A Bank Robber and Darling of France’s Left Elite Is Murdered

Fighting for the Venezuelan revolution led to crime, prison – and a memoir that captivated the French elite, even after which Pierre Goldman may have erred.

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Tomb of Pierre Goldman
Tomb of Pierre GoldmanCredit: Coyau / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

On September 20, 1979, Pierre Goldman, a 35-year-old political-outlaw hero of France’s left-wing elite, was shot to death in Paris. Goldman’s political pedigree — he was the son of a much-admired member of the French Resistance; his willingness to examine himself in print; his involvement with guerrillas in South America; and his dashing good looks — all made him a figure that elicited strong feelings among many Frenchmen, enough that some felt compelled to assassinate him, and that some 15,000 people were moved to show up for his funeral.

Pierre Goldman was born in Lyon on June 20, 1944. His father, Alter Mojze Goldman (1909-1988), was a Polish-born Jew who fought in the FTP-MOI Communist Resistance in Vichy France during World War II. That’s when he met Janine Sochaczewska, also a Jewish refugee from Poland. Pierre was their child.

After the war, Janine, a fervent Communist, decided to return to Poland. She intended to take her son, but Alter, who didn’t want his son growing up in a country he considered anti-Semitic, kidnapped him, and kept him in France. Alter later married, and his wife adopted Pierre, who also paid occasional visits to his mother in Poland. One of Pierre’s half-brothers is the French pop singer Jean-Jacques Goldman.

In an interview he gave to Le Monde shortly before his death, Goldman described his sense of being Jewish as the only thing of which he was certain. Though he grew up speaking Yiddish, and surrounded by Jewish culture, he suggested that it was the hatred of Jews — “it is Auschwitz,” as he put it — that defined his Jewish identity.

Draft dodger

Goldman was a peripatetic student who got himself thrown out of several schools, and although he audited classes at the Sorbonne, he was drawn to the idea of armed struggle. By his own admission, he also was obsessed with death.

Dodging the French draft, Goldman left the country, with his travels taking him to Cuba, and then Venezuela, where he joined a guerrilla group working to overthrow the government. In June 1969, he and his fellow guerrillas participated in the armed robbery of a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada, in the town of Puerto la Cruz, which netted 2.6 million bolivars, Venezuela’s biggest hold-up that year. After fleeing Venezuela, Goldman made his way back to France. There, among other things, he participated in a number of bank robberies that seem to have been purely criminal in intent, before being arrested, in April 1970, in connection with the murder of two pharmacists during the robbery of their Paris drugstore the preceding December.

Obscure memories

Goldman denied involvement in the crime (though he did admit to carrying out three other hold-ups), but he was convicted in 1974 and sentenced to life in prison. During his incarceration, he wrote the memoir that won him the admiration of the political left, “The Obscure Memories of a Polish Jew Born in France.” He also completed a Ph.D. in Spanish studies.

By now, Goldman had the vocal support of such figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Signoret, Eugene Ionesco and even a former prime minister, Pierre Mendes-France. An appeal led to a retrial, in 1976, in which Goldman was acquitted.

After his release, Goldman wrote for several left-wing French newspapers, but there is also speculation that he continued to be involved in underworld activities. This only complicated efforts to discern who was behind his murder, by three youths outside his Paris apartment, on this day in 1979.

Shortly after his killing, a phone call to the police claimed responsibility in the name of a far-right group calling itself Honor to the Police. There were also rumors that the assassins were connected to the Spanish government, as Goldman was believed to be helping channel arms to the Basque terror group ETA. As recently as 2012, a French blog post attributed the murder to a recently deceased extreme-right activist.

Several hours after Goldman’s murder, his partner gave birth to his first child. Goldman’s funeral, held on September 27 at Pere Lachaise cemetery, drew a diverse crowd of mourners, whose number was estimated at 15,000.

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