The female resistance fighters who escaped the Nazis, but were forgotten – Published in “i”

Nine women found themselves in the middle of Nazi Germany, facing hostile villagers, angry fleeing SS officers and Allied bombers overhead – now the story of their bravery is being told

 

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The nine young women had survived torture, deportation, starvation and slave labour before – holding hands – they broke free from a death march across Germany. As the Nazis faced imminent defeat, the SS evacuated concentration camps and forced inmates eastwards, away from the advancing Allies, trudging day and night through the cold with no food, shoes, shelter or clear destination.

Hiding in a ditch until the rest of the human convoy had passed, the band of former French Resistance fighters – aged between 20 and 29 at the time of their arrests – had secured their own liberation. But they were far from free.

It was April 1945 and Hélène, Zaza, Nicole, Lon, Guigui, Zinka, Josée, Jacky and Mena found themselves in the middle of Nazi Germany, facing hostile villagers, angry fleeing SS officers and Allied bombers overhead. They knew Russian soldiers were closing in, but feared their reputation (“They will rape even a skeleton,” the group had heard). So they resolved to find the Americans, or die trying.

The 10-day journey across the frontlines of the Second World War is told by Gwen Strauss, the great-niece of Hélène, the group’s leader. Her book, The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany, is published this month – more than three years after the death of Lon, the last survivor.

It is a paean to female bravery and life-saving friendship. Strauss records the barbarity, but she believes the “individual acts of amazing kindness” existed in equal measure. “Famously, many of the people working in the Nazi machine said: ‘I was just following orders.’ Well, against that, you have people who did what you had to do to save somebody else,” says Strauss, an American poet, from her home in Provence, southern France.

She writes about the gamelles de la solidarité in Ravensbrück, the concentration camp in which the nine were imprisoned. “The women would pass around a bowl as they would eat their one meal and even though they were starving, everyone would put a spoonful into that bowl that would be given to the person who was most in need that day. To me, that’s extraordinary. That solidarity was actually a tool of survival.” Strauss, 58, is not surprised that such powerful stories are still emerging, even after the protagonists have passed.

“There was also very clearly from the highest levels of the French government this policy of: the women need to step back and let the men take the glory. We gave them the right to vote, that should be enough.”

French leader Charles de Gaulle established the Compagnons de la Libération for Resistance heroes. But of 1,038 honoured, only six were women. Zaza sent the manuscript of her own memoir to Marie Claire in 1961, but editors rejected it.

Strauss (inset) was told that her interview with her great-aunt had been “transformative” – the long-delayed affirmation, in Hélène’s eighties, triggering “a turning point in her struggle against depression”.

Throughout the story, the women – six French, two Dutch, one Spanish – trade on men’s underestimation of them.

Hélène, while working as a slave labourer in a munitions factory, sabotaged the gauges to show a high temperature even as she turned the ovens off so the shells would explode in the faces of the Germans who fired them. These women were so in the margins of history, they themselves did not consider the details important enough to document. Although Strauss’s book is underpinned by hefty research, she decided she had “a duty” to employ creative licence when it came to conjuring up their conversations. “We have to allow ourselves to imagine into their lives, otherwise they become completely erased.”

Indeed, the secrets remained so buried that the daughter of one of the heroines only discovered the truth thanks to Strauss’s endeavours. The author was aware that Zinka, “the bravest of the group”, had given birth in a French prison, but knew nothing of her fate after the 29-year-old was deported without her newborn. After years of detective work, Strauss discovered that baby France had miraculously survived.

Now in her late seventies, she knew nothing of the daring escape of her mother, who kept her story to herself after their post-war reunion. “What France lived her life thinking was her mother had abandoned her.” In fact – Strauss is convinced – it was Zinka’s love that gave her the resolve to survive.

“When we met, we fell into each other’s arms and I said: ‘I’ve been looking for you for so long.’ She said: ‘Imagine, I’ve been looking for my mother for 70 years.'”

 

‘The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany’ (Manila Press, £16.99) is out now. ‘Death Marches: Evidence and Memory’ is at London’s Wiener Library until 27 August

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