Courageous Capetonian stood up to Nazis
In a Cape Times story earlier this year, University of Vienna Professor Walter Sauer appealed to the public for any information on a man, understood at the time to be from Cape Town, who was killed at the Nazi-run Mauthausen concentration camp in 1944.
Austrian researchers were conducting a study on inmates of African origin in the concentration camp, which has largely been excluded from scientific research of Austria’s past.
Sauer, with the help of vital information from local families, discovered that René Noë* Lescoute was born in Tarkastad, in the Eastern Cape, on Christmas Day in 1920. His mother was Lina (Jelina) de Jager.
“There is different information about her origin: one family member from Cape Town says she was possibly from Salt River but the most comprehensive information shows she was from Tarkastad,” Sauer said.
“Lina’s husband, René’s father, was David Lescoute, from France, a missionary of the Société des missions évangéliques de Paris (The Paris Evangelical Missionary Society). He had been sent to South Africa in 1910, (a) usual routine to prepare missionaries there for their deployment in parts of southern or central Africa,” Sauer said.
“René was sent to France to get educated there. According to the records of the Montpellier University, René studied at the philosophical faculty in 1941/42 and the theological faculty in 1942/43.”
Montpellier belonged to the territory controlled by the Vichy which collaborated with the Nazis.
Sauer said from mid-1943 resistance in Vichy-France against forced labour increased. Several students of theology at Montpellier University decided to join the resistance.
“Resistance fighters in June 1943 established a base north of Montpellier, in Tréminis, a mountain region,” Sauer said.
Lescoute departed for the mountains, and together with other students became part of the "Camp of the Theologians" in the Tréminis forests.
“The group probably did not intend and had no weapons for a military offensive. But they wanted to support Allied (anti-German) troops whose landing in France was already expected,” Sauer said.
On October 19, 1943, German soldiers and French auxiliary troops attacked the camp in Tréminis on information provided by local agents.
A number of theology students were arrested. Among them was Lescoute, George Siguier, Pierre Fabre and Joseph Laroche.
“They were brought to Grenoble and interrogated. Lescoute was severely tortured. At the end of November, prisoners, including Lescoute, were transported to the Gestapo-run Camp Montluc in Lyon, where they were put on trial before a German military tribunal,” Sauer said.
Nine were sentenced to death, five executed, and the remaining four including Lescoute were pardoned on January 7, 1944.
However, they were immediately sent to the transit camp in Compiègne. From there, Lescoute was transferred to another notorious camp, the Neue Bremm in Saarbrücken.
“Considerably weakened because of poor nutrition and forced labour, he was then transferred to the concentration camp in Mauthausen on April 22, 1944. He was registered there as number ‘64135’,” Sauer said.
Lescoute died in Ebensee in Austria on January 28, 1945. The exact circumstances of his death are not known, Sauer said.
Ingrid Barnard, who provided vital information to Sauer about her family history, and a relation to Lescoute - her mother’s cousin - said it was by chance that she read the original story in the Cape Times.
“I live in Cape Town but was born in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Both my grandparents came to Africa during the period between 1915 and the 1920s and were Protestant missionaries in Northern Rhodesia belonging to the Paris Mission.
"My grandmother was French and her name was Jeanne Adele Lescoute (married name Monteverdi), born in Orthez, south-western France. Her brother, David Lescoute, was also a missionary who came to Africa in 1910.
“My mother, Helene, now deceased, was born in Northern Rhodesia, but was sent to France at the age of four, and lived there for more than 20 years during which time she endured and experienced the trauma of World War II. She spoke frequently about her family and had many photographs of family members."
At the back of a photo of René Lescoute, in Barnard’s mother’s handwriting, was the comment of her cousin’s demise in a concentration camp in Graz, in Austria, and the fact that he was a theologian in Montpellier in France.
“Among the many stories my mother would tell, there was mention of a “Tante Lina”, who was a coloured lady from the Cape and René’s mother, married to David Lescoute.
“The research that has been undertaken by the University of Vienna covers an important and extremely poignant chapter in the Lescoute family history, and has acknowledged the sacrifice made by a brave young man who was proud of his Protestant Huguenot heri- tage,” she said.