I have few war heroes in my family of creative types, but the one most decorated got her medals in an unusual manner.
As part of my ongoing memoir project, I’ve researched the concentration camp where my grandmother was imprisoned. She was running messages for the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied Vichy. She really hated the Germans for the way they’d taken over the town. Unfortunately, the Nazis caught her and sent her to the only women’s camp of the war, just north of Berlin. She spent nine months in Ravensbrück toward the end of World War II–evidently, the worst time to be there. She managed to survive and with two other women walked to Paris . Paris was liberated from the Nazis on 25 August 1944. Her 39th birthday.
[Arlette Arents Chardin, Paris c. 1929]
The book, Ravensbrück: Everyday life in a women’s concentration camp 1939-45, by Jack G. Morrison, mentions that only one woman is known to have escaped this women’s camp and survived. This was a surprising morsel to read since I know of at least these other women who escaped and lived long lives after the war, including my grandmother. I would love to talk an historian about this. It brings to mind this New York Times article on estimating upwards the number of ghettos and detention camps that the Nazis operated. How much of World War II history will we continue to revise?
[Arlette with my uncle, Jean Chardin, Pantin Paris 1927]
Morrison also mentions that the French prisoners (referred to as availables as they were available for work detail) were unique in their ability to keep their sense of humor in the face of all that brutality and they even managed to be creative and chic.
‘Humor was an essential tool in the French strategy for survival. As a veteran Available, Germaine Tillion wrote a comic operetta in the fall of 1944 called Le Verfügbar aux enfers (The Available in the Underworld, based on Offenbach’s opera Orpheus in the Underworld). In the closing line of the operetta the heroine, protesting that she is not pretending to be sick, says: “I want to be sent to a model camp with all the comforts: water, gas, electricity.” To which the chorus responds, “Gas, above all.” They kept their sense of humour through every ordeal.’ page 98
A company staged the work in 2011:
[Areltte’s military honors]
‘The French women somehow managed to look chic in their ragged prison clothes. In spite of regulations against this, they wore their kerchiefs in a hundred different ways.’ page 188
[Arlette with some of her many grandchildren, Vichy ’60s]
I prefer the idea that Arlette took one look at that concentration camp and thought, “Screw being chic and creative, I’m outta here.” But I understand the impulse to create humor or beauty in the face of certain doom.