On August 3, 1944, my great aunt, Catherine Ammar, was taken by the Gestapo in France for her work in the resistance and transported to Ravensbrück, and then later to Sachsenhausen concentration camp where she was forced to labor, I suspect, for Seimens. After liberation the following year, she joined about 80,000 other POWs marching out of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany – a journey through harsh winter climates, continued starvation and constant danger – and returned home.
In 1948, she published her memoir.
For three years, with the help of my father, I’ve been working on translating my aunt’s memoir. I’ve been taking my time because, first of all, the subject matter isn’t fun, and second of all, I haven’t been sure what to do with this. Does the world need another war story? Haven’t there been enough of these tales already?
Apparently not. The events over this past weekend in Pittsburg caused me to revisit the memoir. Tante Cathe wanted people to read it. She wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of publishing it in Paris if she wanted to keep this to herself. Although it’s a story that belongs to my family – my aunts, uncles, and cousins in France, and my parents, brothers, nieces and nephews here in the USA – it’s also a story that belongs to all families of all survivors of the holocaust. It serves as a reminder, and also as a pin in the map of the human soul: this is what we’re capable of, this is what we guard against. It seems to me, now, that we need this translation.
So, I’ll be offering it here, one chapter at a time, starting with the Preface written by Georges Huisman (who, among many accomplishments, was one of the founders of the Cannes Film Festival). On the internet, anyone will be able to read the memoir for free; anyone will be able to travel through the story with me as I explore my own family and how they were affected by the war.
It feels a little risky to do this, to open my family up and invite people to comment, but at this point I don’t care.
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” – Elie Wiesel
(For those concerned: I’ll still be peppering this blog with stories of small town living, so I promise this won’t be all death and desolation all the time.)
When Catherine Ammar arrived in Paris in May, 1945 after miraculously escaping the extermination camps, she didn’t have anything more than the skin on her back; her eyes were in horrible condition, and her body could barely support the slightest movement. Despite all of her physical sufferings, her laugh was full-throated when she told her stories about her adventures, delighted to have reunited with Paris, her son, and her friends. Alas, cheerfulness is not sufficient for healing. Her convalescence lasted a long time, and when Catherine learned that her husband, Raymond Ammar – the lawyer defending Georges Mandel who was arrested at the Portalet the same time as other patriotic statesmen – had disappeared forever in Germany, her despair reclaimed its rights.
In order for this young Resistance fighter to rapidly recover what she had been before 1940 – lawyer for the appeals court, a spiritual, brilliant and cultivated Parisian – it was necessary to oblige her to work and to relearn the lessons of her past life. Since she reminded me that, despite the Krauts, she had been taking notes and scribbling down her memories daily, I pushed her to write this deportee’s journal without worry either of its “literary genre” or of its form. It seemed to me important that a woman who struggled against the Gestapo and Nazi prison life would give us a direct testimony while still bathed in her sufferings. What is the importance of literary form or the ratification of a grand public?Catherine Ammar was not a highbrow, and had no ambitions to win prizes for literature.
In the fall of 1945, the Parisian editors tried first to find out whether books on the Resistance and the war still interested the public… Of course, if the public was only made up of the Vichyssoisand collaborators, the market would be indifferent to the martyrs of the political deportees. But in France, despite appearances and the words of those who would like to forgive and forget and keep silent at all costs, there are still thousands of French people capable of being moved by patriotic women who had the courage to risk their lives, their frail bodies, their youth and their grace to save a nation that a gang of traitors had delivered to Hitler with obvious satisfaction.
The exceptional thing about this journal is that it is presented like a document stripped of all literary preoccupation. Ever since man began fighting as soldiers, we can find amongst all the epochs innumerable volumes of military memoires. Men also have recounted their time in prison, their troubles with judges and jailors. But it is reserved for our own epoch, and for German executioners aided by certain French people, to put women on the same plane as men to submit them to a martyrdom which painters of hell could never conceive.
How did these patriotic women who threw themselves with such ardor into the Resistance (it’s now become unseemly to recount their exploits in good company) fare in the face of Nazi tortures? How did they accommodate themselves to such a life (admittedly the term accommodate is inappropriate) for which none of them were prepared? How did they contain their feminine sensibilities, their coquetry, their need for tenderness and love in the face of such ignoble, indecent overcrowding, coupled with the rhythm of beatings, privations, stabbing hunger, temperatures reaching -10 oF, clinics without drugs or doctors, and the constant threat of the gas chambers?
Novelists have recounted stories of women’s prisons, but the most miserable among them maintain a princess’s existence compared to the daily wounds of these political deportees. To understand how these real Resistance fighters, our friends, held on, one needs to read this direct and often brutal testimony. Patriots will find a new reason to clench their fists and amateur psychologists of the feminine mind will understand that, no matter what happens, a woman will always be a woman.
What I found the most surprising in this journal wasn’t just that these women, all with such diverse social backgrounds, formed so quickly and so unequivocally a bond between themselves and organized to steal from the Krauts whatever they wanted or needed, but also that, sick, starving, and always feeling the savage brutality of the Offizierin and the Blockowas, they remained women with heart, with passion, and with a desire to please. They blushed their cheeks with a mixture of margarine and red pencils.They managed to bathe even when there was no water, and they used the tricks of Apaches to keep their miserable dresses clean. In action, we knew the women were as capable of heroism as the men, but we ignored that in the middle of the worst physical and moral tortures, French women continued to comport themselves in a purely feminine way.
Unpardonable shortcoming of our civilization! We waited for Nazi’s promise of paradise and were rewarded with these camps for political and racial deportees.We love to read the discovered old journals of the 18thCentury Huguenots , who somberly “resist” with their soup spoons on the walls of their cells in Aigues-Mortes or Nimes, as well as the posthumous secrets of the pretty prostitutes the monarchy sent to Mississippi. But neither have ever known such suffering that the New Order distributed bit by bit, for their own good of course, to the deported women of the Resistance.
Chère Catherine, when you edit your manuscript,when you see in front of you the procession of your friends’ faces whose return to their liberated country was, too often, a long list of horrible ordeals and disillusions, you may wonder why you and your friends risked it all, given it all, lost it all while other, shrewd women and men sat quietly next to their fireplaces, blissfully awaiting for the miracle of their deliverance, playing their game of a double life that today confers to them so much privilege and recognition? Do not despair. Regret nothing, because if it all happened again, you would, I’ve no doubt, stand up and fight again.
Despite the appearances and despite the daily changes in fortitude, those who make sacrifices are enriched. You had a magnificent ideal and you have triumphed against the Germans and the pseudo-French of Vichy. Along with all the other deportees you call friends, you have revealed to us just how much courage a woman is capable of.
You were Combatants and Resistance fighters standing strong against torturers of both sexes. You returned, each to your harshly recovered home, as laborers or intellectuals, women of the farm or of the city. But out of your heroism a rich wisdom of humanity was learned.
As long as there are men and women in France who are passionate about liberty and ready to fight for the noble cause of the human condition, I say to you and all of your friends in the death camps, “Be proud of your sacrifices. Close your eyes to the pettiness of those eleventh-hour resisters. Thank you.”