The Nine by Gwen Strauss review – so much more than an escape story

At 2am on 14 April 1945, just weeks before the defeat of the Third Reich and the end of the second world war, 5,000 exhausted and emaciated prisoners working at a sub camp of the all-women’s camp of Ravensbrück, north of Berlin, were forcibly marched out of the gates heading east with no particular destination and starvation rations. “We were like ants surprised by the destruction of their nest,” commented one of the women.

It was cold with a drizzle of freezing rain but, with the allies advancing on all sides, the Germans were determined to remove prisoners from the camps in a frenzied attempt to leave no evidence of the barbarism so recently practised there. SS commanders attempted to burn critical documents before fleeing.

Many prisoners perished or were gunned down if they showed weakness on these marches over long distances under guard. But nine courageous women, who had already endured torture and barbarity and were now labourers making armaments at HASAG Leipzig, made a daring escape from the serried ranks of women marchers and managed to survive, largely thanks to their support for each other.

Gwen Strauss, whose great aunt by marriage, Hélène Podliasky, 24 at the time of her arrest, was one of the nine, tells their inspiring story and reconstructs the 10-day journey across the front lines until they were finally rescued by American soldiers.

“Have a smoke,” were the first reassuring words the women heard. The nine included six French, two Dutch women and one Spanish. They were not all Jewish (and in any case could not admit to that in the camp) and came from different social backgrounds, but had been arrested because of their resistance work and had become a tight-knit group while at Ravensbrück. Most were students or secretaries and one, “Zinka”, was a mother who had given birth in a French prison only to have her baby taken away after 18 days. A tiny, smuggled photo of the baby was her most precious possession throughout the march.

According to Strauss, Hélène had more or less permanent leg and hip pains as she walked but, as an engineer who spoke five languages, she became the group’s unofficial leader. Another of the women was suffering from diphtheria and they almost all had bleeding feet and blisters. Yet the notion of separating into smaller groups was never entertained. The women pooled their resources and believed that their friendship was vital to survival.

The weather that April was unpredictable, one moment sunny but the next bitterly cold and wet, not warm enough to dispense with the thin coats that identified them through the painted white cross on the back. After first hiding in ditches, then seeking refuge in empty barns if they could, they were once offered “genuine hospitality” by a German farmer and his daughter. “Perhaps there were some Germans who truly did not know what was happening in the camps,” Strauss speculates. As they got closer to the front, Hélène, without the giveaway coat, managed to persuade some Germans they encountered that they were guest workers, not escaped Jewish prisoners. By playing the role of an uncomprehending woman who simply wanted to avoid going near the front lines, she managed to acquire a hand-scribbled map from a police station, which the group then used as an official Laissez Passer.

Among the many details Strauss has uncovered one abiding image is of how they lugged with them a heavy cooking pot, a tripod and a sack of raw potatoes. Food, or lack of it, is a recurring theme and, bizarrely, reciting recipes of impossible feasts was a means of keeping up flagging spirits, a habit that many female prisoners employed to remind them of home.

The book has a strong narrative flow, but Strauss frequently digresses to flesh out the earlier lives of these young women, or to give context and background to the situation they found themselves in. In this way the book is much more than simply an account of an escape, extraordinary though that is. One of the most shocking revelations is that at first no babies were allowed in Ravensbrück; any born were usually drowned in a bucket in front of the mother. But then, as so many women arrived pregnant, largely as a result of rape by soldiers, there was a change of policy and, according to a secret journal, 600 babies were born between September 1944 and April 1945. But the Foundation for the Memory of the Deported (FMD) reported that only 31 babies survived until liberation.

The final chapters, taken up with what happened at the end of the war, make for sober reading. “The nine had to count on each other to survive and that bond was something they would find hard to replicate later in normal life … the intensity of their friendships was an essential part of their experience.” They searched for families or loved ones they had left behind, suffered nightmares and found relationships hard. Six of the nine married other survivors, but the group scattered and mostly did not stay in contact, until 60 years later when they came together and finally talked about their escape. This powerful book reunites them.

The Nine by Gwen Strauss: How a Band of Daring Resistance Women Escaped from Nazi Germany is published by Manilla (£16.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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