TOAt 2 a.m. on April 14, 1945, just weeks before the defeat of the Third Reich and the end of World War II, 5,000 exhausted and emaciated prisoners were working in a subcamp of the Ravensbrück women’s camp to the north from Berlin, they were forced. They marched out of the gates to the east without a particular destination and starvation rations. “We were like ants surprised by the destruction of their nest,” commented one of the women.
It was cold with a drizzle of freezing rain but, with the Allies advancing on all sides, the Germans were determined to remove the prisoners from the camps in a frantic attempt to leave no evidence of the barbarism so recently practiced there. SS commanders attempted to burn critical documents before fleeing.
Many prisoners perished or were shot to death if they showed weakness in these long-distance marches under surveillance. But nine brave women, who had already endured torture and barbarism and were now workers making weapons at HASAG Leipzig, boldly escaped the tight ranks of marching women and managed to survive, largely thanks to their mutual support.
Gwen Strauss, whose great-aunt by marriage, Hélène Podliasky, 24 at the time of her arrest, was one of nine, tells her inspiring story and reconstructs the 10-day journey across the front until they were finally rescued by soldiers. Americans.
“Smoke” were the first reassuring words the women heard. The nine included six French, two Dutch, and one Spanish. They were not all Jews (and in any case they could not admit it in the camp) and came from different social origins, but they had been arrested due to their resistance work and had become a tight-knit group while in Ravensbrück. Most were students or secretaries and one, “Zinka”, was a mother who had given birth in a French prison only to have her baby taken away after 18 days. A small smuggled photo of the baby was his most prized possession during the march.
According to Strauss, Hélène had more or less permanent pain in her legs and hips while walking, but, as an engineer who spoke five languages, she became the unofficial leader of the group. Another of the women suffered from diphtheria and almost all had bleeding feet and blisters. However, the idea of breaking up into smaller groups was never considered. The women pooled their resources and believed that their friendship was vital to their survival.
The weather that April was unpredictable, one sunny moment but the next very cold and humid, not warm enough to dispense with the thin layers that identified them through the white cross painted on the back. After first hiding in ditches, and then seeking refuge in empty barns if they could, a German farmer and his daughter once offered them “genuine hospitality”. “Maybe there were some Germans who really didn’t know what was happening in the fields,” Strauss speculates. As they approached the front, Hélène, without the gift coat, managed to persuade some Germans they found that they were guest workers, not escaped Jewish prisoners. By playing the role of an incomprehensible woman who simply wanted to avoid approaching the front lines, she managed to acquire a hand-scribbled map of a police station, which the group later used as an officer. Let it roll.
Among the many details Strauss has uncovered, one enduring image is how a heavy pot, a tripod and a sack of raw potatoes were carried with them. Food, or the lack of it, is a recurring theme and, curiously, reciting impossible banquet recipes was a way to keep a low spirits, a habit many prisoners used to remind them of home.
The book has a strong narrative flow, but Strauss frequently deviates to develop the previous lives of these young women, or to give context and background to the situation in which they found themselves. In this way, the book is much more than just an escape story, extraordinary as it may be. One of the most shocking revelations is that babies were not allowed in Ravensbrück at first; all born used to drown in a bucket in front of the mother. But then, as so many women arrived pregnant, largely as a result of rape by soldiers, there was a change in policy and, according to a secret newspaper, 600 babies were born between September 1944 and April 1945. But the Foundation for the Memory of the Deported (FMD) reported that only 31 babies survived until liberation.
The final chapters, taken up with what happened at the end of the war, constitute a sober reading. “The nine had to count on each other to survive and that bond was something they would find difficult to replicate later in normal life … the intensity of their friendships was an essential part of their experience.” They searched for families or loved ones they had left behind, suffered nightmares, and found difficult relationships. Six of the nine married other survivors, but the group dispersed and most did not stay in touch, until 60 years later, when they got together and finally spoke about their escape. This powerful book brings them together.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism