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Authors: Fiona McIntosh

The French Promise

BOOK: The French Promise
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The French Promise


Dedicated to my mentor and friend, Bryce Courtenay … who convinced me I was a storyteller and insisted I write down those tales.

Here’s to sunflowers and summertime … and always to stories.


May 1943

Arbeit Macht Frei
, the sign read.
Work Sets You Free, indeed,
Rachel thought cynically. Oh, how it mocked them. They were so compliant, so eager to stay alive, to earn the freedom that the slogan promised but never delivered.

Rachel played her violin so absently these days that the music barely registered on her consciousness;
they were the notes of pieces she used to hear in her heart but now they were just notes … noise. ‘Make it jolly!’ the Nazi guards ordered. ‘Give us a waltz,’ they jeered.

The camp orchestra was a transient group, which had a collectively low expectation of playing together for long and so only had a handful of tunes. They rotated their brief repertoire monotonously, unconsciously, although the
guards liked the marches best of all; the staccato rhythms made it so much easier when counting prisoners.

There were occasions – brief flashes of white-hot defiance – when it occurred to Rachel to snub her captors; to show that
spark of rebelliousness that her father had once suggested was her strength. But the anger cooled as quickly as it was stoked. There was so little to gain – other than
a momentary private joy, perhaps. Besides, reprisals were often foisted on others, and Rachel knew where even the mildest rebels were taken: marched to a scornful pretend court that didn’t believe in fundamental objectivity. Emotionless, clean-shaven men with their shiny pink faces and close-cropped hair would barely go through the motions of listening and serving justice. Whoever the prisoner was
– man or woman – they found themselves facing this mock court already accepting that they were going to be taken to the back of Block 11, undressed, stood against the ‘wall of death’ and shot. It didn’t matter if their indiscretion was as minor as not understanding barked orders given in German; execution was usually the sentence and their wooden camp clogs would still be vaguely warm when the next
prisoner grabbed them.

Like all the others there, Rachel had lost the memory of what it felt like to laugh and certainly how to hope, but she continued to play in the camp orchestra because to feel her fingers on the strings of her violin reminded her that a happier past had existed, even though inside she now felt dead. Reduced to this subhuman status where life was cheap and so easily
squandered, she nevertheless clung greedily to it as instinctively as an animal might. But they were all so meek. She despised that part of herself most of all. She had become entirely cowed; shrinking from her jailers’ barked orders, their ready rifle butts and their cruel sneers. At what point had humanity so shifted, she wondered, that one person could gladly make a stranger – who had done
them no wrong – suffer so terribly? Rachel didn’t know why she kept trying to make sense of it. Each
day was a study in survival; the will to see another sunrise was their currency.

The orchestra moved monotonously into the famous Baroque piece from the second Air by Bach. She’d helped to arrange this version to suit their numbers and abilities. It was her violin that carried the Air
and perhaps it was the measured pace, so sorrowful and stirring, that plucked at her emotions. As Rachel drifted away, hearing none of the squeaks, coughs, or errors; no longer seeing uniforms or guns, or ragged, skeletal prisoners – a sob erupted deep in her chest as she recalled in achingly bright clarity their day of arrival at the prison camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The music was the perfect
accompaniment as she helplessly relived her nightmare.

The Bonet family survived Drancy camp, north of Paris, after being bullied onto a train from their home in Provence. Their number was reduced to five after her brother Luc had remained hidden and her grandmother had succumbed to her injuries from a French policeman’s fists. Her father assured her they would remain, held in Paris, until everything
could be sorted out.

‘I’ll buy our way to freedom,’ he assured his four precious women, though Rachel knew her father too well. His sad eyes, averted while he comforted, told her he didn’t believe the lie in his own words.

Even forewarned, Rachel was unprepared for the German resolve to clear all Jews out of Western Europe, and before long her family found themselves shoved, like the animals who
occupied it before them, into a cattle car. Once the door had slammed on their rude prison, the carriage hadn’t moved for two days.

‘Stop your yelling,’ a passing guard warned. ‘The other cargo trains take precedence over human refuse,’ he sneered, banging on the side of the cattle car. They heard other guards sniggering with him.

The slow, sorrowful music ascended and Rachel was instantly
there again, watching her father count their fellow prisoners, while elder sister Sarah held their mother close. It seemed Golda had lost the ability to speak.

Jacob turned. ‘I count one hundred and twenty-seven souls with us,’ he murmured, disgusted.

‘I’m thirsty, Rachel,’ her youngest sister, Gitel, moaned from her arms.

‘I know, darling,’ she said, eyeing her father. ‘We’ll work out everyone
having a sip of water from the bucket soon, I promise. Just be patient.’ She could barely breathe. It was the last hurrah of summer and there was no ventilation in the carriage, save a tiny high window that their family was not close enough to. Perhaps they’d have to work out a rotation system for a chance to breathe the fresh air as well.

Shouts and whistles could be heard on the third day but
it came too late for fourteen of their fellow travellers, mainly the very old and the very young. It was Jacob, suddenly accepted by all as their natural spokesperson, who had reasoned with one of the youngest guards to let the dead be removed before the journey began. The guard permitted this but then the families of the dead had to be soothed as they watched their beloved relatives being dragged
carelessly to the platform. Two parents who refused to leave their dead child behind were also pulled from the stifling car, the mother weeping hysterically.

‘Don’t worry,’ the guard said. ‘We’ll put them on another train,’ he assured Jacob.

Moments later, after another shrill whistle and the train of human cargo finally lurched into movement, Rachel could swear she heard two distant gunshots.

Even though they’d lost fourteen souls, they were still forced to travel standing up and Rachel soon lost track of day or night. Whoever was closest to the tiny slit of a window would report on the hour of the day as best they could from the position of the sun. She no longer cared, anyway. Their hours were no longer measured by routine habits – there was no food and no sanitation, save
a single bucket that had overflowed within the first two days. Now, their only option to relieve themselves was directly onto the boards below their feet, already swilling with waste and piled with another eleven corpses. There would be plenty more dead before this journey’s end.

‘It explains the caustic lime,’ she mentioned into the fetid air surrounding her family. Jacob, who did his best to
marshal everyone’s spirits, nodded grimly but didn’t reply.

Golda continued to stare, glassy and unfocused, despite her teenage daughter’s pleadings. It was for Gitel that they must all stay strong, Jacob urged. So Rachel and Sarah had set aside their private fears, their hunger and fatigue, and sang to Gitel, held her close, told her stories. Rachel had wondered time and again about Luc during
that forsaken journey and how he had escaped capture. She and Sarah had agreed that he must have still been up in the lavender fields on the high ridge above Saignon when the French police came for their family. Perhaps he saw what had happened? Maybe he would come for them?

Her father shooshed her repeatedly. ‘Do not mention his name; his very existence.’ He refused to elaborate, except for ‘I
promise you, child, there is good reason for this demand,’
although he would not explain why. Rachel’s respect for her father and love for Luc meant she bore no ill will for the fact that he was presumably free. The notion that he might avenge their suffering nourished her during moments of deepest despair when she wished they could all just fall asleep where they stood and never wake to whatever
awaited them. Not for a moment did Rachel believe they were on their way to resettlement camps in Poland; that a fresh start beckoned with honest work and a new land to build homes, but she kept her conclusions to herself. Hope was all that was keeping most of her companions going. Not her, though. Defiance kept Rachel strong; anger at her life being dismantled, her bright future shrouded, her
family wrecked and despairing.

Every breath I take defies them
, she told herself like a mantra as their eastward journey brought them into increasingly cooler climes until it was near enough freezing at night. Then, even the thinnest warmth of their huddled bodies was a balm.

When they finally came to a lurching, screeching halt that flung the survivors forwards, trampling
the dead and squashing each other before being thrown backwards, Rachel presumed it was an autumn afternoon, despite having lost all sense of time. Her body was already so cold that not even the icy drizzle of a desperately bleak morning could make Rachel feel worse than she already did as she stumbled out of the carriage and turned to help her elders.

How many days has it been since Paris
? She
couldn’t remember.

A vicious wind cut into any exposed flesh like a blade, howling its laughter while it tore at their ragged clothes and hair. But it was their hunger that made them collectively
unresponsive to anything but the harsh sound of men’s shouted orders that greeted them.

She saw clubs in the guards’ hands but mercifully these were not required. Everyone wanted to
cooperate, to make the transition into their new life that had been promised as easy as possible. At Jacob’s soft urgings she kept her head bowed and remained compliant despite her desire to scream back at the man barking in guttural German, not far from her mother’s slack face.

‘Don’t draw attention to yourself,’ Jacob murmured, as she and Sarah helped carry their mother onto the railway siding
they’d been dumped onto. Rachel grabbed Gitel’s hand again; she looked terrified with her lips pale and eyes now dark hollows.

Rachel read Auschwitz-Birkenau as the name on the sign of the platform but the railway line ended at a red-brick building, which on one side had a tower and beneath that an arch into which the tracks led but stopped abruptly. ‘The end of the line,’ she murmured to herself.

Men of the Wehrmacht stalked the platform and shouted at them to form a ragged line-up on what they called the
Judenrampe: ‘Raus! Schnell! Aussteigen!
’ Meanwhile the more fancily dressed SS men in their shiny, sinister black wrangled snarling dogs on leashes and slapped whips at their thighs.

Rachel reckoned that roughly ninety others had survived the journey in their cattle car and they
were now joined by other ‘untouchables’, spilling like decomposing rubbish onto the platform from what she’d learnt that Germans called
: special trains. The putrid smell of unwashed, soiled bodies became overwhelming and the collective fear was palpable.

For a moment, while she swayed unsteadily, trying to regain her balance after the motion of the journey, she could swear
she saw a wraith moving amongst them, pointing its hideous, long finger at people, choosing them for imminent death.

‘Leave your belongings for fumigation. They will be returned to you shortly,’ was being yelled repeatedly in bad French as well as German. ‘Make sure your names are on your suitcases, if you want your belongings returned.’

Where they found the energy she didn’t know, but
Rachel joined the scramble to pile the few remaining Bonet belongings neatly. Gitel began to cry and like her, Rachel felt as though they were being stripped of their last connection to France. Even so, she sensed the great trust that her fellow Jews handed over to their keepers. They all still desperately wanted to believe that while France and all things familiar had been left behind, they were
being taken to a new life, where work and accommodation would return them some dignity … and from the ruins of their previous lives, the few items they’d brought with them might help form their new existence.

They fell into line, Jacob and Sarah flanking their mother, whose feet shuffled pitifully out of memory rather than purpose, Rachel was sure. She continued to nurse Gitel through the process.

‘Not long now, Gitel. We’ll get you off to sleep soon.’

She watched with growing alarm, though, as the men were immediately split from the women and children. Fresh terror began to snake through the two gender lines as fast as venom through blood. Even Golda stirred from her stupor as her fingers were wrenched savagely from her husband’s and she began to scream for Jacob. Rachel cut a look at the
older man she loved, whose moist, urging eyes pleaded with his two eldest
to keep their mother and his youngest girl, just fourteen, safe.

She watched him hush and soothe his wife from a distance, blowing her gentle kisses, even as a guard pushed at him with the barrel of a gun. If not for his pleas, Rachel might have rushed that guard, pounded him with useless fists. The emotional trauma
was the same for all the families, but in this moment of despair Rachel only had time for hers. From somewhere Jacob found a reassuring smile for his girls, blowing them each a kiss, urging them to stay strong. While Sarah had pulled their mother into her arms, it was Rachel’s job to calm her baby sister, but the youngster was beyond comfort. With a telltale puddle where Gitel stood and her
fragile body trembling uncontrollably, the terrible thought shot through her mind that she wished Gitel and both her parents would die then and there and not have to face whatever traumas were surely still to come.

Be careful what you wish for
was the response that rode in hard on her notion. It was said in the cackling voice of a witch she once played in a school production.

With her
gaze on her father and the line of men to their left, she realised now that Death was indeed amongst them. He was no wraith; instead horribly real, and he took the shape of an SS doctor, who with the careless boredom of a man in a repetitive job, made rapid assessments of each prisoner. Rachel realised he was the devil, come to grant her wish.

BOOK: The French Promise
11.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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