The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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FORTY-FOURTH DAY

MONDAY, 28TH JANUARY, 1946

DUBOST (Counsel for France): With the authorisation of the
Court, I should like to proceed with this part of the
presentation of the French case by hearing a witness who,
for nearly three years, lived in German concentration camps.

THE PRESIDENT: Would you stand up, please? Do you wish to
swear the French oath? Will you tell me your name?

MADAME CLAUDE VAILLANT COUTURIER

THE WITNESS: Claude Vaillant Couturier.

THE PRESIDENT: Will you repeat after me: I swear to speak
without hate or fear, to state the truth, all the truth.

(The witness repeated the oath after the President).

THE PRESIDENT: Raise the right hand and say "I swear."

THE WITNESS: I swear.

Direct Examination

QUESTIONS BY M. DUBOST:

Q. Is your name Madame Vaillant Couturier?

A. Yes.

Q. You are the widow of M. Vaillant Couturier?

A. Yes.

Q. Were you born in Paris on 3 November 1912?

A. Yes.

Q. And you are of French nationality, French born and of
parents who were of French nationality?

A. Yes.

Q. You are a Deputy in the Constituent Assembly?

A. Yes.

Q. You are a Knight of the Legion of Honour?

A. Yes.

Q. You have just been decorated by General Leugentilhomme at
the Invalides?

A. Yes.

Q. Were you arrested and deported? Will you please give your
testimony?

A. I was arrested on 9 February 1942 by Petain's French
police, who handed me over to the German authorities after
six weeks. I arrived on 20 March at the "Sante" prison in
the German quarter. I was questioned on 9 June 1942. At the
end of my interrogation they wanted me to sign a statement,
which was not consistent with what I had said. I refused to
sign it. The officer who had questioned me threatened me,
and when I told him that I was not afraid of death or of
being shot, he said, "But we have at our disposal

                                                  [Page 183]


means for killing that are far worse than merely shooting."
And the interpreter said to me," You do not know what you
have just done. You are going to leave for a concentration
camp in Germany. One never comes back from there."

Q. You were then taken to prison?

A. I was taken back to the Sante prison where I was placed
in solitary confinement. However, I was able to communicate
with my neighbours through the piping and the windows. I was
in a cell next to that of George Politzer, the philosopher,
and Jacques Solomon, physicist. M. Solomon is the son-in-law
of Professor Langevin, a pupil of Curie, one of the first to
study atomic disintegration.

George Politzer told me through the piping that during his
interrogation, after having been tortured, he was asked
whether he would write theoretical pamphlets for National
Socialism. When he refused, he was told he would be in the
first train of hostages to be shot.

As for Jacques Solomon, he also was horribly tortured, and
then thrown into a cell and only came out on the day of his
execution to say goodbye to his wife, who also was under
arrest at the Sante. Helen Solomon Langevin told me in
Romainville, where I found her when I left the Sante, that
when she went to her husband he moaned and said: "I cannot
take you in my arms, because I can no longer move them."

Every time that the internees came back from their
questioning one could hear moaning through the windows, and
they all said that they could not make any movement.

Several times during the five months I spent at the Sante,
hostages were taken to be shot. When I left the Sante on the
20 of August, 1942, I was taken to the Fortress of
Romainville, which was a camp for hostages. There I was
present on two occasions when they took hostages, on the 21
of August and the 22 of September. Among the hostages who
were taken away were the husbands of the women who were with
me and who left for Auschwitz. Most of them died there.
These women, for the most part, had been arrested only
because of the activity of their husbands. They themselves
had done nothing.

Q. When did you leave for Auschwitz?

A. I left for Auschwitz on the 23 of January 1943, and I
arrived there on the 27.

Q. Were you with a convoy?

A. I was with a convoy of 230 French women; among us were
Danielle Casanova who died in Auschwitz, Mai Politzer who
died in Auschwitz and Helene Solomon. There were some
elderly women - Q. What was their social position?A. They
were intellectuals and school teachers; they came from all
walks of life. Mai Politzer was a doctor, and the wife of
the philosopher George Politzer. Helene Solomon is the wife
of the physicist Solomon; she is the daughter of Professor
Langevin. Danielle Casanova was a dental surgeon and she was
very active among the women. It is she who organised a
resistance movement among the wives of prisoners.

Q. How many of you came back out of 230?

A. 49. In the convoy there were some elderly women. I
remember one who was 67, and had been arrested because she
had in her kitchen her husband's shotgun, which she kept as
a souvenir and had not declared, because she did not want it
to be taken from her. She died after a fortnight at
Auschwitz.

THE PRESIDENT: When you said only 49 came back, do you mean
only 49 arrived at Auschwitz?

THE WITNESS : No. Only 49 came back to France.

                                                  [Page 184]

There were also cripples, among them a singer who had only
one leg. She was taken out and gassed at Auschwitz.

There was also a young girl of sixteen, a high school pupil,
Claudine Guerin she also died at Auschwitz. There also were
two women who had been acquitted by the German Military
Tribunal, Marie Alonzo and Marie-Therese Fleuri; they died
at Auschwitz.

It was a terrible journey. We were 60 in a wagon and we were
given no food or drink during the journey. At the various
stopping places we asked the Lorraine soldiers of the
Wehrmacht who were guarding us, whether we would arrive
soon, and they replied: "If you knew where you are going you
would not be in a hurry to get there."

We arrived at Auschwitz at dawn. The seals on our wagons
were broken, and we were driven out by blows with the butt
end of a rifle, and taken to the Birkenau camp, a section of
the Auschwitz camp. It is situated in the middle of a great
plain, which was frozen in the month of January. During this
part of the journey we had to drag our luggage. As we passed
through the door, we knew only too well how slender were our
chances of coming out again. For we had already met columns
of living skeletons going to work, and as we entered we sang
the Marseillaise to keep up our courage.

We were led to a large shed, then to the disinfecting
station. There our heads were shaven and our registration
numbers were tattooed on the left forearm. Then we were
taken into a large room for a steam bath and a cold shower.

In spite of the fact that we were naked all this took place
in the presence of SS men and women. We were then given
clothing which was soiled and torn: a cotton dress and
jacket of the same material.

As all this had taken several hours, we saw from the windows
of the block where we were, the camp of the men, and toward
the evening an orchestra came in. It was snowing and we
wondered why they were playing music. We then saw that the
camp foremen were returning to the camp. Each foreman was
followed by men who were carrying the dead. As they could
hardly drag themselves along every time they stumbled they
were put on their feet again by blows with the butt end of a
rifle.

After that we were taken to the block where we were to live.
There were no beds but only bunks, measuring 2 x 2 metres,
and there nine of us had to sleep without any mattress, and
the first night without any blanket. We remained in blocks
of this kind for several months. We could not sleep all
night, because every time one of the nine moved - this
happened unceasingly because we were all ill - she disturbed
the whole row.

At 3 in the morning the shouting of the guards woke us up
and with cudgel blows we were driven from our bunks to go to
roll call. Nothing in the world could release us from going
to the roll call; even those who were dying had to be
dragged there. We had to stand there in rows of five until
dawn - i.e. until seven or eight o'clock in the morning in
winter, and when there was a fog, sometimes until noon. Then
the kommandos would start on their way to work.

M. DUBOST:

Q. Excuse me - can you describe the roll call?

A. For roll call we were lined up in rows of five, and we
waited until daybreak, until the "Aufseherinnen," the German
women guards in uniform, came to count us. They had cudgels
and they beat us more or less at random.

We had a comrade, Germaine Renaud, a school-teacher from
Azay-Le-Rideau, in France, who had her skull broken before
my eyes, from a blow with a cudgel during the roll call.

The work at Auschwitz consisted of clearing demolished
houses and especially draining of marsh land. This was by
far the hardest work, for all day long we had our feet in
the water and there was the danger of sinking. It frequently

                                                  [Page 185]

happened that we had to pull out a comrade who had sunk in
up to the waist. During the work the SS men and women who
stood guard over us would beat us with cudgels, and set
their dogs on us. Many of our friends had their legs torn by
the dogs. I even saw a woman torn to pieces and die under my
very eyes when Tauber, a member of the SS, encouraged his
dog to attack her and grinned at the sight.

The causes of death were extremely numerous. First of all,
there was the complete lack of washing facilities. When we
arrived at Auschwitz, for 12,000 internees there was only
one tap of water, unfit for drinking and it was not always
flowing. As this tap was in the German wash-house we could
reach it only by passing through the guards, who were German
women prisoners, and they beat us horribly as we went by. It
was therefore almost impossible to wash ourselves or our
clothes. For more than three months we remained without
changing our clothes. When there was snow, we melted some to
wash in. Later, in the spring, when we went to work, we
would drink from a puddle by the road side and then wash our
underclothes in it. We took it in turns to wash our hands in
this dirty water. Our companions died of thirst, because we
got only half a cup of some herbal tea twice a day.

Q. Please describe in detail one of the roll calls at the
beginning of February.

A. On the 5 of February there was what is called a general
roll call.

Q. In what year was that?

A. In 1943; at 3.30 the whole camp -

Q. 3.30 in the morning?

A. In the morning at 3.30 the whole camp was awakened and
sent out on the plain, whereas normally the roll call was at
the same time, but inside the camp. We remained out in front
of the camp in the snow until five in the afternoon without
any food. Then when the signal was given we had to go
through the door one by one, and we were struck in the back
with a cudgel, each one of us, in order to make us run.
Those who could not run, either because they were too old or
too ill, were caught by a hook and taken to Block 25,
"waiting block," for the gas chamber.

On that day 10 of the French women of our convoy were thus
caught and taken to the waiting block.

When all the internees were back in the camp, a party to
which I belonged was organised to go and pick up the bodies
of the dead which were scattered over the plain as on a
battlefield. We carried to the yard of Block 25 the dead and
the dying without distinction, and they remained there
stacked in the courtyard.

This block 25, which was the anteroom of the gas chamber, if
one may so call it, is well known to me because at that time
we had been transferred to Block 26 and our windows opened
on the yard of Block 25. One saw stacks of corpses piled up
in the courtyard, and from time to time a hand or a head
would stir amongst the bodies, trying to free itself; it was
a dying woman attempting to get free and live.

The rate of mortality in that block was even more terrible
than elsewhere because, having been condemned to death, they
received food or drink only if there was something left in
the cans in the kitchen; which means that very often they
went for several days without a drop of water.

One of our companions, Annette Epaux, a fine young woman of
thirty, passing the block one day, was overcome with pity
for those women who moaned from morning till night in all
languages, "drink, drink, water!" She came back to our block
to get a little herbal tea, but as she was passing it
through the bars of the window she was seen by the
Aufseherin, who took her by the neck and threw her into
Block 25.

All my life I will remember Annette Epaux. Two days later I
saw her on the truck which was taking the internees to the
gas chamber. She had her arms

                                                  [Page 186]

round another French woman, old Clina Forcher, and when the
truck started moving, she cried, "think of my little boy, if
you ever get back to France," Then they started singing the
Marseillaise.

In Block 25, in the courtyard, there were rats as big as
cats running about and gnawing the corpses and even
attacking the dying, who had not enough strength left to
chase them away.

Another cause of mortality and epidemics was the fact that
we were given food in large red mess tins, which were merely
rinsed in cold water after each meal. As all the women were
ill, and had not the strength during the night to go to the
trench which was used as a lavatory, and the access to which
was beyond description, they used these containers for a
purpose for which they were not meant. The next day the mess
tins were collected and taken to a refuse heap. During the
day another team would come and collect them, wash them in
cold water, and put them in use again.

Another cause of death was the problem of shoes. In the snow
and mud of Poland, leather shoes were completely worn out at
the end of a week or two. Therefore our feet were frozen and
covered with sores. We had to sleep in our muddy shoes, lest
they be stolen, and when the time came to get up for roll
call cries of anguish could be heard: "My shoes have been
stolen." Then one had to wait until the whole block had been
emptied to look under the bunks for odd shoes. Sometimes one
found two shoes for the same foot, or one shoe and one
sabot. One could go to roll call like that but it was an
additional torture for work, because sores formed on our
feet, which quickly became infected for lack of care. Many
of our companions went to the "Revier" for sores on their
feet and legs and never came back.

Q. What did they do to the internees who came to roll call
without shoes?

A. The Jewish internees who came without shoes were
immediately taken to Block 25.

Q. They were gassed then?

A. They were gassed for any reason whatsoever. Their
conditions were moreover absolutely appalling. While we were
crowded eight hundred in a block and could scarcely move,
they were fifteen hundred to a block of similar dimensions,
so that many of them could not sleep during the whole night
or even lie down.

Q. Can you tell me about the "Revier?"

A. To reach the "Revier " one had to go first to the roll
call. What ever the state was...


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