Saint-Michel Gaol

Escape tunnel beneath French jail may hold key to the fate of Gestapo victims

German soldiers prepare to execute members of the French resistance
Hugh schofield in Paris

29 Aug 2010
Did a convicted French bank robber, while digging an escape tunnel underneath a prison in the southern city of Toulouse, stumble across the remains of resistance members secretly shot in the last days of the German occupation?

The question has become an obsession for 70-year-old Monique Delattre- Attia, whose father Jean Delattre was one of 54 men and women from the city – mainly socialists, communists and Jews – who were executed by the departing Germans in August 1944.

For several years Delattre-Attia has been pushing for a forensic investigation to reveal the underground secrets of the Saint-Michel jail. So far she has met with official obfuscation. But now, with the prison about to be decommissioned, there is new hope her campaign will finally pay off.

The terrible fate of the 54 murdered inmates has long been a focus of attention for Toulouse historians, largely because of the elements of mystery that surround it.

It is known that on August 17, 1944 a convoy of five trucks set out from Saint-Michel prison for a forest at Buzet-sur-Tarn. There the captives were shot and their bodies burned.

However, only 19 bodies were subsequently identified. Eyewitnesses said one of the trucks had engine problems and had to turn back. The prisoners on that vehicle are presumed to have been murdered inside Saint-Michel, and their bodies disposed of in the soil.

Delattre-Attia had been well aware of all this, as she sought to establish the last moments of the father she barely knew. Then in 2004 she heard a story which set her heart racing.

A well-known felon called Cyprien Elix was imprisoned in Saint-Michel in the late 1970s after being convicted of bank robbery. On the night of August 2, 1978, he and four other inmates escaped from the prison via a 65-metre tunnel which they had dug under a cell block.

Elix was swiftly recaptured, but back in jail – this time in Paris – he told officials the startling things he had seen during his escape: a large number of human bones and skulls.

“I knew the prison like the back of my hand, so I worked out that the best place to dig was under cell block number one. This was the one used by the Gestapo in the war, and it was since unoccupied,” Elix said in an intervew shortly before his death last September.

“While we were digging, we came across an old tunnel. The ground was covered with a kind of rotting black earth with the texture of coffee grounds. That is where I saw the skulls. I am sure they were from the time of the Liberation. They killed a lot of people at Saint-Michel,” he said.

No-one took much notice when Elix first told his story, and his tunnel was blocked up with concrete and forgotten. But the rumour of what he had found circulated in Toulouse and many years later it reached the ears of Delattre-Attia.

Anxious to explore this new evidence, she traced the former convict to a village in the Pyrenean foothills where he was peacefully living out his days. At first Elix refused to help, but eventually – knowing that he had only a few months to live – he succumbed to her entreaties.

In early 2009 Elix, Delattre-Attia and a local socialist senator were permitted into Saint-Michel prison, which by this time contained only a handful of inmates on a day-release programme.

“(Elix) was very tired, but when we arrived at the place he suddenly perked up. He hesitated a bit, then he took a step back, moved a bit to the right. He pointed his torch at the wall and said ‘There!’”

“And indeed there it was – the start of his tunnel,” said Delattre-Attia. “You could see where a section of wall had been replaced. Without him we would never have found it.”

Delattre-Attia now has the support of other victims’ families in her campaign to have the Saint-Michel tunnels dug up by police scientists. She wants DNA tests on any remains found there so she can establish if her father is among those who died in the jail.

“I am not trying to turn him into a hero. All I want is to give him a proper burial. And if they find that he is not among the remains in Saint-Michel, I will know he was killed at Buzet – and I can go there to grieve,” she said.

The imposing red brick jail is soon to be sold off by the justice ministry, and its ultimate fate remains uncertain. But Delattre-Attia is hopeful that, once the last prisoner has left, the security argument will no longer impede an excavation.

“I just want to find where dad is,” she said.

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