Gwen Strauss was intrigued to learn more about the great-uncle of Gwen Strauss, who revealed that she led nine Resistance women on a escape from a Nazi death march in 1944. This revelation set her on a path to retrace the steps of the women and ensure that their bravery was recognized over 75 years later.
Gwen Strauss enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the home of Helene Podliasky, her 83-year old great-aunt.
Helene was French, and Gwen, an American writer, lives in France.
It was 2002, and the conversation turned towards Helene's history. Gwen knew that her great-uncle had been a Resistance fighter in France during World War Two. However, she didn't know much about her past.
Helene shared the story of her capture by the Gestapo and torture, as well as how she was deported to Germany for a concentration camp. The allies approached the camp and Helene was forced to walk miles on a Nazi death march as they approached.
She said, "Then I fled with a group women," briefly.
Gwen was astonished.
Gwen says that as it was getting close to the end of her life she felt ready to talk about it. "And like many survivors who kept quiet for years, they sometimes didn't speak with their immediate family. They would instead speak to someone a bit further away."
Helene Podliasky, who was just 24 years old when she was captured working as an agent de liaison in the north east France Resistance was. Christine was her nom de guerre. Helene was fluent in five languages, including German, and was an engineer with high qualifications.
Gwen says that she was very high up in Resistance ranks. She had been working for more than a year, contacting agents and leading parachute drops. She was brilliant. An elegant, quiet, but forceful person."
Helene was arrested in 1944 in the final years of war. This was after the Nazis had made a huge push to dismantle all Resistance networks in France. Eight other women were also arrested during the time. Helene's friend from school was also one of them.
Gwen says Suzanne Maudet (nom-de guerre: Zaza), was kind, optimistic and generous. Rene Maudet was her Resistance member at 22 when she married Suzanne Maudet. They were arrested for helping young Frenchmen escape underground to the Resistance, rather than being drafted to the German factories.
Gwen says that Nicole Clarence was then in charge of all agents de liaison in Paris. This put her in great danger. She was just 22 years old when she was taken into custody three weeks before Paris was liberated in August 1944.
Jacqueline Aubery du Boulley (Jacky), was also one the last Parisian prisoners. Jacky, who was 29 years old, was a war widow and a part of the Resistance's key intelligence network. As her father was a seaman, she was raised by her aunt and uncle.
Gwen says that "when he returned home, she moved in with him." She was quite salty in that way. She spoke like a sailor, and her thoughts were very clear. She was a smoker all the time. Her voice was deep and gravelly. She was strong.
Gwen describes Gwen as extremely loyal and caring.
Madelon Verstijnen, (Lon), and Guillemette Dändels (Guigui), were 27 and 23 respectively when they were taken into custody. Gwen says they were good friends and came from wealthy Dutch families.
She says that they arrived in Paris to join the Dutch network. However, they were immediately swept up and taken into custody almost as soon as they arrived. Guigui was a more athletic, calm, and ethereal person than Lon, who was more "I got in the middle" kind of person.
Gwen is Renee Lebon Chatenay, also known as Zinka (Zinka), and she is described as "incredibly brave". Lon described Zinka as a "little doll" with short blonde curls, a gap between her front teeth and a short height. Her husband and she worked together for a network that assisted British airmen in returning to England.
Zinka, who was 29 years old, was taken into custody. She had a baby in jail named France. Zinka was deported from Germany after Zinka was allowed to keep her baby only for 18 days. Zinka said that she needed to live for her daughter.
Then, there was Yvonne Le Guillou. Gwen describes her a working-class girl who "loved being in love." She was a member of the Dutch networks in Paris, and she had fallen for a Dutch boy. At 22 years old, she was arrested.
Josephine Bordanava (Josee), the youngest of the nine, was only 20 years old when she was detained in Marseille. Gwen says she was Spanish and had the most beautiful singing voice.
Josee, she said, would soothe and calm the children by singing to them.
All nine of them were transferred to Ravensbruck in northern Germany. They then went to work in Leipzig as armament workers. They formed a strong friendship here.
Conditions in the camp were horrible. They were starved and tortured.
They created a network of friends that helped them survive. Gwen says that there was a camp tradition. It involved passing around a bowl to show solidarity, and each person would add a spoonful of their soup. The bowl would be given to the person who was most in need that day.
Gwen says that although the hunger was difficult, the women found it comforting to talk about food. Nicole would recount her chestnut cream and strawberry bavarois recipes every night. These were written down on paper scraps that Nicole had stolen from the office. Nicole covered the book with a portion of her mattress to make it look like a recipe book.
Gwen recorded Helene’s complete account and said that her great-aunt wanted her to understand that they were still soldiers despite being incarcerated. The women also worked together to sabotage the production of shells for a weapon known as the panzerfaust.
Gwen was one of the 5,000 women who led the evacuation of the camp after the Allies bombarded it so many times in April 1945 that the Nazis decided to leave the camp. She said that the Nazis had evacuated the camp because they saw a large number of starving and exhausted women, wearing thin clothing and having blistered feet.
Gwen claims that the march was dangerous for women.
Gwen says that "they really knew they had only one option": either they could escape or be killed. They found a time when everything was chaotic and they leapt into a ditch pretending to be a bunch of corpses. The march went on without them because there were so many corpses.
The women then set out to search for American soldiers at the front line over the next 10 days. Jacky was suffering from diphtheria, Gwen says, Zinka was suffering from tuberculosis and Nicole was still recovering after pneumonia. Helene also suffered chronic hip pain. They were both starving and had broken bones, but they wanted to be free.
To find the exact route the women took, it took much detective work and three trips in Germany. Gwen noticed something striking when she retraced the steps of the women. It was how little they were making each day.
Gwen says that they only travel five to six kilometers sometimes.
Gwen says that the irony of their situation is that they are starving and need food. She also needs somewhere to sleep safe. "They could fall into a trap or get killed by the villager."
Helene and Lon both spoke German. They would always ask permission from the village head to stay in a barn or to eat without food.
Gwen says that "they decide very quickly that the best strategy is to act as though there's nothing wrong being there, just pretend like everything's fine and they'ren't scared."
It is when they realize that the Americans at the front are on the other side the Mulde river in Saxony (Germany), it becomes the final hurdle.
Gwen says, "For me, the most moving was to stand on the Mulde bridge and gaze at the river." Gwen had information about the women in their military archives. She also found it from the women's written accounts of their escape from Lon, as well as from filmmakers who spoke to the families of the women.
She discovered that crossing the river was the most difficult moment for women during their escape.
After making it to the other side, some women felt helpless. Jacky was having trouble breathing, but the women insisted that no one would be left behind. Two American soldiers ran up to Jacky and offered safety and a cigarette.
Gwen said that she learned how difficult it was for women to get back to their normal lives after the war.
Gwen says that they looked "gaunt and horrible" and that there was a sense of shame about being in a camp.
"They were so close together as a group, and suddenly they are dispersed with people who they can't speak to, people who don't want it to be heard. It must have been very psychologically isolating, I believe. It's a psychologically isolating experience, similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but not recognized because they weren't considered soldiers.
Gwen says that as young women, their stories were kept quiet after the war, which meant their heroism was not recognized.
Gwen says that six of the 1,038 Compagnons de la Liberation (which was the group President Charles de Gaulle considered to be the leaders of Resistance), were women. Four of them had already died." "So that's absurd, because at least half of the Resistance were women."
Some women chose to move on from the past, says Gwen. Others like Guigui and Mena stayed close friends for the rest of their lives and were godmothers to one another's children.
Gwen says that the women did reunite late in the story.
What happened to Zinka's baby France?
Gwen claims she was looking for her for three years. Gwen says that she found her by a strange coincidence and that she lived not far from me in southern France when I visited her. "She replied, "Well, imagine me after 70-years to learn all about my mother."
France was reunited with her mother following the war. Zinka, however, became very ill from tuberculosis contracted at camp. She had to have multiple operations. Gwen says Zinka was often too weak to care for her daughter as a child and would often be sent to live in the home of other family members.
Zinka died in 1978. France didn't know the story about her mother's escape. Gwen says that Zinka didn't realize how crucial she was to her mother and to her mother's survival.
In 2012, Helene, Helene's great-aunt, died. Gwen wrote a book about Helene's final moments.
Gwen says that women bear the brunt in wars in unacknowledged and profound ways. She wants that to be recognized and known.
Gwen wants to acknowledge the "amazing acts and generosity" of others. "All these small acts of kindness and generosity they showed each other are so beautiful, they should be recognized."
Gwen wrote a book called The Nine about her great-uncle.
Picture credits: Helene Podliasky (Zaza); Courtesy Martine Fourcaut. Nicole Clarence. Droits Reserves. Jacqueline Aubery du Boulley(Jacky); Madelon Verstijnen (Lon) Courtesy Patricia Elisabeth Frederique Wensink. Renee Lebon Chatenay, (Zinka); Courtesy France Lebon Chatenay dubroeucq.