The Chivaree – Charivari.


The chivaree or charivari, literally “rough music,” is a French word for a folk custom widespread throughout Europe’s village communities and probably dates back to the Middle Ages. It consisted of a noisy, mock serenade, accompanied by banging on pots and pans as a crowd made its way by foot to a newly-wed’s home to celebrate the marriage.

Or the occasion for a charivari might be entirely different. The community might be registering its disapproval of someone who has offended the community’s moral sense. Virtually always the offender was male. The crowd was normally summoned by women in the community.

Thus the charivari was part of the web of social practices by which small communities enforced their standards when more formal means of approving and disapproving were not available. The most common offense against the community’s moral grid was probably wife-beating. Other offenses would be a couple living together ‘without the benefit of clergy’, or a remarriage too soon after the death of a spouse, or an adulterous relationship, or an unmarried mother. Most offenses were, thus, sexual in character.

The social practice was banned by the Roman Catholic Church in the early seventeenth century. Participants were threatened with excommunication. The Church did not want the community taking on the judgment and punishment of moral lapses, therefore, encroaching on its monopoly.

I grew up in a small Iowa town and how the chivaree got to Garwin is a puzzle. In the 1940s the population of the town and surrounding farms was around 2000 and consisted of a mixture of immigrants from the British Isles, Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, Norway, and Denmark and their descendants. Since the custom was – had been – widespread throughout Europe, it is hard to know from whence it came to Garwin. As with so many other transplanted Old World customs, our chivaree emerged as different in many ways from the original but with some similarities.

We in Garwin in the 1940s and 50s could probably find few unwed ‘housemates.” By the time of my childhood, the ritual served as a mild form of spoofing newlyweds, intended to disrupt first-night sexual activities that might be about to get under way. But it was also to celebrate their marriage with good cheer. The newlyweds were expected to invite the folks in and share whatever merriment was on hand.

The tradition, though a holdover from the chivaree of the past, was now motorized. The newlywed’s car was festooned with “just married” signs and maybe some bawdy remarks. Tin cans were attached to the rear bumper and dragged over the streets. The noise called attention to the procession as did the cars that followed the newly married couple blowing their horns. Thus townspeople, not invited to the wedding ceremony, could share in the occasion.

(There was some chance that the newlywed’s car might have been successfully hidden away by the trusted best man, unless he betrayed that ‘trust’.)

Not much of a chance for even this lame form of the chivaree these days because usually the newlywed speeds away to some distant place.

I was told that the chivaree in Garwin before my time was occasionally, like the charivari, in Europe, also aimed at bringing domestic violence to the community’s attention and even warning the perpetrator of family violence, likely a husband or father who “could not hold his liquor.” So even as practiced in Garwin, the chivaree would serve as a warning, but also remind the family that it was part of a concerned community.

Thanks to Wikipedia and my memory.

Stanislaw Ulam; A Polish Jew in the Old World and the New

In 1972, I returned to Gainesville and through my then father-in-law, Harry Sisler, was introduced to Stan and Françoise Ulam. I became part of their circle and was regularly invited to their flat to join their friends and colleagues. Stan, a world famous mathematician, came to Gainesville during the spring semesters, joining the University of Florida’s Department of Mathematics. I couldn’t keep up with the math, so Françoise and I became good acquaintances.


Ulam born in Lwów, Poland in 1909 had received his education and graduate degrees from the city’s Polytechnic Institute in 1933. Like many other young European scientists and mathematicians, he traveled around to various university cities in Europe — Wilno, Vienna, Zurich, and Cambridge – getting to know the European mathematics/physics world and getting to be known. Prospects for a position in Poland were poor in 1933.


Stan Ulam was from a Polish-Jewish business family. His father, Józef Ulam, had also been born in Lwów (then called Lemberg), his mother was from Stryi (present-day Ukraine). The family was well off, though not rich; they owned the large apartment building in which they lived. Stan’s uncle, Michal Ulam, was wealthy, a prominent architect, builder, and lumber merchant. Also living in Lwów, the two families were close.


Stan and his family lived in Vienna during World War I. Vienna was still an imperial city, capital of the Austrian Empire of which Lwów was an educational and administrative center for the province of Galicia.  The family returned to their home town in 1919 shortly before the Polish-Ukrainian War broke out, along with a pogrom.


Lwów had long been a site of Polish-Ukrainian nationalist conflict. After much negotiation Ukrainian forces withdrew from the city in November 1918 leaving it in Polish hands and subject to Polish anti-Semitism. Demobilized Polish soldiers and deserters looted and burned parts of the Ukrainian and Jewish quarters of the city and killed an unknown number of Jews. The Lwów pogrom received wide attention and condemnation in Western Europe and North America.


Lwów was the third largest city in Poland, around 320,000 in 1918, with both a distinguished Lwów University and the Polytechnic. The city was becoming more Polish in a Poland reconstituted in1919 by the Versailles Treaty. It was 51% Catholic and 28% Jewish, both Polish-speaking. The remainder were mostly Ukrainians and Germans.


Despite the civil war and pogrom, the Ulams seem to have been comfortable with a Polish Lwów. Many of its Jewish families were prominent in business and the professions. Stan and his family identified with their Polish background. Like many Jews in Eastern Europe, the Ulams also thought of themselves as citizens of the wider European world, good Europeans.


While living in Lwów and attending the Polytechnic, Stan had been a member of a famous Polish mathematical circle, the Lwów Mathematics Club, that met periodically in the Scottish Café, a coffee house, to discuss mathematical problems. Several of his fellow conversationalists eventually taught at the University.


Many of Lwów’s Polish intelligentsia met a horrible fate during World War II. In July 1941 as part of the German campaign to wipe out the Polish intelligentsia, twenty-five of the University’s faculty and their families were shot, clubbed to death, or bayonetted by a Nazi Einsatzgruppen. Polish and Jewish intellectuals, political and cultural activists, scientists and mathematicians, and other members of Poland’s distinguished interwar intellectual elite were German targets.


Family letters written mostly by Ulam’s father from 1936 to 1940 make it clear that the city’s Jews had no idea of what was about to befall them. Poland was suffering from a prolonged economic and political crisis, but there was always in the elder Ulam’s letters the hope that things would soon improve, right themselves.


Stan’s ambitions and smarts brought him to the U.S in 1936, having won a scholarship to the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton where many displaced European scientists landed in the ’30s, including Albert Einstein.  He was encouraged to apply by John von Neumann, a Hungarian/American mathematician, who was a bit older than Stan but already world famous. That led to an invitation of the Society of Fellows at Harvard.


From 1936 to 1939 Stan returned to Poland to spend his summers with his family and math colleagues. In 1939 Stan’s father decided that Stan should return to the U.S. with his younger brother Adam, then 16. The passenger liner in which he had booked passage for his two sons was scheduled to leave from Gdynia in September 1939, but the tickets were rebooked for an earlier August 20 sailing. That, it turns out, would be its last sailing until after WWII. Had it not been for the rebooking, it is likely that neither Stan nor Adam would have made it out of Poland. The Germans captured the Gdynia and its port in mid-September and immediately massacred 12,000 of the city’s citizens.


By 1939 it was becoming all too obvious that a Jewish family should send its sons off to the Americas. Both father and uncle were astute men of the world and could understand the dangers that a Nazi Germany posed to Jews. But the immediate threat was Polish. Polish nationalists were seeking to overturn the disproportionate share of university admissions – the “Jewish advantage” – enjoyed by Polish Jews. The nationalists demanded Jewish quotas and that the Jews be physically separated from non-Jews in educational institutions, thus the “ghetto benches.” Then there was the ordinary street anti-Semitism that had long been a part of Polish life.


Still there was no panic. Letters to the sons in America from tatus (daddy) and mamasia (mommy) seem mostly concerned about their not drinking or smoking while in America. When they found out that Stan had purchased a car, they worried about his “hot rodding.” Stan was now in his early thirties!


Adam Ulam got his Brown University education at his brother’s expense. He later became a distinguished historian of the Soviet Union, called a ‘Kremlinologist,’ at Harvard.


Lwów was occupied by Russian troops as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. The Soviet occupation lasted for about two years until the city was overrun by the German army as part of Operation Barbarossa in the spring of 1941.


There is much controversy about the level of participation of Ukrainian nationalists and militia members in the destruction of Jewish Lwów during the German occupation. Certainly Ukrainians identified the Polish Christians and Polish Jews that were to be killed. This German-Ukrainian alliance perpetrated the largest slaughter yet.


Lwów later became the location of a Jewish ghetto of some 120,000 Jews. In 1943 most of them were eventually sent to Belźec, Poland, and killed. Stanislaw and Adam were safe in America. The rest of the family (father, uncle, sister, niece, cousins) died in the Polish holocaust. (Ulam’s mother had died of cancer in 1938.)


A cousin wrote to Stan and Adam after the war with the details of their sister’s death. Stefa and her child were hidden by a Polish Christian woman along with several other Polish Jews. Betrayed by a neighbor, the five in hiding were arrested by the Gestapo and the benefactress shot. The Gestapo commanding officer offered to spare the five if they could pay, and one of the women offered some family valuables hidden in Lwów. The officer concluded that the worth of the jewelry could only save two and gave the woman a few hours to make a choice of whom would be spared. She ultimately saved herself and her mother, sacrificing her grandfather, Stefa, and her toddler-Stan’s niece, who were shot on the spot. The notion of “choosing” is a common element in survival stories (“Sophie’s Choice”.)


Stan told me the story about his having gotten his brother out of Poland. He never mentioned the fate of the rest of his family, although Françoise once mentioned to me how traumatic that last separation from his family had been.


Like so many educated European Jewish exiles, Stan found an appointment in an American university, in his case the University of Wisconsin. In 1941 he became an American citizen and married Françoise Aron. Born in Paris, Françoise had come to the U.S. as an exchange student in 1939.


Stan began to notice that his colleagues at Wisconsin were suddenly gone off to some kind of war work, he began looking around for an opportunity. In 1943 he was invited to join a group of scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico working on a secret project. It turned out to be the creation of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.


Back to Los Alamos in 1947, he worked on the hydrogen bomb project again with Von Neumann. He is given credit for coming up with the idea behind the exploding device in the fusion bomb and also the mathematical insight that solved a major difficulty in the detonation process. While there, he worked with Edward Teller and they applied for a patent on the design for the bomb. Later they had a falling out and, I think, never received the patent.


After the war Stan traveled around to various universities for short appointments before settling at the University of Colorado (Boulder). One day while living in L.A., he had a severe headache and the next morning had lost his ability to speak. A surgeon drilled a hole in his skull and found that he had an inflammation on the brain. Stan told me about this himself. Recuperating from the operation, he worried about his having a permanent mental impairment. But one day (I think while waiting for Françoise at the L.A. airport) he realized that he could still solve mathematical problems and that his analytical skills were just fine.


My visits to the Ulams usually involved late afternoon tea. On one occasion Françoise asked Stan to turn on the stove burner under the teapot. Time went by and Françoise noticed that the tea kettle was not whistling. It turns out that Stan had not figured out how to turn on the stove. Françoise noted the irony of his having invented how to turn on the hydrogen bomb, but not their stove.


The Ulams stopped coming to Gainesville, preferring their home in Santa Fe, which was near their only child, a daughter Clair. Stan died in 1984, Françoise in 2011 at the age of 93.


Thanks to Adam Ulam’s letters and family memoirs available on the internet at and to Wikipedia.


7 December 1944. A Telegram Arrives.

7 December 1944. A Telegram Arrives Informing the Family of the Death in France Of their Son, Husband, and Father.

It must have been early evening on that December day in 1944. I was then five years old. Mom was getting me and my younger brother ready for bed and dad was also in the living room, likely listening to the evening news on the radio.

There was a knock on our front door. I remember that when dad opened the door, a cold wind filled the room. It was a Garwin telephone operator, a young girl finishing an evening shift at the telephone office. She had in her hand a telegram announcing my cousin Hollis’s death on 27 November 1944. She had come to dad because she couldn’t bear to hand-deliver such terrible news to Hollis’s family.

I can vividly remember my mother bursting into tears; “What will Etta [Hollis’s mother] do?” Mom must have rushed us up to bed and then awaited dad’s return. How dad must have grieved his sad errand, knowing how it would devastate his brother and sister-in-law – Ralph and Etta, Betty – Hollis’s widow, and his young family – Judy and Jim.

There is a family story that Hollis had come to dad in April 1944 when he was trying to make up his mind about whether to enlist or take his chances on being drafted. By 1944 the army was drafting fathers and men even older than 26.

I can imagine that my Uncle Ralph would have urged his son to ask my dad for advice. Dad had volunteered for the Great War in 1917, not quite 18 and so might have had a useful perspective on Hollis’s decision. He advised his nephew to wait. Hollis did not take his advice; he went off for his basic training that same month.

His decision was motivated by both a personal patriotism and a sense of adventure. Both sentiments had stirred my dad into enlisting in WWI. Getting “over there” seemed to be an exciting way to get out of his small Iowa town.

The U.S. had entered the war after Pearl Harbor in December 1941. American soldiers had fought in North Africa and Italy. The Normandy landings were still a few months off. We were now the ‘arsenal of democracy.’ And we still had a reserve of men capable of, perhaps even willing to serve.

Garwin, Iowa was a farming community; farm boys could still obtain exemptions if they were an only son because of their importance to food production, essential to the Allied cause. But Hollis couldn’t qualify for that exemption from the draft. Moreover there was a certain amount of disfavor associated with such exemptions.

Hollis’s army unit, the 315th infantry regiment (though not Hollis) had come ashore at Utah Beach. They fought but mostly trucked across northern France, reaching the Lunéville area, in Lorraine, in September 1944. Hollis was a replacement, a stranger to his unit but also a stranger to the skirmishing that involved deadly German machine gun fire. He was killed by that machine gun fire after less than a month at the front.

There is a story told about Hollis as he departed for France. He received a furlough after his brief basic training in Texas and returned to Garwin to say good-bye to his family. On that occasion he is said to have stated that he couldn’t fire a gun at anyone with the intention of killing him, not an uncommon sentiment amongst those leaving for battle. Like so many young Americans in the War, Hollis was not a ‘warrior.’ Would he have become one had he not been killed so immediately?

We lived only two blocks from both Ralph and Etta’s and the house that Ralph had rented for Hollis’s family while he was serving in the army. Dad first knocked on Ralph and Etta’s door; they weren’t there. He then noticed that Betty’s house across the street was all lighted up. He came upon the family, decorating their Christmas tree.



Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend. Part I, Occupied Paris.

Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend.  Part I, Occupied Paris.

This account is heavily indebted to two books: When Paris Went Dark; The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940 to 1944 by Ronald Rosbottom, 2014 paper and Ravensbrüch; Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm, paper 2015. Thanks always to Wikipedia.

I first met Maguy (Katz) McCullough, a Parisian, at my bookstore in Gainesville. She or her husband, Bob McCullough, both well past retirement age, would come into the bookstore every morning for their New York Times. They had met on the way to Japan on a Polish tramp steamer, married, and lived half of the year in Gainesville, half in Maguy’s flat in Paris.

Neither Bob nor Maguy drove, so every Friday, I picked her up and we went grocery shopping at the nearest Publix. As both of us were not in any hurry, we almost always spent time in its parking lot, Maguy telling me her stories, me asking questions. As part of the friendship and in payment for the shopping trips, she would invite me over for scotch. More stories and questions. Stories were repeated – and repeated, which has helped me remember.

After Bob’s death, Maguy gave up coming to Gainesville so I visited her in Paris on three different occasions. She was living in the same flat that she had lived in during the 1930s, when she had a good job working for the French Railways until her arrest in 1944. Again more opportunities for stories to be told. Again good for memory work.

She told me a bit about the Katz family. Her grandfather was from Alsace. Jewish, he was a merchant, and had decided after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) that Paris was a better place for him, his family, and his business than was Alsace under the Prussians. Maguy said very little about her Jewish ancestry. Only that while at the Ravensbrück work camp she wore the Jewish star.

The Wehrmacht invaded France in May 1940 and six weeks later, France surrendered. The country was divided between occupied and unoccupied zones (until November 1942). Both were governed by the Vichy Regime, so named because it was to this small spa town that Maréchal Phillipe Pétain had moved the French government. Paris was in the occupied zone and hence subject to a German army of occupation.

Maguy was not in Paris when the German troops entered the city. At first she was uncertain about what to do. There had been a massive flight of Parisians and no certainty about what the occupation would involve and how long it would last. Eventually she returned to her Paris apartment in the 16th Arrondissement, not far from the Bois de Boulogne.

Shortly, thereafter, Adolf Hitler made his famous tour of the city. He thought Paris to be a model for European cities in the new world of Pax Germania. He hoped also to convince Parisians that life ‘under the German heel’ would be tolerable. And the German occupation force set to work to make it so – except for Jews, communists, and anyone resisting the occupation authorities.

While few Parisians openly welcomed German soldiers or Nazi bigwigs, many in the French army, the Roman Catholic Church, industrialists, and the conservative right viewed the occupation as an opportunity to weaken the French Left. Collaboration took various forms. The presence of many Germans, both military and otherwise, required a “service sector.” French merchants, café owners, waiters, laundresses, and many others served the Germans. Were they collaborating?

Like collaboration, resistance also took different forms. The earliest resisters were mostly from the French Left, and particularly the communists. Maguy always made the point that she was not, and never had been, a communist. Rather she had joined the “Free French” led from London by General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle, an army man, distrusted the freewheeling nature of the communist resistance; he viewed them as hot-heads. While ideology divided the resistance movement in Paris and elsewhere in France, these distinctions were lost on the SS and the Gestapo.

Early in the occupation, the roundups and arrests did not involve Parisians but rather German and Austrian refugees who had arrived in Paris after 1933 and especially Jews. In 1940, the Germans had expelled 150,000 Jews from Alsace-Lorraine after it was incorporated into greater Germany. And they were mostly hiding out in Paris.

German authorities required Jews, both foreigners and Parisians, to wear the Star of David patch and carry special ID cards. A series of edicts restricted the economic and professional activities of Jews in Paris. By the time of the Grand Rafle in July 1942 – the largest of the roundups – it was obvious that French Jews were also now targeted. But surprisingly, Maguy never was a victim of these measures, and her Jewishness was not the cause of her arrest and deportation.

So far as I know, Maguy did not keep a diary. Diaries from the years of occupation kept by Parisians, famous and otherwise, suggest a city gone “dark.” From these diaries one gets the feeling of life being narrowed, to one’s neighborhood, to one’s apartment, to one room, usually the kitchen as keeping warm became a problem. Paris was dark, and also quiet; few pedestrians, fewer private cars. There was a city-wide, early-evening curfew, which put a crimp on nightlife. Bikes and public transportation were the options; Maguy took to the bike.

As she was not arrested until sometime after June 1944, Maguy had four long years under the Germans. Because telephones could not be trusted, women in the resistance were used as couriers. And she became part of the communications network; this was the golden age of the mimeograph machine and the underground tract. They urged Parisians to be more aggressive in their opposition to the German occupation, rather than waiting it out.

The knock on the door eventually came. Maguy’s name was on a list of her circuit, carelessly left on a colleague’s desk and found by the Parisian police. Her best-laid plans did not work. After her arrest she spent weeks in jail awaiting her trial before a panel of collaborating French judges. She was found guilty and sentenced to death, though the sentence was commuted to a term in prison.

I once asked Maguy if, after the war, she had ever come across the judges who had convicted her. Oh no, she assured me, they were eliminated by the resistance.

Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend. Part II, Ravensbrück.

Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend.  Part II, Ravensbrück.

There were growing numbers of women in Parisian jails as their role in the resistance broadened, and they were occupying space that the Germans wished to use for incarcerating French men. It was decided in 1944 to deport the women to Ravensbrück, a work camp for women political prisoners in Germany, due north of Berlin.

I would like to have asked Maguy about her journey from her Parisian jail to Ravensbrück. It was certainly by rail. This was not a good time to be traveling on either French or German railroads. By 1944 they were the subject of a massive British-American air offensive. The journey would have taken days, mostly nights. Maguy would have told me of over-loaded freight cars, so she may have been spared that.

The French women, Maguy included, only had to survive one winter in the camp, and that saved many of their lives. Camp-hardened Poles and other Eastern Europeans noted how ill-prepared these French women were for camp life. In turn the French women must have been overwhelmed by their first encounter with the brutal, overcrowded camp world they entered.

Maguy would have encountered every kind of prisoner: the asoziale (a-social) – prostitutes, homeless, work-shy. A good part of the camp’s inmates were Polish women sent to Ravensbrück as part of the German land clearance program in occupied Poland and then the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. Also Polish Jews, though Jews constituted no more than 10% of the inmate population at Ravensbrück. Also represented were habitual criminals, gypsies, communists and socialists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The latter were the worst treated because they refused work that involved the manufacture of weaponry.

The idea of locating war production at Ravensbrück was a new initiative by Heinrich Himmler, SS Reichsfürher. There were already sewing shops that made clothes for the army. But in the fall of 1942 Siemens, a big prewar electrical company, located a unit there which made electrical parts for fighter planes. Shocked that the women in the sewing shops were only working eight-hours a day, Himmler introduced an eleven-hour day. Siemens reimbursed the SS for their work, not the women themselves. Still it was good to have work in these camps. You never wanted to become a useless mouth, as Himmler liked to put it.

Maguy told several stories that involved these Polish women. She and her Parisian colleagues had a special concern for them because they were young and miserably treated by their German guards.

She suffered from a strict camp procedure called the Appell (roll-call) in the Appellplatz, (camp square) rain or shine, or snow. In the winter it began before dawn. The women had to stand sometimes for hours until all were accounted for. On one Appell Maguy collapsed and was taken to her barracks, which saved her life, but at some risk to the rescuer. It was perhaps even more dangerous to appear at the Revier (infirmary). The sick and weak were commonly allowed to die.

By the time of Maguy’s arrival, discipline (though not the cruelty) was beginning to crumble. This was both fortuitous and unfortunate. Individual inmates could angle for the better work assignments, such as the squads that removed the dead or working in the camp kitchen. This competition eroded prisoner solidarity. The severe overcrowding required a disciplined regimen. By 1944 that was beginning to crumble with deadly results as prisoners felt more secure in ignoring the rules.

Much of the day-to-day administration was carried out by prisoners. Blockovas (elsewhere in the camp system called kapos) were put in charge of individual blocks to enforce discipline. Initially the Ravensbrück blockovas were largely a-socials, but eventually tended to be communists. Helm calls this takeover by the communists (heavily French) a “camp revolution.”  Some of the blockovas were brutal, like their masters. Some actually tried to be ameliorative. In either case you didn’t want to be fired from that job!

Maguy wore the Jewish star but also a red triangle which identified her as a communist. This offended her; she was not a communist but a Gaullist, for which there was no badge. Always thin, she began to lose weight. There was never enough to eat; all of Germany was starving by 1944.

Ravensbrück had been a special project of Himmler’s. He had an estate near the camp, and came there periodically to see his mistress who was stashed there. He is said to have been the quintessential micro-manager, making decisions about such minutia as inmates’ diet and the number of strokes of the whip for various offenses. Did Maguy ever see Himmler during one of his camp inspections?

Much has been made of the medical experiments performed on prisoners by licensed doctors at Ravensbrück and other camps. They resulted in much suffering. Fortunately the numbers of these ‘rabbits,’ as they were called, were small and the deaths few. Because Ravensbrück was the only camp for women, there was also experimentation on methods of controlling – and exploiting – large numbers of female slave labor. Along with the often gratuitous cruelty, there were some SS administrators thinking about the future.

The highest camp administrators were generally SS careerists. The guards were women from neighboring villages. Neither had had had any training; they generally despised those they oversaw and frequently beat them out of frustration.

As it became more obvious that Germany was losing the war, individual inmates, guards, and administrators at Ravensbrück began to recalculate their strategies. For most inmates that involved obtaining food but also not running afoul of the camp administration. If you were an inmate who had collaborated with the administration, you would be worried about how to keep from being brutalized at war’s end by those inmates you had brutalized. If a guard, maybe fading into the rural German background from which you had been recruited. If an SS administrator, flight; but to where? Or you could deny what you were hearing about the Americans at the Rhine or the Russians only miles from Mecklenburg and await developments.

Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend. Part 3, Liberation.

Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend.  Part 3, Liberation.

Most of the French inmates at the Ravensbrück camp, including Maguy, were liberated in April 1945, the result of an agreement between Heinrich Himmler and a member of the Swedish royal family, Count Folke Bernadotte, acting on behalf of the Swedish Red Cross. There had been earlier exchanges of Ravensbrück inmates through Switzerland, but it was now impossible to get from the Mecklenburg region to Switzerland by rail or road. There was, however, a more immediate path – through Denmark.

Germany had overrun Denmark in April 1940. Until 1943 most Danish institutions continued to function; the Danish monarch, Christian X, had not gone into exile as had the Dutch queen. In 1943, however, there was a substantial disagreement with Adolf Hitler over his demand that Denmark join the Anti-Comintern Pact, capped with a misunderstanding over an exchange of telegrams between Christian and Hitler. The Germans moved in to administer the country directly.

Initially it was mostly Danish and Norwegian inmates that were liberated, transported to the Danish border on specially marked “white buses” and then by rail through Denmark and ferry to Sweden. Himmler eventually opened the rescue to all nationalities, and the Ravensbrück rescue became the largest in World War II. There is a surviving list of the convoys of white buses and their routes. The most likely convoy for Maguy would have been the one that left on 2 April 1945. It involved 934 women and was apparently the last to leave Ravensbrück.

What motivated Himmler? He and other Germans were being warned by the Allies that they would be tried as war criminals after the war, hence he was likely thinking about ways of avoiding the hangman’s noose. He understood that with this Swedish intervention, there was an opportunity to polish his ‘humanitarian image.’

Like the Swiss, the Swedes had remained neutral during the war. Sweden had provided a refuge for Danish and Norwegian Jews when Germany threatened to deport them to concentration camps. On the other hand, Sweden had allowed passage of German troops during their occupation of Norway. And they were resisting Allied pressure to stop their export of steel and machine parts to Nazi Germany. Perhaps they also were taking the opportunity to polish their ‘humanitarian image.’

The arrangement was that a Danish train would connect to the white buses arriving from Ravensbrück at the German-Danish border.  The women would then be transported by rail through Denmark and by ferry to Sweden. Maguy remembered the overnight train trip on Danish rail. Everyone was holding their breath.

By then Danish railway workers were on strike, unwilling to allow German transports to use their rail system. But Bernadotte talked them into allowing the passage of these special trains. In all 17,000 women were rescued, so the trains were packed.

Maguy remembers that at the Danish-German border, the “Prince of Denmark” joined the train and spent the train ride through the night with Maguy and her colleagues. Helm mentions that on 25 April 1945, twenty white buses with 934 women were met at the German-Danish border by members of the Danish royal family. Maguy’s “Prince of Denmark” probably refers to Prince Frederick, later King Frederick IX, who ruled from 1947 to 1972.

While waiting for the ferries that would transport her and her colleagues to Sweden, Maguy – always a “take charge” woman – went up to the Prince and thanked him for his having brought them to safety and asked how she and her fellow French women could show their gratitude. He suggested that when they got into international waters, they should sing La Marseillaise loud enough for him to hear. Which they did gloriously. Singing France’s national anthem had been a form of resistance during the occupation.

The Allies never got behind Bernadotte’s rescue efforts. General Eisenhower had urged prisoners at Ravensbrück and other camps to “stay-put,” awaiting the arrival of Allied forces and prepare themselves for an orderly repatriation after the German surrender. Eisenhower was aware of the post-surrender chaos that would result from the release of a million camp inmates. Meanwhile the gas ovens at Ravensbrück’s satellite Youth Camp were operational and women were getting bullets in the heads to destroy evidence of crimes committed.

Himmler more-or-less hid this liberation of prisoners from Hitler. Hitler had sent out an order that the releases from Ravensbrück and other camps should cease and all remaining inmates shot or gassed. Or marched to camps deeper inside Germany. The result was those deadly marches in the last few days of the war. But Maguy Katz was safe in Sweden.

One final story. When the Ravensbrück women got to Sweden, they were interned in a makeshift camp. Sensing the irony of this ‘liberation,’ Maguy prevailed upon Swedish authorities to leave the barbed-wire gate open.

Her repatriation to France must have been very soon after her arrival in Sweden. She returned to a Paris, largely intact, spared from Hitler’s order to destroy the city.

Of the many stories she told me, I thought least plausible was that after his La Marseillaise request, Prince Frederick cut off five gold buttons from his military uniform and gave them to Maguy as a personal gift. I once asked her to bring to Gainesville some of her memorabilia from the war years. On her last return to Gainesville, she invited me over for some scotch; she had something to show me.  There in her shaking hands were the five gold buttons.