K.W.4: Chapter 5, Souvenirs et Documentation

[My aunt shows more of her spark in this chapter. She speaks derisively of other women who don’t rise at 4 am to strip naked in the square and bathe in the icy water. Hygiene is paramount, and seems to be an obsession with her.

This caused me to vaguely remember that my aunt used to say something, like a platitude of some sort, but I couldn’t remember it exactly so I called my dad.

Me: Didn’t Tante Cath used to say something about cleanliness keeping her alive?

Dad: What?! I can’t hear you! Let me get your mother.

Me: Dad! What did Catherine say about wiping her ass?

Dad [laughing]: Oh! That was my father, not Tante Cath.  Don’t write that in your blog!

Me: But what was it?

Dad: He used to joke that the motto on our family crest states, “Toujours le cul propre” (a clean ass always).

…And this is why allowing the youngest and least fluent member of our family to pull memories from the depths of her impressionable childhood and translate these war memoirs is a bad idea.]

 

Monday, 1 October, 1944

Back to school. My thoughts assail me. Get back! Otherwise I’ll cry like I did last Monday, and I have all the others to console. As my mother used to say, “noblesse oblige.” My apparent humility (I use informal pronouns to address everyone and seek the company of the simplest people) hides an enormous pride.

Madame V— with the white hair cried today. I wrote her a letter.

Dolly B— worries she’s a lot of trouble for her brother.

They don’t know I have a little boy I haven’t seen for the last five months, and a husband of whom I know nothing but the worst – he’s been deported for two years. Only Aliette and Jacquie know, and Dolly, since Jean-Pierre lived with her. But Dolly is the epitome of discretion.

I also shook Lucienne by the shoulders, the little Italian who’s letting herself go. This morning there’s some progress. She’s styled her hair and I gave her a compliment for it. She resembles the portrait of a grand Spanish Inquisitor, with her long straight hair in rolled curls, her face pale and narrow under her black paper mantle.

At four in the evening on Saturday, work stops. We cleaned the machines. I volunteered to help sweep up. This kind of work suits me. The machines are like us, inert and docile, and anyway while we’re cleaning them we’re not working for the war. Our underhanded struggle to keep the factory’s output low is unceasing, and so exhausting, so wearisome.

Sunday, awaited with impatience, caused a few disappointments. Jacqui, our “ray of sunshine” has gone to sing in the Russian cell-block. She is still so young, despite her maturity of spirit, with her puerile enthusiasms and her sudden fatigue when her illusions fall away. She throws herself at a woman and in twenty-four hours they are “eternal friends.” Three days later, Jacquie won’t even look at her. Capable of both fidelity and even devotion, she nevertheless is as capricious as a little goat, as brusque as an ungrateful teenager. And yet, profound too, and as passionate as the most feminine of women. One shouldn’t listen too closely to Jacqueline’s confidences; they’re full of inexactitudes. But one should watch her live, and let her live.

 

7 October 1944

It’s cold in the factory where everything is turned upside-down after the bombardment. During the air raid, we were sent to the “bunker” where we found everyone from K.W.5, but those from K.W.8, mostly older women, stayed at their factory, under cover.

The bombardment was terrible.  When we are not all reunited, we tremble for the others. I was worried for our friends at K.W.8, especially my friends Marie, Celine and Blanchette. They survived; it’s a miracle because everything burned in the lacquer factory next to them. They said the detonations were deafening.

The Allies are at Frankfort. Some are hoping that the war will end in fifteen days, but I can’t believe we’ll be delivered before springtime. The Russians must first launch their offensive.  They accuse me of being pessimistic. No. I’m sure of victory, but the Germans will defend themselves. Men, and women even more, always want to hear fairy-tales…

Alarms. Alarms go off twice during the night. Sleep is cut short and it’s cold in the shelters.

 

8 October 1944

Alarms again. We leave the factory, we go back to the factory. I’m so tired. My machine is “kaput”. Max yells. Is it my fault there was an electrical short circuit? I don’t even know how to do a real sabotage.

I’ve got a sore throat. A guard gave me a gargle. What mischief is hidden in such solicitude? I understood: she wants to make me speak, and so we spoke. She understands a little French. She had worked on the rue desSaussaies. We know what that means [Note: The rue des Saussaies, a short street in Paris where the ministry of the interior is located, was Gestapo headquarters during the war] and it’s essential that work doesn’t continue here. She asks Nina if there are any Jews amongst us. Naturally, everyone says there aren’t. Only candid Berthe admits that her husband is Jewish. Her admission is hugely imprudent.

Aliette chatted with some prisoners to get the news. Of a thousand men in Auschwitz, only one hundred remain, and fifty-four women of five hundred. What will the numbers be at the end of the war? The triage system they’re using over there is the most whimsical of systems: When the train arrives, in order to reassure everyone the Germans say, for example, “those who are tired can ride in the truck. The others can walk. The camp is a few kilometers away.”

It’s a lie. Those who get on the truck will never arrive in camp. They’re sent straight to the shower; it’s toxic gas and the crematorium for them. The others who go by foot and are reassured that “you’ll be separated men from women, and we’ll ‘momentarily’ take your clothes and your bags, but institutionalized life is easy… We’ll give you everything back and, once every week, you can see your wife or husband.” And they all walk into camp.

There, after being searched and stripped of bags and jewels, the survivors of the train cars are each taken to an SS doctor. Each convoy carries two to three thousand people and there are seven or eight convoys each day.

An SS doctor completes the first triage. Eighty percent are taken straight to the gas chambers — the weakest, the children, and the mothers who refuse to be separated from their children. The rest of the prisoners, about twenty percent, go slowly to the grave via starvation and torture. The weakest are continuously being sorted out.

There was, at Auschwitz, seven crematoriums, but when they became insufficient for the number of victims, pyres were created that burned day and night. And during the day, the smoke from burning flesh hovers over the camp.

Not one child is allowed to live, with the exception of twins. Twins are kept for medical experimentation lasting two or three months. Afterwards, it’s the crematorium for them too, just like the others.

Life in camp is frightful. It’s a camp for the dead.

At arrival: quarantine, a quarantine analogous to ours at Ravenbrück, but harder. The French women hardly resist. They eat eight to a bowl, don’t sleep, their emotions cling to the crematoriums.

The mortality rate is terrible. The camp is strewn with cadavers. In December of 1943, the cadavers, covered in snow, looked like flocks of white geese.

The French women who were political prisoners were charged with turning the dead over onto their backs and taking them to the crematorium to be burned. When the crematoriums and the pyres weren’t sufficient, the Germans invented a torture that I hardly dare to mention.  Mireille and Louisette assured me it was true.

Some women were sent to work a couple kilometers outside of camp. They leave, a pickaxe on their shoulder, with nearly no clothes, no food, to create a clearing or chop down trees.

After a day, harassed under the surveillance of big police dogs and SS soldiers, they’re stripped and the vicious dogs are let loose to shred them as the sadistic SS soldiers watch with amused eyes. In the evening, the soldiers return to camp. Clinging to their guns are pieces of human flesh. [Note: Here, my aunt might be repeating circulating rumors about the Budy massacre. It is interesting to think that while people were systematically murdered, this particular event was over the top for even the Germans.]

Some young women, privileged musicians, are chosen to form an orchestra. These women are allowed to keep their long hair. A crown of thorns is placed on their heads and they’re made to wear long white robes. They play various instruments: saxophone, violin, cello, while bodies burn. That’s how degenerate humans use the most celebrated composers: Beethoven, Brahms, or Liszt accompany the slaughter with their divine harmonies.

…The pretty little tree with the golden leaves that had brought me joy is losing its leaves. Soon it will be nothing but a naked and vengeful stick jutting into the sky.

 

16 October 1944

It’s been three days of rest in the cellblock after my stay in the dispensary where they had to admit me because I caught a cold the outhouses (we call it “Chez Adolphe”).

In the dispensary, there’s no roll-call, no factory work. No one is there to care for the sick, but its very warm. I slept in the same bed as Nina, who had a high fever, angina, and a hacking cough. I ate from the same bowl as she did – the rules of contagion exist only in civilian life, it’s unknown in camp.

We start distributing packets of sulfa drugs to all the prisoners who’ve reported vaginal discharge and were diagnosed with anemia. As if I could believe such lies! Anemia would never show up for fifty girls at the same time. A few of them could be anemic at the start of a month, others at the start of three months. But these symptoms appeared two days after the gynecological exam in Ravensbrück, and continued …

Without a doubt, my friends have gonorrhea. Some who hadn’t been cared for (not even a shot) developed sore eyes and pus in their gums. The sulfa drugs will help them.

Some hesitate to take the packets we give out. I have to encourage them, show them where it’s written “Dagénan” on the packet. Smart girls, who have licenses, simple housewives too – they all ignore the symptoms. It’s shocking: sex education should be obligatory. The women of France are really poorly armed for life!

 

18 October 1944

We still don’t want to sign, despite all of the explanations they’ve tried to give us to cloud our judgment.  Of all the explanations given us, whatever the true explanation, if it’s a work contract: no. If it’s simply an acceptance of a bonus: again no – since indirectly it’s a bonus which results from the factory’s yield. If it’s a voucher for food from the store organized by the guards for the interest of prisoners, again no, since we don’t want any distinctions to be made between prisoners as a function of our work, since after all, we don’t want to work. No. Definitely no.

We wait our punishment. All kinds of noises circulate. We speak of the camp reprisals, shaved heads, baton beatings, dispersal of the French into different cellblocks. Nothing happens. It’s obvious that nothing too terrible could happen: they can’t shoot us all, and anyway we aren’t refusing to work. Many amongst us point this out, especially Helene G. who speaks German and isn’t too poorly seen by the authorities. We have not been able to systematically refuse to work. All we can do is to slow our output, since with a refusal to work the Germans could make someone an example for punishment. They need their labor force, and we would be fighting an unequal fight. One shouldn’t sacrifice the lives of 70 French women for a symbol. But for a bonus? No. We will not sign. The majority of the French stand together on this, and many of the Russian women too. But each week there are defections, and we are left a small group of resistors.  Here’s my opinion:

Since we don’t have unanimity, which is regrettable, I cling to the idea of refusing to sign, since now, at this point, signing would be the same as capitulation.

At the same time that we were having these discussions and feeling pressured, they “stole” three French women, including Aliette and Marie S., as they returned from work. They put them in the cellblock where the majority of the prisoners are Polish. They tell us this will happen to about twenty more women. So I take the initiative to form an “organization” and I put together some names (including Jacquie and Renée, who are working the night shift and are not part of this mess) and tell the Blockowashe must take us. This way we wont be separated from our best friends. Thus we are twenty-five French women grouped by sympathy, and the manipulative guards are thwarted, at least for the moment.

Sleep, the first night, is difficult to accomplish. Thanks to Marie S., I’m able to sleep on some low stools and I save my blankets and those of Jacquie and Renée. Many blankets were “organized” (which in camp jargon means stolen) during this fight.

I save a place for Céline, who is still in the clinic. After much hesitation and a bad fall from the construction site of a new bunker, Suzanne, the blonde, joins us.

The next day while we’re at the factory, Jacquie, who is on good terms with Michka, gets me, Renée and herself new mattresses on the third floor, lowest bunk, well located, with foot-lockers for night tables.

Céline and most of the French women detests Michka. Admitedly,  Michka is brutal, and beats us like all the other surveillance officers.  Curiously, Céline is beaten most often. No one knows why.

But let’s be fair: Michka, at least, is clean. She requires that we keep an impeccable cellblock. She often checks our beds, with the result that we have more reprimands, but at least all the old stained rags and dirty clothes that certain prisoners hide, to the detriment of the cellblock’s general hygiene, are tossed out. It should be mentioned that there are corners of the dormitory that smell terrible. Only a few of the girls wash themselves every day like we do — one must have a sacred courage to stand, at 4 am, under the icy faucets. And this is fortunate because if the 900 women in the camp all wished to bathe, the twenty some-odd faucets would not be sufficient. Everyone else’s general filthiness allows us to be clean. Michka opens windows. It’s a chilly air that enters, but it’s air. All we have to keep us in health is air and water, useful for all purposes. Thus Michka, either willingly or unwillingly, again represents a bit of luck in a camp of misfortune.

…A few old women were taken to Ravensbrück. What happened to them? None of our fears can be discounted. Those of us who aren’t working hard enough feel this as a threat. Jacquie, Aliette and I – we watch our backs.

 

Sunday

The only ones who are allowed the white soup are those who’ve signed, les “Signataires”. Except today there is enough soup that our companions can give us some. It’s a solidarity more superficial than real—when the pigs don’t want any more….

What happened to the “grave” sanctions they announced? I suspected it: people destroy, by themselves, their own authority when they don’t back up their threats.  No one’s hair has been shaved; no reprisal camps…this is Germany where the Krauts always lie. Bluff and lie.

We had an amicable snack together on my bed. The weather flows softly today. It’s a truce.

It’s Edmée’s birthday. K.W.8 organizes a little reunion outside in front of the cellblock. We read a complimentary words which we wrote on fake parchment paper. Friends have made a few flowers from bits of paper. Dolly embroidered a handkerchief made from some stolen cloth. The air resonates, crisp and pure, with the frank laughter of delicious Marie S.

My brother Manuel’s first fiancée was named Aliette, like Aliette C. She had a young and adolescent body, like Jacquie. Because of those two, I think of Manuel. Where is he? And François?

I dreamed of my friend Paulette and of her brother Loulou. When I woke, Loulou was dead, and I cautiously announced this news to my Maman, since she was already terribly upset.  Our sentences are out of proportion with reality. I fell back to sleep. When I woke again, I wept.  Was there less bromide mixed in with our fake coffee?

 

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