In 2017, I was sickened by images of Neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, North Carolina. I remembered my great aunt Hélène’s story, told to me one day over lunch, about how she fought against fascism, joining the Resistance in France at the age of 23. She was eventually caught, tortured by the Gestapo, and deported to the concentration camp of Ravensbruck. After nine months of brutal captivity she escaped the Nazis with eight of her friends. Together they travelled across Germany in search of the US troops.
The shock of the events in Charlottesville inspired me to finally do something I had wanted to do for years. I would go to Germany and retrace Hélène’s escape route. I planned to write an article about it. The trip was also a personal pilgrimage for me. My children and I hold German passports because my grandfather, a German Jew, was made stateless by the Nazis. But I have never lived in Germany nor spent much time there. In 2017 my eldest daughter was going through a difficult time and I thought this would be a good trip for us to take together. She was worried about the state of the world and her role in it. Here was a chance for her to learn about Hélène and the fight against fascism in the Second World War.
As we explored Berlin and drove through the countryside we talked, sometimes in heated conversations, about what we could hope for and where hope could be found. I was aware of her youth and sense of urgency, and I remembered the astonishing youth of Hélène and the eight others, all in their 20s, when they joined in the Resistance.
On the last day of our trip we went to Buchenwald. It was the first visit for both of us to a former concentration camp. I had ambivalent feelings about visiting sites of suffering. I wondered about the voyeurism in so-called “dark tourism.” I had read accounts about gift shops at concentration camps. The whole commodification of the experience made me wary, as did accounts of disrespect or insensitivity of the public at these sites. It was a freezing cold January day. We had nice warm coats, but we were miserable. And there was no way we would cut the visit short or complain. Afterwards, when we drove into Weimar and warmed our hands at a tea shop, we sat in stunned silence, shattered.
That day changed how I felt about the importance of keeping the memorial sites open and it changed how I felt about writing Hélène’s story. I knew at Buchenwald that I could not write an essay or an article before I knew more about each of the nine women. I needed to find out who they were, what they had experienced, and how they had survived. And the more I learned, the more important it felt to me that their stories be told fully. They deserved no less.
The next years were detective work, sleuthing to trace their lives and find their descendants. At the outset I didn’t even know the full names of all nine. Eventually, I discovered that they had all passed away. I felt regret that I had not started my search sooner. But I decided not to give up. Learning about the women brought me small beautiful moments of compassion and transcendence. The horror of the Nazi killing machine is overwhelming. I could get stuck there and simply decide it is awful and hopeless — but there were also the quieter important stories of solidarity, friendship, survival, and bravery.
The women I learned about risked their lives to steal a crust of bread for a weak friend. They shared their meagre rations when they themselves were starving. They wrote poetry and sang songs to soothe each other. They made birthday gifts out of torn strips of cloth for each other’s children, holding up their friends through the wrenching separation. They recited recipes, step by step, how to make a rich chocolate cake, so that they could almost taste it. They called it “sharing a meal”, it helped them stave off hunger pangs. They stole scraps of paper and scavenged pencil stubs to write the recipes down. They bore witness and kept records. At the risk of their lives they stole Nazi documents. They sabotaged the factory where they were forced to work as slaves. And because they were “mere” women, the Nazi officials could not figure out what was going wrong with their factory. They never guessed the women were capable of such clever work.
The women I learned about were not meek victims, they were astonishing brave fighters. They made me proud. In my search I really wanted to find France, the baby born to Zinka while she was in prison. Zinka was able to keep her baby for 18 days, then France was taken away and Zinka was deported. I thought France could still be alive. I found accounts of how brave Zinka was and how she talked about her baby daughter all the time. She fought to live so that her daughter would have a mother.
Because the whole project of researching Hélène’s story had something of the miraculous in it, I found France. Again, my daughter was with me on the journey to meet her. When France and I saw each other we both started to cry. I said, “I have been looking for you for so long.” And France said, “Imagine for me, after 70 years to learn all this about my mother.” France did not know how central she had been to her mother’s survival. As a child, she had experienced the war as an abandonment. All her life she told me she felt a vague fear that the people she loved would leave her. Now she could better understand her mother’s sacrifice and recover her mother’s memory.
Meeting the descendants and seeing how the trauma echoed through generations I learned that these stories matter because they have not ended. The work of healing continues. The tale of the nine friends reveals the power of solidarity. They took care of each other; that’s what saved them. It was not so easy however to return to normal life. They tried to tuck their memories away, thinking it would be best to leave them unspoken. But their children would be haunted by what was left untold.
These women were not considered important judging by their slender military records. They had been told to keep quiet after the war, that they should step back and let the men take the glory. They had won the right to vote in France in 1944, and that should be reward enough. In my research, I also learned the sad story of what happened to the most marginalised groups, the homosexuals and the sex workers. These women were completely erased from the historical record. There are almost no names, yet we know by the Nazi records and by the accounts of other camp survivors that these women were kept in the worst conditions and treated with utmost brutality. The few who survived were shamed after the war. Some of the sex workers even had their hair publicly shaved when they returned home, for having slept with German soldiers. The men who worked as collaborators and enriched themselves on the black market were never called to account in the way these women were.
How do we reckon with our history through all these silences, the untold taboo subjects? There are always powerful forces urging us to forget. Former French president François Mitterrand, perhaps trying to cover up France’s shameful past (in which his friend René Bousquet played a key role) decided to build his library, a monument to memory, over the spot where the actual cattle cars full of humans, mostly Jews, were put on the tracks to be sent to their murder in Germany. Ironically he was building a monument to memory, while simultaneously trying to cover up a memory.
I am still unsettled by Neo-Nazis, the growing rise of fascism, and the far-right. Germany itself faces a crisis as their military and security forces have been infiltrated with far-right fascist sympathisers. In France, the far-right National Rally continually grows in popularity, almost getting a hold of power. In the most recent election they were not successful, but almost 90 per cent of the youth vote failed to show up.
Against the uneasy state of the world, I feel an urgency to share the gift of these stories of friendship. They speak beautifully to what is best in us. Remembering them is imperative. Remembering is our work. Writing The Nine, I was deeply honoured to be part of that task and grateful to those who shared their stories with me.
The Nine is published by Manilla Press