When the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled through France in 1940, I doubt the Nazi's were worried about an American born housewife living in Paris. While on holiday in 1937, St. Petersburg, Florida born Virginia Roush met and later married suave Frenchmen Philippe d’Albert-Lake. It was a joyous marriage until the German's ruined their idyllic life.
Then, in 1943, the local baker revealed two downed American pilots at his shop to them. The baker was trying to arrange for their escape out of France to Spain, then back to England. He asked Philippe and Virginia to help.
Philippe had repeatedly urged Virginia to return to the safety of her family in the United States but she always refused.
Now, meeting the young pilots, involvement in the war and all it's dangers was staring them in the face. They knew they had to help, despite the risks. They joined the Comet line, a section of the French Resistance that smuggled pilots out of France.
The work was dangerous, especially for an American woman, but Virginia proved fearless. She would even take the pilots out for walks around occupied Paris to keep them from going stir crazy.
The Comet line was on the Nazi radar and men caught helping pilots were shot on the spot and women were sent to concentration camps in Germany. Virginia was assigned a crucial job: quiz the new pilots. The Nazi's sent German soldiers that had gone to school in the U.S., Canada or Britain to pose as Allied pilots. It was up to Virginia, as an American, to quiz every pilot who was brought in, to determine if they were a German spy. When a spy was uncovered, she turned him over to other Resistance fighters for execution, so she had to be accurate and ruthless.
In June of 1944, just before D-Day, orders arrived that every Allied pilot in Paris should be immediately evacuated to the halfway camp in the south of France.
Virginia and Philippe began their journey with a group of airmen on a train but the tracks had been bombed out. They then began on foot and then oxcart. Virginia rode ahead on bicycle to scout for Germans. A Gestapo car managed to stop Virginia and found her list of friendly Resistance fighters along the route. Virginia had broken a cardinal rule to memorize the list and destroy it. Inexplicably, miraculously, the driver of the German police car handed the list back to her.
Virginia had swallowed the list by the time she arrived at German headquarters for questioning.
“You will be shot in the morning,” her interrogator barked.
Meanwhile, back on the road, Philippe and the airmen, who had seen the car stop Virginia’s bike, decided to flee on foot. Not long after they arrived at the halfway camp, but there was no word of Virginia’s fate. They knew that if she had talked, giving away the secrets of the Comet line, they would all be captured or killed.
The Germans never arrived. The Gestapo sent Virginia to a series of concentration camps, including the infamous Ravensbrück. When the camp was liberated in May 1945, Virginia weighed a mere 76 pounds.
After the war, over the years, many of the airmen Virginia had rescued came to visit. Virginia died in 1997, and Philippe three years later.
In her autobiography, "Diary and Memoir of Virginia d’Albert-Lake," when her editor, historian Judy Barrett Litoff, asked, “How did you survive in the concentration camps?”
She told her, “It was a question of will,” she said. “You could never give in. The women who cried at night were usually dead in the morning.”
Virginia was awarded France’s highest the Légion d’Honneur, as well as the Croix de Guerre and the Maltese Cross.