Virginia d’Albert-Lake is an unsung American heroine and a woman who was given France’s highest award, the Legion d’Honneur. She was born on June 4, 1910 in Dayton, Ohio to a physician and a mother who headed a country day school.
In 1936, as a young schoolteacher, Virginia was attending a conference in the UK when she decided to take a side trip to France, a place that enchanted her. While there she met and fell in love with Philippe d’Albert-Lake, a travel agent and the son of an English mother and a French father — a family of means. Virginia and Philippe married on May 1, 1937, lived in Paris and had a cottage in Nesles, north of Paris. Their lives were picturesque yet simple; she was enamored with Philippe and France and he adored his spunky American bride.
After a few years, it became clear that the war would come to Europe and the surrounding area would soon be occupied by the Nazi onslaught. In 1940 France surrendered; Philippe urged Virginia to return to her family in the states numerous times, but she refused no matter what the conditions; her life was with him. They spent most of their time at their cottage where they tried to avoid the war but to no avail. A local baker approached the couple and asked them to come to his shop where he introduced some young men that turned out to be downed American pilots. Looking at their faces, Philippe and Virginia knew they had to help and joined the Comet Escape Line, a group that helped downed pilots leave France and return to England through a secret forest. Once at their destination, the pilots could continue the fight.
In addition to teaching the servicemen how to blend in, Virginia was assigned the job of questioning those who were recently downed, to determine if they were who they said they were. She asked them questions that were central to the American way of life. If it was determined that they were a spy, they were handed over.
As times worsened, and D-Day approached, word arrived that all pilots should clear their way to the evacuation camp as the German reign of terror was imminent and the Allies advanced from Normandy. In this effort, Virginia was captured and eventually held for 11 months in the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp, which was the largest camp for women in the German Reich.
While researching Ravensbruck and re-reading the history of the Holocaust, I found myself reading in segments because the atrocities were too horrific to read about all at once. In May 1945, Virginia was released from the camp and weighed only 76 pounds.
How could anyone possibly survive? That exact question was asked of Virginia during one interview. Her answer, “It was a question of will,” she said. “It was a matter of morale,” a level of individual psychological stamina based on a sense of purpose and belief in the future.