[I am so lucky to have a family that sustains each other with love. Thanksgiving is a time to remember all the things you have to be grateful for, and this year I felt the kind of gratitude that makes me take deep, steadying breaths when I stop to think about all I’ve been given.
While I was in Minnesota last month, Dad talked a little bit about what he remembers from his boyhood in occupied Paris, and it’s not very much. His mom and dad divorced before the war because my grandfather was Jewish and my grandmother was not and they could see the writing on the wall. To protect my father, my grandfather took a the false identity of a Count, of all things, and moved to Lyon to join the resistance. He lived in a chateau where he ran an underground newspaper, manufactured false identifications for other resistance fighters, and was given crates of French national treasures, mostly paintings, to hide from the Germans. My grandmother moved into an apartment above a restaurant in the artists’ district in Paris, and kept the doors locked. Dad mused that it must have been horrible for his mother to live in their tiny apartment, with people coming and going at all hours from the bar below their home, never knowing which footfalls or voices were the ones that belonged to conspirators.
Dad was nearly ten years old when the war ended, but he said he was sixteen or seventeen when the significance of the war years finally hit him. Most of his childhood he never really thought about it, he just lived like it was normal, and I guess it was, to him. He remembers his mother taking him to the back door of their apartment. She introduced him to a woman who lived behind them and was told that if at any time in the future they brought him to this woman again, he was to go with her and obey all her instructions. He also remembers being shown the basement below the restaurant and was told that this was a place for him to hide if he needed to hide. Dad said he never had any real sense of fear or understanding about why he was introduced to that woman, or shown a hiding place. All boys were supposed to obey their elders, and secret places were fun.
I got bits and pieces of these stories over the years, dropped like discarded trash, and they’ve formed into a partial collage. When I was young, I didn’t really pay attention; I didn’t bother to gather the pieces. Now that I’m older, I ask questions and Dad brushes me away. He insists his story is nothing special, and that he remembers very little. So, I pick up the bits and hope he drops more. This last visit he told me that his mother once received a phone call from the police. “We want to meet with you,” they said. “We have some questions about your son.” My grandmother said she didn’t have time to meet, but then invited them to the apartment to talk after they threatened to turn the dossier they had on her over to the Gestapo. No one knows exactly what happened after that, but my father remained protected.
I’d been hesitating to post my aunt’s next chapter because it was Thanksgiving, and this particular chapter, even though only faintly drawn, is about something horrible and I didn’t want to think about horrible things on Thanksgiving. I’d rather marginalize the story like the rest of my family does – brushing aside the past like it was nothing, burying the ugliness, effacing the bravery. Once, when my grandfather was old and visiting us in Minnesota, a family friend asked what he did to receive his Legion d’Honneur medal – the rosette he always wore proudly on his lapel. He replied simply that he made a lot of friends in high places. My dad laughed at his father’s irony as he recalled the story.
Ravensbrück is not a place to be spoken about lightly or with irony, although, true to my family’s nature, that is exactly how my aunt writes about it in this next chapter. It was more than a prison camp, more than a concentration camp. It was a place where women were brought and sorted for slave labor, prostitution, medical experimentation, or extermination. It’s the experimentation that comes up most often in reference to this place.
Last night, I sat up late reading Sarah Helm’s excellent book, If This is a Woman: Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women. I won’t go into the details of what I read. As Tony Somerbough, head of the British war crimes unit, commented at the Nuremburg Trials after having heard the stories of Ravensbrück, “the intelligence of the judges accepts the evidence but their imagination reels from it.” (Helm, page 638)
My aunt’s description of her time at the camp closely matches Micheline Maurel’s, another inmate, and for a twisted moment as I read I feel reassured that my aunt isn’t lying. I keep thinking that there’s exaggeration, that it can’t be true. But this echoing of the same tale from two women who never met each other proves it, and then I feel sick all over again. “’They chose us just like we were cows at a cattle market… They even made us open our mouths to look at our teeth,’ Then it was ‘Schnell, schell’ and they were screamed at and beaten into running to the station where they were piled into cattle trucks… (Helm, p. 289).”
Like Micheline Maurel, my aunt didn’t stay long at Ravensbrück. It was 21 hours of standing and waiting to be sorted, she writes. Odd that she didn’t round up to twenty 24. She must have been counting.
I’ve been thinking about how atrocities like this could happen and all I can come up with is that it takes a handful of awful people to think up the script, a few hundred more to act, thousands of stage hands to make excuses, and an entire country that looks away. There have been a lot of holocaust comparisons made in these last few days since the tear-gassing of children at our border. While I do agree that the comparison feels a bit overdone, it’s clear to me that there are busy stage hands currently making excuses for the awful people writing scripts. The difference is the majority of American citizens won’t look away. They’re looking straight towards what is happening and pointing fingers. That gives me hope.
I have to repeat my opening line, because I keep thinking it, incessantly: I am so lucky to have a family that sustains each other with love. I am thankful for my family; I am thankful for my family.]
After traveling five days in a sealed railcar with 60 people in each car, stifling, smeared in grime, and smelling like an outhouse, we French women disembark at the Fürstenberg station.
At night, five by five, the column advances. We introduce ourselves, under the transparent light of the moon, to dry Pomerania, to its sands, and to a few pine trees rending the sky with dark branches.
Dolly drew the bleak scene and the landscape lacks for nothing, not the chapel on the left, or the placid pond on the right with the moon, a crescent, above. I can hear the muffled noise of our shoes and the beautiful songs brave women have the courage to hum under their breath: I hear “We march in the deep night, hand in hand,” or, “and if I meet Death in the road.”
Life in this camp will be remembered. Nothing is blurred; nothing will fade: Women swarming like maggots, pressed together on the hot sand where they squat in the dust, harassed and sticky, to pick lice or drink a coal-muddied broth; others swinging pickaxes like convicts, hauling supplies to the kitchen that are too heavy for them to carry, acting on guttural foreign orders they must understand to avoid being beaten with a baton. Some of the women are in quarantine, and like us, are enclosed in cell blocks so cramped that they can’t sit during the day or sleep at night because there are only two mats for every five prisoners. The mats are stacked in three levels, with only two feet between them, so we can’t even sit on the beds. If we leave the blocks, there are guard dogs, and they chase us with fangs and with beatings. In the morning, during the coldest hour of this awful continental clime, in the treacherous darkness, we endure two hours of roll-call, sometimes three, decked only in light gowns like you’d see in the Three Penny Opera, only marked with two large crosses one in front and one in back, because they’ve taken away our own clothes.
The day we left Ravensbrück we’d been standing for 21 hours to finish different formalities (bureau of admission, medical visits, distribution of clothing). The medical visits had been particularly monstrous. Completely naked in the sun, in front of other inmates, less sadistic than our persecutors because they averted their eyes from our shame, we passed in front of a commission in charge of checking our hands and teeth. Nearby, the guinea pigs, girls on whom were done various “experiments,” lounged on the grass. They took here a slice of calf, there a breast. Everyone has a number tattooed onto their left arm. In three months, after their bodies are ruined, they’ll be sent to the crematoriums. They know their fates and, while they wait, they sun-bathe.
After the medical exam, we get dressed and head to the laboratory. Taking turns alphabetically we get up onto the table for urinary and uterine samples. A woman we assume is a doctor examines us without disinfecting her hands or donning gloves. At the same time, another woman is taking notes to complete our dossiers. This documentation is marvelous for Nazi propaganda. Nothing is left to chance. Everything is done scientifically. All maladies are screened. And wouldn’t you know, at the end of these exams one single French woman is declared sick and isn’t marked for transport, but within forty-eight hours, fifty of the seventy women examined begin to experience painful discharge. The hygienic doctoresse has infected them all with gonorrhea.
I can’t leave Ravensbruck without humming this beautiful song, Le Chant de Marais, that all the deportees know. It was written about this camp:
[*side note: this song was originally called The Soldiers of the Moor, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and was written in German about the inmates of the Börgermoor concentration camp. Like folk songs, it must have evolved to suit the needs of those who sang it. My aunt writes the lyrics in French, and omits the parts about soldiers]
Where ever we may cast our eye
Moor and heath are all we find
Not a single bird sings to raise our spirits
In the dry and hollow trees.
Oh, land of distress,
Where we must unceasingly dig
Where we must, under great duress, dig.
In this dismal, wild moor
Encircled by iron walls
We’re in a cage without doors
In the heart of the wilds
Sound of paws and sound of men
Our sentinels day and night
Sound of blood, of cries, of tears
Death comes when one takes flight
But one day in our lives,
Spring will flourish anew.
you will be mine again.
Oh land free from sorrow and pain,
Where we can live again
Where we can love again.