Denise Vernay

”Much has been written, spoken and shown about the horrors of the deportation, always stressing that they are indescribable, and rightly so. Pain, cold, hunger, thirst, lack of sleep, insurmountable misery that people nevertheless managed to overcome, the bodies, the terrible suffering repressed in the subconscious mind.

The images remain forever:

thousands of women lined up in rows of 10, standing in cold or hot weather for hours until the siren signaling the end of roll call wailed; the increasingly emaciated bodies of our companions; the anonymous dead; a face with eyes whose light has gone out; bunk beds with the youngest women on top and the older, less mobile ones on the bottom, with, depending on the period, two or three sharing a 70cm-wide straw mat. Then there were the faces, the silhouettes of those who did not come home. They did not grow old with us. And also the images of the immense sky above our endless roll calls.

A relative but quite real solidarity, combined with luck, enabled many women to survive. We supported our mothers, sisters, close or less-close friends. We shared what little we had, even our strength, but with everybody and in that case it was not very effective.

What I, who cannot forgive, remember is all those imposed, impossible choices, with just my mind and arms to help a growing number of exhausted comrades: which one should be replaced to carry the heavy cans of so-called “coffee” in the morning? To whom should I give a lump of sugar or aspirin tablet, gifts from a POW I met while working outside the camp and brought back despite the risk of being beaten with 20 strokes of the club or worse? I gave everything to a collective. Is that what I would I have done if my mother or one of my sisters had been with me?

I would never want anybody to have to make those kinds of choices.”

Denise Vernay in Franc-Tireur, 23 August 1946