Jeannie de Clarens' obituary ran in the New York Times pointing out that she was a spy who uncovered rockets used by Hitler.
The obituary, written by William Grimes, was another one of those absolutely fascinating and authoritative obituaries that appears in a newspaper like the New York Times. In this case, it’s about a woman who died just in recent days in France at age 98. And if you look at a picture of this elderly woman, you would never actually guess the story. She was one of the most important allied spies of World War II.
As Grimes writes: “Jeannie de Clarens, an amateur spy who passed a wealth of information to the British about the development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets during World War II and survived stays in three concentration camps for her activities, died on Aug. 23.”
In 1943 in Natzi occupied Paris, Jeannie Rousseau, as she was then known, was an interpreter for a group of prominent Paris businessmen. She was fluent in German and that gave her an unusual capacity. It was during a time when the Germans were trying their very best to establish some cultural relations in occupied Paris, and she became something of a friend to many German officers, and around her they began to talk about matters of deep German military secrecy — including what we now know was the infamous V-1 and V-2 rocket program. As Grimes writes,
“Getting wind of a secret weapons project, she made it her mission to be on hand when the topic was discussed by the Germans, coaxing information through charm and guile.”
As she later reflected,
“I teased them, taunted them, looked at them wide-eyed, insisted that they must be mad when they spoke of the astounding new weapon that flew over vast distances, much faster than any airplane,” this she told to The Washington Post in 1998. “I kept saying, ‘What you are telling me cannot be true!’ I must have said that 100 times.”
Eventually one officer, in his bravado to try to prove to her that it was true, actually took her to look at drawings of the rockets. She had a near photographic memory, and very quickly through a contact, she got the information to the British and American Secret Services. Based upon the information that came from the then Jeannie Rousseau, British intelligence was able to inform the military such that they were able to organize several bombing raids against the rocket plant, delaying deployment of the V2 and sparing thousands of lives, especially in London. She was eventually caught by German authorities, and she was sent to three different concentration camps; each worse than the one before. Amongst those three camps was the infamous Ravensbrück.
After the war, when she was rescued by the Swedish Red Cross, she married Henri de Clarens, a fellow patient who had been imprisoned at Buchenwald and Auschwitz. She was extremely humble about her work during the war, she told The Washington Post: “After the war, the curtain came down on my memories. … What I did was so little. Others did so much more. I was one small stone.”
She was nonetheless highly honored by the French, the British, and the Americans. The French made her a member of the Legion of honor in 1955, she was also named a grand officer of the Legion in 2009.
“She was awarded the Resistance Medal and the Croix de Guerre. In 1993, the director of central intelligence, R. James Woolsey, presented her with the Seal Medallion (now Medal) “for heroic and momentous contribution to Allied efforts during World War II as a member of the French Resistance.”
The crucible of war, as so many other human events, brings out both the best and the worst. It brought out remarkable, nearly unthinkable courage in the woman known as Jeannie Rousseau, later as Jeannie de Clarens. For the past several decades she looked like what she was, an aging grandmother enjoying her family, especially her grandchildren in France. Little did most people know that she was also one of the most important spies of World War II.
This is another reminder of something important to the Christian worldview: You never know what you’re really seeing when you see another human being. You could be seeing a grandmother, you could be seeing a spy, you could be seeing both.
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, offers a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.