The Virtual Museum of the Holocaust and the Resistance


MODULE 1: World War, 1939-1945, German Concentration Camps and Prisons

Case Study: Thadeus Kaczmarkiewicz

Case Study: Irena Matusiak: Cookbooks and diaries

Case Study: Women in Ravensbrück

Case Study: On the Way: Transit camps correspondence

MODULE 2: World War, 1939-1945, Jewish Underground Resistance collection

Case Study: The Jewish Scouts in France

Case Study: Polish Resistance in France

Case Study: Rescue and Rescuers: Defending the Persecuted

Case Study: Jewish resistance and the struggle for self-identity

MODULE 3: Allied and German propaganda distributed by air drops and shelling

MODULE 4: The Underground Resistance in Europe



McMaster University Library acquired from Michel Brisebois of Montreal in February 2008 a vast and rich collection of archival materials, books, and ephemera relating to the Holocaust and underground resistance in France. Since that time, we have added to and enriched the Brisebois collections by other purchases and donations.  On 21 January 2009 (International Holocaust Remembrance Day), we announced the acquisition of these extraordinary, multi-faceted collections. At that time we also mounted an exhibition: Anti-Semitism, Concentration Camps, and Underground Resistance in World War II, which can be viewed virtually at the library website. Those holdings are now further enriched through the University Library’s recent subscription to the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (or VHA), making McMaster the first institution in Canada to have full access to the VHA’s collection of nearly 52,000 audiovisual testimonies of the Holocaust.

Drawing from the above Holocaust and resistance collections, and with the invaluable support of Madeleine and Monte Levy, McMaster University Library is developing the Virtual Museum of the Holocaust and the Resistance. The Virtual Museum will showcase these collections and intertwine them with video and images, case studies and other explanatory texts, a timeline, maps, bibliographies, and links to archival and other resources.

In addition to a collection of at least 800 rare books and pamphlets, many of which can be found through the Library’s catalogue, there are six interrelated holding categories (or modules) pertaining to the Virtual Museum.  Through partnership with Gale Publishing, the holdings of the following modules have been digitized and are or will soon be fully available online to the McMaster community. Other institutions can, through Gale, acquire access to these important materials for research and study.  Portions of the archive will also be freely available from the Library’s website.

Our current areas of focus have been on both modules 1 and 2 as part of an effort to link those holdings with the Shoah Foundation Institute’s Visual History Archive (VHA), thus representing a merger of very distinct yet extremely complimentary Holocaust recources.  To that end, for Module 1 we have developed a set of crucial case studies that draw from both the VHA and the archival collections held by the Library.

MODULE 1: World War, 1939-1945, German Concentration Camps and Prisons

The set of correspondence of prisoners held in German concentration camps, internment and transit camps, Gestapo prisons, and POW camps, during and just prior to World War II (2,000 items, mainly letters written or received by prisoners). The full list of items can be found at the finding aids. The collection is available online through the Digital Collections website (public access) as well as at the Gale Publishing (McMaster users only). The Virtual Museum presents a series of case studies that introduce the viewer into the collection.

CASE STUDY: Thadeus Kaczmarkiewicz

Thadeus Kaczmarkiewicz, 13 September 1942, Dachau

Thadeus Kaczmarkiewicz, a Polish political prisoner, spent most of the war in Dachau concentration camp. He was deported to Dachau from Kalish,a town near Lodz, on 26 May 1940 and spent four years in this camp.  The Brisebois collection holds 29 letters sent to his relatives in Poland between 1941 and 1942. The correspondence continued after 1942 as well, since the Lørdahl collection lists his letter of October 8, 1944. In the beginning of February, 1945 Kaczmarkiewicz was transported to the Flossenbürg concentration camp.There is no data on his further fate.

Dachau was one of the first Nazi concentration camps (it opened in 1933) and was functioning till the end of the war. In the early 1930s, Dachau was designed for political prisoners, as well as homosexuals and other “asocials.” In October 1939 the camp was completely emptied, and the inmates were transferred to other camps. In February 1940, Dachau reopened as a concentration camp.  There were many nationalities there, mostly originating from Eastern Europe. Poles constituted the majority of the population by the time of liberation in April 1945. The number of inmates that passed through Dachau camp was about 250,000, of which 31,500 died or were killed. The population of Dachau reached its maximum in 1944 (100,000 inmates); when Dachau was liberated by the American troops, there were 67,664 inmates in the camp. One survivor of Dachau gives an insight on how everyday life went on in the early 1940s:

We were placed in the barracks. There were approximately 80 of us in a room. We had double deck beds. We were given a uniform, which was a miserable material made of wool, striped, with the star. The discipline of Dachau was extreme... We got up a little after four... had something that they called coffee; we were given a ration of bread for three days. In the evening we had a sort of a hot meal (cabbage, beans, lentil). We did not have any meat. But one has to get used to that.[*]

In his letters, Kaczmarkiewicz, aged 20 at the time of his imprisonment, addresses his mother and father, brother and sister, and sends regards to his friends and colleagues.  Since the envelopes were not preserved, we know nothing about either his parents’ names or their location. Based on the fact that Thadeus inquires about a friend from this hometown, they were probably in Kalish during the war. The letters in the majority resemble each other in being cheerful and reassuring, always reporting about his good condition and expressing some worries about his family in a unified and similar way (I am healthy and well; have no worries about me). Thadeus thanks his relatives for their letters, acknowledges the arrival of parcels and money orders, inquires about their health and mood, and regrets that he cannot be with them. In every letter he reassures his parents of his good condition, and cheers them up by hoping that the tough times will end and that they will meet again someday:

My dears, it is Christmas again, and again, we need to talk to each other about what still remains in our hearts. Therefore, do not be sad, and your hearts should rejoice, because God can unite all of us, and therefore, I am always with you. This evening, I am at the Christmas table with you, wishing you all the best. Maybe God will let us see each other again, and then there will be no end to our happiness.[*]

I am sending you my best New Year wishes to my dear parents, Masieck and Jas, all friends and acquaintances. May dear God fulfill our New Year wishes that we could live together in peace and comfort again. Do not worry about me, dear parents, and hope for the better times and future.[*]

Although very limited in detail, these letters still reveal some bits of information about life in Dachau. For example, Kaczmarkiewicz  repeatedly mentions that his work is hard and that he works six days a week; when writing about Easter holidays he notes that “the Holidays have passed quickly as a common workday,” [*]  which probably means that on these days they still had to work. As a former inmate of Dachau testifies, “the work in Dachau was miserable. We had to carry rocks, and some of the older people would collapse when they picked the rocks… Another job that was given to some people was to flatten the rocks on the road.” [*] Another Dachau survivor explains that the main purpose of jobs that the inmates were given was to get rid of them. Sometimes they were unloading stones and gravel from the trucks, only to load them all back.[*] In the correspondence of Thadeus there are no complaints about the hard work but on the contrary, he repeatedly reassures his parents that the work distracts him from homesickness.

Thadeus is guided by the major principle of all prisoners in totalitarian countries – one has to refrain from pronouncing anything directly. No details are given about life in Dachau, and when speaking of his parents’ life, Thadeus communicates his questions in an indistinct and abstract form. Even names that come up demonstrate very weak connections with their actual locations or situations:

Does Jarczak  live at the same position or has he already moved? What is Basia doing now, is she working together with Marysia or does she have another job?[*]

What does Basia do now and how is he in the new situation? (or position)[*]

Even such incidents as a death in the family are mentioned only indirectly, and again, without any names or references. For example, in the letter of 26 April 1942 Kaczmarkiewicz eagerly questions his parents about some unclear sad news and begs them not to conceal anything from him, since he has “so little to know.” “Have no fear, says he, because I need the first-hand news. I have come to terms with my lot.[*] Thadeus’s suffering is always put aside, and the tone of his letters remains invariably optimistic. Only small bits of information reveal to us the degree of hardship he had to undergo in the camp. Thadeus always hails the warmth, anxiously waiting for the change of season from winter to spring. For people in the concentration camp, winter was grueling and miserable, as a former inmate of Dachau remembers, “There was no heating in the sleeping rooms, including in winter, when it was sometimes down to -20. We were close to the Alps, it gets very cold there. And yes, they cared for our health, and did not allow us to close the windows.”[*] Also, the eagerness with which Kaczmarkiewicz is waiting for the new letters is summarized in the very short yet significant phrases:

I am asking for faster responses, because the letters are the only joy for me![*]

I have been so far away from you for already two years, and my heart always pounds when I read every letter from you.[*]

Another detail that provides us with some information about the camp life is a number of the confirmations of parcel receipts. In some camps, the inmates would send the pre-printed acknowledgement as a response to the money order. In Dachau, the inmates usually used folded letters, as well as the pre-printed forms of permission to receive a Christmas package.[*] In most cases, they acknowledged the arrival of parcels by mentioning it in their letters. Thadeus Kaczmarkiewicz also does that in every letter, which means that he received the money orders every week:

I have received your money transfer (10RM) on 17.12 and I thank you with all my heart.[*]

There are no traces of food parcels that were sent to camps, since at the given time span the prisoners were prohibited to receive them. In three letters, Thadeus writes on the back of the letters the regulations that were probably dictated by the SS official: We are not allowed to receive any packages. Do not send any packages or parcels. They will be sent back unopened.[*] The rules changed only by the end of 1942, when prisoners started to be used by Germans as slave laborers and also because of the war and shortage of food.[*] Thadeus also worries about his family’s wellbeing and asks them not to send too much money. Still, the money orders and later, the food parcels provided a great support for prisoners. Charles Hirsch says that when he was imprisoned in Dachau in 1939, his mother managed to send him some money every other week, which allowed him to buy canned sardine that kept him going.[*]

Thadeus Kaczmarkiewicz, 4 January 1942, Dachau

The letters in the Brisebois collection demonstrate two samples of handwriting. The first and dominating sample most likely belongs to Thadeus, since the signatures on all letters are identical.  Two letters sent in January, 1942 (0578-0579) are written by another person, though the signature and the note on the back of these letters matches the principal handwriting. We might suppose that, first, Thadeus did not know German well enough and therefore asked different people to write letters for him; and second, that he might have wished to pass a certain message to his family by using two different types of handwriting. The number of letters was restricted, and the inmates had to invent ways to convey things to the outside world. As noted by the VHA interviewee, his father wrote letters from Theresienstandt ghetto by himself but signed with his son’s name. “This was the way to let our relatives know that we are still well and alive.”[*]

While there is no way to know who wrote letters for Kaczmarkiewicz, his family was definitely helped by their friend or acquaintance Mr. Fibiger, whom he repeatedly thanks in the majority of his letters (Kindest regards to all colleagues and acquaintances, to Mr. Fibiger and his family;[*]  Please thank Mr. Fibiger in my name for all good things he has done for me [*]). And then, in the letter of 7 December 1941 Thadeus inquires if Mr. Fibiger is sick or away, since he does not recognize the handwriting:

This time I have been astonished, since I did not recognize who wrote this letter. Is Mr. Fibiger sick or is he out of town? That’s why you do not mention that to me?  Please tell me more about that.[*] 

Some letters show half-erased traces of Polish translations, and this confirms that the recipients did not speak German, and someone had to translate the letters of their son. 

Thadeus Kaczmarkiewicz, 12 April 1942, Dachau

All correspondence that circulated between Dachau and the outside world was heavily censored. In some cases, the inmates were directly instructed what to write to their relatives. The most infamous example is the Mail Action conducted in Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, when people were forced to write postdated letters and were then killed immediately afterward. In the concentration camps, the SS personnel often dictated the first letters notifying relatives of a prisoner’s address. When one of the transports of 1939 came to Dachau, the prisoners were gathered into a huge room and the Nazis commanded them to write the following phrases to their families: “My dear... , I am fine, I am well.” These letters went to their homes. After that, they could write personal letters but their contents were also highly regulated. Every letter or postcard had rules of writing printed on the left-hand side and stated that every inmate could send only two letters or postcards per month and that every page must contain only 15 lines [click to watch][*]. Because of that, the letters could be neither too long, nor too elaborate. The phrases that sounded as “I am alive and well” or “I am in a good health” were probably required in order to pass the censorship. If a censor did not like the contents of the letter, he would not let the letter through; he could cut some lines out or even punish the prisoner. In the VHA interviews, a woman whose husband was imprisoned in Dachau in 1939, shows a letter that he wrote from the camp with the lines that were cut out by a censor.[*] The Brisebois collection also holds camp letters with cut-out lines.[*]

In order to convey certain kinds of information and to get real news from the outside world, prisoners invented specific codes that would help their letters get past the censors.  In one of the VHA interviews, a Jewish survivor talks about passing a message to his mother-in-law that her brother, also a Dachau prisoner, had passed away. Being not allowed to talk about his death, he did that indirectly, by means of sending her his condolences.[*] Another former inmate of Dachau, while showing the postcard to the interviewer, explains how he asked his mother to contact “uncle Berthold,” a person who was neither his uncle nor anyhow related.  This “uncle” was a man who could help him be released from the camp. “My mother understood that, and the message came through,”- says Alfred Rosenthal [click to watch].[*]

Thadeus Kaczmarkiewicz also encrypted secret messages into his letters. He asked vague questions that provided certain associations between people, whose situations and locations were known to him and his parents. The word “here” always implies being in Dachau: Dear Father! Mielcravek is not here, but you should be glad that everything goes well.[*] When someone they know is transported to Dachau, Thadeus lets his parents know by mentioning those persons in his letters. Thus, he repeatedly mentions Grzymala, his father’s friend or colleague as well as other persons that his parents knew:

 Grzymala that was sent to Wloclawek sends you dear father greetings and also to Jakowski and all other acquaintances in Kalish.

 Please let Stasio know that Dobrzanski sends him greetings and that he, like Grzymala, was in Wloclawek.

Both Grzymala and Dobrzanski were probably deported from Wloclawek (a small Polish town, also home to vast Jewish population) to Dachau. Thadeus mentions Grzymala several times (Grzymala sends you, dear father, greetings;[*]Grzymala with the colleagues sends you, dear father, greetings from far away and wishing you all the best in life.”[*]) to let his father know that Grzymala is still with him. In several months his friend is deported or transferred to another block in Dachau, and Thadeus manages to notify his relatives that I do not have any news about Grzymala and Nowacki yet. They remain again where they were before.[*] In other letters Kaczmarkiewicz talks about his friend or relative Peter (or Piotr, in Polish), also a prisoner of Dachau. Before that, he keeps asking if his family knows anything about Peter, and then in the letter of 7 June 1942 Thadeus notifies his parents that Peter is now with him and that they are working together.[*] But when in the letter of 2 August 1942 he notes that Peter “is with Grymala now[*] he implies that Peter was deported, relocated to another block, or dead.

All these messages are conveyed by the associations that require pre-existing knowledge of other people’s locations and situations. Although the percentage of these small hints is minimal, Kaczmarkiewicz still assumed a great risk, since the consequences could vary from the Postsperre  (a prohibition of correspondence) to severe punishment, execution, or deportation to death camps.  Roman Slupnik remembers how the phrase addressed to his parents “after the victory you may put it (the gravestone) back” was interpreted by the camp commandant as a prediction that Nazi Germany would lose the war. Because of that, he was prohibited to have any correspondence for three months and all letters that would come from his family were sent back.“They did not only punish me, they also punished my parents, and that was worse for them,” says Slupnik, “my family did not know what has happened to me.” [click to watch] [*]

Without knowledge of the circumstances, one can barely associate these letters with the reality of the concentration camp. Even the word lager (camp) comes up only a couple of times, in connection with safe subjects, for example, the weather: Today we had the first snow, and when we got up in the morning, the roofs of our camp were white.[*] In one of his letters Thadeus Kaczmarkiewicz hails his loved ones, and in this address one sees the greeting of a person thinking about them from a place, from which there is no return:

From the concentration camp I send greetings to Stas and Jas and wish them luck in their lives.[*]

Click here to expand or collapse this section


[1] Rosenthal, Alfred. Interview 11615, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

[2] Graber, Norman, Interview 11615, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 23 Nov. 2011

[3] Landau, Abraham. Interview 9257, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 23 Nov. 2011

[4] Slupnik, Roman. Interview 3276, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 23 Nov. 2011

[5] Lørdahl, Erik. German concentration camps, 1933-1945. history and inmate mail. Vol 2. p. 148

[6] The next main change in the prisoners’  everyday life in Dachau (and the other KZs, too) took place in last quarter of 1942, when prisoners were permitted to receive packages – both from relatives and from humanitarian organizations such as Caritas and the International Red Cross. The main reason for this change was the new policy to use prisoners as slave laborers in the war industry. This change meant better conditions for the prisoners, at least for those of certain nationalities, and this included more food. (Lørdahl, Vot. 1, 38)

[7] Hirsch, Charles. Interview 3855, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

[8] Bloch, Ernest. Interview 1521, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2011.

[9] Hauser, Ernst, Interview 16148, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

[10] Haas, Paula. Interview 27863, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

[11] Klein, Theodore. Interview 1920, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

[12] Rosenthal, Alfred. Interview 18806, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

[13] Slupnik, Roman. Interview 3276, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 23 Nov. 2011

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CASE STUDY. Irena Matusiak: Cookbooks and diaries

Irena Matusiak diary

The diary notebook of Irena Matusiak. Brisebois Collection

The concentration camp diary is a phenomenon that by its very nature can be called unique. While many people who went through camps kept diaries few of them were preserved, though sometimes the diary would be the only trace of a person perished in the concentration camps. Generally, people cherished not only their own writings but also the writings of others. A VHA interviewee who participated in the partisan movement in Ukraine tells of a couple of instances when he would return to pick up his diary even though it involved risking his life. Moreover, a soldier from his regiment once rode back many kilometers to locate his bag containing his notebook.[*] The very act of writing ensured that the person would be preserved in people’s memory even if he or she did not survive the war. The Brisebois collection holds an even more unique set of documents, including self-made cookbooks, armband, and the diary that a prisoner of Kleinmachnow (Klein Machnow) and Ravensbruck camps kept during the death march of  April and May 1945. [*]  Irena Matusiak (Kuczyk), a young girl at that time, wrote down her experiences, and this simple and short text provides us with the most genuine picture of horrors and hopes of a person placed into these horrendous conditions.

Kleinmachnow, a subcamp of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, was established in the summer 1944 on the outskirts of Berlin, and was designed entirely for female prisoners. The camp was situated on the premises of the Dreilinden Maschinenbau GmbH, a branch of the Bosch Corporation. After the Warsaw uprising, in September and October 1944, about 800 women, were first brought to Ravensbrück, and then transferred to Kleinmachnow. The factory was surrounded by the dense forest that served as camouflage. The prisoners worked in 12-hour shifts producing details for aircraft engines (fuel injections, pumps, and starters). The history of Kleinmachnow was barely known both to later researchers as well as to the contemporary town residents who  “did not know that there had ever been a camp there, and that women prisoners had worked there.”[*]  In 2002, Angela Martin published a book “Ich sah den Namen Bosch.” Polnische Frauen als KZ-Häftlinge in der Dreilinden Maschinenbau GmbH (Metropol, 2002), in which she gathered accounts of 45 survivors of the camp, including  Irena’s story “Als würden wir in die Hölle hinabsteigen” (As we were descending into the inferno). Thanks to this testimony, Irena’s documents can be placed into a specific historical context.

Irena Kuczyk (Matusiak)
Irena Kuczyk (Matusiak), from "Ich sah den Namen Bosch: polnische Frauen als KZ-Haftlinge in der Dreilinden Maschinenbau," (Metropol, 2002). Courtesy of the Metropol Publishing House.

Irena Matusiak (born in 1921) resided in Warsaw, in the Ochota neighborhood with her parents and younger sister. After the Warsaw uprising, the Nazis conducted the mass arrests of city residents, and many people were either killed or deported to the various concentration camps. Irena’s family, including her older sister and a child, was deported to Zieleniak, a marketplace that the SS turned into the transit camp where the future forced workers were collected. Irena recalls how while being there she had the ominous task of dragging away and burying the corpses. From there they were transferred to Pruzków, also a large transit camp created for the deportees from Warsaw and its outskirts.[*]  The next day Irena and her younger sister were separated from their family:

A soldier came up, pointed his bayonet at me and said “You, criminal!” I had to follow him. My younger sister wanted to take some things from me for my older sister’s child but the soldier did not let her go and thus we remained together.[*]

They were taken to Bergen-Belsen, stayed there for a week and afterwards were selected to go to Ravensbrück [click to watch][*] This happened by the end of August 1944. Irena notes that the entrance into Ravensbrück gave her the most horrifying impressions, shared by the majority this camp’s survivors:

The most indelible memory I have is the moment of arrival in the camp in Ravensbrück. As a child I always had a sort of childish picture of how I imagined hell and, suddenly, there it was. An arched iron gate opens upwards, clanging and grating. Red lights of some sort. Night. And there we are, entering a black abyss. Pushed and shoved, we fall over each other. I had the feeling that we were descending into hell.

Irena spent about a month there, and afterward, in early September 1944 men from the factory arrived and selected the ones fit to work: “There were SS-men and civilians, says Danuta Porębska, arms akimbo, legs splayed, with dogs on leashes and there we were – naked – young and old. It was so humiliating! You can never forget something like that. Then they looked into our mouths. It was their way of assessing which of us were fit for work.[*] Irena also remembers this episode: “On September, 1944, after the further selection, we were sent to Kleinmachnow. During this selection the doctors in white gowns were present as well. They checked our eyes. <…> Luckily, my sister remained with me.” Irena, together with other women of that transport, was placed into the cell situated under the main floor of the factory, in the damp and dark rooms, where “[t]he cellars were dark and damp, and water trickled from the ceiling and down the walls.[*] However, Irena notes that all these hardships were nothing to compare to Ravensbrück: the work was hard but quiet; and her foreman was nice to her and liked to talk because he wanted to practice his Polish. In fact, in many testimonies the former inmates admit that the civil workers at the factories where they were forced to work were mostly decent people who helped them to be familiarized with the machines, gave them food and shared news.

Irena Matusiak cookbook

The cookbook of Irena Matusiak. Brisebois Collection

The prisoners at the Bosch factory worked in 12 hours shifts, and the women experienced constant hunger and the mistreatment of the SS personnel.  Paradoxically, their response to such deprivation was imagining all kinds of complicated and delicate dishes, as testified by Danuta Goga: And then we’d think up all sorts of recipes. And we’d write them down on pieces of paper which we pulled out of the mattresses. We would daydream of what else we could cook.”[*] Such reaction to hunger seems to be common among the women prisoners of Ravensbruck, it dominated the consciousness of the concentration camp prisoner.”[click to watch] [*] Talking and exchanging recipes “boosted women's sense of community. As women recollected recipes, they taught one another the art of cooking and baking, and, in the process of teaching, they reclaimed their importance and dignity.”[*]

One of Irena’s self-made cookbooks held in the Archives and Research Collections consists of recipes of baked items (poppy seed roll, chocolate truffle, or two ways of preparing halva) as well as soups, salads, and main course dishes. Another tiny-sized notebook consists entirely of the recipes of different kinds of tarts and cakes (fondant icing cake, chocolate cake, mocha cake, etc). Being constantly hungry, Irena filled her notebooks with the recipes of cakes, requiring plenty of butter, flour, sugar – all things that the prisoners were deprived of. This brings a sharp contrast with reality as remembered by Zofia Ruszkowska, whose utmost dream was to invite her friends “to a splendid feast after the war – bread with slices of potatoes – that was the height of luxury for us at that time. You should have seen how bread was divided up! We had a team leader and it was she who brought the bread for the whole team, and then divided it up. And since every scrap was worth its weight in gold, she made a sort of balance out of two sticks. She would cut up the bread with a piece of string and then ‘weigh’ the pieces.”[59] Both cookbooks are very small, because of, first, the shortage of paper and second, because of the necessity to hide the notebooks from the guards. As Halina Nelken, the survivor of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, remembers, “In Auschwitz I got a small red notebook from a colleague of mine, so small that I could keep this in my hand. And there I wrote my poems, and that is how my diary took a concise form of a poem.” [click to watch] [*]

Irena Matusiak cookbook

The cookbook of Irena Matusiak. Brisebois Collection

In April 1945, the camp was evacuated due to the approach of the Red Army, and the women were sent back to Sachsenhausen. On April 22, 1945, they were driven to the infamous death march in the direction of Schwerin, while Ravensbrück was evacuated on April 29, 1945. Irena Matusiak, together with other women, was forced to walk with guards shooting people who were unable to walk:

In mid April 1945, we were led out of the camp with an escort of SS-men and dogs… We had to walk tens of kilometres every day without any food or rest. My sister could hardly bear this, we were both very weak. We were driven only through the forests, because the streets were full of military columns.

The women who survived these marches report that the general goal of their guards was to starve and kill as many people as possible. One of the survivors tells that while marching they found out that the SS were taking them to the Baltic shore to load them on the old barges and to drown them in the sea.

In these impossible conditions Irena Matusiak records her experience – not after the war but during the death march. The uniqueness of this document is especially unmatched, as the prisoners usually spent the nights in fields or forests and would walk 30-40 kilometers every day. Her record starts on April 28, 1945, several days after they started their march. The “gates of camp” that she mentions in the first entry probably mean Sachsenhausen, since Kleinmachnow was completely evacuated several days before. The diary mainly revolves around the fear of being lead under constant bombings and in dire hunger. Although being aware of the approaching Allies and Russians, Irena does not pronounce any hopes of being free and alive. The SS guards are mostly represented as “them,” the unnamed force that drives the victims to unknown places. And the inmates are “us,” the persecuted group of people. In course of the march, the number of women gradually diminishes: some die or are shot, some escape and hide in the woods. Irena, along with a group of fellow inmates, tries to separate and keep on going on our own in a small group, but we do not succeed. They keep an eye on us and we have to continue together.

Irena’s transport was first moving eastward, and then turned westward, as she writes in the last entry of her diary  “SS guards are afraid of the Bolsheviks and direct us towards the Allies as if to surrender us into their hands.”  And as becomes clear from her later testimony, that very day they were liberated: We were liberated by the Americans, in the neighbourhood of Schwerin but now I cannot remember the name of village. It was afternoon of May 2.” Wiesława Wnętrzewska gives more specific details of their liberation:

Irena Kuczyk (right group, fourth from the left), with other Kleinmachnow survivors at the ceremony of opening of the Kleinmachnow memorial, 2003. From Martin, A., Czerwiakowski, E.  Muster des Erinnerns: polnische Frauen als KZ-Häftlinge in einer Tarnfabrik von Bosch, Berlin: Metropol, 2005. Courtesy of the Metropol Publishing House.

We were liberated by the Americans, in the Wöbellin village. We were confined in a large barn, there was nothing to eat and we huddled up and managed to survive the night. In the morning, we heard a boy… call out: “Women, you are free! The Americans are here!” The soldiers in American uniforms came. Our appearance –we were dirty, covered with lice –shocked them so much that they ran away.” [*]

Irena and her sister were taken to the British zone, where they spent several months recovering from illnesses and injuries. In the early 1946, they returned to Poland and found their father. Together they went back to their home town. Irena’s mother told her later that she went to the train station day after day waiting for them.

The diary of Irena Matusiak, translated by Elizabeth Onyszko of Ottawa

28.IV.1945 – 2 :45

After a long time of anxious waiting, the camp’s gates are behind us – evacuation – nothing pleasant. The last transport was around 6.000. The camp is over, but it does not look that good – we are being escorted by the SS towards the front line or close to it. On top of that, most of us leave without any food provisions, all without warm food.

Irena Matusiak diary

The diary notebook of Irena Matusiak. Brisebois Collection

Many among us without bread for as long as a week. We are marching in the Name of God – the road to liberty – to Poland. After only a few km it’s impossible to go further, they say that the roads are being blown up. We enter a young forest to wait through the night. There, a house with soldiers, not at all to our liking, we continue a few steps further and suddenly an explosion, the terror disperses us all, and drives us into the forest in all directions, and every other moment pushes us to the ground. Explosions continue, and falling to the ground I devote myself to St. Anthony. At last it goes away and dies down, but then it continues all through the night. Sitting somewhere in the bushes, clinging to each other, we wait through the night, hearing constant explosions and desperate calls for each other. We are also in despair because our Kostia and (illegible) are lost – found again with help from St. Anthony.

It barely dawns, when they start to gather us to continue our march on to Malechow and further. We want to separate and keep on going on our own in a small group, but we do not succeed. They keep an eye on us and we have to continue together. The group is now smaller – many died.

29-IV And again further, horror-stricken, along the road full of army supply columns and refugees.

It was a terrible passage, especially in the afternoon, airplanes and fire from them at the road, and no place to hide; so in the ditch in greater fear than before. There are also casualties of the shooting. The planes fly away and we pass quickly through a town full of soldiers and the army supply columns. And again a bit further and again planes and shooting. A terrible day. And again help from St. Anthony.

I believe it miraculous, escaping unhurt from this horror. Now only small groups of several people each are left. Our patrol stationed at the road directs us into the forest for the night, where our group’s guards are already waiting. There are (crossed out: “about”) 40 of us. We are laying down to sleep, and suddenly again planes and shooting for the third time. Our nerves can take it only by miracle, it seems. The night in the woods on the straw ends this horrible day.

30,31,IV. 1.V. and 2.V

Forced march to the west, that is further away from our destination. The SS guards are afraid of the Bolsheviks and direct us towards the Allies as if to surrender us into their hands.

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[1] Sherman, Semen, ,  Interview 27636, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 15 Dec. 2011

[2] Before Kleinmachnow, Matusjak went through Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she was assigned her number (7250); with this number she went to the factory.

[3] All quotations from Irena's testimony are taken from:  “Als würden wir in die Hölle hinabsteigen”  Muster des Erinnerns : polnische Frauen als KZ-Häftlinge in einer Tarnfabrik von Bosch / hrsg. von Ewa Czerwiakowski und Angela Martin im Auftr. der Berliner Geschichtswerkstatt e.V.. - Berlin: Metropol, 2005. p. 47

[4] Nelken, Halina. Interview 6258, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2011. Web. 15 Dec. 2011

[5] Wiesława Wnętrzewska, “Weiberwelt.” Martin, Angela, “Ich sah den Namen Bosch.” Polnische Frauen als KZ-Häftlinge in der Dreilinden Maschinenbau GmbH. Metropol, 2002, 189

[6] Astor, Olga, Interview 335621,Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2012

[7] Taube, Yehudit, Interview 6313, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2012

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CASE STUDY. Women in Ravensbrück

A substantial part of the Brisebois collection consists of letters sent by women from various places of confinement, mostly from Ravensbrück, a concentration camp that was organized specially for women. There were more than 50 subcamps associated with Ravensbrück, where prisoners were forced to work for German factories (e.g. Siemens) to produce armaments for the war. Overall, 130,000 people passed through this camp, of which 20,000 were men. More than half of these women were young, less than 30 years old. Only 30,000 survived the war, and most of the children born in the camp died before the liberation. [*] The fact that Ravensbrück has been populated by women only did not bring any alleviation in the everyday life of the prisoners; many inmates of this camp died because of malnutrition, were shot, hanged or sent to the gas chamber. Ravensbrück is also known for the medical experiments conducted on women, an act that left almost all of them handicapped. However, as noted by Jack Morrison in the book Ravensbrück: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp 1939-1945, “Ravensbrück inmates displayed survival skills based upon abilities and outlooks unique to women prisoners... Most of them knew how to extend and apportion a restricted food supply, how to darn socks and downsize a jacket, and how to fashion a carry-bag out of rags...  They knew how to deal with cuts and bruises, and how to make a poultice for a sick child. Skills such as these had direct applications in a concentration camp, and their prevalence in a camp for women made it a more tolerable and survivable place than it might have been otherwise.”[*]

Steffi Kunke

Steffi Kunke, 1930s. Courtesy of DOEW (Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes)

For us today, the letters of Ravensbrück inmates represent visual illustrations of such exemplary stoutness. Even within the strict limits of the format prescribed by the SS censorship they managed to convey their camp experience to relatives so that one could feel their true emotion. The correspondence of Stephanie Kunke provides us with the testimony that preserves the history of this courageous woman. Born in Vienna on December 26, 1908, she became an active socialist, along with her husband Hans Kunke. One of the pre-war acquaintances of this couple remembers how they met after the brief civil war that broke out in Austria in 1934: “As a result the Socialist party was outlawed and material that could have incriminated its members had to be destroyed,” and the Kunke couple was actively involved in helping to hide any evidence. [*] In 1938, Hans and Steffi were arrested and put into prison; afterwards, both went to different concentration camps, from which neither of them returned. Hans ended up in Buchenwald at the sock-darning labour detachment. Being severely abused, on October 31, 1940 “in act of desperation [he] ran through guard chain and was shot to death.”[*]

Steffi outlived her husband by  a few years:  after a brief stay at Lichtenburg concentration camp, she was deported to Ravensbrück, where, because of her political activity, she had to spend two years at Strafblock (according to testimonies, this “Punishment block” rated next to the gas chamber). The inmates of the Strafblock were forced to do extremely hard construction work, they had to carry heavy rocks, and move huge blocks, often without food or rest.  In the beginning of 1941, she was released from Strafblock and placed in Block 1 with the political prisoners, under the guidance of Rosa Jochmann.[*]  Steffi’s friend from Ravensbrück remembers that “this was the best time for her in the camp,” as she was able to write and to be with her peers. In early 1942 Stephanie, together with other German comrades, was sent to Auschwitz, where she died on February 14, 1943.

People who knew Steffi before the war or even in camp characterize her as a talented writer and a joyful person. Stella Klein-Low met Stephanie and Hans in Vienna in the 1930s “when they helped her to dispose of emergency supplies after the debacle of 1934: in February civil war briefly broke out between the Socialists and government forces. As a result the Socialist party was outlawed and material that could have incriminated its members had to be destroyed... My helpers were Steffi and Hans Kunke. I became friends with Steffi. She was a teacher and a great person: carefree, cheerful, open-minded. Her large, sparkling eyes spoke such a clear language of affection and enthusiasm.”[*]  Helen Potetz, a Ravensbrück survivor who met Steffi there remembers her as “the ray of hope that gave everyone lots of strength.” She also talks about Stephanie’s talent in composing poems and telling fairytales that unfortunately mostly were not preserved – when Rosa Jochmann, the leader of her block, was arrested in 1943, all papers were destroyed. [*]

Stephanie Kunke

Stephanie Kunke, 12 November 1939, Ravensbrück

The letters that Steffi wrote to her aunt Flora Jelinek  are filled with this mixture of cheerfulness and bitter wisdom at the same time. Her letters convey the piercing emotion of a condemned person who still could gain joy from just being alive by observing the clouds, the sun, and the mountains in the far. Her language is delicate and poetic, and the images are especially distinct and tangible:

Because of the blackouts we go to bed early. But I lay in bed for a long time, and think and muse. I am a night owl and need less sleep.

The best thing for us here is the sky, it is so beautiful. It is not as high as in Lichtenburg. Since the barracks are low and long, the whole camp makes an impression of being low and wide, and because of that the sky here is very low...  We have wonderful sunsets here, the colors are so beautiful ...

These shines are unforgettable, so clear, so dear. I often have this feeling when experiencing physical inconveniences, I feel happy in this flood of light.[*]

Steffi managed to stay within the limits of the camp correspondence and at the same time to express something that goes beyond censorship. Even the dangerously self-humorous remark reaches the addressee untouched: “Well ... I can find some beautifulness and fortune even in the wretched life.” By the end of her imprisonment in Ravensbrück, her mood changes, and the letters bear the traces of tiredness that Steffi’s comrade also remembers:  “she would always tell us that she will never leave the camp alive ... She had a weak heart and no will to live anymore.” In the last letter of our collection, dated from December 1941, probably foreseeing her deportation to Auschwitz, Steffi writes to her aunt:

The time goes overwhelmingly fast, and at times I wonder where all those weeks are gone. When sometimes I imagine myself living as a “private” again this seems to me as real as the fulfillment of a fairytale. And what does remain? I know, my dearest, that if I could live my life once more, then it would have been already wonderful. And while I just know that sometimes I doubt the possibility of its fulfillment.[*]

graves of Hans and Steffi

The commerative plate for Hans and Steffi at Hietzing cemetery (Vienna, Austria). Courtesy of Hedwig Abraham.

In the beginning of 1942, Steffi was commissioned, along with other comrades to go to Auschwitz. Release from the transport was impossible, and Steffi also did not want to let her friends down. About what happened in Auschwitz we find out from Potetz’s testimony:

This was a tough farewell for all of us... From the friends that came back from Auschwitz we found out that she got sick with typhus, and never recovered ...  The live will of those that spent time in the Strafblocks and led a miserable existence in Auschwitz was broken. Sometimes she suffered from the nameless homesickness, and her last days and hours were spent dreaming about Vienna and being at home.[*] 

One of Vienna’s streets was named Kunkegasse, as a tribute to Stephanie and Hans.

Janina Stefaniszyn, June 1944, Ravensbrück

Another set of correspondence belongs to the Stefaniszyn sisters, also prisoners of Ravensbrück. After Germany invaded Poland, Jozefa and Janina, Polish scouts and activists (Janina was a lawyer, and Jozefa was a teacher) joined the underground resistance. Both of them worked at the legal firm Sichrawów that served as a cover for covert activities and in reality was busy delivering information about the victims that were shot in the streets to their families. According to the recollections of Joseph Bieniek, “Janina wrote the letters informing families about the fate of those dear to them, while Jozefa dealt with the shipment.” With the spread of rumour among local families, the Sichrawów firm started to be frequently visited by Polish women frantically searching for news about their loved ones. Eventually, one of the associates was arrested and, being unable to endure torture, gave out the name of the firm. As a result, the company chief, and then the Stefaniszyn sisters were arrested in spring 1941 and deported to concentration camps. [*]

Concentration camp. Get out. We were packed into the truck, almost without air - you could suffocate. The gate of the camp. The Dogs are revolving around us and barking furiously. Gestapo - men in black cloaks, with evil faces, burning with a vengeance. This is all hell, hell here, hell on earth ... Search, a bath, we are now dressed in prison stripes, receive wooden shoes, hair shaved, beating, kicking.[*]

When we arrived to Ravensbrück we saw a huge camp, with the gas chamber, with the smoke. And everybody looked alike, with the shaved heads. As they marched us we saw corpses by the side of the road.[click to watch] [*]

Janina Stefaniszyn

Janina Stefaniszyn, post-war photo. Courtesy of Janusz Tajchert

In Ravensbrück, Janina and Jozefa joined the Polish underground organization Mury (“The Walls”). This resistance movement, established in November 1941 by the scout leader Jozefa Kantor, was mainly “organizing food and medical supplies for the sick fellow prisoners, moral, psychological and religious support for the group members and other women in the concentration camp.” Being not numerous in the beginning, by the end of the war it reckoned about 100 Polish women. The members of the “Walls” managed to fulfill the priceless task of preserving the “incoming list” of  25,028 Ravensbrück prisoners, since the rest of camp documents  was destroyed by the fleeing SS personnel to conceal the evidence . [*] In 1945, Janina and Jozefa were rescued – they went to Sweden with the transport organized by the Red Cross and Count Bernadotte. After the war, the sisters returned to Poland, and received various awards, including The Knight's Cross of the Order of Rebirth of Poland and The Golden Cross of Merit of Poland.[*] Jozefa returned to her teacher’s duties, and on the memorial website dedicated to the history of Mury she talks about the occurrence in her pedagogical practice that illustrates the impact that the survivors endured as a result of their horrible experience:

Jozefa Stefaniszyn

Jozefa Stefaniszyn, post-war photo. Courtesy of Janusz Tajchert

When I hear German music and songs on the radio, I am always wondering about this nation’s supposed love of music. Even the SS liked to sing, and yet they were capable of such crimes. How can one be reconciled with these things? The one that loves music is a good and honest person, and cannot cause any harm; and yet we have such criminals in this case. I do not understand that anymore. <...>  Let me give you an example of how I once reacted when one young boy sang the German song “Heili, heilo” (he got that melody from the movie). At first, I grabbed the brat by the ear, but then I restrained myself and gave them one-hour lecture. <...> I pointed out that with this song our parents were being shot. I took them to the nearest place of executions, told them that I was an eyewitness to shooting near my home. Finally, I added: Will that be nice to each of you, to have someone executed in the family, like father or mother, and then listen to the tune, with which the executions were carried out?[*]

The four letters (three from Jozefa and one from Janina) kept at the archive constitute a part of a bigger correspondence.  While obeying the rules of camp correspondence and speaking only about general things, the sisters are still able to personalize their writings, to add some genuine sentiment. Both of them are deeply religious, and this emotion dominates Jozefa’s letters:

Today is Sunday! I am now musing on different things about my life, and trying to find a source of joy. Finally, I have found that! Oh my quiet church! I know all your corners so well. How often have I visited you… Oh my beloved daddy! Oh! My dearest,  if only  I could go there with you and to sing my favourite song. The rustling acacia quietly sings this song in God’s care. “Oh, the God almighty.” I have sung that often, and I did not realize then how happy I was! [*]

Jozefa Stefaniszyn, October 1943, Ravensbrück

Being separated from their family, Jozefa and Janina were strongly supported by their Christian faith and kept their rituals and prayers even in the conditions of a concentration camp. When greeting their loved ones at Christmas, Jozefa writes, and this gets through censorship:  “On Christmas Holiday Jasia and I spent with you. On Holy Night, when the first star lit up, we sang the beautiful Christmas songs very loudly so that you could hear us. It seemed to me that Baby Jesus stretched his hands to us and said: “Come, you the sad ones, and I will sooth you!”[*] After the war, in a testimony dedicated to the icon of Mother of Consolation, Janina also wrote about the secret sermons carried out at their block and how morally supportive they were for the prisoners:

Longing for the church and Holy Communion was the heart of our second camp, which carved our souls, ennobled, and led us to our Consolation...  The Mother of Consolation knew prisoners from many cities, from Vilnius, Poznan, Gdansk, Sopot, Plock, Radom, Czestochowa, Krakow, Tarnow...  You were with us at the moment of suffering and joy, you heard at the catacombs of our camp songs sung to Thy honor, these common prayers that gave us strength to survive the tough leaden days of camp...  The block in which we lived was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus...  Selection ... execution ... these things explicitly bypassed us...  No hunger, no flogging, no anguish, if faith is strong in us, if the Mother of Consolation is with us. Prayer and work, and we nourish ourselves happy and content.[*]

As in case of other prisoners, the majority of Jozefa’s letters are dedicated to her and Janina’s homesickness, but as opposed to male writers, she finds it possible to be more specific, sometimes speaking about the real life of a prisoner, even when confirming the arrival of a food package:

Greatest thanks for such wonderful packages. I have received three, and Jasia also three packages with food. First of all I kissed the bread… All my comrades wept loudly, when they saw my love to you. <..>[*]

Janina Stefaniszyn, June 1944, Ravensbrück

Though the handwriting of both sisters looks very similar and perhaps only one of them could write German (or that someone wrote those letters for them), Janina demonstrates a different style, and keeps to a less passionate manner. She asks questions about common friends and relatives, addresses different people and even asks her parents to let some acquaintance know that she is unreachable because of being in the camp. Janina also gives little insights into their life in camp and even mentions the woman who supposedly was mentoring and helping them in Ravensbrück:

The elderly lady that was so wonderful to congratulate our Jozja <Jozefa>  on her name day, is thanking you  for the money; she  is very happy. She treats us as her own daughters.[*]

In one of the VHA interviews, a Jewish survivor of Ravensbrück remembers how she and another girl prayed during the Yom Kippur Holiday, and then adds that in the camp they were “reduced to animals thinking only about food... No favours existed in Ravensbrück. Only few of us still did that, to remain human.” [click to watch][*] The examples of the Ravensbrück correspondents, such as Steffi Kunke or the Stefaniszyn sisters show how the very act of writing helped them to preserve their faith, their cheerfulness and stoutness in the conditions of imprisonment.  The emotional capability to get their personal messages through the grind of the SS censorship grants us the possibility to look into the very core of humanity.

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[1]  Lørdahl, Erik. German concentration camps, 1933-1945: history and inmate mail. Vol 1. 91-92

[2]  Morrison, Jack G. Ravensbrück: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp 1939-1945. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2000, 309

[3] Vansant, Jacqueline, Reclaiming Heimat: trauma and mourning in memoirs by Jewish Austrian reémigrés.  Wayne State University Press, 2001, 77

[4]  Buchenwald concentration camp, 1937-1945: a guide to the permanent historical exhibition by Harry Stein, Gedenkstätte Buchenwald. Wallstein Verlag, 2004-01-01. p. 300

[5] Vansant, Jacqueline, Reclaiming Heimat: trauma and mourning in memoirs by Jewish Austrian reémigrés.  Wayne State University Press, 2001, 77

[6] Helene Potetz,Die Haft von Stefanie Kunke.” (The imprisonment of Stefanie Kunke) In: Gerda Szepansky, Helga Schwarz ...und dennoch blühten Blumen: Dokumente, Berichte, Gedichte und Zeichnungen vom Lageralltag 1939-1945.   Brandenburgische Landeszentrale f. politische Bildung (Oktober 2000). 59-60

[7] Helene Potetz,Die Haft von Stefanie Kunke.” In: Gerda Szepansky, Helga Schwarz ...und dennoch blühten Blumen: Dokumente, Berichte, Gedichte und Zeichnungen vom Lageralltag 1939-1945.   Brandenburgische Landeszentrale f. politische Bildung (Oktober 2000). 59-60

[8] These letters, written in purple pencil on brown paper shreds, survived the war and when the sisters returned from the camp I visited them - scraps of faded, I read with considerable emotion. Especially the final postscript: "Send immediately notices to the families."  Józef Bieniek, Lord Znad Dunajca,

[9] Almalech, Bella, Interview 35621, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2012

[10] Taube, Yehudit, Interview 6313, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2012

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CASE STUDY. On the Way:  Transit Camps Correspondence

Yvonne Thomas

Yvonne Thomas, 25 April 1943, Drancy

Among the monstrous net of concentration camps created by Nazi Germany over occupied Europe, there were also so-called transit camps. As opposed to other camps, these places were not intended either for extermination or for labour but as waiting points where prisoners (mostly, Jews) were collected to be sent further, mostly, to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were located for the most part in Western Europe, such as Westebork in the Netherlands, Drancy and Beaune-La-Rolande in France, Mechelen in Belgium, and Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. The conditions of these camps were a bit better than the rest of concentration camps; in some of them (in Theresienstadt and Westerbork) various cultural activities were allowed; in some transit camps in France the prisoners were even allowed to be visited by their relatives. However, people lived under the constant fear of deportation to Poland, and this is the main emotion that characterizes the diaries and letters of these camps’ inmates.

This case study commemorates the prisoners of transit camps whose letters are kept at the archive. We will look at people being in transition – mostly to their fate but also at  those that managed to fulfill an enormous task of escaping not only the transit camps but also Auschwitz. All prisoners were typically in transition, and the majority of camp correspondents went through at least two or three camps. Also, the prisoners who were deported under the program “Night and Fog” (Nacht und Nebel) were secretly taken to Nazi camps and executed there. The main goal of Nacht und Nebel was to make political prisoners disappear without a trace. The ones who were not executed were continuously transferred between camps. However, the inmates of transit camps were in transition by nature, always being aware of the coming deportation to other and worse places.

The Nazis often deceived people by luring them into transports and saying that they were being taken to some safe place; instead, the transport would go to the extermination camps. Ruth De Wilde remembers how, after having spent some time at the collection camp in Berlin, they were told that they were going to Switzerland but in reality the transport went to Auschwitz. She managed to smuggle a note to her parents through the Dutch truck driver.[*] The role of Theresienstadt, the Jewish Ghetto in Czechoslovakia, was to show the world (and particularly, the Red Cross) that Jews are being well-treated; in 1944, the commission of the Red Cross visited Theresienstadt; soon after that thousands of ghetto inmates were deported to Auschwitz.  The survivors of Drancy also note that despite knowing about the persecutions of Jews in Europe they could not perceive the degree of danger that awaited them. Also, people were deceived by the cards that were sent from the east to convince them that the deportees are still well and alive:

There was a kiosk in front of administrative building with the Jewish personnel working there, and they posted letters sent to those persons... These were cards postmarked from Germany, saying “Dear so and so, we are doing well, we work hard on the farm... we work very hard from day till night but the kids are very happy, we have all the food we want.” ... We did not realize that by that time this person was already in the gas chamber, the minute he got there. These letters calmed the people, and the ladies in the kiosk would say – oh yes, I knew Ms. Cohen, or Ms. Kahn, I am getting cards from them all the time.  These people did not know either ... Who would have thought that they forced the people to write the letters before sending them to the gas chambers? We would believe the story until the moment when we got to the cattle cars.[click to watch][*]

Yvonne Thomas

Yvonne Thomas, 17 August, 1942, Drancy

The Brisebois collection holds a number of letters sent from different transit and internment camps located in the occupied France, such as Beaune-La-Rolande; Chateaubriant-Choisel; Gurs; Le Vernet D’arièges, and Drancy.   The camp of Drancy, founded in August 1941, became the biggest “hub for deporting Jews to the east, and new detainees kept on arriving there every day.” [*] People would spend some time there, but in many cases, they would stay there only for a day or two, and later, be sent further to the east. Yvonne Thomas was imprisoned in Drancy in 1942, and in 1943 transferred to Beaune-La-Rolande. Her letters are addressed to her daughter Micheline, probably a teenager or even a young adult. As with all other prisoners, she sends her detailed requests for food parcels and clothes.

As opposed to the unified style of letters from German concentration camps, letters from Drancy are written in a looser manner. First of all, the correspondents were allowed to write in French, and second, censorship was not as strict as in other places. While not going into details, M-me Thomas gives her daughter various hints of information about her life in Drancy, including the state of her health, or even camp restrictions:

I had 3 eggs confiscated, [since] only 2 are permitted; received your parcel, I am waiting impatiently, especially for the clothing, since 14 days passed without having changed and washed. Sleep has become unknown to me and tonight is the only day since my departure when I have rested for several hours. In so little time I have become an old woman, everyone has found that I have aged 20 years and it is not rare that someone supposes me to be 54 to 55 years old; I am unable to see anyone ...  there are 5000 of us and I don't know any names. Oh, I am so lonely.[*]

In contrast to the obligatory positivity of mail coming from Dachau or Ravensbruck, Yvonne openly talks about being hungry, sick, and physically exhausted (As for me, with my 44 kg, my head is better), and about the regulations that do not allow her to receive more than two eggs at a time. Also, she desperately tries to obtain the documents that would secure her release. In the first letters coming from Drancy (probably, soon after her incarceration) she asks Micheline to send for the baptism certificate of father, his brothers and mother and 4 grandparents, do not wait at all and send them as soon as they are available so that I do not lose any time [here].” [*]Later, she sends instructions on how to obtain the confirmation of her Aryan descent: When you have received the baptism certificates, photograph them, take to the Bureau of Jewish Affairs...  and send this to me by registered mail. Keep the original close to you. Don't lose any time.  And then, a year later, after spending some time in Drancy and having been transferred to another camp, M-me Thomas still nurtured some hope, though one can see by her writing that it was waning: There have been many releases these days in my block. When will mine be? Will we spend our vacations together? [*]

Yvonne Thomas

Yvonne Thomas, 25 April 1943, Beaune-la-Rolande

Yvonne Thomas was able to stay for several months at the transit camps and to avoid deportation to the east; probably, because of being only half-Jewish, she got into the category of people who were protected from transports. In late 1942 or early 1943 she was transferred to Beaune-la-Rolande, another transit camp, which at that time was “used to detain those that the Germans transferred in from Drancy because they were not (at least not at the time) “deportable.” [*] Unfortunately, there is no data on her further fate. There is a possibility that she died in the camp, since the last letter says “you will surely take your vacations alone again ... According to the doctor I am no longer well ...  I have had so many injuries since this infinitely long captivity and the year has again passed far from you .[*]  Beaune camp was officially closed on July 12, 1943, and the prisoners were transferred to Drancy, which by that time was in the full control of the SS.

Some people did not have even this brief pause between deportations, and spent only one or two days at Drancy, on the way to Auschwitz or Sobibor death camps. In these cases, the prisoners were allowed to send a brief message to their loved ones indicating that they were being deported to some unknown destination. Such is the note written by Mr. Lerman to his friends or relatives in Paris saying that he is being sent further:

My dear friends, Mrs and Mr. Deudon. I am in good health. I wish the same for you. I will always count on your friendship. I will say good bye since I am leaving soon. I will send you news. Wishing you well, Lerman. [*]

Michel Brisebois proposes three candidates that could be Mr. Lerman (we do not know his first name) , of which Azmiel Lerman seems  to be the most likely candidate.  Born in Poland, he moved (probably fled) to France, was arrested in August 1942 during the large roundups in Paris, and perished in Auschwitz.[*]

While not knowing exactly their destination,  people sensed the upcoming doom and  tried to send their last notes to the outside world. The VHA survivors list many occasions of how they or their relatives when being deported would throw a letter out of a train, and how these messages would get to the addressees. Ernest Nives, as a Drancy survivor, identifies that as an “indicative of the anxiety we had to let people know where we were going to go shows also that we didn't know where we going to go.” Another VHA interviewee shows a postcard that her uncle and aunt threw out of the train while being deported to the east (none of them returned).[click to watch][*] The Brisebois collection also holds one such letter written by the Polish prisoner Edek (Edward) Sowa who threw his letter when being transferred from the Gestapo prison in Tarnow (Poland) to Auschwitz:

Edek (Edward) Sowa, January 1943, Tarnow

I am leaving from Tarnow, they say the 27th of January or the 28th of January --- where I don't know. Maybe God will prevent anything from happening. If it will be possible to write from there, I will write. I was in jail with Staszek, but in the morning they called him out. I don¹t know if he is going with me ---pray for me and do make efforts [to help me] ... That's all for now -- may God have you in His care.[*]

Edward died two months later in Auschwitz, on March 4, 1943. These letters of people written on the brink of horrible death transmit to our times the horror of the person being put into an “absolute cold and cruel barbaric place.” [*]

Most of the deportees realized what fate was awaiting them when being put into the sealed cattle trains. All former inmates of Drancy describe the horrendous contrast between the relatively civilized transit camp where they were brought by regular passenger trains and the cattle cars filled with straw and with two buckets for people to relieve themselves. Leo Bretholz in a VHA interview talks about the utter dehumanization that one experienced on those trains. While realizing what fate awaits them, Leo and his friend succeeded in the daring and risky attempt to escape the train:

On the train, we tried to move the bars in the train, they did not, but they were rusty. We took off our sweaters and dipped them in the human waste, and twisted the sweaters around the window bars. We alternated with my friend. After several hours the bar started moving, and then we used our arms to twist them until we could squeeze through the windows. We escaped in the Champagne region of France. We waited for the curve so that the train would slow down, and tumbled into the ravine. We were noticed: the train came to a halt, there were shots and lights; the third fellow that was supposed to fly with us did not make it. We walked into a village, it was dark. We went into a village and stopped at the priest’s house, we spent a night there [click to watch].[*]

Even when being already imprisoned in Auschwitz, some people managed to escape. The collection holds the letters of two persons, Aleksander Martyniec and Antoni Wykret. Both of them successfully escaped from the camp by means of dressing as civilian workers or even as SS guards. Antoni Wykret arrived at Auschwitz I with the first group of men “from the prison in Tarnow by the Krakow Sipo and SD commander.” [*] In 1944, he, together with Henryk Kwiatkowski disguised themselves as SS officers and on September 9 fled from the camp with the group of Polish prisoners and joined the Home Army’s Sosienka Partisan Unit. Later, Wyrket and S. Furdyna, wearing SS uniforms, intercepted a horse cart carrying two prisoners and three guards. Passing themselves off as functionaries of the camp Gestapo, they conducted a thorough search of the cart, examined the pass of the SS guard and told him they were taking the prisoners with them for interrogation by the Gestapo.” [*] During the SS raid on the partisan unit Wykret was wounded and arrested but as soon as he regained consciousness he escaped from the truck that was taking him back to Auschwitz.[*]

Leonard Zawacki, also a camp escapee who fought in the same resistance unit as Antoni Wykret, describes in a VHA interview the complex planning of their escape from Auschwitz:

One day (after weeks of preparations) we changed into the SS uniforms and left our prisoners clothes (the prisoners said they would burn them as soon as we leave). Disguised as SS men we walked through the camp, met a group of prisoners that was waiting for us, told them in German to pick up the tools and march in front of us. Since we did not have proper passes (they were the wrong color), we did not go through the gate but took a “shortcut” and went to the tower with the SS guards.  The guard waved, and we passed to the other side. There was a search afterwards but they did not find us. [*]

As pointed out by Henryk Swiebocki in Anatomy of Auschwitz, the more precisely the prisoners planned their flight, the more chance they had to get away not only in the process of escaping but also after that, since many people were afterwards captured and executed.[*] Aleksander Martyniec, whose letter is also a part of the Brisebois Collection, described in the post-war account how accurately his flight was planned by him and his friend, Jan Sarapata.  They managed to disguise themselves as civilian workers and fled through the civilian canteen.[*]

Being on the transport on the way to death or being constantly in transfer under the threat of gas chambers, or flying from camps or trains with the hope of deliverance, their letters show us only one thing, the state of utter terror in the face of unnamed doom. Those who survived described later hours and days spent inside the sealed cattle cars as the most horrible and scary experiences of their lives. The mixture of hope and fear, and the bitter realization of us today that very few were spared and lived to see the end of the concentration camps is epitomized in the transit camp and Gestapo prisons correspondence.

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[1] De Wilde, Ruth, Interview 8503, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2012. Web. 15 March 2012

[2] Metz, Gilbert, Interview 45926, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2012. Web. 15 March 2012

[3] Poznanski, Renee, Jews in France During World War II. Trans. by Nathan Bracher. Hannover and London: Brandeis University Press and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2001, 309.

[4] Poznanski, Renee, Jews in France During World War II. Trans. by Nathan Bracher. Hannover and London: Brandeis University Press and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2001, p. 319

[5] The Central Database of Shoah Victims Names, Yad Vashem,

[6] De Wilde, Ruth, Interview 8503, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2012. Web. 15 March 2012

[7] Nives, Ernest, Interview 588, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2012. Web. 15 March 2012

[8] Bretholz, Leo, Interview 8503, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2012. Web. 15 March 2012

[9] Czech, Danuta. Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939-1945. New York : H. Holt, c1990.

MILLS Research Collections: D 805 .P7 C8713 1989, p. 13

[10] Henryk Swiebocki, “Prisoner Escapes, Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Yisrael Gutman, Michael Berenbaum, eds.  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Indiana University Press, 510

[11] Czech, Danuta. Auschwitz Chronicle, 758-759

[12] Zawacki, Leonard, Interview 37183, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2012. Web. 15 March 2012

[13] Henryk Swiebocki, “Prisoner Escapes, Anatomy of Auschwitz, 506

[14] Martyniec, Aleksander, Nasza Ucieczka (Our Escape), Numery Movia (The Numbers Speak). Wydawn. "Slask"; Wyd. 3 edition, 1986

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MODULE 2: World War, 1939-1945, Jewish Underground Resistance collection

The second module of the Virtual Museum is comprised of the Jewish Underground Resistance Collection, 1929-1945, compiled by David Diamant.  David Diamant is the pseudonym of David Erlich.  He was born 18 March 1903 in Hrubieszow, Poland, and emigrated to France in the 1920s where he remained for the rest of his life.  A Jewish communist, Diamant was a committed member of the underground resistance during World War II; on more than one occasion he was offered safe passage to England but chose instead to remain in France.  After the war he worked initially with the UJRE (l'Union des Juifs pour la Résistance et l'Entraide) and devoted himself to documenting the Jewish resistance by collecting original documents and writing and publishing extensively on the subject.  Diamant died in Paris on 24 August 1994.  The Collection consists of original documents collected by David Diamant over a period of approximately 30 years dealing primarily with the Jewish segment of the French underground resistance; many of the documents originate with communist groups, and some deal with Polish groups.  Most of the documents are in French, while some are in Yiddish.

The David Diamant collection is available online to McMaster students, faculty, and staff on the Archives Unbound site from Gale Publishing. The original documents are available for research and study by all in the Library's William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections. A full list of items in the collection can be found in the finding aid.


CASE STUDY: The Jewish Scouts in France

The Jewish Scouts organization (in French, Les Éclaireurs Israèlites de France, EIF) was founded in 1923 by Robert Gamzon in France. First based in Paris, the EIF headquarters were later moved to Moissac, a small town in the Midi-Pyrénées region of  Southern France. When the war started, this movement was already well-structured, with its leaders and activities, and therefore ready for the hardship of war and occupation. Lucien Lazare, a historian and a former resistance combatant thus describes the role of the EIF in occupied France:

The first to regroup and go into action in the southern zone, the EIF provided a framework in which both native French Jews and immigrants had experienced an integrated community since the 1930s. Involved in all forms during the war except political indoctrination – education, culture, publication, religion, mutual social assistance, professional retraining, clandestine rescue, and armed combat – they were active in Paris and throughout the southern zone.[*]   

The EIF moved in several directions of accommodating the Jewish youth before and during the war. The main activity that they were preoccupied with was the “back to earth” movement. The leaders of the scouts encouraged the Jewish urban youth to go to the farms and start their new life as peasants and farmers. After Nazi Germany occupied France farming received an essential value of, first, taking care of the food shortage, especially for people in hiding,  and second, supplying the kids with the practical professions. This is how the EIF report describes the process of establishing the first community in the small holding near Lautrec (30 hectares):

It was on this property that the team did the first rural apprenticeship, and at the same time perfected their spiritual formation. It was in this domain that the most important and difficult work was to be done. This meant that young people who came out of the war all grown up, some twenty years or older, already had their character formed.

After a year of work in a commune groups, youth had the choice to detach themselves from the group to take charge of our first autonomous farm. A farm of 60 hectares and contrary to the soil in Lautrec, this farm's soil is in a good state.

A page from the EIF report. 1944. McMaster University and Gale Publishing

Those who were left after the pioneering of the farm were placed with other farmers in the area.[*]

Despite the lack of experience, these newly organized farms were functioning successfully: by 1942, to the utter surprise of the local peasants, “the [scouts’] population was stable, the equipment was satisfactory both in tools and in livestock, and production was respectable from land that had to be cleared and often of poor quality. Most of the young people had overcome the difficulties of a regime of rigorous physical labor that was like nothing they had previously experienced.”[*] Besides the EIF farms, there were a number of purely Zionist farms, called the Hakhsharot (“preparations” in Hebrew) all over France. According to Anny Levy, the Hakhsharot were created to gather the youth together, and inspire them to become Zionists. “Partly the goal was matchmaking, so that you could go to the kibbutz together. There were not many unmarried people in kibbutzim at that time. You would learn Hebrew, the basics of Zionist, and you would learn how to farm." [click to watch] [*] While the EIF was neither religious nor Zionist by its nature, the very idea of sending the young Jewish people to the countryside was similar to the Chalutzim ideals, the pioneers that went to Eretz Israel. Michael Taylor says that after he fled to the Southern part of France the Jewish resistance placed him in the farm run by the EIF, where he spent about six months:

We lived together, took care of cows. We had Saturdays, kept kosher, had Sabbaths. In 1943, the situation got worse, French gendarmes kept looking for us but they did not know which farm we were in.[*]

By 1943, the danger of deportation and death became so imminent that despite the farms’ success the leaders of the EIF decided to have them dispersed. In November 1943 the workforce on the farms was decreased to a minimum, given also the fact that the weather that year was “disastrous for all agriculture in the south of France.” The farms kept working and producing low amounts of food till 1943, when the Germans occupied the southern zone.  Now the people were more involved in the individual placements for those with false papers, voyages to Switzerland and Spain etc.:

At that moment the danger was really inevitable. The power of the French police and the police stations were practically handed over to the militia and the Gestapo. The responsibility of our leaders became too great and the work had to be stopped. The hard decision was made to dissolve all of our centers and material possessions, even livestock; we had to go into hiding.

The document concludes with the promise to continue the development of the farms after the liberation, with the final goal of either bringing the farming to the soil of Palestine or staying in France as a “Rural Jewish enterprise.”

In addition to the rural groups, the EIF also organized centers of education that were specialized in providing the professional training for children and teenagers. Henri Masliah, aged 17, was told by someone in Paris to cross the demarcation line and go to the southern zone, to the EIF headquarters in Moissac. He was placed with other kids, from the age of 7 to 18: “We had courses in metallurgy, carpentry, electricity, and book-binding. I went to the electricity classes. We were educated by the professors from Europe who were over-qualified. I had a professor of mathematics who lost his job because he was Jewish <…> It was a very good atmosphere.” [click to watch] [*] He lived and studied there for a year, met his future wife, and most of his dearest friends are from this group. Masliah says that the kids lived in the great atmosphere, with some elements of Jewish tradition: “We kept a Shabbat, learnt Hebrew, sang Jewish songs, and this was a feeling of a very good community."

The goal of the EIF movement was not only to hide and accommodate children but to offer them the opportunity of receiving the practical skills (such as farming or metallurgy):

The children go to workshops in the morning, whereas the afternoon is reserved for general formation. Hebrew and Jewish history are equally important parts of our education in the schools. Every semester a report card is done by the teachers to the students in the house. There are board meetings every three months with teachers and students to discuss matters on their classes and workshops. [*]

In 1943, the Nazis occupied the Free Zone, and staying in Moissac became too dangerous. The children were given false IDs, and sent to different parts of the country. Some went to the farms, some entered the schools, and some went into the mountains. Masliah went to “Marmonde, which was 50 kilometres from Moissac, where I entered a boarding school. The principal was waiting for us, and right away instructed us what to do if the Germans would come. He knew that we are the Jews in hiding.”

The EIF went underground, with its participants starting to be involved in sabotage and military operations thus joining the general resistance. The rural groups still existed in hiding, thus in Lautrec the farm was guarded “to ensure the safety of our youth against Gestapo attacks. The training continued in different regions, this time, concentrating on the “physical and military training.” They also recruited boys and young men from the local non-Jewish population, and they “considered joining the Lamaquiere and fight it during the mobilization.” Another group, based in Sarrie, was more oriented towards Judaism: they observed Shabbat. From the EIF, the Lamaquiere recruited people, and became the only group to be armed in the given region. According to Henri Masliah who joined them after the D-Day, the group mostly consisted of the Jewish refugees from Poland, Germany, and other countries, while the French Jews were in minority.

The EIF document describes one incident when the Jewish Scouts were first attacked by the Germans, and then were able to capture the military train. This happened soon after the Allies’ landing in Normandy when the south of France was still occupied by the Germans. Michael Taylor remembers that the EIF found out that there will be a train full of German ammunition and weapons passing near the place where they were hiding. The plan has been made to attack it, with the help of American parachutists that were helping partisans. The mines were put under the tracks, and the first couple of cars were blown off the railway tracks:

A veritable battle began between the canons on the train and our American machine guns. Around midnight the fighting had slowed down, we had used most of our ammunition, but our boys had killed almost everyone who was carrying guns; and we resumed our bombardment of the train with our mortars. After experiencing heavy losses the German captain raised the white flag and surrendered himself, 56 men and all the contents of the train to Lieutenant Roger.

For the Jewish resistance, it was extremely important to emphasize the fact that they were the Jewish fighters. Taylor recounts how he came up to one of their captives and asked him “Do you know who I am?” The soldier answered – yes, you are a partisan. - No, said I, I am stronger than that. “Ich bin ein Jude.” Well, he was wearing a green uniform but his face was much greener when he heard that. He was terribly scared.  I told him that I was not the only Jew, that they were surrounded by them.” [click to watch] [*] Another resistance fighter says that when he noticed a German out of the corner of his eye fiddling with a hand grenade, he ran up to him grabbed him off the train and started beating him crying out “This is what a Jew can do to you.”[*]

After that, the partisan unit took the ammunition and headed for Castres:

The automatic weapons were re-usable and we mounted them on our trucks transforming them into tanks. By consequence we created an attack for the garrison at Castres; we would go along the road making defensive stations along the way. We learned from intelligence services that for from wanting to attack us, they wanted to enter into negotiations with us. The commander left alone and arrived in Castres, while to company surrounded the city blocking all exits. The next morning 3500 men surrendered to 250 men from the underground.

According to the former resistance fighters, the Allies entered Castres three days after this victory; and the liberation of this town has been achieved by this unit alone. Once in Castres their captain demanded that the German Commandant surrender himself and his troops. Coincidently the city had been bombarded just a few weeks earlier and the Captain of the resistance explained if they did not surrender they would die. The German Commandant surrendered 4000 German troops to 350 underground troops.  Jacques Weltmann remarks that once they had secured the town, all of a sudden the French army who had done nothing was all over the town, there were lieutenants, captains and generals. The general consensus between the resistance fighters was that the French army could in his words “go to hell”. 

This extraordinary event was followed by a letter sent by the commander of Dunoyer de Segonzac addressing Gamzon, who was severely wounded:

A letter from Commander Dunoyer de Segonzac to Robert Gamzon. 1944. McMaster University and Gale Publishing

                Your unit fought a good fight and like always proved to be the best French soldiers. Their attitudes in the middle of fire were beautiful and the results they produced far exceeded my expectations. <…>

                I ask you to please extend my feeling of admiration to your squadron.

                Let me finally say that your squadron is just as dedicated as you are [he likens their dedication to apostles]. To your devotion you had a sense of courage that is not commonly seen. I have asked on your behalf for a military citation.

Regarded as a heart of the Jewish resistance in France, the EIF was indeed unique, in terms of the scope of their actions. The town of Moissac constituted the safe haven for a while, where the Jewish youth could find their place to live and not to starve.  Every activity that the organization was engaged in was expanded to accommodate even more needs of the persecuted people. They hid the children – and gave them education. They taught Judaism and observed some holidays – and also provided the young people with the professional education. They sabotaged the German trucks and trains – and participated in the real battle.

Robert Gamzon survived the war, moved in 1949 to Israel, published the memoirs, and died in 1961.

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[1] Lazare, Lucien, Rescue as Resistance: How Jewish Organizations Fought the Holocaust in France. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 54

[2] 0182 Rapport sur l’activité du mouvement des Éclaireurs Israélites de France de 1939 au lendemain de la Libération [undated]

[3] Lazare, 60

[4] Levy, Anny, Interview 24669, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 15 March 2013

[5] Taylor, Michael, Interview 19695, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 15 April 2013

[6] Masliah, Henri, Interview 18738, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 15 April 2013

[7] 0182 Rapport sur l’activité du mouvement des Éclaireurs Israélites de France de 1939 au lendemain de la Libération [undated]

[8] Weltmann, Jacques, Interview 29863, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 15 March 2013

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CASE STUDY: Polish Resistance in France

A page from the Testimony of a Warsaw Ghetto Survivor. McMaster University and Gale Publishing

The Diamant Collection holds a testimony of a young Polish-Jewish woman who survived the destruction of Warsaw ghetto, reprinted by the National Movement against Racism. This French underground unit was mostly engaged in the humanitarian acts of resistance, such as hiding people, rescuing children, distributing false papers, gathering food for Jews, etc. Among other things they published an underground newspaper, J’accuse, that notified the population of the mass killings of Jews in ghettos and camps. Similarly, the Testimony of a young female survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto is not just a personal story but a means of informing the people in France about the horrors of persecution happening in Eastern Europe. Written by a young girl, this letter describes how her family tried to escape eastward from Lodz, to the Soviet-controlled territory of Poland. Having no means of transportation, they walked on foot for two weeks, only to find that getting to the Soviet territory was impossible, because “the Germans established a fence on the border.  Many of my friends were captured and sent to a concentration camp.” After spending six weeks in Lublin, the family returned to Lodz:

The first days of the enemy occupation, especially in those parts which belonged to Germany in 1914, were horrible. The Germans satisfied their hatred by killing thousands of their political adversaries and by persecuting, specifically, intellectuals. They arrested hundreds of priests. All the shopkeepers and peasants were deported, their properties allocated to the Germans. <…> The city of Lodz was completely Germanized. Inscriptions, compulsory Germany served to demonstrate the Germanism of the city. Poles, especially intellectuals, were arrested en masse. They expropriated Jews, and their shops and apartments became the property of the Germans who were forced to leave the Baltics. Early on, the Jews were ordered to wear a star on their chests and another on their backs.  They didn’t have the right to be other than at the back of streetcars.  The police hour, or the curfew, starts at 6 pm; if they catch you, they will take your ration cards, or worse.[*]

Later, her family, along with the thousands of other people, was chased into the Warsaw ghetto, where she experienced hunger, malnourishment, typhus and violence of the guards. After witnessing her mother being taken away (probably to the death camp) the girl “spent that night on the balcony of the fourth floor with the idea of committing suicide; the courage to throw myself on the road escaped me. Who would take care of my sick father and young sister?” Her family perished anyway, her father and sister were killed when the Warsaw uprising began. The girl was able to escape from the ghetto, with the help of her Christian classmates, and lived in Warsaw at her friend’s place for another six weeks watching the “blaze of the ghetto lighting up Warsaw.” Fearing to inflict the mortal danger on her Polish friend, she managed to leave the city and get to Switzerland. She ends her account with the phrase, “I am only 22 years old but it seems to me that I have suffered for a century.”

Reprinted by the Resistance as a survivor’s testimony, this text is designed as a leaflet drawing the attention of people in France to the atrocities in Poland. Along with the personal story of a single family, this letter also gathers the essence and chronology of the Warsaw uprising. The survivor probably witnessed some things, while some of them were added later. One of the ghetto scenes describing the deportation of the orphanage of Janusz Korczak from Warsaw to Treblinka death camp could be her own recollection or could have been heard as a story: 

One day I saw a moving procession: a long line of children marching two-by-two, holding each others' hands, all formally dressed. At the head was Korczak, a very old man, with long white hair. Korczak was a known writer, an author of magnificent children's books, a generous man who devoted his life to the well-being of children. He had created a model orphanage. He did not want to abandon the little ones in their last journey and marched with them towards their death.

Being full of graphic descriptions of horrors and cruelties, this letter does not have any additional notes from the Resistance that distributed the document. As the witness points out, “I have told you but a small portion of the horrors that I have seen and lived.” This text constitutes a powerful example of how the Resistance used different narratives, including personal testimonies, to spread the truth about the mass murders among the French people.

The biography of a Polish resistance fighter, shot in 1944. McMaster University and Gale Publishing

In France, many Polish nationals, both Jewish and Gentiles, lived in the Nord-pas de Calais region. Some of them had grown up there and spoke French, while others immigrated or fled from Poland when the threat of war became evident. Thus, the Polish-Jewish survivor Bertold Lande says that he moved to France before the war started, to study law in Strasbourg. This probably saved his life, as the rest of his family stayed in Lwow: “I encouraged my parents to sell everything and to get out of Poland but they refused. They could not expect what could happen.”[*] He could never find out what happened to his parents; he says that most likely they were murdered by the local collaborators. According to a document written by the Polish Committee for the National Liberation Movement, there were 500,000 Polish immigrants living in France by 1944:

On French soil there are 500,000 Poles of whom 40% serve in the departments in Pas de Calais and the North. The immigration's contribution to France's national economy is notable in the coal industry, and is also very considerable in agriculture. Like miners, Poles, while performing the most painful, hard and dangerous work, in no small way ensure the functioning of all French economic activity, given that a very high percentage of French coal extraction is due to Polish labor.

The Polish played an important role in the famous strike of 100,000 miners during 1941 in German occupied France. The Polish were among the first to take arms against the occupancy, we remember all those who gloriously fell in the defense of France and Poland.[*]

While addressing the President of the National Council for Resistance (CNR), namely, Charles de Gaulle, the letter asks to “officially recognize the Polish National Committee for Liberation as official representatives of the Polish community in France.” At this point, when the British and American forces often helped the resistance groups by parachuting them ammunition and supplies, official recognition for the underground was vital. As Maurice Asa states, “There were lots of conflicts between the armed resistance. There was the resistance supported by the British intelligence service, and the one supported by the Free French, De Gaulle. And these two could not stand each other! <…> We were all against Germans but there were conflicts, who would get more arms, who would do this or that.”

Another letter, coming from the same organization, also speaks of the necessity of recognizing them as the leading group among the French Poles:   

A National Polish Committee for liberation has been elected, who will represent the Polish people within France, and who sees their principle task as mobilizing all Polish energies in the struggle against the common enemy. The National Polish Committee for Liberation with it brings the membership of 500,000 enthusiastic Poles, who see the provisional government in the Algiers and the CNR as their sole French authority and who burn with anticipation to fight under a French-Polish flag.[*]

Memorial to the Manouchian Group Wikipedia Commons

The  document also commemorates a number of the resistance fighters that struggled and fell side by side with the French partisans, including Stanislas Kubacki,[*] who was “shot in Pairs in March of 1944, along with 21 other patriots, both immigrants and French.” Kubacki was one of the members of the Manouchian group, the French partisan, who was active in the Francs Tireurs et Partisans - Main - d'oeuvre immigrée units. They were mainly engaged in the acts of sabotage, attacks on the German soldiers, and derailing Nazi trains. The group consisted of 23 people, French and other nationalities, including 8 Poles. Arrested in late 1943, all of them were tortured and executed on February 21, 1944.[*]

The Polish resistance in France was also supported by the Polish government in exile. When Bertold Lande realized that he needed to escape from occupied France to Spain he started looking for money, since he needed a guide that would take him over the mountains to the border:

At that time I applied for the Polish grant, I went there, and the man said – yes, you will get a loan. But I had to sign the paper that as soon as I get across the border [to Spain] I had to report to the Polish army. I got the paper and the money and decided to try to cross the Spanish border.

The Polish government in exile had some money that they were probably getting from the British or Americans; they were mostly helping the Christian Poles who escaped from Germany or German army. I even met a fellow at this Polish office from my hometown. They even gave me a name of the guide. [click to watch] [*]

After crossing the Spanish border and serving his time in the internment camps and prisons Bertold Lande was released, sailed to England, and joined the Polish army in exile. In the VHA interview, he notes that the Polish army consisted of not only the refugees but also the former soldiers from the Wehrmacht that were sent to Africa, captured there by the British forces as the prisoners of war. After being brought to England, the soldiers would volunteer to go to the Polish or British army and fight against the Nazis. The Resistance also thought about how to persuade these soldiers to abandon the German army. In one of the reports produced by the Jeunesse Communiste Juive (Young Jewish Communists) different ways of such agitation are discussed, including the verbal and written slogans. Due to the strong “Jewish accent” that many of the Polish-speaking resisters had the group adopted the following strategy:

A two inscriptions in Polish were made with the following slogans: "Hitler lost the war.
Polish soldiers, desert and rebel!
These inscriptions have produced a large effect on the morale of soldiers, and teams of German soldiers come every morning with pots of paint to cover our inscriptions that will reappear through the new layers.
In addition, our shock groups have framed a group from the Party for creating the inscriptions.
They are going to receive the Polish material for the soldiers, and at the beginning of June, the distribution of this material will be made.

To be a refugee in a foreign country is hard enough; to hide in the foreign country in a time of war and persecution is a dire trial for any person. The illegal immigrants or Jewish refugees in hiding had to live day by day, getting food ration cards, evading the roundups, and trying somehow to function on a daily basis. The documents from the Diamant Collection, along with the VHA interviews, vividly demonstrate the degree of this tension that such a refugee in a foreign country experienced.

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[1] 0137 Mouvement national contre le racisme. Témoignage d'une jeune femme survivante du ghetto de Varsovie.

[2] Lande, Bertold, Interview 16963, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 8 July 2013.

[3] 0139 Le Comité Polonais de la Libération Nation ale en France au Président du Conseil National de la Résistance. Juin 1944.

[4] 0140 Lettre de la Conférence nationale d'unité de l'immigration polonaise en France au Conseil National de la Résistance. Avril 1944

[5] 0099 Jeunes communistes juifs - rapport mensuel. Mai 1944

CASE STUDY. Rescue and Rescuers: Defending the Persecuted

In the dire times of occupation and war, people’s reaction to the persecution of Jews varied from active resistance to active collaboration. When searching for a certain testimony in the Shoah archive, researchers sometimes would come across the category of people marked as “rescuer and aid provider.” This means that the interviewee participated in rescue operations – hid Jewish children, helped refugees to cross the border, provided the persecuted people with the false identities, and so on. The Diamant Collection also presents examples of different attempts to protect Jewish populations from the roundups, cruel treatment, and deportations. In 1941 and 1942, after the massive roundups in the both zones of France, the prominent members of French Christian community sent their protests to the Vichy government. These letters were probably reprinted and distributed by the Resistance as leaflets.

A letter from Paul Claudel to Rabbi Israel Schwartz. December 1941. McMaster University and Gale Publishing

In December 1941, Paul Claudel, a prominent Catholic writer and diplomat, wrote a letter addressing Rabbi Israel Schwartz. In this letter, he expresses "the disgust, horror, and indignation that all decent Frenchmen and especially Catholics feel in respect of the injustices, the despoiling, all the ill treatment of which our Jewish compatriots are now the victims... Israel is always the eldest son of the promise [of God], as it is today the eldest son of suffering." His short letter concludes with the quote “Blessed are those who suffer from persecution of justice. God protects and blesses Israel in this redemptive path.” [*] In response to this gesture the Vichy authorities had Claudel's house searched and kept him under observation. Though an ambiguous figure, and accused of collaboration with the Vichy regime, Claudel detested Nazism and clearly showed his disgust towards the racist laws. Thus, “he had written an open letter to the World Jewish Conference in 1935 condemning the Nuremberg Laws as "abominable and stupid."[*]

Another example of such support originated from the famous religious leader Marc Boegner in his letter of August 20, 1942 to Marshall Petain (a chief of the Vichy government). In this letter, Boegner writes about the atrocities that the Jews in France experienced, particularly focusing on the horrendous conditions of deportations that provoke horror and compassion:

I am obliged to add, Mr. Marshall,  that the "delivery" of these miserable foreigners is conducted in such inhumane conditions that even the most hardened people would be brought to tears when witnessing these measures. Packed into the cattle cars, without any source of hygiene, the foreigners are treated as cattle.[*]

Boegner also reminds of the inspiration that Christianity carried, “in France particularly, to respect the right of asylum.  The Christian churches, regardless of the diversity of their confessions, are infidels to their first vocation if they rose before abandoning this principle.” Though being against any violence, including armed struggle, he tried different means of resistance, including vain attempts to officially prevent the deportation of Jewish children and public protests against sending the forced workers to Germany.

Finally, the Diamant Collection holds a letter from the Archbishop de Pau addressing the editor of the journal Patriotte de Basses-Pyrenees. Judging by the context, this document is a response to an anti-Semitic article that was earlier published in this journal. According to the Archbishop, this piece of propaganda defends “the wicked violence of mankind,” using the canonical texts as a proof that “the persecution of Jews is an ecclesiastic precept:”

A letter from Archbishop of Pau, 1942 McMaster University and Gale Publishing

Tell me which regulation of written law permits the forced separation of a mother from her small children, and if much of the information on these matters is "doubtful and incontrollable", as you say, don't you realize that the reason for this situation is that the hangmen are at the same time the masters of the press and radio, which enables them to commit their crimes in a silent prison that deadens the cries of the victims. However, what comes to our knowledge is already sufficient to move the heart of every Christian. My indignation is aroused, and I condemn at the same time all the other blows at personal rights.[*]

The arguments of these letters are still based on the lack of knowledge that the only fate awaiting the Jews after they are taken to the “east” is extermination. As almost all the VHA interviewees point out, they had no idea of the degree of danger that all of the Jewish population was facing in reality. The authors of all of these letters share a suspicion of the true goal of the Nazis but cannot imagine the scale, and because of that appeal to humanity.

Another text held in the Diamant Collection was composed by the Central Consistory in 1942 and addressed to Petain. In this case, the authors seem to be much more aware of the whole situation, since they directly refer to the extermination conducted in the east:

This extermination plan has been applied methodically in Germany and in the occupied countries, since it has been established by precise and consistent information that several hundred thousand Jews have been massacred in Eastern Europe, or have died there after atrocious sufferings, following the ill-treatment they received.[*]

The protest by the Consistory. ca. 1942 McMaster University and Gale Publishing

The Consistory knows that the deportations and executions will continue, and because of that the feeling of hopelessness is stronger than in the priest’s protests. After demanding protection from deportations for different categories of people (children of all ages, pregnant women, former French soldiers, and the parents of the small children), the letter adds: “Give humane treatment to those who remain condemned to take the path of deportation.”

These protest letters, along with other forms of public outrage, had some impact on the situation in France. Although Laval was planning to send 3,000 Jewish children to the camps, the transports from the unoccupied zone to Drancy transit camp contained only 37 children. The rest were either hidden or released from the detention camps due to the active intervention of different organizations. As a result of public opinion, together with the practices of evading arrest, “Jews in both zones were arrested at a slower pace. Eight convoys planned to depart from Drancy in September, and thirty planned for October, were cancelled because of a shortfall of 38,000 Jews whom the Germans had expected the French police to capture.”[*]

The Jewish resistance in many ways was supported by the local French population risking their lives to hide children or help people to cross the border to Switzerland. One of the ongoing concerns of French Jewish organizations was the need to find places for the overwhelming number of children whose parents were dead, imprisoned, or in hiding. Sometimes the activists had to go through the painful process of convincing the parents to part with their children and to entrust them to the resistance organization:

We were trying to convince parents to give the children away so that they would be hidden. It was hard for the parents, sometimes they would not agree. We also took children from the OSE homes, the children that lost their parents. Many of them were deported when the Germans took over.[click to watch]

We would take the children across the border to the Switzerland; preparing them and talking to them, collecting the clothing. We taught them to remember their false names, or what they should say if they meet the Germans.[click to watch][*]

One of the reports prepared in 1943 by the Union des Juifs pour la Resistance et l’Entraide (Union of Jews for Resistance and Mutual Aid) goes through the list of tasks that the organizations is trying to complete. The document is centered on the Jews of Lyon, and their “worsening plight.” Among other issues, such as links with the FTP, the unions, the placement of women, and the military instruction of combat groups, they also talk about the problem of finding the new home for the children in hiding:

The number of children to place grows from day to day; we have created a 4-member committee specially designated for this work. <…>   We hope for good outcomes. However the biggest challenges are to point out concerning places. There are a number of children who need homes and we are not able to accommodate them. Comrades in Grenoble who have significant possibilities in this regard have committed themselves to helping us, but the results have been ill-fated. They assured us 8 places, and when one of our female comrades arrived with 2 little girls there proved to have been no preparations made. The children wandered from one place to another for several days. We have asked the Center to put an end to this unpardonable negligence, and for our Grenoble comrades to apply themselves more seriously to the issue of finding places for children.[*]

Jewish children hidden in the monasteries and priests’ families often had to comply with the rules of the institution by attending the services and acting as Catholics. Erika Goldfarb, as a member of Armee Juive (Jewish Army), tells how one of her assignments was to go to the monastery and ask the priest not to convert the Jewish children into Catholicism. The father replied that some had already converted on their own wish. Another survivor, Henri Berger, lived with a priest’s family for about four years in a small southern town:

We were separated from our mother, because the rumors were that the Germans will be after the children… This priest taught me Catholicism, how to serve masses… but he also taught me Hebrew. He used to remind me – whatever I am telling you here do not forget that you are Jewish. And this was incredible. He was a tough man, in a sense of my learning, and in any way he was behind me all the time.[click to watch][*]

Paulette Fink put her small daughters into the country school in the southern zone. However, Germans sometimes passed through the town and searched the homes; to save them she would put her kids on the bicycle and ride up into the mountains. In the VHA interview, one of her daughters remembers the atmosphere of secrecy and mystery when her mother would quickly gather their things and take them to that place. This village is famous for the pastor who was actively involved in the process of hiding Jewish families.

Yad Vashem

Andre and Magda Trocme at the Village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Vad Vashem - the Holocaust Heroes’ and Martyrs’ Remembrance Authority.

There was a village of Chambaron, a little village. The head of that village was a famous Protestant pastor, named Trocme, he and his family lived in the house that belonged to the church. Somehow people found out about this village, and there was one Jewish family that came to him, and he hid them in one of the households. Then the villagers started to complain that they did not want to take such risk upon themselves. Hearing that, the pastor gathered the people of the village in the church and told them that it is our duty to save these people. They came to us and asked for help because they have nowhere to go to, and I am not going to denounce them. And you know what – we have no weapons to defend ourselves except for our spirit.

And five thousand villagers hid 5,000 Jews. My kids were in school there many times when there was danger elsewhere. [click to watch][*]

Father Trocme and his wife Magda were acknowledged by Yad Vashem as the Righteous Among Nations.[*]

The resistance kept distributing information among the population on how to behave in the conditions of constant roundups and deportations. The main advice was not to obey the official orders, such as registering as a Jew, wearing the yellow star, or using their real identity instead of a false one. The resistance spread these recommendations through the underground members as well as through printed materials. The Diamant collection holds a number of the leaflets containing this information, including one issued by the Union d’Entraide et de Resistance des Juifs de France:

Mimeographed leaflet of the Union des Juifs pour la Résistance et l'Entraide. 1944 McMaster University and Gale Publishing

  1. Once and for all, abandon your legal residences and do not return for any reason.
  2. In your illegal residences, be discrete, do not introduce yourself to people you do not know well.
  3. Do not keep your identity papers with the “Jewish” stamp or a different name. If you have false papers, only keep those in your pockets and hide the others well.
  4. Beware of gossips.
  5. Do not go to a cafe, cinema, or other public places.  Do not wander aimlessly in the streets.
  6. Do not speak Yiddish in public places or in the streets.

It would be criminal on your part to neglect these elementary security measures which will permit you to see the hour of Liberation.[*]

By 1944, hiding or other “means of defence that we used up until this point – fake papers, unofficial residences etc” were not effective anymore. Both French zones were occupied by Germans, and the arrests and executions were going full-speed. At this point, as the resistance leaders noted, the unarmed struggle could “no longer protect us given the new Gestapo methods.” They strongly advised the Jews not to limit themselves by going into hiding and to join the resistance instead of “fatally falling into the hands of the Germans:”

Young Jews, join the UJJ or another organization of the FUJP which will lead you to the resistance.  If you do not find them at first, group yourselves together, look at your city, and search for places you could hide yourselves.  By this search, you will find the liaison you are looking for.

Young Jews, the city signifies for you the life of a trapped beast.

The Resistance: Honour and Security![*]

The rescue operations, as we see from these examples, varied widely, from sending letters to armed combat. The risk that people took upon themselves to defend Jews from persecution was real and could result in imprisonment or deportation. The documents in the Diamant collection show the varying degrees of support and assistance offered by people in the occupied countries.

Click here to expand or collapse this section


[1] 0301 Lettre de Paul Claudel à Monsieur [Pétain ?] . Brangues (Isère), 24 décembre 1941

[2] 0300 Lettre de Marc Boegner à Pétain. Nîmes, le 20 août 1942

[3] 0303 Lettre de Monsieur l'Archiprêtre de Pau à M. le rédacteur du "Patriote des B.P." [J.M. Rocq, curé of St-Martin]. Pau, le 6 septembre 1942

[4] 0302 Texte du Consistoire Central des Israélites de France à Pétain (1942 or after). The translation is taken from: Lazare, Rescue as Resistance, 159

[5] Lazare, Rescue as Resistance, 161-163

[6] Wiener, Renee Interview 7199, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 8 July 2013

[7] 0157 Union Des Juifs Pour La Résistance Et L'entraide. Rapport d'activité et d'organisation. Mois de juin 1943

[8] Berger, Henri, Interview 850, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 8 July 2013

[9] Fink, Paulette, Interview 11744, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 8 July 2013

[10] 0318 Frères Juifs. Nous vivons des heures decisive… Mimeographed leaflet of the Union des Juifs pour la Résistance et l'Entraide (UJRE)

[11] 0333 Jeunes Juifs. Pour échapper à la terreur hitlérienne, rejoignez en masse les maquis. Mimeographed leaflet of the Union de la Jeunesse Juive (U.J.J.), January 22, 1944

[back to the top]

CASE STUDY. Jewish resistance and the struggle for self-identity

A page from the leaflet of the Forces Unies de la Jeunesse Patriotique. McMaster University and Gale Publishing

The beginning of the war, the persecution of Jews, and the necessity to struggle against the occupation in both violent and non-violent ways produced a number of groups that pertained to the global movement of resistance. In a monograph dedicated to the Jewish resistance in France, Lucien Lazare points out the fact that in the context of European resistance, Jewish resistance for many years was not considered worthy of being mentioned as a separate movement because of the statistical scarcity of the participants. However, he continues, we have to remember that the price that people had to pay for participating in the resistance was indeed different for Jews as opposed other nationals of the occupied countries. While for the general population, going underground and joining the Resistance meant the danger of being caught and executed, for Jews the very same act increased the chance of survival. Therefore, “the Jewish organizations found it necessary to try to bring an entire population into the underground. This meant arranging their 'Aryanization,' and finding lodging and means of subsistence while all of France suffered from shortages in these areas. Jewish resistance operated systematically in this direction beginning in 1943, gradually improving its methods and effectiveness.”[*]

The Diamant collection holds a number of documents written by Jewish youth groups, such as Comite D’action et de la Défense de la Jeunesse Juive (Committee of Action and Defense of the Young Jews), Eclaireurs Israelites de France (Jewish Scouts of France), Mouvement de Jeunesse Sioniste (Movement of the Zionist youth, and Union de Jeunesse Juive (Union of the Jewish Youth). The complex relationship between the Jewish resistance and the general French resistance is reflected in almost every document of this collection, as well as the VHA interviews. The participants of the Jewish groups keep asking themselves, "what is our status within the Resistance? Are we French or Jewish? Do we have to regard ourselves as separate movement, or are we just a small section within the French resistance? What are we trying to achieve, the complete integration with the rest of the resistance fighters, or the separation?" Not all of these issues are expressed directly but rather can be read between the lines in the letters and leaflets that constitute a part of our collection.

According to the VHA testimonies, young people joined Resistance units in the area where they were living or hiding at the moment, most often the French resistance groups called “The Maquis” (the generic name for the French resistance). The Jewish groups often consisted of refugees from Eastern Europe. These refugees were mostly in the dire situation of being constantly chased by the Nazi or Vichy authorities, having no civil rights, and were the first candidates for deportation. As already mentioned, joining the Resistance was often the only means of survival.

Ensuring the connections between different resistance groups was vital, since the French underground at a certain point started receiving ammunition from the British and U.S. armed forces. As Maurice Asa states, “We were all against Germans but there were conflicts about who would get more arms, who would do this or that. There was no clear cut organization.” [*] Another member of the resistance notes that the coalition of the refugees with the local Jews provided the organizations more help with weapons:

At that moment, the French resistance was helping us more and more, the more we got French Jews, the more help we received; they were not too forthcoming to begin with;  we had many refugees in the beginning.  As the French Jews also got in danger, a lot of them joined us, and they established the connections with French underground. We got some weapons from them. I transported the weapons in suitcases. [*]

This tension between resistance units is also visible in a leaflet issued by the L’Union de la Jeunesse Juive de France (The Jewish Youth Union of France). This text addresses French youth (Jeune Francais) and goes through the different Anti-Semitic clichés encouraged by the Nazis, together with the Vichy government. The document cites Philippe Henriot, a Vichy politician that directed the propaganda broadcasts during the occupation:

Mimeographed leaflet of the Union de la Jeunesse Juive (U.J.J.) McMaster University and Gale Publishing

Henriot wanted the French people to believe that the national war of France was a Jewish war. The repulsive servant of Goebbels wanted to detach the people of France from his heroic battles in annihilating the resistance.

He claimed to isolate the Jewish youth from the French youth, to destroy the Jews first and then the others after. The sword that the enemy used against us, we will use against him, and we will say: We are proud of these Jews who fell as heroes.

The French youth should not be fooled by the lies, she did not reject her community; the racist poison should not contaminate them. The admission of the Jewish Youth Union (l’Union de la Jeunesse Juive) to the united forces of the Youth Patriots (Jeunesse Patriotiques) is proof.[*]

The leaflet, furthermore, elaborates on the theme of Jewish people who fought and died together with the French; the emphasis is on “defending our French quality, the symbol of our dignity as free men.” They have fought alongside France in 1870 and 1914, and say that this country is “our home and it has always embraced the moral cause of those persecuted.” The foreign Jews that were “willing to fight for France” were also admitted into the ranks.

The solidarity with the French resistance was vital; but the necessity to be acknowledged as a distinct force was equally important. One of the former resistance fighters tells the story of the unit called Marc Haguenau that was organized by Robert Gamzon and Gilbert Bloch, the EIF leaders.  In the VHA interview, Michael Taylor explains that Marc Haguenau was a Jew who was arrested by the Gestapo. In prison, he was questioned and tortured but still revealed nothing. He died, and the resistance unit took his name. When asked why the unit took this name, Taylor says that “[We wanted] to show to France that there were Jews fighting in the war.” [click to watch][*] This unit was involved in acts of sabotage, and even in real battles. While affirming their position and claiming the right to exist, the Jewish organizations also drew everyone’s attention to the fact that the Nazi terror was aimed at them at the first place:

More united than ever, the French youth, Catholics, Protestants or Jews, we will redouble our efforts every day to drive the German invader out. And we, the French Jews, we have set an example of courage and self-sacrifice because in the deadly France, we have been those who have been hit the most viciously.[*]

Another letter coming from the Mediterranean Branch of the Jewish Youth Action and Defense Committee and addressed to the United Forces of the Patriotic Youth of the Maritime Alps also appeals to the young Jews, regardless of their political or religious views, “to present themselves as united in the battle against the barbaric Hitler regime.” The letter ends with the statement that, “We who suffer the most from Nazi occupation, we proclaim our determination to fight for the liberation of France, and for our freedom and rights.” [*]

The active position of Jewish groups within the general French resistance movement is now acknowledged by historians, although the percentage of their involvement was relatively small when compared to other groups, and many Jews participated in the Maquis units. Lucien Lazare reminds us in his monograph that the Jewish movement was the first to respond to the Nazi occupation and terror. These groups saved the lives of many people, especially children. Thanks to their active involvement, the hideous plans to deport thousands of Jewish children were never fulfilled. They were hidden, guarded and educated by the combined efforts of Jewish groups and French people that dared to participate in such rescues. The Diamant Collection at McMaster adds another component into this history, and shows how real and important these groups were.

Click here to expand or collapse this section


[1] Lazare, Rescue as Resistance, 29

[2] Asa, Maurice, Interview 1405, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013.  Web 28 May 2013

[3] Wiener, Renee, Interview 7199, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013.  Web 28 May 2013

[4] 0332 Jeunes Français. L'ennemi exécré de la France...Leaflet of the Union de la Jeunesse Juive (U.J.J.)

[5] Taylor, Michael, Interview 19695, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013.  Web 15 April 2013

[6] 0332 Jeunes Français. L'ennemi exécré de la France...Leaflet of the Union de la Jeunesse Juive (U.J.J.)

[7] 0035 Le Comité d'Action et de Défense de la Jeunesse Juive de la Région méditerranéenne aux Forces     unies   de la Jeunesse Patriotique des Alpes Maritimes. Chers amis... 19 juin 1944


MODULE 3: Allied and German propaganda distributed by air drops and shelling 

The Propaganda Collection, acquired from Michel Brisebois, consists of over 1,000 air dropped and shelled leaflets and periodicals created and disseminated during the Second World War. The majority of items in this collection were printed by the Allies and then air or container dropped, or fired by artillery shell over German-occupied territory. Many leaflets and periodicals have original publication codes and materials in the collection were printed in over 10 languages. Only the shelled leaflets, Germans to Allies (115 items), are in English. The full list of items can be found in the finding aid to the collection.

"The leaflets gave us hope"

On the capitulation of Italy. Dropped in Germany from 17-18 August to 7-8 October 1943 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0460).

The planes dropped leaflets, and everyone rushed to get them. And then Hess, the commandant, said "If you people think that your liberation comes from there (and he pointed at the planes), you are mistaken, your liberation comes from there (and he pointed at the chimneys). You are never going to come out; you can leave only through the chimneys." So we knew that we will not come out alive. But there was some hope that they knew about us. We thought these were the British planes. I think that it said that Italy has already been liberated, so it gave us hope. It was autumn of 1944. [click to watch][*]

One night, it was a night of thunder and raining, and we saw English planes, going through the sky and there were some strips, aluminum strips that they dropped off from the plane. And people had kept the aluminum, and said, [these are] messages for the French people that [the] English and perhaps Americans, want to tell us “be courageous, by gum” or something. And to read it we had to drop them in vinegar; of course the real aim was to hide it from the radar. [click to watch][*]

"Victory" sticker. The stickers that were meant to be detached and pasted on the walls. Dropped in Belgium from 6-7 April to 5-6 August 1941 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0007).
A leaflet with a quote from Roosevelt's speech. Dropped in France on 23-24 and 24-25 February 1941 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0102). "Courage, Belgian friends!" The stickers that were meant to be detached and pasted on the walls. Dropped in Belgium from 4-5 to 21-22 February (WWII Propaganda Collection 0004).

One day, in the beginning of April 1945, we got a note from the British airplane saying “do not worry; we will be marching the next day, at 10 o’clock. And next day they came but the Germans left the night before. [click to watch][*]

I escaped from the camp... I saw a pile of papers flying into the air. I went to pick it up, since I always needed the toilet paper… It was a pile of leaflets, rectangular sheets of paper… The first one said, in German, "Germans, throw away your weapons, the war is over. Surrender. The Americans are closing in, the Russians are approaching, your Fuhrer has deserted you…" It was the most wonderful message I have ever received in my life. It did not do much in this barren field but it gave me a tremendous hope. [click to watch][*]

The New Year's card from the Royal Air Force to the people of Belgium. Dropped in Belgium on 1-2 January 1942 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0024).

Propaganda, as an essential side of war, is designed to lower the enemy’s morale and to discourage the civilian population from serving in the army or working for the war industry. Propaganda is also directed to persons in occupied countries, with proclamations supporting the local resistance and providing them with necessary information (war maps, news flashes, etc). The Brisebois collection holds a variety of propaganda materials that the Allies dispersed on Germany and German-occupied countries, as well as a smaller number of propaganda materials dropped by Germany on the Allied forces. The leaflets held at McMaster take various forms, from classical proclamations to more typical models of the mass culture, such as comic strips, caricatures, newspapers, and stickers. The archive also holds a number of airdropped newspapers, such as Le Courrier de l’Air, Luftpost, or L’Amerique en Guerre.  

Introduced by the British R.A.F., the practice of psychological warfare was later adopted by the U.S. Army (Eighth Air Force). As J.M. Erdmann points out, "Leaflet operations toward the end of this great campaign resembled the publication mechanics of several large metropolitan newspapers, with “reporters” (intelligence collection specialists), writers and artists, layout men, printers, truck drivers, packers and security personnel, all working on a tight schedule.”  For more effective dissemination, Captain James L. Monroe developed the unique “flying oatmeal box,” which could easily “be slung in the bomb bay of a heavy bomber and carried to its destination from a high altitude, yet could be set to burst close to the ground and scatter tens of thousands of leaflets in a dense blanket over the target.” [*]

"We were told to use all kinds of psychological tricks"

At age of 16 I went to work for the BBC. This section was broadcasting propaganda to Germany, true news and the music of Jewish composers. They also had the German POWs program, with the Germans who volunteered to speak their minds in the studio. They dictated their thoughts to little me, who typewrote them. [click to watch][*]

I was writing leaflets in German; I was sent to the morale operation, we were broadcasting the news in German so that they know the truth. [click to watch][*]

Quotes from interviews with German POWs. Dropped from 2-3 December 1944 to 5-6 February 1945 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0564).

The various teams involved in psychological warfare worked on storylines, images, recurring characters, and the design of leaflets, with the intention of bringing enlightenment to and provoking despair in the enemy’s army. Lerner summarizes their basic techniques as factualism (everything needs to be truthful, otherwise confidence is lost) and indirection (“an estimate of the responses which the human organism makes to verbal symbols offered by the enemy in time of war”).[*] Nicolas Doman, a former member of the psychological warfare division, tells how he was first trained to write propaganda materials, and then assigned to “write in Hungarian the leaflets or pamphlets to be dropped in Hungary by the U.S. Air Force. The purpose of these leaflets was to convince the population not to support the Germans, because Germany was continuing to lose the war." [click to watch] Doman also adds that “the text is factitious; we were told to use all kinds of psychological tricks in order to accomplish our purpose." [click to watch][*]

The surrender leaflets. The German original (middle) and official English translation. Dropped in Germany from 31 October to 14-15 February 1945 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0559-0560).

The common response to psychological warfare was ambiguous. Among the Allies, many officials as well as regular soldiers considered the dissemination campaign to be too dangerous and too ineffective. Erdmann notes that “pilots complained of wasting men in transporting “bumf,” while radio and journalist commentators began to talk of the “fungus of futility” that was creeping into the crews of Bomber Command.[*] In Germany, the people had to report any leaflets to the police immediately, and for prisoners in concentration camps picking up a leaflet was mortally dangerous. Camp prisoners could be punished or even executed on spot.  A former prisoner of the Theresienstadt ghetto describes one instance of the dropping of leaflets from an aircraft:

We were out in the street. Some of the officers came out and then ran back to the administrative building. We laughed at him because there was no harm from these planes. The only thing that they dropped was leaflets, tons of leaflets that we were not allowed to pick up… You would be sent to Auschwitz or to the Little Fortress [the ghetto prison] if you pick up any leaflet. [click to watch][*]

Another Holocaust survivor tells that when she was in school the teacher distributed leaflets among the students so that they could take them home to their parents. However, the Germans came, and the students, following the teacher’s instructions, ate the papers. The Nazis did not find anything at school and left; afterwards, the teacher said that the class saved her life. [click to watch][*]

A map showing the advance of the Red Army. Dropped from 28-29 January to 5-6 February 1945 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0577). Who are the plutocrats? Dropped from 25-26 March to 20-21 April 1940 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0303). Three-front war (east front). Dropped from 14-15 February to 11-12 March (WWII Propaganda Collection 0419).














[At basic military training in the U.S.] they talked about how it was ‘kill-or-be-killed’, how bad the Germans were, but they did not talk anything about Germans and Jews… and as I look back on it, it is interesting because they talked about how they had come into the lowlands and destroyed people, taken people to France, and took all these countries, and then showed us pictures of England, and how England was standing off, alone, and fighting off the Germans and how horrible they were [to them], and [particularly] in every film about how it was kill or be killed. So I always said that they were training us to be low-paid hired assassins. [click to watch][*]

"Germany does not have enough men anymore... Working for the Boche prolongs your suffering." This leaflet was carried by balloon which landed in sea off coast of Belgium & was recovered by British minesweeper In June-July 1941 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0014).

Maps included in propaganda leaflets were intended to “present, vividly and without comment, the discouraging situation in which the Germans found themselves.” Important information was often delivered through pictures, sometimes paired with text, and with maps explaining the current front conditions and the movements of both military and civililian forces. Sometimes the propaganda message itself came in the form of maps, such as in this leaflet dropped by an RAF balloon in 1941 near the Belgian coast. In this document, a series of images illustrate “why Germany lacks the manpower.” Two images of European maps are used to illustrate statistics of countries that support the Allies and the Axis forces, respectively. On the first map showing Western Europe, we see the figures of soldiers placed on many countries, while the second shows only four figures placed on Italy, Sicily, Albania, and North Africa. Used together with the text, the maps effectively convey the message of the leaflet.

"This is the New Order"

I remember we caught a leaflet in the camp; they came down with empty gas containers. They were about air raids, about destroying Berlin. And one of their slogans said: "Leipziger, schlaft ruhig in den Betten, wir fahren nach Berlin zu den Feten" (You people from Leipzig can now sleep in peace, we are going to Berlin to knock the hell out of you.) This gave us some inspiration. [click to watch][*]

A mechanical card. When the lower part is pulled down the submarine sinks. Dropped from 5-6 April to 4-5 September 19 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0359).

Mimicking children's books or toys was another strategy that psychological warfare adopted by turning the leaflets into mechanical cards, pop-up books, comic strips, or even puzzles. [click to watch][*]  These forms turn out to be convenient due to their simplicity and the possibility to reveal some hidden and invariably shocking information. A mechanical card dating from 1942, as one example, shows a German sailor going out “against England” on a U-boat. Pulling the bottom of the card reveals a different image of the same soldier dying as his U-boat sinks. Instead of “We are going against England,” the text now reads, “We are going down into the cold grave.” At the same time, on the upper part of the card, the words “Short lasted duty!” are revealed. Once we see these disturbing images, we turn the card to the other side and read in more detail how quickly German submarines are often sunk. U-boat sailors who have evaded being sunk are called “the lucky survivors” and the average length of a U-boat crewman's service in active combat is evaluated as 62 days.

"The Life of a Submariner." Dropped from 10-11 April to 2-3 September 1942 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0360).

The fates of sailors in the German navy are further exploited in the comic strip “The life of a submariner,” dated from 1942.  This leaflet, subtitled “Here are scenes from the submariner’s life; his life is short and rich in adventures” presents a set of pictures illustrating the life of an ordinary fellow named Guenther and his tragic death at sea. We see how this man is drafted into the Navy, how he endures all kinds of ordeals and suffering, and finally, the sinking of his ship. The leaflet emphasizes the fact that even after a submarine is destroyed, English sailors try to save the remaining Germans. The last two pictures show the man’s mother crying over the death notice with the explanation that the message was held by the Navy for four months, and Hitler addressing the Reichstag and proclaiming that more submarines must be built in order to have more “swimming coffins” for German boys like Guenther. As we see, the leaflet is designed to provoke despair in the enemy but at the same time to demonstrate compassion and pity over their fate.

The leaflets dropped on Nazi-occupied territories depict the Germans as being greedy and cruel, abusing their power and injuring the weak. A typical example is this picture that shows a Hitler-like figure offering a meal to  a woman and her child. When the leaflet opens, we see that he actually takes the food away and passes it to a German officer. The leaflet is artistically designed as a pop-up card, and even supplied with the envelope thus giving the impression of a real letter.

"This is the New Order!" An envelope and two sides of a pop-up card. Dropped from 11-12 August to 15-16 October 1942 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0034).

Humor and satire were used widely in leaflets dropped on both the occupied countries and German territory. Making fun of German officers was one of the themes that recurrently appears on leaflets. They are pictured as fat, ridiculous, and laughable characters. A book of caricatures (The Third Reich in images) dropped on Belgium between December 1942 and February 1943 contains a series of cartoons depicting the life and morals of German officers with the following preambule: 

In this small brochure, we are demonstrating your "masters" as they are. These pictures have been constantly printed in the Daily Express journal since the beginning of the war. They were drawn by an inspiring caricaturist Osbert Lancaster. Enjoy!

The pamphlet of 32 pages. Dropped from 4-5 December to 15-16 February 1943 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0041).

"The War is Over, Surrender!"

Roosevelt speech to the German people of March 24,1944 (German original and English translation). Dropped from 15 to 19 April 1944 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0497).

While we were digging the trenches in the camp, the airplanes came and dropped the leaflets. They said that the war is coming to the end, and it was for the Nazis. It said "don’t you dare to touch anyone; you are responsible from now on for every person." [click to watch][*]

One of the most effective pieces I had designed was using photos from an actual German POW camp. I would use photos, and make a full description of the man, but the name would have a black rectangle obscuring it  with the written question to the effect of: "Is this what we are fighting for?" on the opposite side would be written, "If you raise your arms up and surrender, you will be accepted, fed, bathed, and you will be free to ride home to your people." Presumably these would be dumped over German camps and stations to encourage them to give up the fight. [click to watch][*]

Surrender leaflet (German original and English translation). Was not disseminated. 1944 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0566).

We were being unloaded on the platforms, and trains were coming from all possible directions. They were still killing people. And then airplanes came over us, dropping leaflets. We took some of them, they were written in English and German. There were warnings to the guards of the trains, to the Germans. They said “We know you are carrying eastern prisoners. If you do any harm to them from now on, you will be executed on spot when the place is liberated. So better do not do anything to them, try to help them. [click to watch][*]

When did you feel that this is the end of the war? – When they took us on the march I felt that the end is near… Nobody was too strict with us... Airplanes came overhead, throwing papers, the flyers. The SS allowed nobody to pick up the papers. But some people took them, and they shot them. My sister went into the forest and read it. She said that they told them not to touch us anymore. My sister saved the paper and later showed it to everybody. The spring was so nice! And I said that it could not last much longer. [click to watch][*]

Surrender leaflet. Dropped from 24 March to 16-17 April 1945 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0583). 

The VHA interviewees often tell how the British or American airplanes flew over their camp and disseminated leaflets addressing the Germans and encouraging them to stop fighting and give up. While the form of surrender documents varied, the most famous ones were Safe Conduct Passes (German Passierschein). Initially invented by the British Army, and then adopted by the U.S. forces, these leaflets come in various forms and designs, while the text never changes:

Safe Conduct. Dropped between the end of 1944 and beginning of 1945 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0284).

The back of the Safe Conduct is typically used either for translations (German, French, or sometimes Polish) or for the Hague treaty of 1929 that lists conditions in which Allied prisoners of war are kept. The details include information about housing, food rations, and a promise to be allowed to return home after the war is over. In some cases, the back of the Passerschein bears additional supporting information, mostly focusing on the bleak future of Wehrmacht:

Safe Conduct (texts in Germna and French). Dropped from 15-16 November to 23-24 December 1944 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0561).

At the front:

17-year olds with two-months training

Convalescents with untreated wounds

40- and 50-year-olds with guns

In a leaflet addressing the 19th Army: “If your Mothers, wives, your loved ones, and your children could speak, only one word would ring in your ears “END.” Hopeless struggle or honorable POWs. Death or Life. You have the choice!” After showing German soldiers all hopelessness of the whole campaign, the leaflet also gives them a solution, the document that will protect them if they surrender. According to Lerner, many German soldiers kept these leaflets “because it might come in useful. The mere fact that a German soldier hid a Passerschein in his pocket was a tiny but important psychological concession to Allied victory”[*]

The Safe Conduct (two versions). Dropped from 10-11 September 1944 to 7-8 March 1945 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0550-0551).

On the website dedicated to the history of the Safe Conduct Passes, Herbert Friedman tells readers about “the alleged belief on the part of the Allies that the German officer or soldier would react in a positive way to an official looking document. Therefore, the Americans and British collaborated to produce a fancy official document bearing national seals and signatures that would rival a stock certificate.” The design had to resemble a “college diploma,” with as many features of the official document as possible.[*] Lerner says that “by 1944, the Passiershein had become almost the work of art.…It was found that a particular shade of green was the most persuasive color…that the text should not be printed only in German, but in parallel German, English, and French columns; and, most important of all, that it must have the signature of the Supreme Commander.”[*]

When the war was drawing to an end, U.S. air forces dropped surrender leaflets on German divisions urging them to stop fighting. Some survivors of the death marches tell how they witnessed the planes disseminating these leaflets among the soldiers. Magda Fischer was among the people being dragged through the mountains when the “American airplanes came; they were flying very low and dropping propaganda leaflets. Of course we were not allowed to take them but someone stole it, and the leaflets said in many languages to the Germans to give themselves up. It gave us hope." [click to watch][*]

They ran out of materials to work with and work to do in the camps so they were forced to dig ditches in an open field for no purpose other than to keep them working.

“Lift your head and look." And we couldn’t believe what we saw:



Coming down.

Right away we hear ‘Achtung! Anybody picking up one of those gets shot.’

But you know something? So many came down that you couldn’t help it because they were all over you. We got a few into camp and this was, I think, a week or two weeks before the end of the war.

It was addressed to the German people, I don’t remember exactly, I wish I had held on to one. I wish I had held on to one.

‘You’ve killed enough. Stop your killing. You can’t bring back the ones you’ve killed. Stop your killing NOW.

That’s when we knew.[*]

Eisenhower's note on the occupation of Germany. Official translation. Dropped 18-19 September 1944 to 18 January 1945 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0554). Why die in the last days of war? Dropped from 8-9 to 22-23 April 1945 (WWII Propaganda Collection 0587).

Click here to expand or collapse this section

[1] Keating, Hansi. Interview 38342, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 16 May 2014.

[2] Itzkovitz, Max. Interview 26439, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 28 May 2014.

[3] Gotzler, Livia. Interview 47108, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 28 May 2014.

[4]  Loben, Ernest. Interview 4365, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 29 May 2014.

[5] Erdmann, J. M.  Leaflet operations in the Second World War: The story of the how and why of the 6,500,000,000 propaganda leaflets dropped on axis forces and homelands in the Mediterranean and European theaters of operations. Denver: Denver Instant Printing, 1969, 3-6

[6] Parker, Lore. Interview 3306, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 28 May 2014.

[7]  Rodell, Fred. Interview 495547, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 28 May 2014.

[8] Lerner, Daniel. Psychological Warfare Against Nazi Germany: The Sykewar Campaign, D-Day to VE-Day. Cambridge, the MIT Press, 1971, 201-202

[9] Doman, Nicolas. Interview 38392, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 7 May 2014.

[10]  Erdmann, J. M.  Leaflet operations in the Second World War, 53-54.

[11] Beasley, Janet. Interview 29036, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 7 May 2014.

[12] Isaacman, Clara. Interview 24614, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 7 May 2014.

[13] Paul Parks, Interview 4513, History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 15 May 2014.

[14] Literally, it means "We are going to Berlin to have a party."  Koltun, Harry. Interview 19656, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 12 May 2014.

[15] Awner, Ruth. Interview 3298, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 7 May 2014.

[16] Kirschner, Sala. Interview 33589, History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 15 May 2014.

[17] Klinger, Walter. Interview 35951, History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 15 May 2014.

[18] Zimm, Alan. Interview 19207, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 15 May 2014.

[19] Farkas, Hilda. Interview 27897, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 7 May 2014.

[20] Lerner, Daniel. Psychological Warfare Against Nazi Germany, 341.

[21] Ibid., 340

[22] Fischer, Magda. Interview 32452, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2014. Web. 7 May 2014.

[23] Young, Phyllis. Interview 8359. Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, 2014. Web 7 May 2014

MODULE 4: The Underground Resistance in Europe (finding aids: France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy)


“Phoney war” in France

Sheet of ration bread tickets for June 1940. (WWII Underground Resistance Collection FR00441).

The “Phoney war” is a period of restless waiting between September 1939 and May 1940, when the war has already started but the Western Allies were not actively involved in any military operations with the Nazi Germany. Anxiety is the emotion that dominates both archival documents of that epoch and the VHA interviews, with people waiting for the inevitable war to happen:

When I came back to Paris, we were just waiting for things to start happening; but nothing happened,  people were just scared… After the invasion of Belgium and Holland, many refugees would come to France. Many refugees’ camps were established, where these people could stay. [click to watch][*]

In the VHA interview, Regine Barshak remembers how at the age of fourteen, right after the declaration of war, she started noticing that some of her classmates had the names that did not sound very French, not Dubois or Dumont; but rather Zimmerman or Weimann. Many of these children belonged to the families that emigrated from the Nazi Germany trying to avoid anti-Semitic laws. Along with the conversations she heard from the adults, the atmosphere was "one of a great fear of the oncoming war." [click to watch][*]

Recommendations to the Civilians on how to Protect Themselves in Case of Air Raid, circa 1939 (WWII Underground Resistance Collection FR0428).

The documents also demonstrate that the population must have experienced high levels of anxiety, when being instructed how to behave during gas attacks and air raids. The illustrated pamphlet contains the detailed illustrations and numerous reminders to “read and keep this brochure. It can save your life one day." Another event featured in the documents is the Benefit Sale of February 1940, supporting the mobilised soldiers; at the same time, the other side of this card contains the information about a POW soldier incarcerated in the Stalag camp.

An invitation card for an exhibition, 1940 (WWII Underground Resistance Collection FR00437).

After the initial shock, life would continue: people would go to school, see their friends, and work: “Paris changed already in 1939 when the curfew was imposed. Street lighting was turned into blue, and the shop lighting was cut back. It was very dark and depressing when I came home.  I was frightened when I got back to Paris but the young people adapted very quickly to the new conditions. [click to watch][*] One of the last documents of this epoch held at the Brisebois collection is a card announcing the exhibition of the French art. The event was meant to happen on May 6-26, 1940; with the Nazi invasion of May 10, 1940, one cannot say if the exhibition ever took place. However, this document gives us an insight into one of the last peaceful activities before the great disaster came.  


Tavy Notton on Hunger in Greece

Tavy Notton, "Faim," 1941-1944 (WWII Underground Resistance Collection FR00421)

One of the darkest illustrations of horrors of war and Holocaust belongs to Tavy Notton, Greek-French artist and illustrator. The archive holds a set of his drawings, dated between 1941 and 1944, depicting the Great Famine in Greece, yet another gruesome consequence of the Nazi occupation. The pictures are also supplemented by the French text describing the occupation of Greece.  While the information about this powerful artist is extremely scarce (we know that his illustrations appeared in different books, such as Maeterlinck, Gide, and others), the document speaks for itself and shows us the tragedy of Greek people:

The entire city is starving, the entire city is scared of dying of hunger, the entire city cries, moans: “Mother, I am hungry!” The entire population is transformed into the horde, with the staring eyes, their thoughts fixed on groceries...  The entire population is debased by the horror of hunger. 

In the beginning of war, after the successful defeat of the first attack of Italy, Greece was occupied by Germany.  “Within the first months of occupation Germans seized or bought at low prices – paying with the ‘occupational marks’ they circulated – all available stocks of olive oil, olives, raisins, figs, tobacco, cotton, leather and the majority of pack animals. The appropriation of all means of transport (including bicycles on Hios) and fuel by the occupying authorities effectively prevented any movement of supplies or population after the invasion. Fishing was strictly prohibited, at least in the early stages of the occupation <…>” (13)

Tavy Notton, "Faim," 1941-1944 (WWII Underground Resistance Collection FR00421)

As a result, the people started dying of starvation, malnutrition, and hunger-related diseases. In the VHA interview, Sarah Cohen remembers: “There was no food at all. We started having, instead of regular bread, a piece of corn-made bread that they gave us once a day… People started to die. We just could not find any food. People started dying on the streets; many of us had typhus, because of malnutrition. [click to watch][*]  To save themselves, the people would sell everything they had in exchange for some food at the black market.  Another VHA interviewee tells how his family had to sell the priceless pieces of furniture for 300 pounds of flour. [click to watch][*] With the constant expropriation of all food supplies, the prohibition of any transportation between the islands and cities, and the Allies’ blockade of Greece, the famine soon became widespread and massive. According to the historian of this period, <…> there is no accurate figure of famine deaths for the whole of Greece other than some… estimates. For example, the figures 100,000, 200,000, 250000 and 4500000 have been suggested. [*]

This tragic history is captured and reflected by the writings and drawings of Tavy Notton. Seeing himself both a witness and a participant of his country’s suffering, he wonders through the towns and villages, and transfers his experience both into words and pictures. In the very conclusion of his monologue, he explains that his stories are not the imprints of facts that he witnessed but also a way to liberate himself at least partially of his traumatic experience:

The famine, I am starving, you are starving, we are suffering from the famine, abominable living skeletons, vacillating, undulating like withering plants, abominable tearful ghosts, whirling in my memory, I want to draw you, now that I can remember you. Yes! I remember. I remember. The pencil squeaks furiously on paper, delivering my visions of pools of black blood, of my nightmares, of my fear. Finally, my thoughts are visible. These nightmares have been taken away from me...

Tavy Notton, "Faim," 1941-1944 (WWII Underground Resistance Collection FR00421)

Notton’s pictures are full of dark and hopeless images: here is a man gnawing a bone like an animal; here is a boy picking up the crumbs from the street; and here are two starving children. The horrors of the famine are depicted without any veil, as the witnesses saw it in their everyday life:

They [the Germans] came by the railways, and took almost everything available. There was absolutely no food, and people were dying. I will never forget – I went to school, and I saw little children aged 6,4,5, looking into garbage  looking for food. [click to watch[*]

Tavy Notton’s text is mostly centered on emotions and feelings of a witness and a victim of the great famine in Greece. He writes repeatedly about the “being afraid of famine”, of a great horror of starvation. He also picks some small occurrences and turns them into stories, similar to his drawings. These scenes become the most authentic testimonies of people’s bravery and suffering during the Occupation:

Tavy Notton, "Faim," 1941-1944 (WWII Underground Resistance Collection FR00421)

[Someone knocks at the door]

This is a starving person again. But oh my God, I am starving as well, and we do not have anything at all, a plate of boiled corn with a bit of onion. That’s it...

I open anyway. This is a young man, with the hollow face, with the rolled-back eyes, like the saints of El Greco, nostrils plucked, the corners of his lips bleached with the drips of saliva. He does not say anything, I look at him, I look at him. Our looks penetrate, probe each other.  I am thinking about what we could give him. But what? Bread? Beautiful irony...  Fresh, powdery bread. He is starving, his hunger is terrible...

- Andree, this man is starving. Do we have something for him?

- Good God! Yes! I am starving, a hunger that does not diminish, the hunger that I knew I would survive remains forever in my memory as a material thought. I was in France. I have seen all kinds of things. I returned to my country to fight the enemy, and yet now I am a beggar.

- No! You are not a beggar. And to prove this, you are going to dine with us. It won’t be much, but glory to the God, our teeth are chewing something, and tomorrow, we will see if the one I have just glorified will lead me to his heart.

Liberation cartoons

In the war narratives, the stories of liberation and the war's end is highly emotional moment. The former prisoners describe their final struggles with illnesses and starvation, while others focus on their attempts to re-adjust to the normal life. Thus, Bejla Blustajn in the VHA interview describes how she, along with her friends, was walking along the road with the American soldiers, all in tears:  “We kept crying for many days, we thought that we are getting sick because we could not stop. [click to watch][*]

Jean Marcellin, liberation cartoons, 1944 (WWII Underground Resistance Collection FR00419)

But sometimes the events are described in a humorous tone, even when tackling the themes of hunger and mortal danger. In another VHA story, the survivor lightly talks about the end of the war, and how it seemed that the salvation was impossible:

Jean Marcellin, liberation cartoons, 1944 (WWII Underground Resistance Collection FR00419)

I finally got out of the coal pile, and we back to the companion. There was shooting. There was another guy, we thought that this is the end, we had a cook stick, a galore, and stuffed ourselves with food... And the next thing, somebody came running in, crying “the Americans are here!” And we went outside, and I saw the young kid in the uniform. I went up to him and said “You – American?” That was it, we were liberated. [click to watch] [*]

Among the documents that belong to the liberation time, the Brisebois collection holds 12 caricatures drawn by the young artist Jean Marcellin.  His cartoons are full of sarcasm and laughter, celebrating the liberation of his native region, Vaison-la-Romaine. Jean Marcellin (born 1928), is a French cartoonist that started his artistic career as an illustrator of the book “Histoire du Maquis Vasio” published in 1945. Dedicated to the French resistance group of  Vaison-la-Romaine region,  this book commemorates the heroes of the Resistance, as well as focuses on the major moment of the history of this group. The stories are supplied by the drawings of Jean Marcellin, created exclusively for this book. For Marcellin, this book became his artistic debut; after that, he “settled in Paris in the following year and produced animated films for the advertising field.” Throughout his life, he drew pictures for various French magazines and journals, as well as illustrated many children’s and adult books. There was recently his exhibition, hosted by the Ferme des Arts in March 2014.

Jean Marcellin, liberation cartoons, 1944 (WWII Underground Resistance Collection FR00419)

Along with ridiculing the conquered Nazis, Marcellin's drawings also celebrate the freedom, similarly to how the actual witnesses talk about that [click to watch] [*] This light tone allows us to experience not only grief and horror but also the feeling of the utmost joy and redemption.






Click here to expand or collapse this section

[1] Irene Abrams, Interview 23769, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Web 21 Aug 2014.

[2] Regine Barshak, Interview 1844, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Web 21 Aug 2014.

[3] Jacques Adler, Interview 36093, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Web 21 Aug 2014.

[4] Sarah Cohen, Interview 1699, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Web 21 Aug 2014.

[5] Ray Naar, Interview 33353, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Web 21 Aug 2014.

[6] Hionidou, Violetta, Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1944. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 25

[7] Ya`aḳov Ḥa´ndali, Interview 1654, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Web 21 Aug 2014.

[8] Bejla Blustajn, Interview 24573, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Web 21 Aug 2014.

[9] Henry Alexander, Interview 3857, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Web 21 Aug 2014.

[10] Georgette Banks, Interview 8139, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Web 21 Aug 2014.