Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Nine by Gwen Strauss

The Nine by Gwen Strauss is a compelling and important book subtitled The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany. The women were all in their twenties and resistance fighters arrested in France, many of them just prior to the liberation of Paris in 1944, tortured and sent to Germany. 

The book preserves the history of atrocities committed in the concentration camps, something that feels vital especially as few of the people who were there are still alive. Along with the stories of horrific treatment of the Jews and other prisoners, Strauss as the niece of one of the nine heroines also writes how they escaped from an end-of-war death march and tells the story of each woman: Hélène Podliasky, Suzanne Maudet (Zaza), Nicole Claraence, Madelon Verstijnen (Lon), Guillemette Daendels (Guigui), Renée Lebon Châtenay (Zinka), Joséphine Bordanava (Josée), Jacqueline Aubéry Du Boulley (Jacky), and Yvonne Le Guillou (Mena).

The majority of the nine women were arrested by French police and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany (with estimates of the death toll there ranging from 30,000 to 90,000 between 1939-1945), and then a labor camp in Leipzig. Between January and May 1945, Germany started to empty camps ahead of oncoming armies as saw they were going to lose the war and were trying to cover up evidence of their crimes against humanity. They increased executions and sent prisoners on death marches, sometimes towards other camps, sometimes just walking to their deaths. An estimated 250,000 of the 714,000 survivors in camps at the beginning on 1945 would die during forced evacuations between January and May.

The nine women were marched out of the labor camp on April 14, 1945, part of 5,000 women that were in the camp sent on the road. Several days later the nine slipped out of a column and hid in a ditch. They then started their journey trying to get back to France. As they worked their way through war-torn German villages, they at times said they were guest workers, refugees, or simply kept their story vague. They were helped by people along the way, some enthusiastically, some begrudgingly, and had multiple close calls, each of which they carried on through, never giving up. They had a map drawn for them that was on police letterhead and used that multiple times to pretend that they had approval to travel. They made it to the front line, April 21, forged the Mulde River going from stone to stone, and met American troops near Colditz. The women were given food and shelter and then went to a Red Cross refugee camp in Grimma in anticipation of going back to Paris. Hitler killed himself on April 30, Germany surrendered May 7, and seven of the women took a transport train to Paris May 16, with Hélène staying behind to work with the US Army and Jacky to help run a home for refugees.

It's amazing that the women survived as there were so many points, especially before their escape, they could have died. Strauss details the atrocities from the concentration camps, how the Germans created sports out of depravity and noted that when the Soviets liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, they found 800,000 women’s outfits and 14,000 pounds of human hair. Then after the women returned home, many people didn’t want to focus on the horrors of what the Germans did, rather on the brave male soldiers who won the war. Also, people didn’t understand what the prisoners in concentration camps went through, and many of the former prisoners dealt with health problems as a result of the camps, not to mention the psychological pain. As Strauss tells the life story of each of the women, she notes the intra-generational trauma suffered by many over the decades. It’s a powerful book, telling the stories of who the women were and what they did, and also the atrocities committed by the Germans, with the remembering of these stories bringing to mind for me the famous phrase “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”