Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2021

The Nine, by Gwen Strauss

Not long ago in The Walls Came Tumbling Down by Henriette Roosenburg, I read the story of a Dutch Resistance woman who made her way home in the chaos of postwar Europe. Roosenburg was a member of the Nacht and Nebel (‘Night and Fog’) group of political prisoners and had been liberated from the Waldheim camp in Germany, but the French Resistance women whose story is told in The Nine, How a Band of Daring Resistance Women Escaped from Nazi Germany had been in Ravensbrück, the camp exclusively for women slave labourers which I had read about in Sarah Helm’s If This is a Woman.  The escape of the women who are featured in The Nine was not from the Ravensbrück camp itself but from one of the infamous WW2 Nazi Death Marches.  Many of the thousands who perished in this Death March were Jewish, but the death march from Ravensbrück also included communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Romani,  and women from the resistance.

The book is structured around chapters which follow a chronological recount of the escape and its aftermath but feature the back story of each of the Nine, of whom six were French, two were Dutch and one was Spanish.  It begins with the author’s aunt Hélène Podliasky, 24 at the time of her arrest and the leader of the group because of her skill with multiple languages.

Over the ten days of their journey until they were rescued by American soldiers, they encounter humanity in all its diversity. Their first attempt to get some food and shelter fails when the town mayor sends someone to report them to the Germans, but then they meet some Yugoslav POWs.

At first light, the Yugoslavs woke the women by knocking politely on the barn door.  The women sat up in the hay where they had slept so peacefully.  Unused to real rest, they were slightly dazed.  The Yugoslavs climbed up the ladder with a pitcher of café au lait, a bowl of boiled potatoes, a bottle of liniment for their aching legs, butter, salt and a handful of cigarettes, enough for each woman to have one.

The nine cleared a space on the floor for this precious breakfast.  How long had it been since they had awakened to such kindness? How long since they had been allowed to sleep instead of being roused by brutal shouts. (p. 93)

At first they were a bit anxious about being at risk of sexual assault from these men.  In the chapter about Nicole Clarence, arrested on a routine check when she was working as an agent de liaison delivering intelligence at night, Strauss explains that in the 1940s many assumptions were made about women that by today’s standards we would not accept.

For example, it was commonly understood that a young woman out alone at night was ‘asking for trouble’. If she suffered unwanted attention, it was her fault.  That was the risk Nicole and any young female agent de liaison were taking.  A young woman who was raped might feel ashamed and so might remain silent.  She would have no legal recourse, certainly not against a German police officer.  Her power had to come from how she could manipulate the situation.  The women in the group often admired one another for their beauty, for their ability to use their female charm on men, and for the game of playing innocent in order to get something past those in her power.  Nicole would have thought that her most powerful tool was her charm.  It was a dangerous game, because of course in the end the women had no power.  Men, like the soldier arresting Nicole, could take what they wanted with impunity. (p.79)

For these women, keeping their dignity was part of what enabled them to survive.

In the camp, keeping their dignity had been primary.  None of them had pushed or fought over food.  They were proud of how they served one another, divided food equally, and maintained their civility in such an uncivil place.  It had kept them strong when others became more and more like animals, lost their sense of themselves and fell into dark despair.  (p.97)

Even as we read this, however, we need to remember the selective nature of the survivor stories that are told.  There is an element of judging others emerging from these words.  As Strauss points out:

Primo Levi has written that the story is being told by the survivors, and survivors were the lucky ones who almost always had some kind of privilege in the perverse camp hierarchy.  Privilege could be as little a thing as getting a good pair of shoes, getting into a less deadly work detail, or getting assigned to a fair minded blockova. (p.104)

Even amongst the inmates at Ravensbrück, there was disdain for those at the bottom of this hierarchy, i.e. the so-called asozial prisoners, among whom were Sinti and Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, sex workers and common criminals.  These survivors were seemingly forgotten by history until very recently.  They did not form or join survivors’ groups, and they were not recognised as either heroes or noble victims until long, long after the war.  Some of the sex workers, to the contrary, were tried and punished for collaboration with German soldiers, even though they had no choice, and one of the Nine, Juliette Bes, testified on behalf of one of these unfortunate women.  It is awful to read that the Porajmos, i.e. the Romani genocide was not recognised by Germany until 1982 and that history has generally ignored their story.

The story of the recipe books the women created in the camp brought me close to tears.

It seems counterintuitive, but the recitation of recipes and the making of small recipe books appears to be a nearly universal reaction among the starving.  Being hungry was said to be more painful than being beaten.  Not only was it physically painful, it was psychologically harrowing. (p.158)

So at night, with hunger gnawing in their bellies, these women would describe in detail all the steps of a recipe, ingredient by ingredient. 

The trick was to fall asleep with the memory of the smell and the flavours before the hunger surged back and gripped your insides. (p.157)

They took immense risks to make simple, small recipe books from scavenged materials.

After the war, they rarely spoke of the recipe books — almost as if they were shameful.  Perhaps they felt they would be misunderstood.  No one would understand how much they risked to create them.  It would have been different if the risk was for ‘noble things’ like poems, songs or politics.  Those thing were talked about and shared after the war because they conformed to a heroic narrative.  Homemade cookbooks were banal and domestic.

In the precarious world of the camps, the orderliness and structure of a recipe — the list of ingredients, the step-by-step sequence — was a temporary reprieve.  It allowed for the illusion of control.  The sharing of meals was a way to share memories without it being too painful.  Thinking about a lost child, partner or parent was dangerous.  You could lose your mind in the grief. Dark memories could push you into a downward spiral.  But sharing the memory of a meal allowed the women to fell human without it hurting too much.  Recipes were a link to the real world, to their lives before, and to their lives in the future. (p. 159)

Most of the book is the story of hope, courage and determination triumphing over danger, cruelty and despair, but adjusting to postwar freedom had its price.  There were losses to endure, misunderstandings to navigate, and an all-pervading silence about their suffering because everyone wanted to move on.


In memory of the Nine:
Hélène Podliasky, Suzanne Maudet, Nicole Clarence, Madelon Verstijnen, Guillemette Daendels,
Renée Lebon, Josephine Bordanava, Jacqueline Aubery du Boulley and Yvonne Le Guillou.
Their courageous work in the French Resistance and those of their compatriots should never be forgotten.

You can read another review at The Guardian.

Author: Gwen Strauss
Title: The Nine, How a Band of Daring Resistance Women Escaped from Nazi Germany
Cover design by Michael Storrings
Publisher: Manila Press, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK 2021
ISBN: 9781786581150, pbk., 317 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin Australia


Responses

  1. You continue to find good books about WWII. I would have thought all the ‘new’ stories would have been told years ago. After all some one 20 in 1945 is 96 now.
    I like the Primo Levi quote – I always think of Anne Frank getting so close to surviving, and then her last days in the last days of the War, transferred to Belsen, ‘housed’ in tents, in the rain, and typhus,

    Like

    • Oh, Bill, you are so right. This book, as others I have also read, tells us about people who died in the first days of liberation, as if they were able to ‘hold on’ until they were free and then could go on no longer.

      Like

  2. This is also on my list …

    Like

    • Some of it will break your heart…

      Like

  3. This sounds fascinating and so moving Lisa. I’m very struck by the recipe books and how they didn’t conform to the post-war narrative, despite being such an act of resilience and defiance. I’m glad they’re being acknowledged in this book.

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    • I was sorely tempted to digitise the image in the book. It’s so poignant to see how the cover is made of a bit of sacking.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Goodness, this sounds powerful, Lisa. I’m not sure I could read it without bawling all the way through, though…

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    • It must have been very difficult for the author, to be so personally involved with one of them. I mean, it’s like parents who never talked about their experiences in the Holocaust to shield their children, those same children heard about it from other sources.
      Gwen Strauss doesn’t know about everything that happened to her aunt, but from her research, she can guess.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a powerful cover image as well: it suits.

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    • Yes, an inspired piece of design.

      Like


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