K.W.4: Chapter 9, Experiences

[The words of Georges Huisman have been haunting me. I’m still bothered by how, in his introduction to my aunt’s memoir, he felt the need to explain that her book isn’t literature. “What is the importance of literary form or the ratification of a grand public?” he asks. It’s almost an apology for her testimony. He seems to have a need to assure readers that this story is not my aunt pushing herself forward into the light; it doesn’t come from a desire to be known. “Catherine Ammar was not a highbrow, and had no ambitions to win prizes for literature.”

I’m reading a book called Woman, Native, Other, by Trinh T. Minh-ha. The first chapter opens with the idea of guilt in writing – the guilt of having the privilege to write, of “indulging in a ‘useless’ activity while most community members ‘stoop over the tomato fields…(p.10)'” This sense of guilt is pervasive. It undermines the artistry, the drive. It causes others to make excuses for the writing, as Georges Huisman did. It also causes women to turn around and use their talents to give back to the community in an effort to alleviate the guilt.

In a very real way, my translation of this memoir is me trying to give back; this is me trying to lift the pervasive guilt of indulging in writing. Maybe it’s even self-flagellation? I need to get back to writing other things as well…

This particular chapter was difficult. I knew it was coming and deliberately waited until after Christmas to post it.]

 

Today has been filled with kicks, punches, long roll-calls, and stolen soup – a black series of events leading to much misery in camp. As we headed to the factory this morning, two cars, each one carrying a baby and driven by women – probably the mothers – crossed our path. They looked at us with such curiosity. I felt like I could easily kill them both, them and their progeny – those two innocent babies in their cars. I was ashamed of myself.

By contrast, the other day, we were taken close to Berlin, to Siemenstadt, so that they could make us glasses. Naturally, we were kept under the watchful eye of soldiers and “the Whale”. In front of the optician’s house, children, five to ten years-old, played. They were playing like all children in the world, with sticks, screaming and laughing. Then they saw us and their eyes popped out of their heads. Some of them mimed killing us. Despite our misery and the ferocity of our guardians, I asked myself a question: could I kill these children? No. Instead I would have wanted to teach them love and brotherhood, sweeping away the hatred their parents or elders taught them so that they forget the horrible Nazi propaganda. Above all, I’d give them a bit of barley candy.

 

What would be wise would be a real and total vengeance, without pity, against the culpable generation. But for the children, an education. French children also need such education, since some of them have equally been poisoned.

There’s no fundamental difference between Hitlerism and the reaction against it.

 

30 October 1944

On the 27th, I thought even more about Raymond. It was the anniversary of the day he was wounded in 1918. Where is he suffering right now?

I turn again to the same dilemma. If I had left on vacation to be with Jean-Pierre two days earlier, would I have avoided being arrested, or would Jean-Pierre have been arrested with me?

I miss doing my most important duty: I’m not with my son and I could be so useful to him! What influences is he being subjected to right now? Where is he? I don’t know anything. I try not to think about it.

 

2 November

Day of the Dead. Scattered thoughts that veer from Maman to Papa, to Grand-Mère, to Eric (shot on August 1, 1942). Where is Raymond? Is he in our realm or in theirs? And Pepo? And Francois and Maurice? All my dear ones from long ago – the night envelops everyone I love.

The little precious tree is totally stripped. It is sad: This is winter.

 

3 November 1944

 

There’s a deep cold and rain this morning during roll-call. Our shoes with the wooden soles insolate our feet for a little while, but during extended periods the cold seeps through. The cold creeps in despite the paper we slip under our clothes on our shoulders. My back hurts. My throat and nose hurt. The cuts on my nose aren’t healing – the ones probably made by the lacquered wires. I am exhausted. I’m engulfed by a need to sleep at the factory, especially in the mornings—there must be lots of bromide in the coffee. Not only do we no longer get our periods, many amongst us are overcome by an invincible torpor.

I am wracked with pain. The cold descends upon us through missing panes of glass and we are forbidden to keep wear our headscarves at the factory.

This week, Jacquie is working night shift. I don’t see her anymore. The cellblock seems sad when I finish my shift, when I can’t hear her clear laughter, her golden voice… and also her vehemence, and the indignations of her young and impetuous heart.

 

Sunday

On our two twin mattresses, Aliette, Marie S., Christiane, Gina, Renee from Marseilles, and sometimes Céline come to eat their snacks near Jacquie and me. We bring our meager pittances that, on Sundays, seem like a feast: a spoon full of jam, 20 grams of margarine, a piece of bread… Sometimes there’s white soup, a sort of semolina with a little sugar or saccharine (mostly saccharine but we can’t taste the difference any more). We find it tasty – white soup is rare these days. Sometimes we light the woodstove with wood we stole from the factory. It’s close to my bed and we warm ourselves with the heat that rises all the way to the third bunk. Life seems sweet to us on the day we don’t work. Renee and Jacqui sing. Aliette and I recite poetry. We are far from camp and live in our dreams. Marie doesn’t have a voice as pretty as our two little songbirds, but she knows adorable Spanish songs that she simply hums to us – the calm smile of her character, her conversation full of finesse and poetry enchant us. She is always a welcome addition to our group, so discrete, so complaisant. But she gives her sweet heart to whomever needs it, and sometimes Marie uses it elsewhere.

Often Jacquie gets restless despite her fatigue. Even though the work she and Aliette do is more exhausting than our work in K. W. 4, she often gets up and leaves to tour the cellblocks on the pretense of needing to take a walk. I never leave my bed. The discipline that I impose on myself to take cold showers every day is enough to exhaust my physical strength, so all my friends that want to see me on Sundays climb into my dovecote. Baschia, an exquisite petite twenty-year-old Russian woman who speaks a little French, sometimes comes. She brightens our day with her youth and her pretty voice. We all well know why Baschia was deported – she’s a Partisane—she fought the Germans with her fiancé by her side. He was shot in front of her, and she took a bullet to the leg and has the scars to prove it. It’s why her life was spared. She’s in camp and at the factory, and feels happy to be alive.

I dedicate these verses to her:

 

TO BASCHIA, LITTLE RUSSIAN FRIEND

 

“Baschia”, your name is as soft as a murmuring

fountain or a chirping bird,

gentle and sweet smelling as is Nature’s rain

that falls by a bright stream.

 

A rustling of wings resounds in the heart

when you pronounce it tremblingly.

It ‘s not in our language, but it enters our ears like

honey from the bee.

 

Coming from your lips it escapes like a kiss

to prepare for the melody you will sing,

perched up there so funnily in our dovecote.

You hum it, to the enchantment of all the French girls.

 

We don’t understand the words of your song,

but those white teeth that show are so pretty,

and the sparkle in your wondering eyes

so fresh and clear, full of dreams.

 

Of all the joy and beauty in the world,

you seem to offer to our saddened souls,

Baschia, as we sit around you in a circle,

your songs and your smile have consoled us.

 

We don’t understand the words you are pronouncing,

Nor the secret of your foreign soul,

But a glance from you is enough for our stout hearts.

Our hands touch, we’ll be forever sisters.

 

One day, Baschia was called to Sachsenhausen. She didn’t come back that night. She didn’t ever come back. And at the “Kamer” we redistributed all her things… Even her shoes…

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. I wish to again express my gratitude to you for taking time to translate this poignant and important piece of history. I read with interest your comments about Georges Huissman; I recall reading his words and taking some offence — even before I had begun to read your Great-Aunt’s diary. How often do we (women, in particular) put aside our writing, our reading, our artistic endeavors because that tiny voice in our heads tells us that perhaps we aren’t good enough, perhaps there are “more important” things to do such as cooking and cleaning. Mr. Huissman, in his cavalier attitude about literature (and women) reinforces our guilt. It is my hope that younger women and all the incredible girls coming of age, will see through this nonsense.

    Thank you for the time you have spent away from your own writing to bring this diary to light.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your sweet words. It means a lot.

      In Huisman’s defense, he wrote his introduction in 1948, and he was fairly progressive for his time.

      Sarah Helm quotes a French POW in her book, If This is a Woman, “I was a young girl before the war, I wasn’t married and I was supposed to be pure. I couldn’t explain what it had been like so I said nothing. It was easier that way. We weren’t proud of what we’d been through.”

      It seems my aunt wanting her memoir published and distributed was quite a departure from the prevailing attitudes of the women survivors. For Huissman to encourage the telling of the tale by lending his name to the book was also a little risky. It is for this reason that it’s taken so long for these stories to come to light, and for the stories that were told to be revisited. We all know about Auschwitz and Dachau, but Ravensbrück remains shrouded.

      Despite all that, Huisman’s introduction does still bother me, mostly because it’s a clear example of how hard it’s been for women to be taken seriously. Apologies had to be made for any efforts at elevating themselves beyond their status. It’s hard to swallow.

      Like

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