Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Vous qui savez: Elizabeth Wein

Some books change your life. Some you come to already changed.

Elizabeth Wein’s most recent two novels, Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, are set during World War II. Respectively, they mainly take place in Occupied France and in concentration-camp Germany. The first is the story of Julie Beaufort-Stuart, a Special Operations Executive officer captured by the Gestapo, and her best friend, pilot Maddie Broddatt. The second is the story of Rose Justice, an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot captured by the Germans in the summer of 1944, and her survival in Ravensbrück over that winter.

They’re not SFF, but they’re really good books, and you should go and read them.

Because I said so, that’s why.

From the time I was sixteen until my senior freshman year of college, I nursed a quiet but intense geekery over the women of the Special Operations Executive in WWII France. I did things like interlibrary-loan MRD Foot’s official history SOE in France: An Account of the Work of the British Special Operations Executive in France. I worked diligently on my French with the goal of eventually reading Nancy Wake’s autobiography, or Germaine Tillion’s account of Ravensbrück in the original. So I know, for example, that SOE agents dropped in to resistance circuits in France were encouraged to hold out under questioning for forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours was supposed to be long enough to let the rest of the circuit scatter.

No one expected them to hold out longer.

Those who weren’t executed soon thereafter usually died in the camps—or were executed there. (Like Noor Inayat Khan, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, and Madeleine Damerment: they were transferred from Karlsruhe prison to Dachau on September 12, 1944. Shortly after dawn on September 13, 1944, they were taken to the courtyard beside the crematorium, shot through the head, and their bodies immediately cremated.)

And I know, for example, that over 140,000 people died at Ravensbrück . That there were eighty-eight known victims of medical experimentation in that camp. That the prisoners managed to acquire a camera and film, and smuggled the exposures out with the Swedish Red Cross.

They had fewer than thirty images.

 

In college, one of my departments organised an educational five-day, three-city tour of Poland. The empty plaza of the Warsawghetto uprising. Cattlecars at a memorial near Łodz. Cemeteries. Cemeteries. Cemeteries. Memorials for those with no bodies left to bury.

Halls and halls of horrors at a place called Oświęcim and the vast empty silence of the remains of Birkenau.

I haven’t been able to read a book about Europe during the war and sleep afterwards since.

 

Rose Under Fire Elizabeth Wein There’s a feeling you get, like a fist in the gut, when you’re twenty-two and reading a thumbnail biography of one of those women who landed behind enemy lines, complete with a photo from her official ID. A combination of She looks like someone I went to school with, and I’m as old now as she was when she died after ten months shackled in the dark.

As when so many of them died.

Code Name Verity is a book that takes that fist and closes it all the way around your spine. And does it so well, with such a cleverly unreliable narrator, that you want to read it again to see how Wein managed it even though your eyes are still blurry from crying.

Rose Under Fire… Oh, Rose Under Fire. Much could be said of Rose Under Fire.

But it should be enough to say it treats of the best and worst in human nature with empathy and compassion and an unflinching determination to bear witness. In fiction, true—but fiction is the lie we use to tell the truth.

A truth worth telling. A truth that should never be forgot.

 

I don’t know how I’d react to Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire if I’d never heard of Vera Atkins’ post-war search to discover what became of the one hundred and eighteen agents of F-section who had disappeared behind enemy lines. If I hadn’t had Charlotte Delbo’s “Vous qui savez” in my mind.

But I suspect Elizabeth Wein has written a pair of very powerful novels, and come as close to depicting la souffrance [que] n’a pas de limite as anyone can, second-hand.

 

Ô vous qui savez
saviez vous que la faim fait briller les yeux
et que la soif les ternit

Ô vous qui savez
saviez vous qu’on peut voir sa mère morte
et rester sans larmes

Ô vous qui savez
saviez vous que le matin on veut mourir
et que le soir on a peur

Ô vous qui savez
saviez vous qu’un jour est plus qu’une année
une minute plus qu’une vie

Ô vous qui savez
saviez vous que les jambes sont plus vulnérables que les yeux
les nerfs plus durs que les os
le cœur plus solide que l’acier

Saviez vous que les pierres du chemin ne pleurent pas
qu’il n’y a qu’un mot pour l’épouvante
qu’un mot pour l’angoisse

Saviez que la souffrance n’a pas de limite
l’horreur pas de frontières

Le saviez vous
Vous qui savez

–Charlotte Delbo, “Vouz qui savez” in Aucun de nous ne reviendra, Paris, Editions Gonthier, 1965

 

Translation:

O you who know
did you know that hunger makes bright the eyes
and thirst dulls them

O you who know
did you know that you can see your mother dead
and remain without tears

O you who know
did you know than in the morning you want to die
and that by evening you’re afraid

O you who know
did you know that one day is more than a year
one minute more than a life

O you who know
did you know that the legs are more vulnerable than the eyes
the nerves harder than the bones
the heart stronger than steel

Did you know that the stones of the road do not cry
that there is only one word for terror
only one word for anguish

Did you know that suffering has no limit
and horror no frontiers

Did you know it
you who know?

–Charlotte Delbo, “You who know in Not one of us will return, Paris, Editions Gonthier, 1965


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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