A Woman's Journal of
Struggle and Defiance in
Barbara Mellor, Translator
One of the most painful moments finds Humbert being marched down the streets of a town in Germany to her new prison. There are "other women, ladies on the pavements, who are wearing pretty dresses with an air of spring about them."
This feeling like sadness that rises in my throat, choking me, is just absurd. Why should we blush at being paraded through the streets of Krefeld like this?
It is because of what she has seen. They pass a dress shop. It has a large mirror, and "I catch sight of myself in it." It's the first time, after being in prison ... beaten, starved, humiliated ... that she has seen herself.
That old crone, limping along in her preposterous clumping shoes and with her hair scraped into such a grotesque style --- that old crone is me. I have to raise my right hand to convince myself that the reflection in the mirror is really me. Yes, it must be me: the old crone in the dress-shop mirror is holding up her right hand, just like me.
In the previous, pre-Nazi world, Humbert worked in the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris. She was an art historian, wrote a study of the 18th Century artist, Jacques-Louis David.
But in Krefeld, Humbert's job is to work eight to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, with machines that make artificial rayon.
The machines are described exactly (not unlike the exactitude of David's paintings). They use "viscose," a substance that "looks like buckwheat honey and has the consistence of glycerin," but is viciously poison, produces terrible burns. "Like phosphorus, it sticks to the wounds it causes and is impossible to remove, eating the flesh away to the bone. Usually you do not realize you have been splashed with viscose until you feel the pain. By then it is too late."
Hundreds of women slave laborers spend hours bent over these machines. All of them have suffered burns, their lungs clogged by the poison. They often go blind. Some of her fellow workers drink down the "viscose" just to die and be done with it.
But there is justice (at last!) The British bomb the factory; she silently thanks them. She is then shipped on to Wanfried, Germany.
The warders there are not exactly angels, but it is 1945, everyone knows that the end is near. When the Americans arrive (at last!) who is put in charge in the town? "It is all we can do not to dissolve into giggles. A few days ago we were slave laborers, and today here we are requisitioning buildings in the face of total apathy from the Germans; it is a complete farce."
We go to the town hall to inform the mayor of what we have done, and to order him to be at Wasserburg at nine o'clock tomorrow morning, bringing with him social workers and nurses, so that they can all receive my instructions (about caring for refugees and the wounded).
It's a stunning ending to a stunning piece of literature. Forgiving? Humbert cements her place in our hearts with her ability to forgive (almost) all. After all this, after all the beatings and gratuitous pain handed out by so many Germans, as she is leaving, at the end of four years as prisoner to the Nazis, she gives a big hug to the mayor of Wanfried. Why? Because after a few weeks getting to know him she knows that he was just another German dolt. She comments, "Who would have thought that one day I would embrace a German, and a member of the Nazi party to boot."
§ § §
How did Humbert keep all these Davidian memories intact during her four years in Krefeld prison, making it possible to write such an exacting biography. I was put in mind of another writer, one who captured, in such elegant detail, the facts ... James Boswell.
They say he never made record of his elaborate conversations with Dr. Johnson, merely stocked the facts in his head, and only later plucked them from his memory.
Humbert could never have taken notes at any time during her years in captivity --- possession of pencil and paper was forbidden --- yet the story is laced with a myriad of tiny details that enrich the narrative: the exact dimensions of her cell, the way that she communicated with the other prisoners, her role as time-keeper in Cherche-Midi: "I'm the only one in the prison with a watch ... So I resolved to take on the role of prison clock, banging out the hours with my spoon against my enamel basin."
There's the ever-present degradation when she bathes in her tiny basin: every time she washes, she hears a click, which "warns me that the guard had pushed up the small metal flap cover in the spyhole in my door."
Alerted by the sound of water being poured into my basin, he treats his blue German eye to the sight of a Parisienne washing, using cold water in a hideous brown enamel bowl.
"...his blue German eye" ... the "hideous brown enamel bowl."
She offers us a touch of brave wit. Washing underclothes in prison, for some reason, is forbidden. But she finds a way to do it surreptitiously. "All you have to do is to steal a little soda; soap is such a distant memory that we can barely even remember what it looks like."
My personal technique is to scrape off the dirt with a bit of brick that I pick up in the courtyard. Sand is quite effective, too --- a tip for the laboratories where they make X and Y Beauty Products!
Beauty advice in the midst of such a nightmare.
§ § §
Interspersed among the cruel rocks lie occasional jewels of laughter. An overseer approaches when she is to begin her first day at the Spinnerei. "He looks us over like a slave trader, asks my age, says that I don't look as old as I claim to be. I half expect him to look at my teeth."
He lets her exchange her rotting prison clothing for a new uniform. She does not yet know what is in store for her in her new job at the spinning machines. "A well-cut khaki jacket, with the inevitable 'G' --- Gefangene --- in the middle if the back. Pretty little Belgian clogs with a butterfly for decoration." Being able to discard her very old shoes, she thinks,
So light they are to wear --- so supple, I almost catch myself thinking --- that beside the monstrous Anrath clodhoppers they seem like satin slippers.
Ah, the gentle vanity of a woman who now calls herself "crone." What a woman! The Nazis who ran the Phrix Rayon Factory were not only cruel and brutal, they were stupid. Instead of beating and trying to drive this woman nuts, if they had just hired on Humbert to run the show ... gentle Humbert would have rewarded them a hundred times over. With her own special kick.