Homage to our comrade Clara

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Our comrade Clara died at Tenon hospital in Paris on Saturday 15 April, at the age of 88.

Clara was born on 8 October 1917 in Paris. Her mother, Rebecca, was of Russian origin. She came to France because, as a Jew in her birthplace of Simferopol in the Crimea, she was not allowed to study medicine. In Paris, she became a nurse. Before coming to France, she was already a militant of the workers’ movement since she had participated in the foundation of the section of the social democratic party in Simferopol. Clara’s father, Paul Geoffroy was a skilled worker in the jewellery trade. Before the First World War, he was a member of the anarcho-syndicalist CGT, then moved towards the Communist Party after the Russian revolution of 1917.

Thus, since her earliest years, Clara had been educated in the tradition of the workers’ movement. At the age of 15 she joined the Jeunesse Communiste (Communist youth movement). In 1934, she went with her father to Moscow to visit the sister of her mother, who had died when Clara was only 12. What she saw in Russia, among other things the fact that new homes were reserved for a minority of privileged elements and not for workers, led her to pose questions about the ‘socialist fatherland’, and on her return she broke with the JC. At that time she had already had a lot of discussions with our comrade Marc Chirik (whom she had met when she was nine since Clara’s mother was a friend of the sister of Marc’s first wife), despite opposition from her father who, having stayed loyal to the CP, didn’t want her hanging around with ‘Trotskyists’.

In 1938 Clara, now 21, no longer needed her father’s consent and she and Marc got married.

At this point, Marc was a member of the Italian Fraction, and although Clara was not a member, she was a sympathiser of the group. During the war, Marc was mobilised into the French army (although he wasn’t French and for many years his only identity paper was an expulsion order whose deadline was prolonged every two weeks). He was based in Angouleme at the time the French army collapsed. With a comrade of the Italian Fraction in Belgium (who had fled the advance of the German troops because he was Jewish), Clara left Paris by bike to join up with Marc in Angouleme. When she arrived, Marc, along with other soldiers, had been imprisoned by the German army who, fortunately, had not yet found out that he was a Jew. By bringing him civilian clothes, Clara helped Marc, and another Jewish comrade, escape from the barracks where he was a prisoner. Marc and Clara reached the ‘free’ zone and got to Marseille by bike in September 1940. It was in Marseille that Marc played a leading role in reorganising the Italian Fraction, which had been dislocated at the beginning of the war.

Without formally being a member, Clara participated in the work and discussions which made it possible to reconstitute the Italian Fraction. Despite the dangers posed by the German occupation, she succeeded in transporting from one town to another political documents addressed to other comrades of the Italian Fraction.

During this period, Clara also participated in the activities of the Organisation de Secours des Enfants, which looked after and hid Jewish children in order to protect them from the Gestapo.

But it was at the moment of the ‘Liberation’ that Marc and Clara had their closest encounter with death. The Stalinist ‘Resistors’ of the Parti Communiste Francais arrested them in Marseille. They were accused of being traitors and of collaborating with the ‘Boches’, since when they raided their home the Stalinists found notebooks written in German. In fact these notebooks were inscribed during the German lessons that Marc and Clara had been receiving from Voline (a Russian anarchist who had participated in the 1917 revolution). Voline, despite the terrible poverty in which he lived, did not want to receive any material help. So Marc and Clara asked him to give them German lessons, after which he would agree to share a meal with them.

During this raid, the Stalinists also found internationalist leaflets written in French and German and addressed to the soldiers of both camps.

It was thanks to a Gaullist officer who was in charge of the prison (and whose wife knew Clara, having worked with her in the OSE), that Marc and Clara were able to escape the justice of the PCF killers. This officer had initially prevented the Stalinists from shooting Marc and Clara (they had said to Marc, “Stalin hasn’t got you but we will have your skin”). Surprised that Jews were accused of being ‘collaborators’, he wanted to ‘understand’ the political standpoint which had led Marc and Clara to put out propaganda in favour of fraternisation between French and German troops. The officer recognised that their attitude had nothing to do with some kind of ‘treason’ in favour of the Nazi regime. He thus helped them to escape from prison in his own car, advising them to leave Marseille as quickly as possible before the Stalinists could find them.

Marc and Clara went to Paris where they joined up with other comrades and sympathisers of the Italian Fraction and the French Fraction of the Communist Left. Up until 1952, Clara continued to support the work of the Communist Left of France (GCF – the new name taken by the French Fraction).

In 1952, the GCF, faced with the danger of a new world war, took the decision that some of its militants should leave Europe in order to preserve the organisation in case the continent was once again plunged into war. Marc left for Venezuela in June 1952. Clara joined up with him in January 1953 when he finally succeeded in finding a stable job.

In Venezuela, Clara returned to her profession as a primary school teacher. In 1955, with a colleague, she founded a French school in Caracas, the Jean-Jacques Rousseau College which at the beginning only had 12 pupils, mainly girls who were unable to go to the only other French school in town, which was run by monks. The College, with Clara as principal and Marc as caretaker, gardener and driver of the school bus, eventually had over a hundred pupils. Some of them, upon whom Clara’s qualities as a teacher and a human being had made a considerable impact, stayed in contact with her until her death. One of her former pupils, now living in the USA, visited her in 2004.

After the departure of Marc and other comrades, the GCF broke up. It was only in 1964 that Marc was able to form a small nucleus of very young elements, who began to publish the review Internacialismo in Venezuela.

During this period, Clara was not directly involved in the political activities of Internacialismo but her school provided materials and was the meeting place for the group’s activities.

In May 1968, Marc went to France to participate in the social movement and re-establish contact with his former comrades of the communist left. It was during his stay in France that the Venezuelan police raided Jean-Jacques Rousseau College and found political material there. The College was closed and indeed demolished. Clara was forced to leave Venezuela in a hurry to join up with Marc. It was during this period that Marc and Clara again settled in Paris.

From 1968 onwards, Marc participated in the work of the group Revolution Internationale, which was formed in Toulouse. From 1971, Clara was fully integrated into the activities of RI, which was to become the ICC’s section in France.

Since that time she was a faithful militant of our organisation, playing her part in all the activities of the ICC. After the death of Marc in December 1990, she continued her militant activity within the organisation, to which she was always very attached. Even if she was personally very affected by the departure of certain old comrades who were involved in the foundation of the ICC, these desertions never put her commitment to the ICC into question.

Up to the last moment, despite her age and her health problems, she always wanted to be actively involved in the life of the ICC. In particular, she was very assiduous about paying her monthly dues and in trying to keep up with the discussions, even when she could no longer take part in the meetings. Even though she had very serious eyesight problems, Clara continued reading the press and internal documents of the ICC as much as possible (the organisation provided them in large letter format for her). Similarly, every time a comrade paid her a visit, she always asked to be brought up to date with the discussions and activities of the organisation.

Clara was a comrade whose sense of fraternity and solidarity had a big effect on all the militants of the ICC, to whom she always extended a very warm welcome. She also maintained fraternal contacts with older members of the communist left, showing them solidarity when they faced the test of illness (as in the case of Serge Bricanier, a former member of the GCF, or Jean Malaquais, a sympathiser of the GCF whom she visited in Geneva shortly before his death in 1998). After Marc’s death, she carried on transmitting this tradition of fraternity and solidarity which was a characteristic of the past workers’ movement to the new generations of militants. It was with great joy that she saw this solidarity, the hallmark of the class that is the bearer of communism, reappear in a magnificent way in the movement of the students in France. A movement which Clara greeted with enthusiasm before leaving us.

Clara faced her physical weakness and her very taxing health difficulties with remarkable courage. She left us at a moment when a new generation is opening the doors to the future.

Clara gives us the example of a woman who, throughout her life, fought alongside the working class and showed more than ordinary courage in doing so, notably by risking her life during the years of the counter-revolution. A woman who remained loyal to her revolutionary commitment and ideas to the end.

When the ICC as a whole learned of her death, the sections, and individual comrades sent a large number of testimonies to the ICC’s central organ, saluting her human warmth, her devotion to the cause of the proletariat and the great courage she showed all her life.

Clara was buried on Saturday 22 April at the Paris cemetery of Ivry (the same place where the husband of Clara Zetkin, Ossip, was buried on 31 January 1889). After the funeral, the ICC organised a meeting to pay homage to her memory, attended by several international delegations of the ICC, a number of sympathisers who had known Clara personally as well as members of her family.

To her son Marc and her grandchildren Miriam and Jan-Daniel, we send our greatest solidarity and sympathy.

We are publishing below extracts from the letter that the ICC sent to her son and his family.

ICC 25.4.06

The ICC,

To comrade Marc

Dear comrade Marc

With these few words, we want first of all to express our solidarity and sympathy following the death of Clara, your mother and our comrade. We also want to try to convey to you the emotions felt by all the comrades of our organisation.

Most of us knew Clara first as the wife of Marc, your father, who played such an important role in the combat of the working class, especially in some its worst moments, and also as the principal architect of the ICC. In itself, that is a reason for our respect and affection towards Clara: “Marc’s wife could only be a good person”. The courage and dignity she showed when your father died, despite the immense love she had for him, confirmed to us her great strength of character, a quality we already knew and which she continued to display until the day she died. But Clara was very far from just being Marc’s partner. She was a comrade who remained loyal to her convictions to the end, who continued to share all our struggles, and who, despite the difficulties of age and sickness, continued to play her part in the life of our organisation. All the comrades were impressed by her will to live and the total lucidity she maintained to the very last moments. This is why the affection and respect we had for her from the beginning have only been reinforced over the years.

Shortly before his death, your father told us of the immense satisfaction he felt over the disappearance of Stalinism, this gravedigger of the revolution and the working class. At the same time, he didn’t hide the disquiet he felt given the negative consequences that this event was going to have for the struggles and consciousness of the working class. Clara, because she kept her revolutionary convictions intact, saw her last days lit up by the resurgence of the struggles of a new generation. This is, despite our sadness, a reason for consolation for us all.

Clara was one of the last of that generation of revolutionaries who had to survive as a tiny minority defending the internationalist principles of the proletariat in the terrible years of the counter-revolution. This was a struggle led in particular by the militants of the Italian left, the Dutch left and the communist left of France, without which the ICC would not exist today. Clara sometimes spoke to us of these comrades and we could feel though her words all the esteem and affection she held for them. In this sense, after the death of your father, Clara continued to be for us a living link with that generation of communists whose heritage we claim so proudly. It is this link, as well as Clara our comrade, that we have lost today….Once again, dear Marc, we want to express our solidarity and we ask you to transmit this to solidarity to your children and other members of your family.

The ICC, 17.4.06

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: