Monday, June 27, 2011

Hortense Daman: One Last Chance

A tall German officer in an SS uniform stepped onto a train car loaded with female prisoners, their hands and feet chained to their train seats. He glanced around the car until he noticed one particular prisoner, a pretty 17-year-old girl. He walked over to her.

"I'll give you once last chance," he said.

"I don't understand," the girl replied.

The officer almost smiled. "I'll give you your freedom, set your free, if you can tell me where I can find your brother."

"I can't help you," the girl replied.

"Can you hear what I'm saying to you?" he asked again. "Do you understand?"

"I've nothing to say," she replied.

The officer knew that this girl had been subjected to 30 days of beatings and interrogation by the Belgian SS. They were all looking for her brother, Francois Daman, a leading member of the local Resistance who had thus far skillfully evaded their grasp. The girl had taken beating after beating but repeatedly refused to reveal her brother's whereabouts.

This officer was an experienced interrogator who had seen grown men break down and betray their associates under similar treatment. This young woman had been beaten day after day but had remained silent . . .

"A pity, Hortensia," he said. He stepped back, snapped his heels together, and saluted her. "I wish you had been a German." Then he stepped off the train. The wheels of the train began to squeak. It was headed for Ravensbruck, a place called L'Enfer des Femmes or "the Women's Inferno." It was a concentration camp for women . . .

Excerpt from "Hortense Daman: Partisan Courier" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Quotations taken from pages 188-189 of "Child at War: The True Story of a Young Belgian Resistance Fighter."

Ebba Lund: The Girl with the Red Cap

Danish Jews. This photo was most likely taken upon their safe arrival in Sweden.
Soon hundreds of Jews were flocking to Copenhagen and being sent to Sweden in the group of boats that Ebba had organized. Most of the other Danish rescue missions operated only under cover of darkness but Ebba did her work by the light of day. Her reasoning was that the Germans had established a sundown curfew and she didn't want to invite extra trouble. Plus, who would suspect an illegal rescue operation to be occurring in broad daylight?

During the rescue operations, Ebba became known as the Girl with the Red Cap, Red Cap, or Red Riding Hood because she would wear a red cap as a silent signal to the Jews who would be escorted to the port with directions to look for her. Ebba would then walk them down to the boats, pay the fishermen, and make sure the Jews got away safely . . .

One day, after Ebba had helped a group of Jews into a boat and had already taken off her red cap, she was standing on the pier about to pay the fishermen when five Germans in Wehrmacht uniforms began walking toward her . . .

Excerpt from "Ebba Lund: The Girl with the Red Cap" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Irene Gut: "Only a Young Girl"

Irene Gut, a 19-year-old Polish girl, took a seat in the church, her mind filled with worries about food and heat, worries that would have been inconceivable to her just a few years before. The German blitzkreig that had rained fire from the sky two years earlier, when she had been a 17-year-old student nurse, had turned her beloved Poland into smoke, rubble, and ash. Irene had fled from the hospital with the other doctors and nurses as they had followed the retreating Polish army amid the screeching chaos of the blitzkreig. They had traveled east for miles and miles with no particular destination; just as far away as possible from the unstoppable German onslaught.

After learning that their country no longer existed -- that Hitler and Stalin had divided Poland between themselves -- they ended up near the Soviet border in the forests of Lithuania and the Polish Ukraine in a desperate struggle to survive. And try and she might, Irene could never forget the worst experience of all; being discovered, beaten, and raped by Soviet soldiers.

Now she was finally back in her hometown of Radom, Poland. But it was not the same town she remembered. Swastikas were everywhere. Jews were beaten and mocked in the streets. Nazi soldiers regularly shot anyone suspected of overt rebellion as well as anyone who accidentally broke one of the numerous new laws. All the Poles were near starvation, eating what little they could get with the strict ration cards distributed by the Germans while the occupiers ate to their fill.

Irene was suddenly stirred from her worries. She could hear German soldiers outside the church, shouting orders loudly . . .

Opening paragraphs from "Irene Gut: 'Only a Young Girl'" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sophie Scholl and the White Rose

On February 3, 1943, after the Nazi government admitted to defeat by the Soviets at Stalingrad, Hans Scholl, Alex Schmorell, and Willi Graf went out that night (as well as two subsequent nights, February 8 and 15) and painted slogans such as "Freedom," "Down with Hitler," and "Hitler mass murderer" in public places all over Munich.

Then they decided to do something even bolder. On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie carried a large suitcase filled with copies of the sixth White Rose pamphlet into a lecture hall at the University of Munich. They placed piles of the leaflets outside the classrooms, on windowsills, and on the large stairway that led down to the main floor.

They had just left the building when Sophie suddenly realized that there were perhaps 100 nore leaflets left in the suitcase. They went back inside . . .

Excerpt from "Sophie Scholl: The White Rose" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Martha Gellhorn's First Encounters with the Nazis

Martha Gellhorn in Spain in the 1930's. JFK Memorial Library

Martha Gellhorn first knew she wanted to be a writer when she was a 16-year-old student at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri. Encouraged in her writing endeavors by two of her English teachers, she decided to send several of her poems to the celebrated poet Carl Sandburg. He wrote back saying, "If you must be a writer, you will be."

Her mother, a suffragette leader and social reformer, and her father, a medical doctor who at the time was one of the only whites in St. Louis to regularly invite black people to dinner with his family, had instilled a strong desire to learn in their three sons and their daughter. But after three years at Bryn Mawr College, Martha decided that her thirst for knowledge could not be satisfied in a college setting. She wanted to write novels in Europe and thought that journalism would be a way to make a living while doing what she loved . . .

In 1934, while living and writing in France, Martha was included as part of a special delegation of young French people invited to Berlin, Germany, to strengthen ties of friendship between France and Germany. After the train of young people arrived in Berlin, Martha and her friends were shocked when German border guards walked into their train car and confiscated their books and newspapers. They responded by singing the "Marseillaise," the rousing French national anthem.

The rest of the trip did little to change Martha's negative opinion of Nazi Germany. The Hitler Youth movement seemed too boisterously patriotic, and everyone seemed obsessed with race, especially the supposed superiority of the Aryans over all others, particularly the Jews. As Martha's parents were both half Jewish, she found this very disturbing . . .

Opening paragraphs of "Martha Gellhorn: War Correspondent" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Johtje Vos: Rescuer

Johtje and Aart Vos didn't sit down one day and decide to begin rescuing Jews from the Nazis in their Dutch village of Laren. Their rescue work began with a piano, a child, and a suitcase.

When their good freinds, professional musicians Nap and Alice de Klijn, were ordered to move into the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam, the de Klijn's signed over ownership of one of their pianos to Johtje to protect if from the Germans. The de Klijn's also had a child who was hiding with another family, and when that hiding place suddenly became unsafe, Johtje and Aart took the child into their home, no questions asked. And when another good friend received word that he was also being forced to move to the Jewish section of Amsterdam, he asked the Voses if they would hide a suitcase of valuables for him. They agreed.

Before long the Voses had joined a Resistance organization composed of other like-minded people in the Laren area. The members of the Laren Resistance called themselves the Group. The Voses agreed to work for the Group by using their home as a hiding place for anyone on the run from the Nazis.

Opening paragraphs of "Johtje Vos: A Group Effort" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Johtje Vos: The SS and the NSB Arrive

Suddenly a black Gestapo car pulled up in front of the house. Aart and the hiders ran for the tunnel. The ID cards were still on the table. What was Johtje to do? Their nine-year-old son Peter had just come running down the stairs when he heard the commotion. Johtje stuffed the cards into his sweater and then told him to walk away quietly. Peter clearly understood what was going on, so he took a ball outside and began to bounce it up and down. When he passed the officers, he played his part well, greeting them politely as he walked farther and farther away.

Johtje was horrified that she had put her son in such danger, but as the men walked in, she watched Peter out of the corner of her eye until she knew that he was safe. Now she had other things to worry about. Standing in her house were a German SS officer, a Dutch NSB officer, and Jan, his faced bruised and swollen. He begged Johtje to tell the men the location of the rubber stamps they were looking for. If she handed them over, they would spare his life.

Johtje didn't know what to do. Should she save her Resistance friend and tell the truth? Or should she deny any knowledge of the stamps, thereby saving everyone in the Laren Group, both the hiders and resisters?

Excerpt from "Johtje Vos: A Group Effort" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hortense Daman: Partisan Courier

Hortense had been only 13 when German had invaded Poland in 1939. Her brother, Francois, then 26, was a sergeant in the Belgian army. When Germany invaded and conquered Belgium in May of the following year, Francois began to work for the Red Cross, but that work was just a cover. In reality, he had joined the Belgian Army of Partisans, one of several large militant Resistance organizations in Nazi-occupied Belgium.

Francois asked Hortense to join the Partisans for two reasons. He knew that its work would not be successful without the help of female volunteers. He could also see that if he didn't give her something to do, Hortense might get involved on her own. Francois would rather that Hortense worked closely with him so that he could keep an eye on her.

He asked her to distribute copies of Belgium's most popular underground newspaper, "La libre Belgique" ("Free Belgium"). Then he asked her to deliver a letter to someone she would find sitting on a park bench. Soon, Hortense was doing regular courier work for Francois, delivering important items from place to place. Their mother owned a grocery store in their hometown of Louvain, so Hortense could perform these duties while riding her bike, supposedly delivering groceries. Some of the time she was actually doing just that, but they were black market groceries -- obtained illegally, without ration cards -- used to feed Allied airmen who were being hidden until they could be safetly escorted back to England.

Soon, Hortense's bike basket was filled with more than just groceries: she began delivering explosives for the Partisans . . .

Excerpt from "Hortense Daman: Partisan Courier" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Marie-Madeleine Fourcade: Leader of Alliance

Marie-Madeleine was starting to feel fairly confident in her work for Alliance when she suddenly discovered that her job title had changed drastically. Navarre had been arrested! He was sentenced to two years in prison by the Vichy government, headed by Marshal Petain. Up until this moment many in France, and even some in Alliance, had believed that Petain might have been secretly working with General de Gaulle, the head of the French Resistance in London, even as he pretended to oppose him. But when Navarre was sentenced to two years in prison, all hope was gone. Some members of Alliance were now confused. Who was the man to be trusted, Petain or Navarre?

Marie-Madeleine hadn't the slightest doubt about the answer to this question. Petain had condemned General de Gaulle to death and had made a bargain with the Germans. Navarre, on the other hand, she would trust with her life. And now he was putting his trust in her, only in a greater way . . . the work and safety of the Alliance members -- 3,000 spies -- would be on her shoulders for the duration of the war. She would also have sole responsibility for deciding which pieces of information were important enough to send to the French Resistance offices in London. There was no question of stepping down. She was determined to continue the work of Alliance.

The Alliance spies were so numerous and so successful that they eventually came to the attention of the Germans. Many Alliance agents were captured and interrogated, and unfortunately, some of them surrendered information. Names were given out. The Germans were on the lookout for those in high positions in the network; if they could find them and get them to talk, Alliance might be destroyed.

Excerpt from "Marie-Madeleine Fourcade: Only a Woman" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Monica Wichfeld: Irish Heroine of the Danish Resistance

A woman carrying a large, heavy bag walked quietly onto a pier where a rowboat was tied, awaiting her use. It was past midnight, but the moon was bright and lit her way as she rowed silently through the still waters of the lake. On these quiet, moonlit nights, this lake reminded her of her childhood, when she used to create magical imaginary worlds with her beloved brother Jack on the lake of their beautiful estate in Northern Ireland.

She still couldn't bear to speak Jack's name aloud, even though he had been killed many years before, during World War I. That war had been started in part, as the current one had, by the Germans, and she would never forgive them for the conflict that took her brother's life. That is why Monica Wichfeld was now risking her life and safety by rowing the two miles across the lake with a bag full of explosives to be used by the Danish Resistance.

Opening paragraphs from "Monica Wichfeld: Irish Heroine of the Danish Resistance" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

The Danish Rescue of the Jews: Ebba Lund

Many Danes were content with the polite German occupation, but others were deeply offended and joined Resistance organizations. Some of these organizaions were involved with explosives, weapons, and acts of sabotage and assassination. Others, like the ones Ebba Lund and her sister, Ulla, joined, published illegal underground newspapers. By 1942, two years after the invasion, there were 48 different underground papers in Denmark (and by the end of the war there were 166). "Frit Danmark" (Free Denmark), the paper for which Ebba Lund worked, was the most popular of all Denmark's underground presses because of its lively writing style and its inclusion of many different political opinions, both liberal and conservative. By the end of the war, over six million copies of "Frit Danmark" had been published.

The debate over the necessity for illegal groups and newspapers ended with the publication of another paper, the public one that Ebba had just read. It stated that because of the rise of sabotage activities, the Danish government had lost its ability to maintain order and was being shut down.

The Danish government had resigned the day before the edict, on August 28, rather than cooperate with the Germans any longer. The Danes were finally united and not a moment too son; shortly afterward plans for a roundup of all Danish Jews became known. The Germans ran Denmark now, and nothing was going to stop them in their question to destroy all of Europe's Jews.

Nothing except the Danes. They quickly took action. Sweden had promised to accept any and all Danish Jews who could be brought there. All over Denmark, rescue plans were set in motion. Ebba joined the sabotage-oriented Resistance group Holger Danske (named for a legendary Danish hero), which was planning to work its rescue operation out of Copenhagen . . .

Excerpt from "Ebba Lund: The Girl with the Red Cap" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Muriel Phillips, U.S. Army Nurse: Normandy

US Army nurses in Chester, England, before D-Day. Muriel Phillips is in front, saluting the brass.

"For their next assignment, Muriel and her entire hospital unit . . . were going to cross the English Channel to nurse the wounded of the Normandy invasion (which had taken place several weeks earlier) and await orders for their final destination.

The nurses decided to sleep on the ship's deck as the rooms below were infested with bedbugs. Muriel could hear the German planes flying overhead as she lay in the darkness; she had learned the difference bretween the sound of a German plane and an Allied one. But because a blackout had been ordered on the ship, all the lights had been extinguished. Muriel and the other nurses were not visible to the enmy planes as their transport ship crossed silently thorugh the dark waters of the English Channel.

A trip across the Channel usually took only two or three hours, but all the debris in the water -- broken remnants of airplanes, pieces of ruined ships -- had slowed the trip down substantially so that it took them three days. Finally, the coast of Normandy came into view . . .

As their trucks approached the nearest village, Muriel and the others became silent. The sights -- and smells -- of war were everywhere. Homes and farms lay in ruins. Piles of rubble lay where buildlings had once stood. The smell of death and decay hung in the air . . ."

Excerpt from "Muriel Phillips: U.S. Army Nurse" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Pearl Witherington: In France After D-Day

Pearl Witherington (far right), Henri Cornioley (third from left), and other French resisters who worked with them after D-Day. 
Courtesy of Herve Larroque.

The Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France -- D-Day -- had finally come. Urgent orders had come from London to obstruct the roads to hinder German troops from getting to the Normandy coast, where the Allies had just landed. Pearl Witherington, an SOE agent, and the rural French maquis fighters she was working with had been very busy for two days following these orders, blocking the roads in their area with felled trees and large pieces of debris.

A young man who had just bicycled in from Paris, 80 miles northeast, was outside the gatehouse of the chateau property where Pearl and her team of maquis were living. Pearl questioned him about the condition of the roads to the north.

She was shocked by what he told her: the only obstructions he had seen were in their immediate area. None of the other networks had obeyed the order. The Germans, always trying to weed out bands of maquis, would certainly come looking for whoever had created these obstructions.

Two days later a low-flying reconnaissance plane (referred to by the maquis as the Snoop) flew over Pearl's area. Had the pilot seen them?

Apparently so . . .

Opening paragraphs of "Pearl Witherington: The Courier Who Became a Leader" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Read Pearl's edited memoirs here. 

U.S. Army Nurses: Work, Play, and Song

U.S. Army nurse Muriel Phillips in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge with two "weapons" given her by concerned G.I. patients (a blackjack in her right hand, and a switchblade in her left pocket).

Excerpt from Muriel P. Engleman's memoir, "Mission Accomplished: Stop the Clock."

"For many of our GI patients, we were the first American women they had seen in months or years, and this was even more exciting for them than sleeping on a bed with a mattress and clean sheets (something they had not experienced since they left the States). I remember one patient who had grown so accustomed to sleeping in his foxhole that he could not adjust to the luxury of a bed. I would find him each morning, curled up on the cement floor next to his bed. The American soldiers were so grateful for our just being there, and they worried more about our safety than their own. As harrowing as our existence was, it was still a very satisfying one, because we were doing what we came overseas to do.

"And we still had our social life when off duty, whether it was visiting friends at another post or just being in our own Officers' Club tent, dancing to the jukebox, writing letters, playing cards, or singing. Old songs, new songs, parodies ridiculing army brass -- we sang wherever we were. Someone would raise his voice in song, and soon everyone had joined in . . ."

Excerpt from page 54 of Muriel P. Engelman's memoir, Mission Accomplished: Stop the Clock.

(Women Heroes of WWII contains a chapter on Muriel's wartime experiences and it she who is leading the army nurses seen marching across the cover of the book).

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Nancy Wake: The White Mouse

A beautiful woman pedaled her bike furiously along the quiet French road. Her legs were numb with exhaustion. Her seat was very sore. Although she desperately wanted to stop and rest, she knew that if she did, she might not be able to make herself get back on the bike. And it was of the utmost importance that she continue. She was responsible for the arming and the welfare of 17 different maquis groups including 7,000 maquisards whose lives and work against the Nazis now depended solely on her bike ride. And so she pedaled on, blocking out the pain and wiping the sweat from her brow as best she could.

When she passed German soldiers on the road, she forced a sweet smile and waved. Little did the soldiers know that this pretty woman whose smiles and waves they returned was the same woman the Gestapo had named the White Mouse, who was near the top of its "most wanted" list and had an enormous price on her head. She had several code names as an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), such as Andree and Helene, but the name her parents had given her when she was born in New Zealand was Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Opening paragraphs from "Nancy Wake: The White Mouse" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Martha Gellhorn: War Correspondent

Martha Gellhorn in Spain during the 1930's.
JFK Memorial Library.

While in Spain, reporting the effects the Spanish Civil War had on civilians for Collier's weekly newsmagazine, Martha realized that Fascism had to be stopped in Spain or it would take another, larger war to do so. The Fascist Nationalists won the war.

On the evening of June 6, 1944, D-Day, Martha was walking through the docks of London. By this timne, she had been reporting on the world war for Collier's from England, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and the Far East. She no longer believed, as she once did,. that public opinion could be changed by journalism. After all, she and other jouirnalists had been reporting the dangerous rise of European Fascism for years, and it had only grown more powerful. What Martha wanted now was a front-row seat to the fall of Fascism, which she believed had just begun that morning on the shores of Normandy. She thought that being a journalist gave her that ticket.

But she was going to have to find her own ticket this time. Along with the troops that had crossed the English Channel from the very docks she was now strolling through, hundreds of writers, radio journalists, and war photographers had also crossed over into Normandy. Martha, by now a respected and renowned journalist, had not been allowed to travel with them for one simple reason: they were men, and she was a woman. Female reporters weren't allowed on the front lines of battle.

As Martha walked around the docks, she noticed a white ship that had red crosses painted on its side. It was a hospital ship that was going to cross the Channel to help the wounded . . .

Excerpt from "Martha Gellhorn: War Correspondent" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.