K.W.4: Chapter 4, The Seimen’s factory 12 kilometers from Berlin

[During World War II, Seimens, currently the largest industrial manufacturing company in Europe, used slave labor in their factories which they built in Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and other camps. After the war ended, neither the company nor any company executives  were ever punished for their crimes.]

 

Lagerde Siemenstadt, À 12 km. de Berlin

25 August 1944

             The camp is less gloomy than Ravensbrück, smaller, and cleaner. We are nine hundred women, seventy of whom are French. The moment we arrived, prisoners rushed to the dispensary. Many of them were suffering with vaginal discharge, but the Czech doctor didn’t have a single medicine to help. She declared the prisoner’s issues were nothing; that they were anemic.

At first I thought that these little miseries of my companions were due to a lack of hygiene during the three days of travel in the train car, where we had no water to bathe ourselves. But the maladies continue, despite showers in the Lager, showers that are daily available, if one wants one – they’re always open. We’ll see in a few days.

The start of September. First contact with the Siemens factory.

K.W. 4 is, on its first floor, a quality control factory, fairly clean, but without air circulation or adequate lighting. The ceiling is glass, but covered in black curtains and cardboard for defense against airstrikes. It’s stifling. On the ground floor, the windows can be opened.

Each one of us is placed in front of a machine. We are to handle spools of wire which are to be tested.  The first day I was supposed to cut the wire every 20 centimeters and place a label in preparation for my friends to do other experiments. I tangled the wires with the labels. Anna smiled, but Max was furious.

The second day they stand me in front of a machine that, with a mean growling sound, pulls the wire just until it breaks, and a dial marks a number showing the level of its resistance to the tension. I stand 12 hours a night. I hum a few songs with Mimi, Dolly G. and Jeanne C., but I need to be placed somewhere else. If not I won’t be able to continue writing my journal.

 

11 September 1944

Night alarm. We successfully hide ourselves under the blankets so as not to have to go to the bunker. I’m so tired.

A Russian woman, 18 years old, tried to escape. She was shot; now she’s dead. This explains the isolated gunshot sound we heard in the middle of the night. This morning she is put on display in the showers with her skull opened. The prisoners file past, expressions unreadable – we’re made to look. I walk by with Marie S. and offer a quick prayer. We don’t exchange a single word. We don’t weep. We’ll never forget.

 

12 September 1944

At the factory, the foreman keeps an eye on Dolly G. While he’s occupied, I feel more at ease in my own corner.  I’m on my feet, as always, in front of my machine except for the thirty seconds it takes to start it up.  I stretch this time, since they’re watching me less.

We toast bread in the electric kiln that we use for our voltage experiments. As long as we’re not discovered, it’s wonderful. When we find lice, we use the kiln to steam our dresses and underclothes. Luckily that doesn’t happen often, thanks to the continued attention we try to pay to hygiene.

 

Sunday

Phew! Rest…

…No. It’s roll-call all day. I’m cold.

 

19 September 1944

The underpants they distributed to us were too long. We cut them to make bras and handkerchiefs. In punishment, a prison guard slaps a few of us. She makes us all stand at attention and when the commandant walks past our line, we lift our skirts to show off our corpus delicti. The prison guard has no sense of the ridiculous. The commandant, that old letch, turns his back. We aren’t given any more punishments. We return to our block.

 

23 September 1944

Autumn is making its appearance. A few red leaves crunch under our feet on the path to the factory. The fat soldier who drives us (we call her Baleina – The “Whale”) slaps tall, blond Suzanne, probably because she’s too pretty with her doll’s face. Suzanne slaps back and the Aufsherin has finally received a well deserved whallop.  La Baliena responds with punches. Still mad, she pursues Suzanne through the factory all the way to the workshop and the whole military coterie gets involved.  When everyone returns to camp, Suzanne and Berthe are to be punished. We join them when they stand at attention to share their punishment. We are twelve French women acting in solidarity. After an hour they order us to go to bed. None of us were hit except Suzanne and Berthe, who each were punched twenty-five times, but the presence of the French women in the camp is beginning to be felt.

My foot hurts me. The raw scrape will never heal with all the marches we do. They refuse to bandage it at the infirmary.

I’m dying of sleep deprivation at the factory and sleep whenever I can. I write verses.

I’m haunted by the wire spools that I so hate. Yet, they’re pretty, varied in form, color and material. Some are heavy, 15 kilos, and are difficult to manage. Some are copper, fawn, gold, green or red; others pale and silver like the moon’s rays.  Sometimes those that we think might be heavy turn out to be agreeable tricksters made only of aluminum. The spools have a specific scientific look; they have the expected taste attending an inductive electric wire. It’s a lesson in elemental physics that practically leaps from the same textbook I studied some time ago for my baccalaureate. But there are other spools, and those, if we weren’t in these particular circumstances, would give us fantasies. The filament is rich like lustrous hair, brilliant like silk; some dark red, some pink. Colors of the most precious softness they look like the fairy skeins used to weave Peau d’Ane’s‘s dress , or the silk sheets for Sleeping Beauty. Some are blonde like a doll’s wig, or like the sublimely white hair of a Nordic princess. Others, red gold, could be used to ornament the hair of an Empress of the Orient. Others still, like auburn filaments with hot reflections of flame where ardent purple would be used for blonde Isolde’s floor length gown. The thin wire often breaks in the machine and that would test my patience if I wanted it to work. But I love this wire, traitorous to its own fate, because it causes a poor yield for the “Grand Reich”. It makes me look with complaisance at the pretty little bobbins lined up in their box. They resemble a Christmas present destined for a little girl who will be proud of her sewing box. When the large spools are piled up on top of each other, I feel encircled by impregnable walls. I stand in the center of my chateau-fortress worthy of any fairytale. I wait, confident of my deliverance.  Despite my tattered dress, I am a queen unjustly imprisoned and sure of my destiny.

We poor prisoners, heedless of these beauties, like the cruel Fates, unravel and reshape them. We pull the wires and watch them unroll like a waterfall. We place the bobbins into coarse devices; into murderous baths. We burn the wire in electric kilns and follow their agony. Then, after they’re used up, we throw them into the garbage where they confront their origins.  The foreman keeps an eye on how we recycle the wire, but rebellious French women, with pleasure, use alchemy to mix copper, alluminium, or lacquor, carefully removing only the wire we want intend for own use. In expert hands, under the nose of our guards, this wire becomes safety pins, bobby-pins, combs, jewelry and belts passed to our friends as gifts. Murderous spools that must serve as engines of war, you have nevertheless generously offered us a vision of pleasure.

There are also spools gigantic in size, but they never enter our K. W. 4., they don’t belong with our delicate precision machines. Instead, they linger in the courtyards, or in the other workshops, even in the streets. These nightmarish spools escort us everywhere. The pretty silken skeins that we work with, the silver wires that could be hung on Christmas trees, have been turned to tarred, grotesque cables. We don’t even know what color is protected inside – pink, green or white. They’re now uniformly grey, rubber-coated or encased in a mattress-like material. They’re impossible to see at night, sunk in mud or fog. They taunted us when we arrived, and will still be here when we leave, rolled up onto their giant spools. These spools hold the devil’s cables; they’re the cables of all the sorcerers of the world, cloaked in maleficence. We are all shocked that we haven’t found witches’ cauldrons or the bloodied knife of Lady MacBeth nearby.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. This journal involves such therapeutic and elegant writing. It is as though the writer journals her disbelief in the absurd surroundings she found herself in and yet it becomes significant to her survival.

    Like

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