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The rediscovered past of Panthéon inductees Missak and Mélinée Manouchian

By Ariane Chemin

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On February 21, 80 years after he and his comrades were executed during the Nazi occupation, Missak Manouchian and his wife Mélinée will be laid to rest at the Panthéon. Eager to learn more about the couple’s shattered destiny, Katia Guiragossian followed her great-aunt’s footsteps, leading her to precious lost notebooks in Yerevan.

In the morning, she never goes out without her bright lipstick, her great-aunt’s rose-gold ring on her middle finger, and before copiously circling her quizzical eyes in black. “Are you sure you don’t have anything? No archives on Aunt Mélinée or Missak?” In late December 2023, Katia Guiragossian pressed Reserve Lieutenant-Colonel Valéri Hakobian, the head of the Armenian Ministry of Defense’s Museum of Military History.

The officer, a former student at a university in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and then of Moscow’s Military University before the fall of Communism, shook his head in apology. “You know, the heroes here were Soviet before they were Armenian. Eighty years later, we’re only just beginning to discover the history of these Resistance fighters who fought in France. For us, Manouchian was a poet, period. I only learned two or three years ago that his wife, Mélinée, had lived in Yerevan after the war.”

We were beneath the statue of Mother Armenia, a huge 51-meter warrior towering above the capital, her sword pointing straight at Turkey. In its pedestal is nestled a fascinating, little-known museum filled with Soviet treasures. The senior officer refilled the cognac glasses (it was 11 am) and listened to the story that had brought us to him. “I’m the granddaughter of Armène, the sister of Mélinée Manouchian,” said Guiragossian. “Missak’s grandniece.”

A grandniece’s quest

Missak Manouchian was the military leader of a Parisian group of foreign Resistance fighters, all of them communist (mostly Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, including Romanians, Hungarians and Poles, but also Spaniards, Italians and Armenians), whom French President Emmanuel Macron will honor by laying his body to rest, along with that of his wife, in the Panthéon in Paris, 80 years after a frantic manhunt conducted by the Nazi-collaborating Paris police and the execution of 22 members of the group on February 21, 1944.

The honor bestowed on Missak Manouchian – “pronounced ‘sh,’ not ‘k.’ We don’t make pianos or shoes,” said his grandniece with a laugh – kicked up a fuss among historians, filmmakers and former internationalist activists since the fall of 2023. Why place only Missak where France honors its great figures, the petitioners asked Macron? What about his other comrades in the FTP-MOI, the immigrant communist resistance group? Their shaggy faces could be seen alongside his own on the famous “Affiche Rouge” wanted poster, which the Nazis plastered 15,000 copies of in the streets and metro to denounce an “army of crime.”

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