Today, I would like to share a short story which is based on a true event. The setting is real, the characters are too, although the names have been changed, and some of the detail in the conversations altered slightly. When my Mum spoke of this evening to me, back when I was a teenager, I was immediately intrigued, especially as this was the midwife who delivered me.
I hope you are both intrigued and moved by this remarkable story.
Out of the Darkness
It was one of those balmy summer evenings. Two ladies, the younger a mother of four and the elder, a local midwife, were relishing their post-dinner chat. They had not been together for some time and an animated discussion about the release earlier that year, of Nelson Mandela had ensued. A shared passion for this iconic man prompted a heartfelt clink of glasses, as they raised him a toast. Joy appreciated the company of this older woman and felt a strong female bond with her. After all, she had delivered all four of her children over the previous decade.
Sister Colette Lemaire, was a local celebrity. She could not walk to her car without being shouted to or vigorously waved at. It was as if she had delivered a baby for everyone. She always knew who they were and the name of their baby. Each mother lucky enough to be allocated Colette as their midwife, felt special, that was what she did.
Despite their comfortable friendship, Joy really knew little about the private life of Colette. It never seemed to crop up in conversations. On this particular evening, whether it was the Dutch courage from the large glass of Lambrusco or simply the right time, Joy felt the need to ask the question. Had she ever been married? A long pause, punctuated only by a profound sigh, deafened Joy and she immediately felt dreadful, as though she had crossed an invisible line which had never been approached before. She caught her dear friend off guard, and instinctively, reached for her shaking hand. The colour drained from Colette’s face and her eyes were bulging with stormy tears. Joy offered apologies whilst stroking her hand, but they both knew the line had been crossed and there was no ignoring the situation. Joy’s eyes began to cloud and she sniffed back her own tears, unsure how this conversation would end. If only she had kept her mouth shut!
After a few minutes, Colette managed to wipe her tears with a hanky from her pocket. She took a deep breath and regained her composure. Then she took out a battered brown wallet. It was one you would expect a man to carry. Her moves were slow, deliberate, as if she was considering every single action. Joy watched her friend, who appeared vulnerable for the first time and this unnerved her. What was she about to discover regarding about this woman? What could her secret be?
Colette began to open her wallet and tenderly ran her finger along a crumpled edge of what seemed to be a picture, safely tucked inside. She was in a long forgotten place, far from the peace and tranquillity of Joy’s garden. Fear penetrated her eyes and her shoulders shuddered as she stared at the aged picture. The wallet dropped to her lap and in her fingers, two faded black and white photographs faced Colette. Inked on the back were words that Joy could not quite make out. Joy sat back in her chair, waiting.
Colette began by turning the photographs around, but she did not let them go. Her grip was firm but she pointed to the young man, gun slung across his shoulder and told her that this was her husband, Dariel. His French name meant darling. He was her darling. Joy said nothing. She was too afraid of saying the wrong thing.
Dariel had proposed to her when she was just 16 and they married soon afterwards. Her baby was born 9 months later, to the distant sound of the approaching marching soldiers of the Wehrmacht. War was coming to their lives. Joy could see Colette shifting uncomfortably on her chair, the recollections which she was sharing were not easy for her.
Colette’s husband had already begun to prepare. It wasn’t however the way she had imagined, by stocking up on food, making safe their home or even running away. No, he was busy answering a call to arms with those who would secretly fight: the French Resistance. This terrified Colette, how would they protect their tiny child? But along with the waves of grey- uniformed, black- booted invaders came a new burning need in Colette. The sight of these monsters in her beloved country ignited a determination, to do all she could, to rid her France of them. She would fight. Dariel and Colette, together with their young son Jacques, promptly relocated to the forest area. Their documents were forgeries and they were in deep enough to know the implications of what this meant.
Joy questioned whether she could be that brave, had she been in her position. It is one thing to read about it and learn, but to be faced with actively fighting the Germans and the likely repercussions, sent shivers across her body. She was sat there, in her own back garden, with a woman who had delivered her four babies and never had ANY idea. It sounded like the synopsis of a book, or the outline of a film. It was truly unbelievable and her hand across her mouth and the shaking of her head, confirmed her amazement. Still, she offered her brave dear friend no words, none seemed adequate. This woman, had risked her life for her country, the pride Joy felt at being in her company was overwhelming.
Colette began to pick up where she had left off. Initially she spoke in French as her mind revisited old haunts, but realised her error as her friend gently touched her hand. Once they had become firmly rooted in the forest family, life continued at, what she could only describe as ‘adrenaline- fuelled exhaustion’. The threat which they lived under was incomprehensible to anyone who had not feared for their life every single second of every single day. Their brains were on a permanent state of alert and even sleep offered no peace; with every slight sound they awoke. Somehow they lived this way, for three years. Plotting disruptions and generally making life difficult for their enemies. This put a high price on all of their heads. Sleep did not come easily to them, but she did know that she would rather sleep for five minutes with a clear conscience, than all night as a collaborator.
Joy silently sipped her wine; there was so much to take in. These leaden memories carried around by this woman, silently weighed her down. It was astonishing that she could even function normally and yet she hid her pain so expertly. It made Joy feel ashamed. How dare she ever complain about anything in her life, when someone she loved had encountered such fear?
Their reflective silence was again broken by the soft voice of Colette, who felt the need to continue her story at her own pace. In June 1943, a small group which included Colette and Dariel, went under cover of darkness to blow up part of a small factory, which was being used to make parts for guns. When they arrived, they took up their positions and waited for the signal from Patrice, the operations leader. Instead they heard the sounds of ambush and within seconds were surrounded by Germans. It was the end for them all, they were sure and they had no choice but to throw down their weapons and raise their hands. Colette would have fought until death, but she could only think of Jacques, her beautiful blue eyed boy and seeing him again.
Colette struggled to speak, her husky voice broke. It was too hard to remember and yet impossible to forget the ingrained memories – the images burnt into her soul. Dariel, did not survive the ambush. He was shot immediately. The photograph she now held was the last one ever taken of him. She was given it after the war, by the only survivor of their group. Colette laid her precious pictures on her lap, and began carefully to unbutton her sleeve. Next she rolled it up. Joy frowned in confusion as she watched her fold the material over and over until it was above the elbow. Then she turned her arm to face Joy. It was a tattoo -of a number. Now Joy understood.
After their ambush, she had been sent to Dachau, bruises, cuts and all. It was the beginning of hell from the second they arrived at the train platform. Her head shook. She spoke through her tears, she did not want to go into details, it was too hard. Joy passed her a glass which she had re-filled and Colette sat back on her chair. Neither lady spoke. They absorbed the images which had been provoked, individually; one lady more vividly than the other.
During her time at Dachau, the Germans made sure that she would not be able to have any children of her own. As if to rub salt into her wounds, before she could even recover, she was forced to assist in the delivery of babies within the camp. Colette became a midwife, in Dachau. The tears of both ladies flowed into a pool of solidarity, together they cried. Filled with such love, Joy flung her arms around her friend and never wanted to let go. She wanted to make it all better, but it was like trying to catch a cloud.
It was Colette who pulled away first, as she picked up the second photograph of a beautiful toddler. It was Jacques, her son. Before Joy could verbalise her question, Colette had answered it. She never found out what happened to him, no one knew, he just disappeared. The picture was all she had, together with empty arms and an aching heart.
Colette drained her drink and placed the empty glass back on the table. Being a midwife was her way of telling the Nazis, that life is bigger than everyone and that they didn’t break her mentally. Bringing lives into the world was a beautiful thing and she needed to fill her mind with colour and life to replace the grey and bloodshed. She would ALWAYS continue with the job as long as she could breathe. The many babies she had delivered helped ease the loss of her own family and any future one she had been so brutally denied.
Joy was flattered that Colette had shared so much with her. It was clearly something which she spoke of rarely, if ever. The fact that she continued to deliver babies, despite the atrocities which she had personally suffered, was astonishing and the respect which she felt for her could not have been greater than how she felt right then. She knew, that she would never be allowed to utter a word about this incredible story, although if she had her own way, she would tell the world about the brave, inspirational woman who now shared her table. As Colette rolled down her sleeve, re-covered her tattoo and gently tucked away her photographs, she told Joy that she would still freeze at the sound of a German accent. Goosebumps would erupt all over her body and her hands would tremble, as the accent transported her back to those dark days. With her wallet safely back in her pocket, she breathed easier. Things were back where they should be.
“So, now you know my dear friend. In the darkest place of my life, where I was given a number instead of a name, I learnt how to deliver babies. They thought they would break me. But I am still here and so are many, many healthy children because of my skills. Even out of our bleakest times, something good can come.”
photo credit: Evening Fence Line via photopin (license)