, was set up to work with Comet and other developing escape lines. (The late British author and politician Airey Neave was part of that organization, and wrote an enthusiastic, even hagiographic accounting of Dédée’s exploits, The Little Cyclone, after the war. It was one of the first sources of public information about the network.)

Soon, crossing the Pyrenees herself again and again with smuggler-guides, Dédée was bringing not only soldiers and airmen, but valuable intelligence from deep in occupied Belgium and France. After the United States finally joined the fight in December 1941, Americans started flying missions — and falling from the sky as well.

Over the following year, the Comet Line continued to grow, embracing hundreds of volunteers, smuggling scores and eventually hundreds of flyers through France and Spain to freedom.  But as it grew it became more vulnerable to penetration by the Gestapo.

In November 1942, after falling prey to a couple of fake American airmen, most of the Brussels operation was rolled up. Dédée and her father, whom she enlisted in the cause, were able to rebuild it from a distance, working out of France. But in January 1943, Dédée herself was captured near the Spanish border. Because she was so young — and a woman — the Germans would not believe her when she told them she was the founder and leader of the Comet Line.

Still the network survived under the guidance of Dédée’s father, Frédéric de Jongh, now hiding in Paris, and “Franco,” a young Belgian army captain whose real name was Jean-François Nothomb. But in May 1943, Jacques Désoubrie, a Belgian collaborator with the Nazis, joined the Comet Line as a volunteer guide from Brussels to Paris. He used the pseudonym Jean Masson. Dédée’s father met with him and approved of him. In June, “Masson” set up the arrest of dozens of members of the Comet Line who were picked up in both Brussels and Paris. Among them was Frédéric de Jongh, tortured and, some months later, executed by firing squad.

But Franco, by good luck, had gotten away. Once again the Comet Line was reconstituted. This time Elizabeth Buffet was part of it, and her Right Bank Paris neighborhood became a focal point of its activity.

***

Rue de Courcelles, No. 93, is about a ten-minute walk from the Arc de Triomphe and five minutes from the lovely little Parc Monceau, where strollers can contemplate a faux Greek temple, a miniature pyramid and statues of various composers and authors with women swooning at their feet.

In the 1800s the neighborhood was the site of the smoke-belching Paris gas works and industrial workshops, including one where the Statue of Liberty was first bolted together before it was shipped to New York in the 1880s. But at the end of the century, at the height of the Belle Époque, the gas works were torn down and a huge construction boom ensued.

Above the streets and boulevards rose one apartment building after another made of elegantly carved, cream-colored stone. Typically they had six floors and spacious courtyards, with back entrances and separate stairwells that led to the kitchens and, at the tops of the buildings, tiny rooms for servants among the square eaves of the Mansard roofs. If you knew your way around, you could move between buildings, and even over rooftops without spending much time on the street. They were perfect for hiding guests of the Comet Line.

By late summer 1943, new guides had been recruited to bring flyers from Belgium into France, sometimes passing through the fields and forests of the Ardennes and the Somme, landscapes still scarred by the fury of the First World War.

One of those guides was an 18-year-old girl named Amanda Stassart, who was pretty and passionate and looking for adventure. Earlier she had helped the Resistance move guns around the city.

Stassart lived on Rue Marguerite, the street directly behind Buffet’s apartment. She had easy access to Rue de Courcelles by walking around the corner, and she may well have learned several shortcuts through the courtyards when she was seeing Buffet’s oldest son before the war.

Amanda’s mother had agreed to take in flyers, as well, and soon a steady flow of airmen began transiting Paris again, staying in the Stassart apartment, the Buffet apartment, and the servants’ quarters in their buildings, as well as elsewhere around the city.

Some of the British and American airmen were stunned at their ability to move around Paris in the disguises they were given, as long as they had “guides” to accompany them and speak for them. Often they were taken to restaurants and movies on the Champs Elysées by Buffet’s niece and nephew. Years later one British soldier who stayed with Buffet for 10 days in November 1943 told author Keith Morley, “To put it bluntly, we had quite a ball in Paris.”

But by then the Germans were closing in once again. 

***

Tom Applewhite, a stocky 22-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee, had flown 10 missions as a bombardier in a B-17 christened The Wild Hare (“up Hitler’s ass,” as the crew liked to say). Then, on the way back from a mission on November 11, 1943, the plane was shot down near Den Bosch in the Netherlands.  

Long afterward, Applewhite told Bruce Bolinger that his experiences that day were like watching a movie. He remembered that in training he was told to wait until the last minute before opening his parachute, so he held off until he broke out beneath the clouds, but by then it was almost too late.  

Fortunately for Applewhite, farmers found him, carried him off the field and hid his parachute. In a matter of days, Belgian and Dutch escape lines moved him to Brussels.

There he was under the control of the Service EVA, a Belgian evasion group that interrogated airmen as they were brought in, to make sure they were not German agents like the ones who had such a devastating impact on the Comet Line a year before. They prepared a false ID (Applewhite became Ludwig Oskar Ronquet, clerc de notaire), supplied appropriate civilian clothing, and passed along to the Comet Line those who had vetted clean.

(L): Thelma R. “Jockey” Wiggins / (R):Tom Applewhite

Courtesy Bruce Bolinger / WWII Netherlands Escape Line

But soon after Applewhite arrived, another crewmember from the Wild Hare and his guide were picked up by the police. More arrests followed, and Applewhite was forced to hole up for over a month in Brussels. Part of the time he stayed with Arthur Schrynemakers (Bruce Bolinger’s great uncle, and the original source of his interest). According to Bolinger’s research, a tenant of Schrynemakers who threatened to rat him out to the Germans for harboring Applewhite died mysteriously, falling down some stairs a few days later.

The Service EVA began to suspect Applewhite himself was a German agent, and not until his dental records could be checked with London was he allowed to proceed.

On the night of December 22, or thereabouts, he was taken to a town near the French border along with T. R. “Jockey” Wiggins from Georgia, shot down in October. They met up with 18-year-old Amanda Stassart, the girl from Rue Marguerite, whom they knew only as “Diane.” She took them, along with two others, through the dark until they reached a dairy barn where she knew they could spend the night. The next day very early they made their way to the city of Lille, then by train to Paris.

In Stassart’s months as a guide, she had learned any number of ways to protect her charges. Often, she would put them in a train compartment and keep her distance on the three-hour trip. But at least once, when one of her Americans was without his fake ID, she spent virtually the entire time making out with him while uniformed German soldiers walked up and down the aisle.

As Peter Eisner records the scene in his book The Freedom Line, Stassart was covering the pilot with kisses: “Those lips, licking his ear red, wet on his mouth, pretending to whisper and caressing him for real. He had to keep reminding himself it was an act. She looked at him again with that sly look in her eye. The German guards peered through the glass and passed them by without opening the compartment door.”

When Stassart was guiding Applewhite through Lille, a young woman on a tram asked him for a light, and, uncomprehending, he just stared back at her. Stassart began shouting at the woman, calling her a whore trying to pick up her fiancé.

Such stratagems worked.

On December 23, Applewhite and Wiggins arrived safely at Tante Zabi’s apartment, with its luxurious furnishings, some of which they would remember long afterward. Most striking of all was the sofa in the living room, covered in zebra hide. And there was also the piano that Zabi loved to play.

Soon the boys were settling in, thumbing through a book of cartoons about the occupation, and getting to know Michel and Marie-Rose Buffet, Zabi’s nephew and niece, who would be their escorts in Paris. In a city where detention and death lurked on every street, Madame Buffet did everything she could to make these American strangers feel at home.

Only a few blocks away, however, on the far side of the Arc de Triomphe, others seeking refuge from the Nazis were not so lucky.

***

By the winter of 1943-44, after three and a half years of occupation and increasing privation, the lines between the escape networks and black marketeers were blurred or nonexistent. At times the Resistance was deeply in bed with organized criminal gangs. But, then again, the French Gestapo actually was led and staffed by convicted felons who had escaped from prison in 1940. The French Gestapo boss, the murderous “Henri Lafont” (real name Henri Chamberlin) was a famous and infamous man about town.

Into the shadows of this tangled underworld moved an outwardly respectable physician named Marcel Petiot. He lived in Montmartre. But he had another house near the Arc de Triomphe, on rue Le Sueur (not an uncommon French name, but it means, literally, and ironically in this case, “the sweat”).

Petiot told people — Jews, deserters, even members of the French Gestapo/mafia who wanted to get out of town fast — that they should meet him at 21 rue Le Sueur and he would arrange for their escape. Many brought all the valuables they could carry. But they did not escape. Most were never seen again.

***

Tante Zabi and the American airmen staying with her knew nothing of Petiot. But on Christmas Eve, Tom Applewhite got a taste of the underworld that swirled around them, when he was taken to meet “Le Boss,” as he called him — who may have been the head of the Comet Line operations in Paris at that point. The Boss ordered up a lunch of horsemeat for Tom while he asked him about his service and his experiences on the escape route thus far. But Tom mistrusted him deeply, and tried to answer with his own questions. The boss cut him off. Only he would ask questions, and he wanted answers. Applewhite remembered him years later as pasty-faced, oily, and evil-looking, “like Peter Lorre,” only bigger.

***

On Christmas Day, Tante Zabi invited friends and family to dinner along with the American aviators. A fire glowed in the hearth as they were seated. One of the guests was a man educated at Oxford, apparently an Englishman or a dual national. Another was a tall, gaunt man who had lost 10 of his sons to the Gestapo’s killers.

Zabi’s two sons Tristan (an actor) and Joël (still in high school) were there. Her lesbian daughter made a brief appearance. And Zabi’s nephew Michel Buffet and niece Marie-Rose Buffet also joined in.

After dinner, Tante Zabi sat down at the piano and began to play and, with the man who had lost his sons, they began to sing duets. Applewhite did not know what they were, but afterward Joël could not hear “Madame Butterfly” without breaking down.  

… Oh, lovely night! What a lot of stars!

Never have I seen them so beautiful!
Every spark twinkles and shines
with the brilliance of an eye.
Oh! What a lot of eyes fixed and staring,
looking at us from all sides!
In the sky, along the shore,
out to sea...the sky is smiling!
Oh, lovely night!
In an ecstasy of love
the sky is smiling! …

Marie-Rose took Applewhite and Wiggins to a movie house nearby, where the audience roared with laughter at a Nazi propaganda film showing Wehrmacht soldiers making hobbyhorses for French children. Then they watched a feature about a fairy-tale princess, once upon a time.

When Applewhite and Wiggins left, the day after Christmas, for their long journey to the Pyrenees, Tante Zabi kissed them on both cheeks.

***

Because so many of the volunteers working for the Comet Line were new, they did not know that one among them named Pierre Poulin was in fact Jean Masson a.k.a. Jacques Désoubrie, under a new alias. And once again he went to work.

The arrests began in January. The Gestapo grabbed the head of the Paris network, code-named Jérome. Then they got Franco, the man who had picked up the relay after Dédée was arrested. They must have held out as long as they could, but the Gestapo interrogators and torturers were relentless.

On February 15, the Nazis arrested Amanda Stassart and her mother, and on or about that date, the police pounded on the door of Tante Zabi’s apartment. Michel Buffet answered, but made an excuse about a window being open and cold air pouring in so he could warn two flyers in the back. They got away down the back stairs. The police left.

Then, on March 3, 1944, the Gestapo and its agents returned, and this time they took with them Elizabeth Buffet.

***

The Comet Line was finished. But the whole world knew that the Allies — the liberators — were planning to land somewhere on the French coast sometime soon, and the Nazi propagandists and the French collaborators who worked with them grew increasingly frantic, increasingly shrill.

The scraps of paper Tante Zabi slipped out of the train to the death camps and the note about them from the railroad worker who took them.

Courtesy Bruce Bolinger / WWII Netherlands Escape Line

Then, on March 11, as David Drake writes in his excellent new book Paris at War, “the police were called to investigate thick clouds of black, foul-smelling smoke pouring out of the chimney at 21, rue Le Sueur. When the police officers entered the cellar of the boarded-up house, they were shocked and disgusted at what they found: body parts were scattered across the floor and piled up on the stairs. The charred remains of a human hand poked out of the door of a roaring stove."

The sensational details of the case made headlines all over Europe, even in the United States. But it was such a convenient tale for the Nazis that many suspected their propagandists fabricated the whole story.

In fact, the gory details were true. But the propagandists had their own objectives. Four days after the first grizzly discoveries, as Drake writes, the German secret police gave French investigators “a file claiming to show that Petiot had run an ‘escape line’ out of Paris for Jews, Allied pilots who had been shot down, deserters from the German army, and anyone else who wanted to leave the city.”

The Comet Line was gone; and now the reputations of those involved were sullied by the acts of a madman.

***

The women of the Comet Line were held in various prisons at first, but over time most of them were taken to the concentration camp called Ravensbrück, by a lake in a forest north of Berlin — a hell on earth that American readers have only recently begun to learn about.

“Ravensbrück is often described as a ‘slave labor’ camp, a term that lessens the horror of what happened,” writes Sarah Helm in her book, published just last year, Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women: “It was certainly an important place of slave labor—Siemens, the electrical giant, had a factory there—but slave labor was only a stage on the way to death. Prisoners at the time called Ravensbrück a death camp.” One French survivor called it a place of “slow extermination.”

“Over the six years of its existence,” writes Helm, “around 130,000 women passed through its gates, to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed. Estimates of the final death toll have ranged from about 30,000 to 90,000; the real figure probably lies somewhere in between, but so few SS documents on the camp survive nobody will ever know for sure. The wholesale destruction of evidence at Ravensbrück is another reason the camp’s story has remained obscured. In the final days, every prisoner’s file was burned in the crematorium or on bonfires, along with the bodies. The ashes were thrown in the lake.”

German doctors experimented on the women there. Many who had been taken from a village in Poland as part of collective punishment were mutilated to induce gangrene and test new drugs, most of which failed, leaving them crippled and dying in horrible pain. Other prisoners were injected with various substances to sterilize them. Amanda Stassart was one of those. Her mother died, but still, somehow, she survived. Dédée de Jongh lived on as well, to the age of 90. But many, many other women of the Comet Line did not.

***

In June — barely three months after Elizabeth “Zabi” Buffet was arrested — the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy. In August, as they approached Paris, the streets erupted in running battles as resistance fighters emerged with a vengeance. Most of the action was toward the center of the city, and it is not clear what happened at 93 rue de Courcelles, or who was involved. But something happened. The bullet-pocked walls are testimony to that.

By the fall, American intelligence officers based in the luxury apartments of Avenue Foch had begun collecting files about who was in the resistance, who worked with the escape lines, who helped—and who might have betrayed them.

Tante Zabi, it appears, was still alive in Ravensbrück at that time.

The last that is known of her is that survivors from the camp reported seeing her in February 1945, only three months before the end of the war in Europe, when she was taken to the camp nearby where the gas chamber and the ovens were, and from which nobody ever returned.

The last words we have from Elizabeth Buffet were scrawled months earlier on two scraps of paper thrown to a French railway worker from the cattle car packed with women being taken to the camps.

On the back of the first she has written, “We are going to Ravensbrück.” And on the other side:

My dear friend,

After some unforgettable hours, I am in the train, deported, and waiting for this nightmare to end. I am focused on that and hope it will not be long. My morale is good though I am worried for the children whose location I am unaware of. I am also concerned about the interior of my home, which I am not sure I will recover intact or even furnished. Feeling of incredible powerlessness!

Warn Alain [her brother]. I am with some admirable women. Think of us always.

    Zabi

The second reads:

Destination Germany. Train machine-gunned. Three companions killed, slight scratches, morale is solid but the past two months have required a lot of endurance. Hope to send word soon, pass on to family, have faith.

    Zabi

After the war, Elizabeth Buffet’s niece Marie-Rose Buffet, who had once escorted the flyers to the Champs Élysées and taken them to the movies, told Bruce Bolinger she had learned from survivors that Tante Zabi had started to sing to comfort the other captives on that train, and a German officer, when he heard her, told her he wanted to hear some particular aria. She told him he had to open the hatch on top of the car so she and the other women could breathe. He did. And so, she sang.

Like her companions, Elizabeth Buffet was an admirable woman, and as the plaque on rue de Courcelles describes her, a heroine of the Resistance.