An Interview with Rodolphe Coigney

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Jane interviews Dr. Rodolphe Coigney, a family friend and a hero of the French Resistance. From Dr. Coigney’s obituary in the New York Times, written by Paul Lewis on June 22, 2001: Dr. Rodolphe Lucien Coigney, a French resistance hero who near the end of World War II helped persuade Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief, to release French women held in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, died on June 6 in New York. He was 89.

Dr. Coigney was a medical adviser to Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s wartime headquarters in London and was sent to work with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, which was set up to help the victims of Nazi occupation. Later, he headed the World Health Organization’s office in New York.

Early in 1945, after he had joined UNRAA, Dr. Coigney flew secretly to Stockholm to see what help neutral Sweden could give the Allies in dealing with refugees when the war ended. He met Count Folke Bernadotte, vice president of the Swedish Red Cross, through whom Himmler was trying to negotiate an armistice with the Allies on the western front.

Eager to ingratiate himself with the Allies, Himmler had already agreed to Count Bernadotte’s request to release a group of Scandinavian internees held in two concentration camps, the women at Ravensbrück and the men at Neuengamme.

Dr. Coigney persuaded Count Bernadotte to ask for the release of all French women at Ravensbrück as well, and Himmler promptly agreed. But the Allies rejected his limited offer and continued to demand a total unconditional surrender, which they obtained on May 8.

In early April 1945, Dr. Coigney was sent to Malmo, the southern Swedish port, where he greeted the released women as their boat docked.

Rodolphe Coigney was born on Oct. 14, 1911, in Paris. He studied medicine there. In 1939, he was drafted into the French medical corps and in 1940 was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery in a German air attack on a French troop train.

In the confusion after the fall of France in June 1940, he obtained the stamps and forms needed to discharge himself and many other French soldiers so that they could avoid deportation by the German Army to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany.

Returning to his medical practice in Paris, he managed to steal German stamps and forms that allowed him to start issuing passes secretly to enable resistance fighters and refugees to leave the Nazi-occupied zone and move into parts of France controlled by the Vichy government. But the Gestapo became suspicious, and Dr. Coigney was forced to flee to Spain and Portugal, eventually reaching London. There he became deputy chief medical officer at de Gaulle’s Free French Liaison Mission to the Supreme Allied Headquarters. In 1952, he was appointed the second director of the W.H.O. office in New York, a post he held until retiring in 1972.

An enthusiastic fisherman, Dr. Coigney in 1989 published a bibliography with details of more than 460 known editions of Izaak Walton’s ”Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation,” first published in 1653.

Surviving are his third wife, the former Martha Wadsworth; two daughters, Arielle Chiflet of Lyon, France, and Frederique Dorgambide of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and and a son from his first marriage, Joel, of Los Angeles.