K.W.4: Chapter One, First Encounters

[In Georges Huisman’s introduction, I was a little annoyed by how much emphasis he placed on the prisoners maintaining their femininity despite the horrible conditions and treatment. It seemed like a strange thing to tout, and cringe-worthy, like Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” in the 1958 movie Gigi. Then I read the first chapter of my aunt’s book and see that, though the blushing coquettishness Huisman describes is only in his imagination, the relationships that begin to form would not be easily rewritten into a book about a prison camp for men.] 

First Encounters

I never found out what K. W. 4 meant exactly. I think it’s the initials of two German words that means “cable factory” and the number 4 is the number of the workshop.

The first time that I saw those letters and that number, it was written in blue on a white sheet of paper. It was at Siemenstadt, near Berlin, on August 26:

An exquisite breeze accompanies the reveille. Under an expansive sky brushed with white clouds, we stand for roll call. We are 900 deportees from Ravensbrück, grouped five by five; 70 of us are French. A hedgerow of German military personnel, men and women, enclose us.  Seated behind tables are civilians, some serious, some mocking, who consult lists and examine us one at a time.To those who ask, we refuse to give our titles or positions; to others we display our hands, our eyes, or our teeth, depending on what interest them.

We are at the county fair, but there are no two-headed calves here. We are pretty, healthy girls, ages 18-45, human livestock, passing on parade back and forth in front of our mighty slavers who are busy, carefully making selections. They have a head for this game, these heavy-handed brutes, dazed and nourished on “Mein Kampf”. Inflated with their own self-importance, we see them sweat under the noon sun when the breeze chases away the clouds.

We stand, forever standing, each one of us thinking with despair of our past efforts. Alas, each one of us had hidden weapons, sabotaged work, wrote, published or distributed newspapers, resupplied the underground fighters or created false identification documents. All this we did for one reason: the Resistance. For all the French women reunited here, the red triangle with its accompanying number is a reminder that all of us, directly or indirectly, had struggled against enslavement by the Germans who had inaugurated this forced labor in the countries they conquered. And all this energy, intelligence, and courage against our enemy ends here… at this recruitment bureau where we will work for our own executioners – work that will lengthen the war. This knowledge is our worst pain, our greatest grief, surpassing that of our arrest and deportation or later, our devouring famine, and it was only just beginning.

The prodding and questions don’t let up even with the declining sun, but through it all we can’t forget our despair and shame – we’re now working for the “Grand Reich”. And the slave dealers continue to calculating our best outputs.

How do you get out of such a fate? None of the French women are allocated work in hospitals or kitchens. Those choice places are reserved for foreigners condemned by common law. For us, we’ll be made to work in the war factories despite our ruses and lies. For example, Jacquie, a technician, says she has no skills; there’s a journalist who claims excellence in cooking; Georgette, a physician, begs to be a hospital attendant. We all, with the exception of three old women who stayed in the bloc to work as cleaning ladies, will be split between the factories K.W.4, K.W.5 and K.W.6.

We confront our papers and in silence, we swallow our tears.

The sky stays soft. The light shining from behind the pines announces the coming of dusk. The Germans just finished signing a nightmare: they won’t torture us to death; they won’t shoot us; they won’t shut us away in fortresses or prisons. Instead, they enslave us.

After tomorrow, on night-shift, I’ll be at K.W.4They’ll soon see how well I work for Germans….

 

Friday October 21, 1944

Right now K.W.4 is operating during the day. Jacquie and Aliette, from K.W.5 are working nights. I never see them except for Sundays, and occasionally, when our marching columns cross in the courtyard. We write to each other. We hide the notes under our sleeping pads and this gives us such joy.

Jacquie is my best friend. 21 years-old, with the dazzling complexion of a red-head, a splendid body open to life, an intense drive, a lively intelligence, open, athletic. She was also brusque, surly, and sometimes secretive, but always expansive, talented, and promising.

Aliette is also self-confident, but less spontaneous, a little more chastened by life. She hates those in fashionable society, probably a reaction against her bourgeois education more than, like Jacquie, an innate tendency. Aliette has marvelously expressive green eyes, ashen blonde hair, messy, but very pretty. She has a voice that caresses which she uses with her eyes. Aliette turns on the charm with everyone. She nurses her popularity. She protects her popularity. The budding journalist blooms within her. She’s been separated from a daughter who has the same name as me, and a husband named Pierre.

Both women know that I have a son and a husband deported somewhere in Germany and that I was a lawyer, but that’s about it. They don’t know my last name. Here, first names are sufficient. We’re still careful, and stumble along with our confidences.

This evening the women in K.W.4 were an hour late returning from the factory, so we have to do roll call in the courtyard. Two hours in the rain. It’s horrible. Jacquie knew it was raining and slipped me a box to wear as a hat. I put it on when theOffizierinwalks away and take it off when she comes back. There’s a rumor that they’re making us stand here so they can search our sleeping pads. I’m scared. My journal’s hidden in that pad – the journal that I’ve been holding since Fresnes. Until just now I’d been hiding it on my body, but yesterday at the factory they made us take off our clothes. They took our Lorraine crosses, hidden under dresses, and all the rustling papers which served as precious lingerie to keep us warm. A few slaps were distributed around the group of us. So, I thought it would be better to keep my papers under my sleeping pad, but no.

When I get back, everything’s turned upside-down and all that’s left are a couple scattered papers. This punctures me and I cry. Céline also cries.

I like Céline, I guess. She’s older than me and works at K.W.8. She’s thin, well brought up, intelligent, a little distant. She stays classy, even in camp. I always address her formally, using “vous”. I’ve been tutoi-ing Aliette and Jacquie for ages…Since Romainville…

Romainville… there’s no more news about Romainville. There, where for eight days we thought we were staying in a youth hostel with very lax discipline… Sun-bathing, packages from the Red Cross and only a fifteen minute roll call during which we watched the German soldiers.

And then there was my first encounter with Jacquie in the prison truck, existing forever only in our memories, careful and clumsy, like most first encounters…

…We’ve just learned from the newspapers that were smuggled into the camp that there is a general mobilization in Germany. It’s a good sign.

 

Saturday October 22, 1944

This is the third job I’m attempting. The machine seems complicated, but it pleases me for two reasons. First, I’m far from Max, the foreman, the man I hate the most in the world. Secondly, I’m close to Gina. Delightful Gina, silent and stubborn, a fanatic Resistor who teamed with Christiane, our sweet Doucette.

Gina resembles Louis XIV. Her grand and splendid auburn hair, longer than ours (it’s had plenty of time to grow in the last 18 months of her detention), looks like a wig worthy of Rigaud. She’s one of the obstinate ones that refuses to sign anything, even for a bonus.

My machine is a big, and fairly complicated. First, you attach a bobbin to it, then you pass the wire through a bath of electrolytes before it goes through all the different gears. With a single hand gesture, the wire unrolls while a dial measures the meters. The trial run goes for 25 or 100 meters. Then, another gesture, and an electric current passes through the wire. If everything goes well, the little check-light won’t come on. If the sheath on the wire is bad, then the current passes and the light turns on. There’s another dial that also measures each miss. After each bobbin, I move the dial to mark the number or misses. If for 25 meters there are more than 25 misses, the bobbin is schlecht,or bad. If not, it’s gut. I love this machine; it brings me joy. The mechanics of it was explained to me by Dolly G., and the time it took for me to learn was, as it should be, long. My clumsiness is becoming legendary. Sometimes the foreman screams, and that makes me happy too.

I don’t know a word of German, so the handsome Max could lecture or insult me all he wants because I’m thinking about other things, and with great calm and a sweet smile I tell him, “Nicht  verstehen, Sir”. I don’t understand…

Sometimes this disarms him. He thinks that I’m either crazy or stupid because nothing can make me drop my angelic calm, the only weapon I have left. He is more mean than smart and can’t understand just how clumsy a sly girl can be when she has no intention to work for the Germans. The only thing he can do is make me reload the bobbin and dismantle the machine and this doesn’t increase my efficiency.  I stand, smile, obey; my friends are amused by the merry-go-round. He leaves, I sit.

This machine allows me to stay seated during the ten minutes that the wire needs to unroll. Nothing stops me from stretching those ten minutes when Max is far away, when he flirts with Anna, our guard or, alas, when he’s hounding someone else.

Nothing is easier than to put the same bobbin on the machine three or four times. From far away my movements can be seen. The little light turns on; I look like a zealous worker. And with these undermining actions, a slowdown strike is underway.

There’s another great advantage to using this machine: I have access to paper and pencils. Writing gives me joy. I write and I write. I write the results of each trial – it’s magnificent. I am the Queen of Sabotage, writing whatever sums and figures I want, and the data cannot be verified.If Max is behind me, I’m very careful and everything’s correct. I maintain the air of a happy woman: there’s no problem with the bobbin… But when he turns his back, if I can’t rewrite the results, I can still give the innocent bobbin a swift kick with my boot. In anycase, Germaine, who is supposed to check our results but really just functions as a runner, doesn’t have any compunction about faking results and scratching the silky wire with her finger nails.

At the same time, Dolly is assigned to the graphs and records.  She is a student of the Beaux-Arts, and has a pretty talent for it. There she is over there, seated very high as though perched in front of a large architecture table. She seems quite busy. Her curly head is cocked to the side. She sucks the end of her pencil. I’m certain she’s drawing a fashion plate, a pretty dress that we ordered forMagda’s next marriage, or, if she’s in a less gentle mood, she’s recreating one of the nightmares that we’ve all lived through:

Some time has passed. Circulating the factory floor is a drawing. It’s Neue Bremm, the disciplinarycamp where we spent twelve days before Ravensbrück. In the foreground, there’s a gate. Behind this is a poor devil of a bony prisoner, whose striped uniform is in tatters. He’s bending over towards the hard ground to retrieve crumbs of bread or bits of sugar that we threw through the fence. He’s in danger of getting bullwhipped, but his hunger is so intense that he takes the risk. We hesitate to empty our packages, our beautiful packages from the Red Cross that we brought from the Romainville fort and which we stingily split between us on the train that took us from France. They’ll search us; they’re going to take it all from us anyway – provisions, clothes, and even our combs and toothbrushes and this nourishment will do some good for the sad and scrawny man that Dolly sketches. And then we pause… Behind this man is a puddle of foul water where the sun reflects the image of loping paws… There are men running through the dust, guarded by dogs and a jailor who beats them and yells if they’re not running fast enough. Behind this scene arethe cellblocks.  We’re locked in these wooden cellblocks for twelve days with barely enough water to drink, much less wash, and hardly fed. Duringthe bombardments of Sarrebrück, we were still locked inside, while fifty meters away other cellblocks were in flames.

Dolly, with a few lines from her pencil, reminds us of our sad memories… But Suzanne beckons us back to work. She’s the one who coordinates the work. Suzanne, with a stiff upper lip, has been able to extract a little good will from Max. She can intelligently curb the factory’s productivity, and her dozen friends understand perfectly well how to act like they’re working.

Mimi and Josette sing under their breath. Gina, under the table, tries to mend her tattered dress. Mademoiselle V. makes combs. Christiane is learning Russian. A little further away, others are copying and trading recipes. Nina fashions little tools out of wood to serve as nail files. Sabotage is beginning in earnest.

I’m going to make a new journal with the spare pages I have left.

 

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