November 11, 1944
On November 11, we drink champagne at the house. Even the baby takes a few sips while being held in the arms of our maid Thérèse. Later, the little boy will go to l’Arc de Triomphe with his father, and I, happy mother, start preparing a surprise for lunch.
.…At eleven o’clock, we stop working. Our machines stop purring. Max and Anna don’t understand why we all stand without a word. Madame P rests her broom and makes a sign of the cross. A single minute slips by as the French deportees stand in meditation to celebrate Armistice Day.
The machines start up again….
All my glands are swollen. I’m scared: anemic, asthmatic, itchy (and it’s not scabies)… My mother’s illness haunts me. I can’t eat anymore. “Christiane, take my soup.”
I’ve lost so much weight; my entire body is shrinking. If I make it back to France, I’ll look after myself, I’ll heal. If not, what an infinitely sad thing it would be to die here. No!
Let’s not think about what might happen during the month after I return, but I shall not die beforehand.
I don’t hope to be in Paris by Christmas even though they say the big American offensive strike has started.
November 13, 1944
The fog still lingers, causing a sour, misting rain. Sometimes we call the fog “fondue snow”. It drops icily on our sad shoulders and creeps under our coats. Jacquie doesn’t even have a coat and the factory floor where she works isn’t heated.
Click, clack, the wooden soles of our shoes slap the ground. When it’s dark, we recognize where we are just by listening to the sound of our feet. A deadened sound tells us we’re on the little wooden bridge; a sharp sound means we’re walking over the poorly leveled stones of the road; wet slapping tells us we’re walking through the puddles in the camp. In the avenue that takes us to the factory the sound of our feet is steadier, since the path is isn’t nearly as bad.
The Queen of Queen’s chariot accompanies us. It lights our feet and we bend our tired and solemn heads so that we won’t see the sad farce we play.
Sometimes, Mimi and Dolly sing if the Aufesherinisn’t too mean. This bravado fools no one.
November 16, 1944
When we woke this morning, the camp was covered in snow. Everything was white under a great grey lid of sky. Vague lights sent a few rays of gold into the joyless white landscape. How many times in my childhood did I see this scene foretold in Russian storybooks? I read from the Biblioteque Rose collection*, The Guardian Angel’s Farm and General Dourakine, and shuddered at the suffering of those deported to Siberia. Perhaps I suffer less from today’s reality than I did from those nightmares unworthily visited upon a child in revolt against human misery.
After roll-call, the ranks form again, five by five, to leave for the factory. We each march to our respective tortures.
Those at K.W.5, where Aliette, Jacquie, and Renée work, will sit at their massive machines, unwind their cotton, and take the blows of the foreman. There are very few French women at that factory. The women of K.W.8 will also go to work and the seamstresses will take up their scissors and cloth and return to making soldier’s uniforms. They might be able to “organize” scissors, thread and needles to bring back and make us happy. And us, the quality control factory K.W.4 where we do nothing, waits for us. It’s where Max and Anna control all our actions with vigilant hatred and obstinance.
Jacquie has met an S.S. officer who watches over K.W.5. He’s Romanian, a father, and hates Hitler. He risks his life to give her newspapers just so we have the comfort of reading the news hidden under the covers of our beds. It’s nearly 9 p.m. and curfew. We are all already on our mattresses. Those on the bottom bunks have 20 inches of space between them and the second bunk and are hidden in a humid and filthy shadow. They’re lost in the narrow recess. With 20 inches they can’t even sit up. But those on the third bunk are better situated. It’s almost paradise. The pointed and paneled roof is nearly two or three meters above the third bunk. We’re better up there, but its glacially cold. Jacquie and I sleep together to stay warm. Behind us is Renée. When my mattress is empty we feel distant from the others – it’s normally such promiscuity! Later, when we think about all these forced intimacies, the halitosis, we’ll be nauseated. We habituate ourselves to this disgusting state to stave off our suffering. And this evening, from mattress to mattress, we circulate our prohibited newspaper. Jacquie just got it, and in the shadows close to her we climb up and read:
“It’s hard,” says one article, “to imagine that the war will last more than a few more months, or even weeks.”
We carefully reread this phrase and Arlette, enthusiastic Arlette, says, “It’s done! It’s almost done!”
Of course not, Arlette. It will last longer than you think.
November 18, 1944
The Red Cross parcels are done. I’m hungry. One bowl of soup per day isn’t enough.
November 21, 1944
I’m exhausted. The swollen lymph nodes in my groin hurt.
Ernesta has figured out her machine. She looks human again, and that’s what important. Her hair, prematurely grey, looks combed. Her memories of the gas chamber are leaving her. Hidden behind her machine, she manages to sew.
Gina draws a little.
Max sent me into a corner of the factory that’s used as a laboratory. Perched on a stool in front of the wall’s reinforcement that now serves as a table, I remove wire casings and measure diameters before and after the experiment. The electric light, the blowpipe, the Palmer micrometer are the tools of my trade.
So many hours in the same position! I don’t know where to put my legs and I’m getting alternating pains, sometimes on one buttock, sometimes the other. My eyes burn, and my gut too. I’m hungry, and my digestive system isn’t happy. I drink hot water, it alleviates the dizziness and nausea. My filthy rag of a body isn’t adapting as well as I want it to. I ask only for a few more months of effort, and then it’ll be finished.
I log a few of the experimental results, and also some poetry, if the Aufesherinisn’t around watching.
She speaks to me in garbled German, “ Schreiben … papier… Katherine.”
She swipes my verses, again.
I don’t want her to call me Catherine. The familiarity is as much of an outrage as a slap.
Hans, the Romanian soldier, told Jacquie that there have been horrible floods in the Ruhr region of Germany that are holding up operations. He then gave her candy which she shared with me and Renée.
November 26, 1944
It’s raining a lot and we flounder in the muddy puddles. “Schnell, schnell!” shout the guards when we look for a better place to put our feet. It’s no use. We’re to push through the water but without breaking ranks. Heads are bowed. Bodies are bent in two. The rain falls on us poor human livestock. We’re sheep for the slaughterhouse—no, that’s not right—ours is a slow death of another sort.
Suzanne reviews my experimental results and my work. During this time, Max sends me to the part of the factory where there’s no sampling, and sets me to work placing labels on experiments. It’s less tiresome and I’m happy to be tangling all the wires.
After the shift I find all my comrades. They all come to kiss me and wish me a lovely name-day. What a miracle of ingenuity for them to have prepared the little gifts they offer out of the sight of our tormentors and without ever letting me find out. Dolly illustrated a few of my poems for me. Everyone signed it. And here’s an ink pencil wrapped in paper and tied with a tri-colored ribbon. Madame V made me a pale blue cross with a thin, little leather chain. All of it is arranged on a piece of cardboard with Mimi’s serpentine calligraphy.
“And what is a gift, when all is done?”**
It’s sweet; it’s charming. Saint Catherine celebrated.
*Biblioteque Rose, or Pink Library, was a collection of children’s books published by Louis Hachette in 1856. I only mention it because it took me way too long to figure out what my great aunt was talking about, and when I did I fell into the rabbit hole of research about Hachette Publishing, which is one of the Big Five
**This quote is taken from Cyrano de Bergerac:
“And what is a kiss, when all is done?…
An oath, made a little closer, a promise
More precise, an avowal to be confirmed,
A pink dot set above the ‘i’ of the verb ‘to love'(aimer);
It’s a secret told to the mouth instead of the ear,
A moment of infinity making a bee’s buzz,
A communion with the taste of flowers,
A way to inhale each other’s hearts,
And taste a bit of the soul at the edge of the lips!”