BOOK DETAILS

From a World Apart: A Little Girl in the Concentration Camps

From a World Apart: A Little Girl in the Concentration Camps

by Francine Christophe

ISBN: 9780803264021

Publisher Bison Books

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Family & Childhood, History/World

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Sample Chapter


Chapter One


This is not a full account, but a series of snapshots. Many have been lost in my childhood memory, some have yellowed with age; I have kept only the clear images.

What follows is totally without literary pretension. From the age of twelve, I noted down my memories as they emerged from the spiritual desert into which suffering had plunged me, thinking even then that I should bear witness.

This little book was therefore inside my head. It took me only a few weeks to compose it in 1967, bringing together my ideas and notes.

I was a privileged little girl, because my father had been taken prisoner. And curious as it seems, that is what saved my life.

It all begins in Deauville, where Granny has rented a villa for the whole family: Uncle Daniel, Aunt Suzanne, their two daughters, Father, Mother, and myself.

Deauville in August '39, the sea and sand, the stroll from the town to the beach in long white bath robes, the children's club beach balls, taller than ourselves, onto which we are hoisted to be photographed.

And one day, when we come home, the radio is blaring in the house. Father and Mother go up to their room, very pale: Father comes back down wearing a suit and tie.

Kisses, smothering kisses, arms wrapped tightly, hearts bursting. The station, the train. And the radio that blares on about pink and blue forms.

I am six years old.

Later, Granny and Uncle Charles (he is Granny's second husband and we don't call him Grandpa) rent an apartment in Cimiez, above Nice. I go to school there and instantly pick up the lilting accent of the South.

Father obtains his first leave. Mother goes to pick him up at the station, and the way they look at each other fills me with contentment.

We go for a walk on the Promenade des Anglais. Mother is very beautiful, Father is magnificent with his double braided officer's cap, and I feel rather splendid myself with my grey coat from Mirkey, rue Saint Honoré, the shop founded by my grandmother.

Like the soldiers, I'm wearing a little army cap, the same grey as my coat.


Back to Paris.

People are saying it's a "funny kind of war" (une drôle de guerre), and indeed it is funny to go to school with a satchel in one hand and a gas mask in the other.

We live with Grandmother, on the rue Saint Honoré. The primary school on the rue de la Ville l'Evêque is next to an old house with a deep cellar, where we rehearse air raid drills. One of my school friends has a prettier mask than mine, funnier too, with a little capsule you can take off. Mine ends in a tube. I look like a funny elephant.

The way Mother helps me prepare my things every evening is funny too, woollen underwear on top of the pile (we mustn't catch cold in the cellars!).

Ah! If only Father were here too, how much fun the war would be.


June 1940. I'm six and a half. We are at La Baule, for a new kind of holiday, which Mother calls an "exodus."

She and I take a room with some local people; Aunt Suzanne and the girls come too.

People are going crazy everywhere. One day, the lines for the shops stretch all the way down the street and everything on the shelves disappears.

We have to cross the Loire, say the grown-ups. "We'll leave tomorrow with Aunt Suzanne, who has a car."

    And bang! The next day I have German measles ... it lasts forty-eight hours, but it's already too late. Forty-eight hours later, I watch a stream of roaring motorbikes go by, ridden by very young, very handsome (the invasion troops had been carefully chosen for their good looks), very well dressed (all in green) ... and very well armed, soldiers.


On the radio, we hear an appeal from a French general saying that one day we will win the war. Few people hear this appeal, but our landlady's son, a saddler, is leaving immediately to join this general, so he says.

A few days later, everyone has to take their radios along to the police station.

We have to return to Paris. With difficulty, we find two places in a train full of refugees from the North, now returning home because the invasion troops are everywhere.

For the journey, Mother puts an apron on me, and as I complain about it, says:

    "These people have lost everything, darling, we mustn't make them feel worse by parading such a pretty dress."

So I keep my apron on.

Father was fighting in Amiens during the bombing of the town. Apparently the commanding officers left, and Father brings the remainder of his men back to the Loire alone. This is called the Amiens retreat.

From Clisson, he sends us a photo showing his beard and hollow cheeks.

    Many officers have been grouped together there, and the high command makes them give their word of honor as French officers that they will not desert.

They all give their word ... and are all taken prisoner.


The Germans send them to Laval.

We set off there. We stay in a family boarding house and eat at a restaurant.

One lunchtime, a German soldier calls me over and offers me a sweet. "She never eats sweets!" cries Mother ... "As you wish, my dear." And he laughs.

When he leaves, the waitress explains that he had been a barber in the neighboring street for the past five years and has just revealed his nationality and spying activities.

He knows everyone and everyone is afraid of him.


As for Father, he is staying in the Grand Séminaire at Laval. On our first visit there, he explains that around 6,000 officers occupy a seminary meant for 150, that they sleep anywhere and everywhere, in the corridors, the toilets, the kitchens, and ... that they eat out of the chamber pots, buckets, and so on belonging to the nuns who did the cooking for the young priests. I think it's a bit dirty.

18 August 1940. I am seven.

Mother buys a huge cake and we leave for the Seminary. At the entrance, the sentry on duty goes through all the parcels and shakes the cake box violently.

"The imbecile!" cries Mother. Then she blanches and adds, "No, no, he can't have understood!" Neither did I.

We rejoin Father and his companions, who look worried when she tells them what she said.

We eat my cake, crushed, broken, but delicious all the same. Father and Mother kiss. It's hot, the grass is limp. What a wonderful seventh birthday.


Two days later, at visiting time, a mass of green-clad, armed soldiers bar the entrance.

Mother obtains permission to embrace Father. And, under the surveillance of the sentinels, Father holds us very close. (Continues...)

Excerpted from "From a World Apart: A Little Girl in the Concentration Camps" by Francine Christophe. Copyright © 2000 by Francine Christophe. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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