Commentary Magazine


The Strange Case of Sarah E.:
An Episode of Nazi Europe

Karl Frucht is the scarcely concealed “Sergeant Franck” of this incredible story, which plainly falls into the “stranger than fiction” class. It tells one of his experiences as a member of an Army Prisoner of War Interrogation team in Europe during the last war. He recounted others in an article in the January 1946 COMMENTARY.

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When the convoys arrived the first truck always carried the women prisoners. The prettiest invariably climbed down from the seat next to the driver. The girls stood around stiff-legged and bedraggled, looking forlorn and somehow desperate—until the male prisoners began relieving themselves right by the trucks. The guards would stop them at bayonet point—not because of the feminine company but simply because the stench was horrible—and rush them into the cage. Men came first in this war. Women could wait. Their turn came after the 1,000 or 1,200 men were stowed away; then they were herded into their special enclosure and more or less forgotten by everyone but the male PW’s.

We seldom bothered with the girls. There was no time. We got all kinds: German nurses, Luftwaffe “Blitz-Maedchen” and auxiliaries of different Wehrmacht branches, now and then an SS girl, and toward the end the CI (counter-intelligence) cases who had been arrested for security reasons, for being Party bosses or just for having married Party bosses. We never expected anything from women’s interrogations. They were handled in routine fashion and evacuated as fast as possible.

And yet, our most incredible case of the campaign was a woman prisoner shortly before VE Day. We might well have missed her except for Captain Wilkins.

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Captain Wilkins was a woman herself, a Wac. Nobody knew why she came down into the mud of Hersfeld instead of staying at Army Headquarters in Weimar. We guessed the captain, no longer young, could not stand the competition at Weimar.

Captain Wilkins asked to be shown around the cage. She said she wanted to study social problems; she was supposed to deal with German women after the war. She knew a little German; she came from St. Paul.

Sergeant Franck suggested a look at the girls’ cage. A new transport had just arrived and the women were marched over in single file, on a narrow path between concertina barbed wire. Boards had been laid across the mud, but it usually happened that all had to step off the boardwalk to let a detail of stretcher-carriers pass, live PW’s carrying dead PW’s, blanketed bodies of victims of exposure, exhaustion, disease, suicide, or revenge. There usually was an elderly woman prisoner, who would start crying, “He looks like my son—please, let me see him,” and lift a corner of a blanket, only to drop it again with a scowl, “Isn’t it terrible what’s become of Germany?”

Only a few in the lot wore uniforms or parts of them. There were two SS auxiliaries, one girl from the German Signal Corps, one from an anti-aircraft unit, and one from the RAD, the Reich Labor Service.

These five were prisoners of war. The others were CI cases. “My father is an Old Fighter—ein alter Kaempfer,” one of them started abruptly, “and I assure you he’ll take proper action when he hears what happened to me.” Then she burst into tears.

Eventually they were lined up in their enclosure. Bunched against the tent walls were two dozen from an earlier transport, waiting to be transferred to the next cage. These were not happy about the new arrivals. “There’s room in the latrine tent,” they yelled.

A PW brought a box of food. The MP started throwing K-rations to the new ones. The Old Fighter’s daughter stopped crying and tore into the package with teeth and nails. Another, an SS girl, dropped hers and it fell in the mud. She did not stoop to recover it, but stood staring ahead, seeing nothing, as if in a trance. The next girl nudged her and, when nothing happened, pointed her finger at her own forehead and then at her staring friend. Her meaning was clear. The other was out of her mind. That also happened frequently.

Captain Wilkins picked out one of the better dressed women and spoke to her as at a garden party. “My name is Captain Wilkins.”

The prisoner seemed delighted: “It’s a pleasure to meet you, to meet a lady here.” Then she turned up her nose, “I’m Frau Uhl.”

Franck, checking papers, noticed that Frau Uhl had omitted her rank. She was a Bannmaedelfuehrerin in the BDM, the Nazi girls’ organization. With the Nazis she had been the equal of an army colonel. With us she was an automatic arrest.

“Break it up, Uhl,” Franck said. “Step over here and keep your trap “shut. MP, keep an eye on her.”

Captain Wilkins looked helpless. “What’s wrong? She seemed to be a fine lady. Though one never knows these days. . . .”

“Let me handle that, Captain sir,” said the sergeant.

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He looked again at the stunned SS girl who had dropped her rations and not bothered to pick them up. She and her friend made a strange couple: one slight, dark-haired, dog-tired; the other big, blonde, happy-go-lucky. It was hard to believe that the girls pictured on their identity cards were the same now standing before us in mud up to the ankles of their field-gray trousers, begrimed, unappetizing, their protruding bellies filled with bread, water, and potatoes.

Their papers did not identify them as SS auxiliaries. They had been issued by the German Labor Front. But the blonde—Gertrude So-and-so, according to the brown document—proudly showed the blood-type tattoo under her left armpit and claimed that they both had served in the same SS prisoner-guard company in charge of an “East-workers” battalion. The dark one nodded confirmation. But her certificate was differently colored, green, and the number had the prefix “A,” standing for Auslaender and meaning “alien.”

Ah ça,” said the sergeant, “a French SS girl. What do you know.” He read aloud to the captain, “Rose-Marie Establet from Montauban, Tarn et Garonne, France.”

“From Brussels, from Belgium,” the dark girl protested weakly.

“What’s the difference? Nazis grow everywhere,” Franck said. There were fascists from all over Europe in the SS: the Albanian division “Skanderbeg,” the Hungarian SS Cavalry, the Croatian division “Kama,” the SS Panzer Grenadier Brigade “Nederland,” the Esthonian, Latvian, and Galician divisions, the Turkestan and Azerbaijan legions, the French SS Waffen-Grenadier Sturmbrigade “Frankreich,” and the Vichy militia division “Charlemagne.” Last but not least, SS Sturmbannfuehrer Degrelle’s Belgian Panzer Grenadier Division “Wallonien.” The Belgian Nazis had invented an interrogation method that our prisoner trusties sometimes wanted to apply: stand a man with his face to a wall and rub his nose until the bone shines through. SS-woman Establet was a Belgian? Franck would give her a Belgian.

He called for Goetz, the trusty who worked in the interrogation cage keeping the map file up to date. It had been a full-time job until April 25th, when the Americans and Russians had met at Torgau. Since then Goetz had hung around, waiting for us to give him something to do; for Goetz liked to work and kept fit by making a few rounds about the cage in double time every morning, wearing the leather shorts of his Bavarian homeland and enviously watched by thousands of stiff-legged prisoners.

Franck ordered him to get Jacky. Jacky’s first name was Jacques-Bernard; he was a Belgian-born corporal serving with CIC in Hersfeld, and he hated Germans like poison. He would tell SS-woman Establet whether or not she was a Belgian.

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The dark girl stood staring dumbly. Suddenly she swayed a little. Blonde Gertrude caught her, seated her on an empty K-ration box, kneeled down before her and untied her shoe to lift the tucked-in trouser. A dirty, blood-soaked bandage was wrapped around Rose-Marie Establet’s leg. Gertrude tightened the bandage.

“She’s wounded,” the Wac captain said in a shocked voice.

Gertrude shrugged. “It was her own fault. No one told her to get in the line of fire.”

“Whose fire?” Franck asked.

“Oh, when the boys shot those Russians and Jews.”

“Where?” Franck asked quickly.

The blonde looked up and shrugged. “I don’t know. We just came by. They weren’t our Russians.”

Où étiéz-vous blessée?” Franck asked the dark girl. “Where were you wounded?”

Rose-Marie did not answer. Gertrude grinned again, pointing at her forehead. “Shellshocked, you know.”

“Poor kid,” said Captain Wilkins.

Franck cleared his throat and frowned. After all, these were SS girls. He was about to launch upon an indoctrination lecture when Goetz returned—alone. Jacky, he reported, was out on a pass.

“You’re lucky,” Franck told the girl. She did not seem to hear and he decided to question her himself. A demonstration of our technique might not be bad for Captain Wilkins, either. “Well, Establet,” he said, trying to look tough, “why did you get into the line of fire when your boys shot those Russians and Jews?”

The dark girl looked at him. It was the first time she seemed to come out of her apathy. Her eyes were large, hopeful, and terrified at the same time. She said, “I’m Jewish.”

You’re—what?”

Franck was no interrogator. First, he was soft. Second, he could not control himself. That was why he had been assigned to office work. The point of our job was that the PWs should show their emotions to us, not that we should show ours to PW’s.

“You,” the sergeant sputtered, “you—an SS girl—you have the nerve to stand there and say you’re Jewish?”

“I am Jewish,” she said.

“That’s what she tried to tell me, too,” said Gertrude. “I told you she’s not quite there.”

“Shut up, you!”

Rose-Marie closed her eyes. She was shivering.

Captain Wilkins took over. “Why don’t we go into a tent, Sergeant?” she asked. It seemed a good idea. They went into the next compound and entered one of the interrogation tents.

“Couldn’t we get her some coffee?” Captain Wilkins asked. Franck went out and sent a trusty for some coffee. When he came back, the motherly Wac had the girl sitting on a chair and was soothing her. “Now,” she said, “just calm down—beruhigen Sie sich.” She winked at Franck to keep quiet. “Jetzt erzählen Sie—now tell us your story.”

The story took half an hour in the telling. It came out in gasps and sobs and broken, incoherent sentences in German and French.

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Her name was Sarah, the girl said. She used to live in Brussels. Her father was a diamond-cutter there, a Jew.

She had been fifteen when the Boche came to Belgium. They had fled to France—her parents, her brother Sammy and she, and the family of her brother’s friend. They had a car, but the car did not get them far. All roads were blocked by refugees. They were strafed by planes, too. They came to Compiègne, and then to Paris.

“When did you get to Paris?”

In the first days of June, she said. About a week ahead of the Boche. They had tried in vain to get a train to the South, to get a ride in a car, or to buy bicycles. In the end they had walked.

“Where did you leave the city?”

By the Porte d’Orléans; they had taken the subway to get there. Then they walked for days. They were bombed and strafed at Étampes, and again at Orléans.

“How did you cross the river at Orléans?”

There was a bridge. It was blown up just after they crossed—not five minutes later.

“It was? How many days had you been walking from Paris?”

The girl tried to remember. She tried to count. “Four days,” she said.

Franck said nothing. The Wac captain asked him in English, “Why do you keep trying to trap her?”

The sergeant did not say that it was his job. Instead he quoted in German, half to the captain and half to the SS woman Establet, from Summary of Restrictions whose Violations endanger Security, as listed in SHAEF Ordinance No. 1: “The following capital offense punishable by death: wilful deception of Allied personnel on duty. . . .”

“But why should she lie?” asked the Wac captain. “Would it help her if she was Jewish?”

Not at present, said Franck, careful to revert to English; Now she came under Subsection 5c of the automatic arrest list: ALL FEMALE MEMBERS OF SS—regardless of religion or nationality. If she was French or Belgian, she was probably headed for a treason trial by her compatriots. If she were Jewish—which she wasn’t, of course—the fact would be noted in our report and that would be all for the time being. But later it might be taken as evidence that she had been forced to join.

But all those foreign SS the sergeant had talked about—couldn’t they have been forced to join?

The presumption was against it.

And if they were Jewish?

They couldn’t be. . . .

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Franck turned back to the girl, who sat staring at her feet again. “Go on. Where did you go from Orléans?”

They had gone south, she and her parents. Her brother had been killed at Orléans and they had lost her brother’s friend and his family. A few times people let them ride on trucks or cars.

“Did you come through Blois?”

Yes, Blois and Tours.

“Then you must have come through Angoulême?”

Yes—that was where the soldiers had given them bread.

“French soldiers?”

No, not French—Czechoslovakian, Rose-Marie thought.

The sergeant chuckled, Captain Wilkins turned to him and whispered. “Do you really know all that?”

“Sure,” he said, “I was there.”

“Oh, were you really? What were you doing there?”

“Fighting.”

“But we weren’t at war then.”

“I was.”

The SS girl tried to follow them. She seemed to fear that they had found a hole in her story. She tried to be very precise: “We got to Bordeaux at night; there was a bombardment, and the soldiers we had met at Angoulême were getting on a ship.”

“So we were,” Franck told the captain. “We were embarking for England. That was my outfit.” He left the Wac to shake her head in amazement and turned back to Rose-Marie. “Go on.”

They had walked on to Agen and then to Montauban, to stand in line for hours at the Préfecture for a permit to’ stay, to stand outside the Hôtel de Ville whose walls were plastered with “want ads” seeking news of a husband or wife, a mother, father, sister, brother, lover or sweetheart, to scale wooden ladders, because the notices were posted all the way up to the second floor. They slept in the open among people from Holland, Belgium, and France, among French and Polish and Czech soldiers and deserters and Senegalese and Moroccans. They found a small auberge where they could stay without papers, until one day the police came for her parents and they did not come back.

Then Rose-Marie made the round of the Vichy internment camps. She walked to Camp Recebedon in the Haute Garonne Department and to the barbed-wire fences of the penal camp of Le Vernet, Ariège, and to Camp Les Milles near Marseilles, where the internees were crowded by the thousands into a small brick factory. When she arrived at the Gurs camp in the Basses Pyrenées, one of the most desolate places in the world, she was detained as a suspect alien. After weeks of cold and hunger and despair she suddenly was released and a man she did not know handed her a railroad ticket and a slip carrying the name of some people she did not know and an address in Montauban. Then he wished her bon voyage. Rose-Marie did not understand a word. At the Montauban address, the next day, she asked an old lady for Monsieur and Madame Establet. This was the name on the paper. The lady led her through a courtyard to the rear of the building and up a spiral staircase to the top floor. She knocked—and her mother opened the door.

Then she learned how her parents had managed to bribe the guards on the convoy that was to have taken them to Gurs. They hid on farms until a reliable source gave them the address of an employee of the Montauban Préfecture who issued false identity papers to refugees, a certain Mr. Lefevre.

For what was left of their money, Mr. Lefevre also found out what had happened to the girl, arranged for her rescue, and transformed her into Rose-Marie Establet, a French girl from the Midi, a defense worker, Catholic, eighteen years old. It was two years more than her real age; she certainly had grown up. Her parents no longer dared to go out on the street—it seemed they could only talk Yiddish—so it fell to Rose-Marie to do the shopping, and when the money ran out to do the working.

She became a salesgirl. Her employer fired all his Jewish employees; but Rose-Marie could stay. She had to stop seeing the few refugees left of the many she had known. She read the posters when all foreign Jews from 18 to 55 years of age were organized into “work battalions” and sent to Germany. She heard of the thousands handed over by the Vichy government, from camps and from the street, of the convoys that no longer passed the “collecting point” at Drancy but went directly to Eastern Europe. She heard of the great Gestapo hunt at Nice that alone netted some 5,000 victims. She also heard of Frenchmen’s efforts to help, of the widespread “Aryanization” of Jewish children whose parents had been deported, of secret convoys said to have taken such children to safety—but she did not know if that was true.

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“Neither did SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer Bug,” said Sergeant Franck and could not resist the temptation to give Captain Wilkins a quick orientation on the French “underground railroad.” He had typed a report on the “Organization des Passeurs” only a few days earlier. The informant had been an Alsatian deserter. The group’s main activity had been to help French war prisoners escape and evacuate them to Africa; it had members in Germany and Vichy; half of the group were women, including Madame Receveur who worked for the Nazis in the Alsatian concentration camp of Schirmeck and rescued many prisoners under the nose of Hauptsturmfuehrer Bug. The report had been one of the most dramatic we ever put out—but Captain Wilkins did not seem as interested in it as in Rose-Marie’s “story.

In February 1943 a Vichy law had imposed a labor draft on all men from 18 to 60 and all women from 18 to 45. It did not affect the girl’s parents but it affected her, Rose-Marie Establet, a Catholic and now twenty, according to her papers. Failure to register meant loss of food and clothing rations. She registered. She was not called up for a while, though—not until she had heard of one girl from Montauban who hanged herself in a German pig-sty after one beating too many by the woman she was working for. Another girl had her face marred by a blow; from the hospital she only wrote about an accident. Rose-Marie, with papers identifying her as a defense worker, could at least expect a job in industry. She thought it would mean better treatment.

The morning when she and fifty others were herded together on the Place Nationale, in front of the deserted cafés under the empty arcades, disabused her. Her mother, for the first time in years, had left the house. In the gray dawn the girl could see the tears on her mother’s face and her father leaning out of the window of their top-floor hideout with his white beard flowing in the wind. When they ordered the fifty women to get on the truck and Rose-Marie tore herself away from her mother, she suddenly heard a sound not uttered aloud in years: right on the Place Nationale, amid Vichy police and in front of the German officer supervising the loading, her mother cried out as only those can cry who have been persecuted for centuries: “Aiaiai, Sarale, aiaiai. . . .” And looking down from the truck, Sarah—or rather, Rose-Marie Establet—saw her mother crumple at the German’s feet before the truck pulled out.

The girl paused a moment. Franck felt a hand on his arm; the gesture contravened military regulations, but at this moment the woman beside him was not an officer in the US Armed Forces. She was a social worker whose heart had been touched by a case the like of which was unknown in Minnesota. “You still think she’s lying?” she asked. “You still think she could be lying?”

The sergeant said nothing. He wanted to say that the girl had only to hide the fact, for instance, that she had worked for the German military government in Montauban; there she would have learned all that and more. He wanted to say that only yesterday we had a kid who ate two pages of his pay book, and would have fooled us into taking him for just a Hitler youth employed by the Wehrmacht and entitled to immediate release if PW’s had not picked him out as a non-com who shot two men of his platoon when they tried to surrender. We had cases like that every day. Why should the SS girl be different? But Franck said nothing.

The captain seized the girl’s hand. It was small but strong, with dirty, bitten fingernails and scars and bloodstains; the captain dropped it again. “Go on,” she said.

SS-woman Establet continued. She told a story we had heard a thousand times, from French and Belgian and Dutch and Polish DP’s. The stories differed only in degree, and those of the French were not the worst. They all told of riding in cattle cars, without food, of stopping to sleep in barracks, without blankets, of traveling for three days and nights through the bomb-blasted Reich and arriving in Leipzig or some other city to see a factory near the track still burning, of being unloaded, hardly able to stand, and broken up into smaller groups and marched off as from a slave market: “Group one, Leipzig Koellmann A.G.—on the double, marsch-marsch! Group two, Leipzig Langbein Pfannhauser Werke—on the double, we have no time to lose! Next group, allez hopp, Leipzig Mitteldeutsche Motorenwerke; and one more to go, hurry, hurry, you lazy bastards, we’re not in France, this is Germany! Last group Junkers Werke Leipzig, marsch-marsch!” Rose-Marie was in the last group.

He could check her on that, Franck thought. He only needed to send for Sergeant Howard’s target list. The Junkers Werke at Markkleeberg near Leipzig were there in all detail—and their 3,000 workers, 70 per cent foreign. The sergeant needed only to call for Goetz. He said nothing. The girl continued.

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She told of getting her residence permit from the police—granted for an indefinite period and accordingly stamped “Bis auf weiteres”—for ten marks, and her Arbeitsbuch (work book) for five marks. She told of the work, done in two 12-hour shifts under the eyes of about eight Gestapo men and many stool pigeons. She told of having been suspected of sabotage, and having been doubly terrified because of the secret of her true identity. She had seen Russians and Poles among the foreign workers, but no Jews. She never asked what had become of the Jews who had lived here, or elsewhere. She lived in terror, and terror made her work so well that she was officially appointed a Verbindungsmann for liaison between the DAF, the German Labor Front, and her compatriots.

“You mean, a spy,” the sergeant corrected her, “a Gestapo informer.”

“Yes,” the girl said.

“And you did that work, too?”

“Yes,” the girl said.

From that day on the others had despised her. When she wanted to share her larger rations they refused, though they were nearly starving. They loathed Rose-Marie Establet more than they loathed the Germans. But the head of the Werkschutz, the Nazi factory protection setup, a bulky SA-man from Dortmund, promised her a furlough home after three reports on her less efficient co-workers. After her third report he beamingly appraised her of something much more honorable than a home leave. She was judged one of the few foreign girls worthy of joining the ranks of the SS. She had only to sign her application to leave for a training camp; it was most fortunate, he said, that he had just been asked to recommend candidates for SS auxiliaries. She really was too able to risk having her damaged by some jealous foreign workers.

Rose-Marie signed. The training camp was a slave-labor camp in Silesia. It was there she met Gertrude. Gertrude was kind, the first person who had been kind to her since Montauban. It was the last cruel winter and at night they lay together under one blanket, and Gertrude somehow managed to prevent the SS-men at the camp from bothering Rose-Marie. In the spring, when the Russians overran Silesia, the camp was evacuated. That is to say, the SS guard was evacuated. The workers, Russians and Poles and Jews, were shot. Rose-Marie looked on as the guards mowed them down with machine guns.

That night she told Gertrude that she was Jewish. But Gertrude would not believe her. Their truck convoy, headed for Leipzig, raced the Russians up through Silesia. On the way they passed another labor camp with trucks outside ready to move and the prisoners lined up in a ditch ready to be killed. Their convoy stopped and the SS-men got off to join in the fun. The girls got off too, to watch, and Rose-Marie ran toward the prisoners and was shot in the leg. Gertrude pulled her back and she was lifted into the truck. She did not really know what happened later, until she sat with Gertrude and the other women in our truck and came to our cage.

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The story ended abruptly somewhere in the middle. It was finished, though—complete. There was a long pause. SS-woman Establet sat with half-closed eyes as if exhausted by this recital of her own disintegration. Captain Wilkins looked down at her with something like disappointment. Gertrude, the big, happy-go-lucky blonde, stood in a corner watching her friend with an oddly twisted smile. Sergeant Franck reviewed the incredible tale in his mind, searching for a hole in it. He found none. The web was complete. The girl was lying or she was telling the truth; it was an interrogator’s job to find out which, but she had not obliged him by making the job easier.

“Well,” he finally said in a voice full of sarcasm. “So now you’d like to be Jewish again. Only you aren’t.”

“It doesn’t really matter much, does it?” the Wac broke in, a little sadly.

Franck did not get her meaning. Somehow, for him, there seemed to be more at stake than just the truth or falsehood of a PW statement. He said, “Who d’you think we are, Establet? Think you can fool us that easily?”

The girl looked at him fully. “I know why you won’t believe me. You’re Jewish, too. You don’t want me to be. You’re scared of it. Oh, they were right about the Jews—they were right!” she burst out. Then she turned to the motherly woman, “Maybe the lady will believe me. Je vous en prie—”

Franck thought he saw the ghost of a smile on the captain’s face. It made him furious. He walked over to the girl, very slowly, coming closer and closer: “So you say you’re Jewish, do you? You think you’re a smart girl. Well, you won’t go through with it, I promise you—not you from the SS. You’ll take everything back, understand? Everything.”

A giggle came from Gertrude’s corner. “Why do you bother with her? She’s crazy.”

“Shut up,” said the sergeant. And to the dark girl, “So you still say you’re—”

“I am Jewish,” she interrupted him, wildly. “I was born in Brussels—my name is Sarah—I am Jewish—verstehste, Yiddish—je suis juive—a yideneich, Sarah, hin eine Juedin!” Then she collapsed on the table.

The grin on Gertrude’s dirty face was frozen. She looked at Franck, at the Wac captain, at her friend. Then she shrugged, casually, “I told you she’s crazy,” and came and stroked the thin shaking shoulders until the whining stopped.

Suddenly Rose-Marie got up from the table. Her voice was louder and stronger than the sergeant’s. “My name is Sarah. I am Jewish.”

She did not collapse again. Gertrude’s smile faded for the first time. Before Franck could say more, the Wac captain stepped in and asked the girl to sit down again. Then she opened the tent door and called out for another cup of coffee.

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Rose-Marie’s voice had attracted quite an audience. Looking through the window holes into the tent, despite a shower from fast moving clouds reddened by the sunset, were MP’s, trusties, PW’s waiting their turn to be interrogated, interrogators, members of the CIC team. It was very quiet. The constant murmur of the cage was no longer noticed. But the water could be heard dripping from the leaky tent roof into the C-ration can with the coffee for Rose-Marie.

“Why you sagen you are juedisch?” the Wac captain resumed the interrogation. “It won’t make a difference.”

Es macht dock keinen Unterschied,” Franck had to translate, and he repeated, “You are an SS auxiliary like any other, Jewish or not. You’ll be held responsible for every crime committed by your unit.”

“I know,” she nodded. “I’ll take my punishment like Gertrude.” But Gertrude did not smile again.

The sergeant still wanted to pin the girl down on the motive for her story. True or not, he had to crack her on that. “Why do you want to convince us if it won’t make any difference to you?”

She clenched her teeth and said nothing.

He was stumped for questions, and so he asked her again: “How can you prove you’re Jewish? We can’t look into your heart.”

And the girl all but tore off her blouse, hammering small white breasts with her dirty fists: “Here I’m Jewish, and I can’t help it if you can’t see it. Here—here—”

Captain Wilkins’ eyes begged the sergeant to drop that line of questioning. The captain had thrown a blanket around the girl’s shoulders.

Then Sergeant Howard came in with two of his trusties and one PW. Howard apologized for disturbing Franck; he could not assume, of course, that Franck was interrogating. He explained that there really was no other space available; the April wind had torn a few tents down, and others were leaking in the rain.

There followed a typical Howard interrogation of the PW he had brought with him, fast and furious, but the case was routine. Howard could break her. Howard would put his long forefinger under her chin and lift her up from the chair with one quick jerk—she would not long refuse to tell him why she kept insisting that she was Jewish. Howard was sitting on the table now with his back to her, firing questions at a routine PW. If he heard about the case behind his back he would drop the man in five seconds and break the girl in five minutes.

“Are we in the way?” Captain Wilkins whispered to Franck.

No—well, perhaps. Besides, it was time for chow. They could question the girl again, later. The sergeant bellowed at Gertrude who stood by the door, “Machen Sie, dass Sie aus dem Weg kommen, marschmarsch—get out of the way, but snappy, understand!”

Howard kept right on interrogating. Franck shoved Gertrude aside and held the tent door open for the Wac captain. They did not look back at Rose-Marie. Outside, the captain asked, “What will happen to her?”

Franck shrugged his shoulders.

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In the chow line Franck saw the Belgian-born CIC interpreter he had sent Goetz to get. Jacky had just returned from a three-day pass to Brussels where he had searched vainly for survivors of his family; Jacky was Jewish. The sergeant confided in Jacky. The chow line was surprised when the Belgian gave up his place just outside the mess hall. “Tant mieux pour vous—so much the better for you,” he told the men behind him and followed Franck to the cage.

It was not quite dark yet. The fires the prisoners had built in the daytime were still allowed to burn. In the women’s cage, separated from the huge men’s compound only by one row of concertina barbed wire, they saw the girls talking to the German boys while the guards stood by with wolves’ eyes, jealously listening to the giggles and laughter, waiting for the moment to cut in, perhaps waiting for nightfall.

The command-post tent was pitch-dark, filled with whimpers and snores. “Rose-Marie Establet!” the sergeant shouted.

“Present,” came the answer in a timid voice, close by.

No candle was lighted, no flashlight turned on. Jacky started his interrogation in French; Rose-Marie responded without hesitation or difficulty.

“Where would you find the Great Synagogue in Brussels?”

She sounded overjoyed. “Mais oui, dans la rue aux Laines, près de la Porte du Namur.”

“Check.” Jacky. shot another question. “Name me a few suburbs of Brussels.”

The girl took a long breath and then started off without pause: “Schaerbeck, St. Josse-ten-Noode, Etterbeick, Ixelles, St. Gilles, Andeikecht, Molenbeck, Kockelberg. . . .”

Assez, mademoiselle, enough, stop.”

He checked on a few more things, on ritual customs at Jewish holidays, on Jewish history, and soon they were not speaking French any more, nor German either, but Yiddish.

When Jacky ran out of questions, he searched in the darkness with his flashlight. And then the incredible happened. When the beam fell on the girl’s face, after hardly enough time for recognition, Jacky gasped in surprise: “Sarahleben, was machste da—Sarah—you?!”

Franck lighted the candle, and it shone on her weeping face. Jacky took the girl’s head firmly in his hands, to reassure himself, and now she knew him, too.

“Jacques-Bernard.”

“Where is your brother, Sarah? Tell me about Sammy. . . .”

“Sammy was killed on the road, by planes, in summer ’40. Sammy is dead. But you’ll get me news from mamele and tateleben, won’t you?”

Mais oui, Sarah. Sure. Sure. Now go to sleep. Come, we’ll put you up in the hospital tent, on a litter, with a lot of blankets, and we’ll bring you chocolate. Don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying,” the girl sobbed. “I’m happy. Now I’m Jewish again.”

The next day’s transport took SS-woman Establet, with an appropriate entry in her papers, from the cage to MIC at Schwarzen-born in Hesse, together with her friend Gertrude. About a week later, amid the VE Day excitement, our Belgian friend Jacky received a transfer to another CIC office, in Kassel or Giessen; we did not quite know which.

We never met him again. And we never heard what became of the Jewish SS-girl. Perhaps we were not curious.

_____________

 

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