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Keeping Track

About the end of wars

The church in Lumières

The chaotic unraveling at the end of wars is often the deadliest of times. The nine women in my story experienced this. Seventy-six years ago, on this day April 14, 1945, they were set on a Death March that was designed to kill them.

When I think about the horrific turmoil that was happening in Germany one month from the end of WWII, I remember a story I was told about the children in Lacoste, the small village in Provence near where I live. Most of the handful of children in the village had been young boys at the start of the war and they had grown into early adolescence over the four years. They were 14, 15, and 16 in 1945. They chaffed at not having been soldiers, at the humiliations of occupation, at the passivity of their parents, at the hunger and poverty they had experienced. When in 1945 the Germans who had lorded over them were now in retreat, the boys talked amongst themselves about how they wanted to get one of them, kill a boche. They talked about getting their fathers' hunting rifles, going into the woods and shooting at the Germans. They boasted about what they would do, loudly to each other and anyone within earshot, because that bravado posturing is what young men do. Except they were overheard by the man in the village who was the collaborator, the one who had profited from his good relations with the Germans. This man warned a Nazi official about the boys' plan. And the boys were rounded up and executed.

In one tragic moment, the village lost almost all their children. The parents, believing the collaborator was to blame, chased him out of the village and followed him down the hill to the church in Lumières. The man took refuge there. The villagers came crashing in, ready to kill him, even in a church, but the priests encircled him and protected him. Eventually he was able to escape to North Africa.

When I moved to this village in 2005, he had written to the mayor. He was dying. And he asked that he be allowed to be buried next to his parents and family in the village cemetery. The mayor granted his wish. His body was returned to the village and he is buried now in the cemetery where the boys are also buried.

When I first moved to Provence, with my curiosity and questions, I was warned that the stories of the Resistance were still raw. Near the end of the war, many had used the chaos to settle old scores—you could kill with impunity or cover up a shameful past. It was messy. It would be hard to unravel who had really been in the Resistance and who had profited by joining in the final days of the war.

The final days of the war in Germany were equally chaotic. Orders from Hitler had been to evacuate or liquidate all camps ahead of the Allies. All the satellite labor camps and the larger camps emptied, and groups of prisoners were marched to unknown destinations with no plan, no food, no water. SS soldiers shot at any prisoner who stumbled out of line or fell from exhaustion. With 5000 other women, the nine from my book were lined up and set out onto the road to march non-stop for thirty-six hours. It snowed the first night. They hadn't eaten in days. Soon the higher up officials abandoned the marches, and just the lowest German guards were left, terrified themselves, not knowing what to do, and sensing that they were in danger for their own lives. Some of the guards took clothes from the corpses of dead prisoners along the road and tried to slip in, to pass as prisoners. Near the end everything was unraveling. The frenzied confusion of the Death March brought clarity to the nine women, they had one choice: escape or die trying.

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On Finding and Not Finding Josée

photo courtesy of Amis de la Fondation
pour la Mémoire de la Déportation de l'Allier 

Today, March 28, is Josephine Bordonava's birthday. She would be 97 today. She is one of the women in the group of nine from my book. It took me a long time to find Josée in the archive. I didn't know her last name, and I didn't know if Josée was her real name or a nom de guere. I knew from accounts that she was Spanish and young. I knew she had a beautiful singing voice. For a while I thought she was one of the eight Spanish women listed as being at Leipzig HASAG by Mercedes Nunez Targa, who was the secretary for Pablo Neruda. She wrote an account of her time in the camp, the death march, and the trail after the war of her torturer. But most of the women on Mercedes' list were too old to be Josée. The only one who was young enough turned out to be married. I knew that at the time of the escape Josée was not married.

One day in a random document I saw that a Josephine Bordonava at Leipzig HASAG was listed as being Spanish. Both her parents were Spanish refugees. She was not part of the politically active Spanish Republicans in the camp and so not on Nunez Targa's list, but there she was.

Once I had a full name for her, I found more information on her which fit perfectly with the story I knew about my nine women. When her military record stated she escaped with a group of nine and found the US army in Colditz, I knew it had to be her. I was able to learn a little about her childhood. She was raised in a foster home in Cannes run by Germaine and Alban Fort who worked with Moussa Abadi and Odette Rosenstock on the Marcel Network hiding Jewish children. She was probably active in the Resistance from a young age, but she officially joined as soon as she turned 18. Her military record mentions her beautiful singing voice.

I found a relation, but they did not respond to my requests for an interview. I found a death certificate showing that she died in a hospital in Cannes, but the person who signed as a witness did not respond to my requests either. I tried a few other leads. But I kept getting nowhere.

I could have searched longer and deeper but I had a deadline and a book to write. And so Josée remains for me the one of the nine whom I know the least about. She married Jacques Armynot du Chatelet after the war, but by 1956 they were divorced. At some point she moved away from Paris to return to the South of France. The others lost touch with her. She had no children. I don't know what she did to earn a living. I don't know who she loved; who were her close friends; what she did for fun; how she filled her days; whether she talked about the war; whether she was proud of her accomplishments.

Maybe there is someone who knew her well enough to have heard her story. Maybe someone reading my book will contact me and tell me that I got it all wrong. That they knew Josée and she was…

I would love that. I hope it happens. I hope Josée's full story does not remain hidden.

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