Born in 1911in Zamocz (Poland), native town of several renown Jewish personalities: D Shlomo Ettinger, the journalist Zederbaum, the great Yiddish writer Itzhak Peretz, and Rosa Luxembourg. Zamocz was a town counting a very large Jewish population… The Jewish environment and atmosphere in Zamocz had a very important influence on Joseph Epstein… During the whole period preceding the war, the Jewish worker youth and a great deal of the intellectuals did felt the weight of the national and social oppression. Insecurity, lack of perspective contributed a lot to the engagement of a large part of the Jewish youth with the revolutionary vanguard that was then fighting the reactionary, bourgeois and anti-Semitic politic. The revolutionary forces of the Jewish youth were also a large reservoir for all the immigrations to the welcoming countries. The large majority of these young people left illegally Poland and cross the borders.

The political tensions in this period had a considerable influence on young students, particularly in the Jewish circles, even if the Jews weren’t many in the Polish high schools. By the beginning of 1926 a contact was established between communist organization and student groups among which was also the young Joseph Epstein, alias Jurek…In 1929 he went to Warsaw and joined the Law Faculty… Joseph Epstein was arrested in August 1931. After a very painful investigation he was incarcerated. His father used his relationships and with the help of a procurator and a high bail amount, he succeed to get a liberation on parole. Hardly freed, Joseph smuggled to Czechoslovakia, and applied to the Prague university. But the Czech government denied him the asylum right and Joseph left to France. As a student at the law faculty in Tours, he joined the Communist party and was soon elected as a member of the Federal Committee… He left then Tours to Paris with Paula, a student at the Medicine Faculty. Native from Lodz, Paula emigrated to France because of the « numerus clausus » imposed in Poland to Jewish girls in the universities, and she wanted to study Pharmacy. In Poland she already had been part of the communist youth organization. Her links with Joseph were both sentimental and ideological. She became his faithful life companion. For a while they tried to live in Paris, but the money problems led them to leave again to Bordeaux, where he studied law and she went to the medicine-pharmacy faculty. Joseph continued his activities while studying. His oral talent reached the federal committee and in 1934 he was elected as member of the communist youth central Committee…

Joseph Epstein resumed brilliantly his studies, but as foreigner he could not practice in his speciality. He got irregular jobs and lived in precarious conditions. At the same time he decided to get training in industry and war weapons. As war started in Spain, about ten thousand Spaniards living in Bordeaux went back to their country in order to fight against Franco. Epstein went with them… Wounded in the combats, Joseph volunteered at the service of the Aid Committee to the Spanish Republic where he was assigned to to the central office. Among other tasks he managed the buying of guns, ships and planes…

He travelled often between Bordeaux and Paris, and worked with the Spanish Consul, Georges Duval. His job consisted to facilitate the passage of the Spanish border to the volunteers that came from all over Europe to join the International Brigades. Georges Duval told that his smartness and courage recovered several times delicate situations… The war led by Franco with assistance of Hitler and Mussolini against the democratic Spain, was the prelude to the fascist aggression against the world labour movement. Joseph Epstein continued to actively collaborate with the National Bureau of Aid to the Spanish Republic…

The committee activities were covered under the official company “France Navigation” who owned twenty two boats with crew totalling thousand two hundred sailors. During the Spanish civil war they achieved to carry more than thousand tons of food as well as smuggled weapons cargoes. There were blood shed all over Spain.                                                      Assigned to the Political Commissariat of the International Brigades in January 1938, Joseph Epstein returned to Spain. His head quarter was located in Albacete but he was longing to join the fights. He was assigned to the artillery battalion named after Anna Pauker, with the grade of captain, according to his technical knowledge of all kinds of weapons and his combat experience. His “pseudo” was André. Unfortunately very few witness of his war operations are left. One episode of that time of Joseph’s fight is characteristic. In summer 1938, at the head of his unit, Epstein distinguished himself on the Ebre river front. He received the command to withdraw with his artillery batteries back to the other bank of the river, because the larger pert of the army had not succeeded to cross the river, and his unit was at risk of being surrounded by the Franco army. But Joseph Epstein did not obey to the command. He increased the fire and commanded his troops not to withdraw before the rest of the army succeeds as well to cross the river. He was judged before the disciplinary military court for non-executing the command. But the court judged that the original command was wrong and that Joseph’s initiative was the right one and saved the republican army. In contrary, he received a military distinction from the head quarter… Four hundred forty six year after the tragedy of the expelling of the Spanish Jews, the Jewish revolutionary youth did mobilize for the defence of freedom in Spain. This unit was named Naftali Bottine after the little Jewish shoemaker of Lwow…

In 1939, at the very beginning of ww2, Epstein volunteered to the French army. He was assigned to the Polish unit in France, as a non-commissioned officer. It did not take long till Jurek (that’s how one called Epstein) got upset with the anti-Semitic atmosphere that prevailed among the Polish unit. Tall and blond, he did not look Jewish to the Poles. His appearance encouraged the private anti-Semitic conversations. Epstein was sociable, good living, a good chess player, and his humour well appreciated busted sometime out in a happy laughter; but he was also very serious. He did not avoid telling that in the atmosphere prevailing in thePolish unit, it was difficult to fight Nazism. In a short time, Epstein gathered one hundred and fifty Jewish volunteers for the Foreign Legion. The Jews preferred to join the Legion rather than being incorporated among the Poles. Doing so, they ran the risk of being judged as deserters. Nevertheless their situation was legalized and Epstein himself joined the 12th Foreign Infantry Regiment (that became the 22nd IRFV) one of the first to be sent to the front, on the Somme near the Aisne River. In May 1940 as POW Epstein was sent to the Leipzig area. In November of the same year, despite the cold and the very bad weather conditions, he succeeded to escape and to reach the « neutral » Switzerland. But arrested by the Swiss authorities he was sent back to the German border. Knowing the bad lot waiting for him, he tempted and succeeded anew to escape by swimming in the icy cold water of winter. Again he came to Switzerland and found refuge in the French Consulate.

He became legal documents as a French citizen which allowed to come back to Paris on December 25th, 1940… Joseph Epstein had no illusions. Despite his Aryan look and documents, he searched the way to start to fight in the resistance. During the last month of 1942, the partisan movement knew big difficulties in it’s actions in Paris. The S.S. brigade in charge to fight the resistance inflicted hard knocks. The very head quarter in Paris had been arrested. Charles Tillon who led the “Direction Nationale” in these critical time, assigned Epstein as Commissaire of the military operations for Paris and it’s region.                                                                        The military operation tactic was based on groups of three partisans, one executing and two for coverage who assured the retreat. This tactic did not prevent the resistance from sustaining heavy losses. Joseph Epstein (Colonel Gilles for the partisans) proposed the a military tactic that he used in the Paris area. Groups of ten, fifteen and twenty one fighters. Charles Tillon supported the proposal and recommended it to the entire country. About this conception of the military actions in the resistance, Henri Noguères wrote: “Gilles owned great technical and general knowledge, not linked to superficial instruction practiced in the army, but in contrary he had his own ideas to adapt to guerrilla fighting. Most of the comrades adopted the three comrades system. But in Paris there were policemen and German soldiers everywhere: Joseph Epstein preferred to engage fifteen to twenty fighters per operation. The heads of the units and even the M.O.I. did not quite share this idea. Gilles had to explain his point of view. If in Paris during daylight, three persons only had to attack a military unit, there will always be a danger to be arrested that could lead to a partial or complete failure. In opposite with a larger group well prepared, it was possible to gain a superiority if adopting a discrete strategy. The operations in Paris conducted in 1943 were placed under Colonel Gilles’ authority.” On September 16th 1943, Joseph Epstein had a meeting with Manouchian in Ivry. It’s possible that they were uncovered, however both of them were arrested there. They were armed but had no time to defend themselves.

They were surrounded. Joseph was capped with a leather mask, so tight that his face became a bloody mass. He was tortured for three month. But Epstein remained silent. His torturer couldn’t even get real name…

The Nazi police and their French collaborators triumphed after the arrest of Epstein and Manouchian and tens of other fighters, in Paris and suburbs. Despite long and cruel refined tortures, none of them ever break. The torturer couldn’t even obtain Epstein’s identity or origin; they couldn’t obtain details that would allow them to forge a spectacular public trial in order to serve their Nazi propaganda. Epstein does not appear on the famous red poster which denounced the Resistance like a criminal army composed of foreigners and stateless criminals… Joseph Epstein was judged with eighteen other partisans in Saint-Claude. All were sentenced to be gunned. On April 11th 1944, Joseph Epstein, alias Colonel Gilles fell with his comrades in front of the firing squad at the Mont Valerien. Just before his execution he wrote his last letter to his wife and his little boy… Colonel Gilles, or Joseph Epstein was buried in the Parisian cemetery in Ivry under the name of Joseph André, the name he had adopted in 1936 when started for him the war against fascism and Nazism in Spain.

His wife realized that it was important for History that on his tomb appears his actual family name as an undeniable proof of the Jewish participation to the Resistance in France. On his tombstone was engraved his name: “Joseph Epstein”

Extract from Moshe Zalcman’s: "Joseph Epstein Colonel Gilles, De Zamosc en Pologne au Mont Valérien 1911-1944 » Published at Éditons La Digitale Kerflech-Mellac 29130 Quimperlé