“We see only clear nights, not days,
A wan sky that frees boredom
Is hidden on our heads; beyond the windows?
Not the smallest vista, no murderous woman
To divine the distance of a ray of sun.
The sun no longer shines; it will always be night.
Even in the morning when the reveille sounds,
It’s still clear night, and not yet day.”
November 29, 1944
Frost on the ground. So much the better—the puddles are gone. But now we must take care not to fall.
My wooden shoes are worn and my sense of balance is off, making walking difficult. Even together, Dominique and Suzanne are not much better. I offer my arm to Christiane and Gina.
Mornings, the path is troublesome; the entire day stretches in front of us with its sufferings and unpleasantries, but at night we try to forget our guards and recapture a bit of the world’s poetry. Dominique and Christiane, with their transparent silences, help. As soon as we pass through the doors of the factory, we want to forget it all. As we return to the path towards camp, a feeling of adventure overcomes us and we discover a strange beauty in the stingy offerings of the street. Today, the tall, stripped trees above our heads inscribe on the sky a few white, frosted lines. The moon veiled by a cloud looks to us like it came from fairy-land.
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” *
Ordinarily, the windows in the houses are hermetically shut in order to maintain defenses against bombardments, but today there’s one with a crescent-shaped ding and behind it stands a man. It was Christiane who noticed. He seemed to be looking at us. Is it pity or curiosity? Who was this man? Does he have a home, a lover? Maybe he was dreaming by the light of the moon and didn’t even see the sinister procession of women hidden under their own bent, cold backs, with their nun-like hairdos and their huge wooden clogs that clomped through the street?
At the cellblock, we French women secretly reunite. There have been stories about spoons circulating, lost, stolen, and that some of the Polish women are selling them for bread or margarine. We’re well aware of these rumors – my own spoon has disappeared – but everything ends with a song. Except tonight we whisper the name of one French woman, poor Camille. Suzanne and Blanchette speak of troubling coincidences, and tongues start to wag. Jacquie, Gina, Christiane, Marie, Aliette and I are far from such pettiness. Nothing we hear is good. Old griefs are rehashed. The only thing that counts is that Camille has caused a lot of trouble that the others justly hold against her, but I will nevertheless back her up.
Blanchette, severe but just, feels she must make me aware of every story. “I don’t want to know anything, Blanchette. There are things we must ignore… I’m not a judge that instructs, and neither are you. Look past these sad events that divide us. Go kiss Camille and don’t talk about this anymore.”
Blanchette, scrupulous, frank, headstrong, has no intention of closing her eyes. But I have the upper hand on her and I insist that Camille is innocent. In my heart, I don’t know where doubt lies. Nothing is logical in human psychology where perfection and horror strangely mix. But Blanchette is satisfied. She has confidence… and Camille has peace once again because the sweet Blanchette is now her defender when everyone else shows no charity and is bent against her.
During all this, they passed out K.W.4’s soup. I was late, so, thanks to having butted in, I didn’t get any and instead received a slap from Michka, our blokowa.
November 30, 1944
Nothing’s going well at K.W.4: My results on the wire casings are false… and Max finds that sharpening pencils for the experiments, which Anna has had me doing for the last two days, isn’t enough to keep me occupied. My attempts to work with spools of thickly lacquered blue wire, while seated next to Arlette, didn’t please them—it was like a kind of game to me. Like turning the handle of a coffee grinder, the work wasn’t too exhausting and allowed me the freedom to chat with Arlette. They prefer to give this work to a German, Alina, the fat blond. They found another machine for me.
They placed me in front of a kind of Martin oven**, on an uncomfortably high stool. I open the oven. I place a spool inside, not unlike a rotisserie chicken. I close the oven. I turn a wheel placed a little lower than me. I feel like I’m driving a car, or boat. Yes, the Star of Brehar Island glides its long wake towards the pink rocks… No, I read the dial: 0.7, 1.3, 1.4… And, that’s it. The experiment is finished in thirty seconds. I raise my arms a little. I open the oven and unwind some wire from the spool since I need to do six more experiments. And I start again. I’m told I’m measuring the maximum voltage that the wire can support.
At first it might look like the work isn’t hard. Not true. It’s an infernal machine I work with. I miss the one Ernesta now works with, over there, near Gina. Even if some of the Rollen were heavy, even though it made my groin hurt, I could still talk to Gina. Here, it’s awful. I turn my back to Max and Anna and I’m four meters from them. They can watch me without stopping, even when they’re preoccupied by other things. Their eyes are on my back, my poor, sore back that bends without any defense from their hateful gaze.
If my arms don’t continue to move without rest, they see that I do nothing. The torture starts. The “Meister” gets up, approaches, and screams, “Schnell! Schnell.”
Arlette translates: You must do three hundred spools in a day.
If I do ten experiments per spool, I’ll then have to open the open the oven six thousand times during the day. And each movement makes me sick. Max has a sadistic smile. He’s found, finally, my torture device. He tells the Aufesherin about me, and all the surveyors who pass by while doing their jobs watch “Katherine”. All the bastards call me by my first name. I just can’t anymore. In silence I’m devoured by suffering, tears and hatred.
At noon, I find Gina, Christiane and Dolly for soup. We have fifteen minutes of rest, of warm friendship. I’m horribly hungry and sleepy and the rations are getting smaller by the day. The rutabagas are like wood.
“Do you know what this black powder is in the soup?”
“Of course. It’s dust from the bottom of the bag mixed with mouse poop.”
“Ah bon.Okay,” Christiane nods, satisfied.
And we continue to spoon it up without leaving one drop.
December 1, 1944
Anxious days. I’m reminded of those past days spent interrogated. There is always someone behind me, watching me. My output isn’t sufficient.
“We’ll shave you bald! Schnell!”
“I don’t care. There are plenty of pretty wigs in Paris.”
It’s true. I’m really at the point where I don’t care. I open the oven and I close the oven; I open the oven and, again, I close the oven. The machine purrs without stopping. Its noise incessantly accompanies the ache in my back. I can’t even talk to Arlette, seated just in front of me. Instead I send her all my despair with a look, and she consoles me with the exquisite smile of a little cat.
Arlette, who acts as my eyes on the world since my back is turned, makes a sign if, just for an instant, there’s no one surveying me. I stop… a minute, or even a few seconds, are won… dear Arlette, she must be gorgeous in civilian life. Here, her hair is a mess, badly dressed, face compressed. She’s a little nonchalant about it all, but so courageous. She never hesitates to defend the accused; Max doesn’t like her. We have the same political viewpoints, and maybe even the same fate. Her husband is deported. When she thinks of Marcel, when she dreams of Marcel, when she aches for Marcel, I echo her. When she says, “Marcel” I think “Raymond.”
There’s a large group of surveyors around Berthe. She, too, is seated in order to be highly visible. Of course her work output isn’t enough, but there are other reasons, I suppose, for her placement. For one thing, she’s admitted that her husband is Jewish. For another, she’s very pretty. She’s so aggressively pretty that jealous Anna blames her for it. Her stunning chestnut hair, shining with luster from the machine’s oil, is particularly visible.
They’ll probably shave her tonight.
December 5, 1944
Everyone’s saying they’ll be handing out socks. So much the better. My hands are cold so I’ll make mittens. On my feet, inside my shoes, I’ve straw and paper to replace socks, but my hands, my back, my heart are terribly cold.
December 5, 1944
Sirens in the factory. We return to the shelter of the camp under a violent strike from the DCA. *** The French deportees maintain a blank expression. If we’re scared, we don’t show it. The Polish and Italians are overcome by panic so the guards beat them and they scream. What a mess! We run as fast as we can under the threat of their blows. I am breathless. Suzannae supports me. Dora and Christiane have been weakened.
Under a sky more choked with grey clouds than before, we return to the factory after the sirens end. It’s the thirty-second bombardment we’ve had since October.
On the road, the naked black trees look mortal. As always along our path, there’s the one house in ruins still standing, with loose wallpaper hanging lamentably from the walls and scrap iron from indecently stripped beds. We meet no one. The desolate solitude is terrifying. We follow the green silhouette of the soldier who guards us with his useless gun. Nothing is missing from this clichéd, habitual road that we know so well. Nothing’s been added either. Actually, yes, there was something: today we saw a little cat who snuck fearfully through the grey landscape. It was looking for food, an adventure. We can’t even do what it does—there is not a thing for us, not even a bit of grass between the cobblestones. How awful we all are on this filthy day. Even the women just 20 years-old look ruined.
December 8, 1944
We’ve found a louse in the factory. We’d hoped for a long time that one would appear under Christiane’s microscope. Now we have to be careful and keep it alive so we can delicately place it in Anna’s coat with the hope that it will quickly and confidently multiply. All day we’ve been on a high. Has the bug been deposited yet, we wonder? Mimi and Dolly were charged with this delicate mission. Suzanne, acting as our ambassador, connects a chain of machines. At 1400 hours, Anna, our factory overseer, received the louse in her fur.
*from “Endymion, Book 1” by John Keats
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
**A brand of wood-fired iron stove
***Department of Civil Aviation