A stitch in time

When Gwen Strauss’s great-aunt casually revealed over lunch that she and a band of daring Resistance women escaped from Nazi Germany, the writer knew she had to tell her tale

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Forthright and clear-headed, Hélène Podliasky was the leader of the nine women who daringly escaped from a forced march to anywhere they wouldn’t implicate the Nazis in the horrors of the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

With the Allies nearing the end of the push that would bring an end to the Second World War in 1945, commanders of the all-women camp near Berlin were trying to leave no traces of their barbarity and sent 5,000 women on their way with almost no rations to survive on and guards who gunned them down if they weakened.

Among them were Podliasky, a 24-year-old Frenchwoman, and eight others –  unsung heroes of the French Resistance who had been arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Ravensbrück, where they had become friends.

Their escape from the forced march saved their lives. But if Podliasky was their leader, she wasn’t their spokesperson. At least, not at first.

She only revealed her story to her great-niece Gwen Strauss in 2002, when she was nearing the end of her life. Prior to that it had been unspoken. Most of the group were similarly reluctant to share their version of the story (there were a few). There was the shame of having been in a concentration camp, where guards often forced women to have sex. In some cases they were living in the shadow of husbands with illustrious records in the Resistance. Partly they still had the discretion that made women, according to French Resistance leader Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the best spies. But Podliasky’s almost casual revelation over lunch prompted Strauss, author of fiction and non-fiction for adults and children, to pick up the tale.

There were six French women, two Dutch and one from Spain in the group whose successful 10-day journey near the frontlines Strauss set out to chart. With what she calls a “gypsy’s trajectory”, Strauss was born in Haiti but is a dual citizen of Germany and the US. Because her grandfather was a German Jew, she could reclaim her German citizenship. She had originally thought her great-aunt’s story might make an essay but with the election of Trump, the appearance of neo-Nazis on the streets and Holocaust deniers, it became apparent to her it needed more.

Wanting to spend more time with one of her three daughters, who was going through a difficult patch in her life, they went to Germany for the first time.

“I was very ambivalent about going,” admits Strauss. “It it voyeurism? Is it prurient?”

They went to the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp. “It was freezing cold, it was January. She and I spent five hours there and we were just emptied by the end of it. I couldn’t really talk.”

They also visited a museum in Leipzig, which held a Nazi list with Podliasky’s name on it, “which was somehow more shocking than just knowing” her great-aunt had been held in Ravensbrück. “I realised I didn’t have the knowledge or credentials to write something that would be fair at that point.”

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Four years of obsessional research later and she has. She’s confident she’s mapped the route of the women’s escape fairly accurately, even down to the buildings they might have sheltered in. The resultant book, The Nine, tells of how Podliasky, her best friend Zaza, Nicole, Lon, Guigui, Zinka, Josée, Jacky and Mena had to evade not only German officers but Allied bombs as they tried to find the US troops they’d decided would be their saviour. They could only walk 4km-5km a day due to exhaustion but eventually the Americans found them.

“Nicole said: ‘We were young, we were strong and we wanted to live,’” says Strauss. “That’s the reason they survived. I would think they had a kind of friendship and solidarity, an esprit de corps that helped them.

“Like an army unit, they had a band of brothers feel about them. They were from different social classes, different countries, but somehow they became a unit.”

They trusted each other, put the other ahead of themselves. “That was a very powerful experience for them.”

But Podliasky’s first account of the story was unreliable. She’d described the other women as prostitutes and said there were only five of them. It was only when she read Zaza’s own recollections – written just after the war but only published 60 years later – that she revised her own. Strauss believes the errors in Podliasky’s initial story were because she’d not talked about it for so long and her memory had uploaded the Nazi propaganda instead. In the absence of canonical versions, Strauss feels it’s reasonable for her to imagine some of the dialogue that might have taken place. “I needed to make their stories as alive as possible to honour them.”

The nine largely went their separate ways after the war. Nicole joined a survivors’ group and contributed to an oral history project. Lon and Guigui stayed in touch, Nicole a bit with Podliasky. When Nicole’s account was published in Elle magazine in 1965, a letter to the editor written by another camp survivor criticises her for speaking about her experiences.

“There was a sense that if you were a woman and you had been in a concentration camp it was not something you were supposed to talk about,” says Strauss.

The Nine interweaves their group’s journey across war-torn Europe with Strauss’s own detective work. She and her daughter spend much time tracking down the members of the group, their family and friends. They find inter-generational trauma. Three of Zaza’s four children killed themselves, suffering from mental illness. They also find France, a woman who was born to Zinka but taken away from her mother, aged 18 days, just before she was sent to Ravensbrück. Eventually though, some of the women come together in a reunion organised by Dutch documentary makers.

Since discovering the story two decades ago, Strauss believes attitudes have changed. “Absolutely in France. Medals are now being given to some women and there’s an understanding of trauma, including intergenerational trauma, and the importance of bearing witness.”

Memorials now not only remember great soldiers but also the victims of slavery and systemic terror, such as the Legacy Museum in Alabama. “There is now a sense of the necessity of remembering.”

The Nine: How a Band of Daring Resistance Women Escaped from Nazi Germany is published by Manilla Press (hardback, ebook and audio) 

Photos courtesy of: Martine Fourcaut, Olivier Clémentin, Michel Lévy, Josephine Bordonava’s family and les Amis de la Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Déportation de l’Allier, Patricia Elisabeth Frédérique Wensink and Wladimir Schreiber, Jean-Louis Leplâtre, Suzanne Maudet’s family, France Lebon Chatenay Dubroeucq, Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Getty

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Interact: Responses to A stitch in time

  • Di
    01 Dec 2021 05:40
    The photo that is labeled as “Women in Ravensbruck”, and that is the enlarged front page image is not women in Ravensbruck. They are Hungarian Jewish women from Subcarpathian Rus who have been selected for forced labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and are the only survivors of their transport, who were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival. They have just left “disinfection” after being stripped of every possession, brutally searched and shorn. Up front are some women of the Rieder family and Birnbaum sisters. This photo was part of a photo album that belonged to an SS guard and was discovered by a surviving inmate Lily Jacobs after liberation. She eventually donated it to Yad Vashem and it is referred to now as the “Auschwitz Album”. Interestingly, the woman who discovered it found in it, a photograph of herself with her own transport.

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