K.W.4: Chapter 10 Part 1, The Anniversary of My Mother’s Death, and We Carry On…

[ Chapter 10 is a particularly long chapter. I was going to post the entire thing at once, but then decided that broccoli is easier to swallow when given smaller portions. So I’ve split it into two parts.

It’s hard not to note, as I read through this memoir, how important poetry and literature are for Catherine Ammar. She leans on stories and verse to get her through her misery. I’ve been able to catch many of her references but I know I’ve probably missed some.  This chapter, I was introduced to the poet Verlaine and brushed up on Molière. At the end of the chapter, which I’ll post in a few days, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac makes a wonderful appearance. When looking up the exact reference, I was delighted to see tons of different translations into English. I’d been stressing about making sure my interpretations of my aunt’s words remained authentic, and to see all the different iterations of a single paragraph in Cyrano took some of the pressure off.]

 

 

They’ve given us coats. Not all the prisoners got them; I was lucky. Some are really old, others newer, and elegant. Many of them still have the tags from a store in Prague. If they could tell us their stories! Some have the yellow stars of their previous owners, poor Jews who ended up in the crematoriums whose clothes we now wear. The Germans would do well to remember that the stars they tore off will not be forgotten, nor will the infamy of their actions. The golden star remains an indelible rallying cry.

The Germans definitely love their symbols. When we march, bent over by the wind or rain, we carry a cross on our backs like Jesus, a mark applied to our coats, a visible offering against the shadows of the night. The Germans without faith or law, degrade the cross.

And at night, the sign is there on our mattresses. With our coats spread over the beds, the symbolism of the cross in our dismal dormitory is unforgettable.

female_prisoners_in_ravensbrück_chalk_marks_show_selection_for_transport
Women in Ravensbrück with crosses on their coats marking them as prisoners. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

In the lining of her coat, Dominique found photographs, yellowed and pale, and a birth certificate. She carefully guards these documents in the hopes that one day she can return them.

Dominique is steady and secretive, the regular features of her face under her white headscarf reminds me of a nun. She never laughs, but often smiles. Her health is bad but she has one of those fragile natures that can still find strength inside. Whatever rage she feels is hidden by her sweet smile, and whatever passion is contained in her glacial black eyes. Her ivory skin has been browned by the shadow of the factory. And her hands, fine and slender, seem to play with the thin wires in front of her machine. She rarely speaks, economizing her energy. What a contrast from Jacquie who struggles, laughs, cries, rages.

I never argue with Dominique, nor do I ever have to tell her anything. We understand each other very well. Jacquie’s brash personality may have hit her a bit hard at first, but there’s never been any ill feeling between them. Despite this, Jacquie’s childishness, her frankness, her impulsiveness has conquered Dominique. She loves Jacquie in her own way, with condescension, a little distantly… and little by little, with soft and measured steps, Dominique has moved closer to me knowing that for a long time, maybe forever, I’ll derive much joy in watching life lived by my impetuous red-headed friend.

… I’m working with the huge “Rollen” right now, they’re heavy to handle, and tend to mess up the machines. Max is furious. He yells at Madame P who doesn’t clean well. The work is exhausting for her—it’s buckets, broom, rags, all day long. And the dust… With a little bottle, she shakes water onto the floor, like holy water with a scrub brush.

Shake a little more holy water, Madame P, there’s so much dust.

The hours pass by slowly.

 

November 9, 1944

Through the prisoners of war [I think Catherine is referring to the men in Sachsenhausen] and Céline in K.W.8 who was able to communicate with them, we were able to send news to France, succinct news, to be included in a prisoner’s post card. Each one of them took the name of a person back home and told those in their family something that resembles my own message: “I met Catherine in Berlin where she works. Pass greetings for her to Denis D at such-and-such address if you see him.” We hope that the families of the prisoners understand how important this is. Denis is an attorney and dear friend. He’ll find a way to see Françoise, who looks after my son. I hope Jean-Pierre will be reassured.

Another lie is circulating: soon we’ll no longer have to work. If only it was true! The cold and hunger hardly bothers me. It’s the work that’s detestable.

These lies (this one, and all the others) haunt us. They alone would be enough to exhaust us. We’re prisoners, frail, impressionable, bound. We cannot live with just our memories and our dreams. The Germans exploit our situation and create for us stories less dreadful than our current misery, they circulate fantastic news through the camp and factory.  Some of these lies give birth to hope only to be revealed to be false. And here we are, desperate to hear them all. It seems all the Offizierinesare watching us right now. Luckily, we quickly regain our self-control, but the effort exhausts us. This psychological war is more insidious than the wars of hunger or fatigue.

The deportees will no longer be forced to work, they say. Why not? The Germans don’t have any intention to change their methods of deportation. They don’t respect the politics of the prisoners. They’ll continue doing what they do all the way to the end of the war.

It’s another lie.

A lie just like all those promises to distribute the packages from the Red Cross, warm clothes, etc., etc…

This week, it’s been impossible to write. The soldier who’s been watching us stole all our paper. She confiscated some verses from me by Verlaine:

“I often have this dream, strange and penetrating,

“Of an unknown woman, whom I love, and who loves me.”

She took my verses and then slapped me.

Celine came and slept next to me. She promised me a gift. To amuse myself, I wrote these lines for her:

“A gift, but all things considered, what could it be?

“A cup that hasn’t been chipped by indelicacy.”

 

November 10, 1944

People’s moods are turning sour. At K.W.4, Madame X asks, “Who put these peelings in the bowls?”

No one responds, thankfully. Why would we cause one of us to be punished? Us Frenchwomen stick together.

We’re still discussing which names should be given to the prisoners to send news back to France. Some of the women, thoughtful and well intentioned, want to create a list—only the true Resisters will be allowed to submit their names. That’s all well and good, but who knows anyone’s “true” activities? Should we exclude this or that person on the faith of reports? Right now, I don’t want to hear it. I don’t care if Madame X’s virtue has been swept away because she didn’t show exemplary conduct, or because the horrible Max showed her kindness. If needed, we will settle all accounts later, after the war. Right now, we all wear the same clothes. We are all equal in our misery and we should treat each other with complete solidarity, without petty restrictions. And anyway, what does anyone here know about anyone? Those who open up the most might be inventing stories. Gina, the passionate Bretonne who says only that she “worked” still stays nothing, and no one knows that Jacquie had once been condemned to die. All these files could be opened again. I recommend we maintain prudence and discretion.

On the other hand, the optics of things here at camp change. Those who maybe were once “pas-grand-chose”, not much, in their lives gain a little stature if they give a little smile and a kind word to a desperate comrade. The hero, here, is Philinte and not Alceste [a reference to La Misanthrope, by Molière. Philinte accepts that people are flawed and conducts himself in society with moderation and restraint, while Alceste insists that raw honesty is the best policy.].

Some of our comrades pray at night, fortunately for them since this discipline brings them comfort. But those amongst these women who remain hard and continue to snarl will not receive the paradise they think they’ll win.

I will never forget the little brown-haired woman who, maybe, didn’t do her duty as a French person, and who, maybe, is amongst us by mistake, but who nonetheless has enchanted the group with her elegance and tidiness and enchanted my heart by this unusual complement: When, exhausted by factory work, I hesitate to descend to drink a cup of hot water, she’s the one who gallops to my side to bring me a meager viaticum. Later, if she deserves it, I’ll shoot her down. But, in the meantime we must do our duty; we must be grateful for the small gestures.

I preach indulgence, at least for the moment, and plead for a smile.

In the lavatory the window is open. The little tree is nothing more than a skeleton against a white sky. The red house makes the scene look like a scene from a drawing by Foujita.

I received Céline’s gift. Funny, I got the same gift from Jacquie, Marie and Nana.

Here’s my response, and my thank-you:

 

To Marie, Jacqueline, Céline and Nana

 

“I received your charming gift.

For the soup, a spoon,

It’s certainly not silver

But with soup and misery

Appetite comes with eating”

 

I’m still really tired. My nose hurts. The sore I have on my foot is still there and as a result I’ve swollen lymph nodes in my groin. To be admitted to the infirmary, you have to have a high fever. Renée, from Marseille, was admitted with bronchitis and a fever of 103 degrees. We sneak her a little jam on our teaspoons.

My comrades often take me into their confidence. My god, all the biggest stories, for women, revolves around love. And it’s never boring, laced with scruples and regrets.

The shy Christiane opened up: “I was about to finish my degree in philosophy,” she says. Christiane never raises her eyes from the microscope except to check the stopwatch next to her on the table, which also monitors the temperature of the experiment. But the attention of her heart is elsewhere, plunged into the past.

And Aliette, when she speaks of Pierre and her daughter Germaine, often says “my husband”, “my husband”. She has love in her heart, but also, maybe, a bit of an instinct for possession, a bourgeois grasping.

The other day it was Lise who spoke to me. She has an inimitable Parisian accent, a husband and three kids she adores. She comes from a modest background. She told me the story of how she met her husband:

“I was at the Social Services office where twice I ran into the same guy. He invited me to a bistro. We got coffees. You won’t be surprised to hear I saw another guy at the counter looking at me, you know how they do. I was interested in him, but I was with this other guy. So, anyway, the first guy walks me to the bus. I told him goodbye pretty quickly, the bus takes off and… guess who suddenly climbs in the bus? Guess! The man at the counter. And the first guy is still on the sidewalk like an ass. So, there you go. The young man who followed me onto the bus is named Paul and I loved him like I’ve never loved anyone else. I was 19 years-old. We were married.”

Dear, simple, little Lise, your story shook me. It’s a beautiful romance. I wasn’t even shocked by the word, “ass”. When you speak about Paul you hold all of the poetry in the world.

 

 

 

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