Thursday, 26 April 2012

‘The Little Lady in Black’ and ‘Madame Blonde’

Paris Street Scene - André Zucca  

Unknown Woman in Paris - André Zucca  

Unknown Woman in Paris  - André Zucca  

Arriving at Gare du Nord Paris, evaders in the Comete Escape Line had usually travelled there in two pairs, each with a ‘guide’ and often with neither pair being aware of the other’s presence. The word ‘guide’ creates a misleading image, as Comete guides travelled as if totally separate from their charges. Once on board a train, the guide would position themselves away from the evaders, but remain in sight and close enough to observe and assist if any difficulties arose. If a fellow passenger was trying to strike up a conversation with the evader, the guide could intervene, or they could  take out their ticket and identity documents to warn the evader a check was imminent, then discreetly show which document (s) were being requested if this was necessary.  

From July 1943 to Mid January 1944 evaders followed their guide off the train at Gare du Nord and were often met by a man who introduced himself as ‘The Chief’. As the guides melted away into the night (Paris was under blackout) ‘The Chief’ instructed the evaders to surrender their train tickets at the barrier (often a day when the Comete intelligence had ascertained that tickets and documents for the military services were being checked instead of the public). Each pair of evaders was told to look out for two women who would be waiting separately in the station area on the other side of the ticket barrier. One would be very small and dressed all in black, the other a tall striking blonde. The evaders (usually airmen) were told to stay as a pair, select one of the two women and walk towards them. The woman would then begin to move off at a distance and they should follow her.

RAF Pilot Officer George Ward was travelling with a member of his crew, Flying Officer Geoff Madgett. They were the other pair on the same train as the airman and his travelling companion in my book. George said ‘At the station we were told,  two of us to follow the blond and two of us to follow the small brunette. Geoff and I naturally went for the blonde.’

These women were two of the Heads of Sheltering in Paris and were responsible for the lodging of evaders in safe houses. They worked independently within their own cells and knew nothing of each other’s operation.

Madame Germaine Bajpai (also known as ‘Francoise, ‘Madame Hautfoin’ and by the evaders as ‘Madame Blonde’) was nearly fifty, yet looked like a woman in her thirties.  She had travelled extensively, spoke good English and been married four times, the last to a Hindu. Described by one Comete operator as ‘elegant, spiritual, full of life’ she must have looked a striking figure. One airman wrote of her as ‘tall, slim, blonde and had the deportment of a mannequin…fashionably and attractively dressed, she was, in a word – elegant.’

Madame Fernande Onimus could not have been more opposite in physical appearance. Less than five feet in height and dressed all in black, she was a married woman in her mid forties. Also known as ‘Rosa’ and by the airmen as ‘The Little Lady in Black’/‘Woman in Black’; in addition to being one of the Chiefs of Sheltering, she also hid evaders in her own home. Her daughter Janine recalled that as a nine year old she was told never to talk about the many ‘uncles’ that came to stay at their home.
The Shelter Heads in Paris were responsible for guiding the evaders to a designated safe house, obtaining and delivering cigarettes (to help the evaders through the difficult days of waiting ahead), laundering existing clothing and providing new items when necessary. In addition the evaders would also need money, ration cards, razor, soap etc. The Shelter Heads were then responsible for guiding the evaders within Paris to the rendez-vous before departure, which was usually close to the Gare d’Austerlitz train station. The evaders would be left with their new guide who then took them for a meal in a restaurant before they all boarded the night train to Bordeaux.

Obtaining the goods and commodities for the fugitives whilst in Paris was extremely difficult. Cigarettes were often only available on the Black market at a minimum of 100 Francs a packet. Clothing too was in short supply and with rationing it also had to be bought on the black market. Evaders would frequently need a large scale change of clothing because hats, suits and overcoats were not worn so much in Southern France. Berets, shorter coats and more casual clothing had to be obtained in order to merge into the local population. 

Madame Onimus conducted extensive searches, established a useful network of contacts and managed to build up her own secondary stock of clothing for the evaders in her network. Countless other difficulties existed and it is impossible to fully encapsulate in words the risks that these operators took for the evaders who were complete strangers.

As a result of information extracted under torture, the Gestapo moved in and arrested numerous Comete operatives on 18 January 1944, including the two women involved as Shelter Heads of Paris.

Germaine Bajpai and Fernande Onimus were interrogated, tortured and imprisoned before eventually being sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. Germaine Bajpai died there on 4 February 1945 aged 50. A Comete guide in the camp at the same time who survived said ‘She simply gave up the will to live once she reached the concentration camp.’ 

Fernande Onimus died in the gas chamber some time on 23-24 April 1945 just before the camp was liberated by the Russians. She voluntarily exchanged identities with another inmate and took the place of a mother of a large family who was listed to die that day. An eyewitness account stated that whilst Madame Onimus was waiting in the line of women to enter the gas chamber, she heard a woman complaining about the state of her own shoes. Madame Onimus removed hers and said ‘Take mine; I won’t be needing them.’

Fernande Onimus was directly responsible for the successful escape of more than 100 Allied Airmen through Paris and Germaine Bajpai helped 49.

They risked everything and gave everything.

Additional Sources:
 Le Reseau Comete -  Remy.  Article by Janine Onimus Anderson.  Notes by Michael Moores Le Blanc.

© Keith Morley


  1. Madame Onimus was an amazingly selfless woman and it's surprising that we have not heard of these two ladies before but your blog brings them to the fore. I found this the best blog so far-it keeps becoming more personal each time.Even when waiting to be gassed with Zyklon B, Madame is still making sacrifices for others. It would be good if these ladies could be given posthumous awards by the French Government.Perhaps their Legion D'honneur would be appropriate which can be awarded to men and women.The German forces at that time "Whose hand like the base Indian, threw a pearl away."

    1. They did get posthumous awards Helen I felt nothing but sadness when I read the Allied files on these 2 ladies which were instigated once the Allied liberation reached Paris.

  2. I felt very sad after reading your post Keith. Very brave, and selfless, I can't imagine their thoughts in the final hour.
    Good post.