By Paul Kunstenaar, excerpt translated by John Mucci
In the summer of 1940, evacuated from Belgium along with thousands of others, down through the south of France. To work in the munitions factories—thereby taking arms against the Germans—I was stupefied, as was the whole world, by the armistice, by that transformation of the French government, and by the speeches of Marshal Pétain on “the lies that have brought us so much trouble”… etc., etc.
Yet despite the wretchedness of those days, I felt as though taken by an enormous optimism. Pétain had announced a new dawn—so for me that meant I went to join the Compagnons de France, and two years later, to join the French cause and join either the French Army or the Navy…
But alas, I didn’t count on the bad-will of the authorities. At Pézénas, the gendarmes made me wait two weeks before they noticed me; under orders from on high, it being forbidden to live in France, I had to return to Belgium by the next possible train. My prayers and supplications were in vain. In that region, it didn’t take long for the buzz to go around that I was ‘an adolescent, one of the Jewish evacués who was trying to stay in France because he’s scared of the Germans.’ A stupid innuendo: born and educated in France, a Belgian father, I had no fear of Germans. I wanted to be a Frenchman with all my heart—that’s all. There was nothing to be done: at the end of August, the gendarmes made me take the next train back to Belgium.
In 1942, I returned to France and stayed in Lille at that time, to try to join the French Army. Fresh refusals fell on me. In tears, I spent days and nights on foot around the border roads, without eating or drinking much of anything. I pushed further south, illegally, in the hope of getting to the sea; from there, perhaps I could get a boat to North Africa, and try to join …
In Paris, totally spent, nearly dead and ready to sell my clothes to live, I managed to come up with a train ticket to –Brussels. But back in Brussels I had no more than a bare subsistence, and after a day or two upon my return, I realized that I was on the verge of being denounced as a Jew and arrested. My arrest would mean the automatic arrest of my two brothers: my enemies knew of their whereabouts.
What to do? Every day I talked with God, and I asked Him to explain. My catholic friends encouraged me, but couldn’t do anything for me, except give me money now and then. Every day, then, I called upon the Eternal. One beautiful morning, at the home of my elder brother Gerard, I received a letter from a Dutch, catholic, friend of mine, Demilly. He was 16 years old and had joined a few months back the NSKK—a band of truck drivers for the German Army. From the Russian front, Demilly sang to me the charms of his new position, his adventures in Russia with “his big truck” – page after lyrical page…
Suddenly, I understood that Dimilly’s letter was a sign from God. The Almighty was ordering me to be a truck driver for the NSKK. And if they asked me when I went to join, if I were a Jew? Then the will of Heaven would be done. I decided to go and join up the next day.
When I took the tramway for downtown Brussels, my brother Gerard and his wife, full of regret that I hadn’t thought this through, ran beside the rails a good minute crying out for me to change my mind: that they were worried sick about me… But now I threw my fate into the hands of God, and there was no question of changing my mind.
From Part 23
But I headed the conversation onto more serious subjects:
One fine afternoon, we found ourselves on the left bank of the Danube, stationed before a fairytale castle: the Convent of Melk, I learned later on. The Sturmführer and the Spieß came out of nowhere in a PKW and ordered a halt. We drivers went to stay in a Lager, already full of workers from the four corners of Europe.
* * *
On all sides, you saw dozens of a kind of huge mechanical cockroach, the Planieraupen, with which the workyard bosses, in civilian clothes, drove through both field and forest. The swarms of foreign workers constantly erected new barracks, and they in turn were lodged there, as new workers came on board.
Once we were installed at the Lager, the Schleswig Sturmfürher gave us an ominous speech, despite his outward demeanor of a “Good Old Papa.” In the days we’d pass there, he said, we might see things unexpectedly –we would no doubt see the Sträflinge: if any one of us made a sound about what was going on in this region, the guilty one would be thrown into prison with the Sträflinge. So if the shoe fits…
--What is he rambling about, there? Bah! We’ll soon see, murmured the drivers once we’d broken ranks.
One morning, 6 or 7 Walloon drivers I was with were picked to go out with the workers. As we weren’t acquainted with the local geography, each of us saw to taking along as armed German soldier, who took his place next to the driver, to point out the way. By the radiant morning light we headed out on the road; and many times during the drive I nearly exclaimed aloud at the sight of dream-perfect villas nestled among the foothills of this mountainous region. Each villa gloried in opulent heaps of flowers in little gardens tended with meticulous care.
Our trucks arrived at an area enclosed in barbed wire. To get in, one had to show “patte blanche.” The highest ranking of the soldiers accompanying us got down to show papers to the sentries. After a few words together, the barrier opened and the trucks could pass in.
Inside, I noticed at once six or seven men in prison garb, who carried on a litter something covered with a white cloth. “A corpse?” I wondered. The soldier sitting by my side advised me: “Forbidden to say one word with the Sträflinge or to give them anything they ask for, or else there is the possibility of worse punishment.”
These must be the ultra-dangerous prisoners, I said to myself.
By chance, as my truck happened to be at the head of 4 or 5 others, the Wehrmacht soldier pointed out the road to follow, winding around the camp. We ended by opening out onto t a vast strip of flat ground, where a hundred or more prisoners in striped pajamas and blue berets moved in close ranks. My guide indicated other trucks already stationed on a corner of the strip and said to me, “Park next t them, and open the tailgate.”
Fresh columns of prisoners flowed out from every side. On the earth strip the newly arrived brushed up against their brothers barely in place, because the SS roughed up the sluggish ones and knocked at them with blows from a stick if they failed to find their place quickly enough. Other noncom SS were posted on the periphery of this crowd of inmates, ranged in a huge square, empty in the middle, and talked among themselves while tossing dirty looks at the prisoners. These SS officers held themselves tall and stiff, disdainful, dandified in the Prussian manner, affected as were all officers in the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. After a moment a fat Hauptsturmbahnführer made his appearance, a leashed police dog held in one hand, and a cudgel in the other. Sighting him, all the military who were present, simple soldiers and officers, came to attention; and among the thousand condemned who were arrayed one up against the other on the strip, I could feel a wind of terror pass through.
Someone barked out an order--: the prisoners took off their berets and kept them in their right hand as a sign of respect. The Hauptsturmbahnführer set to haranguing the prisoners; soon he became vicious and yelled out, casting menacing looks. During the course of this harangue, the SS officers of the lowest rank set to barking in turn to the Sträflinge, so much so, that at last there was yelping heard from every side. This act went on for ten minutes or more.
Unexpectedly, a shrill whistle tore through the air, and the prisoners ran to climb up into the open truck beds. But their bare feet in their wooden sabots kept them from running fast, and the drivers had to lower the rails in the back, over which the prisoners climbed with difficulty: they feared to lose their sabots, and during the general yelling, hoisted themselves up into the truck.
The SS badgered them with shouts, and gave them bouts of blows of the stick on their spines, those who were the feeble, the last, the pushed.
Once all the ‘striped pajamas’ were installed in the open truck beds, we were prisoner transports—drivers taken from diverse organizations, seen with soldier guides from the Wehrmacht, armed to the teeth, who ordered the rails to be put back up, and then I noticed other guards who’d already climbed into the four corners of the truck bed, these last armed with machine guns.