Nonfiction from NER 36.3
On se comprend à demi-mots. “We understand each other with half words, without finishing our sentences.” I learned this French expression from Fanny. It describes a kind of meeting of the minds, parallel sensibilities—each of us not merely anticipating or knowing what the other is thinking, but actually thinking alike at the same time, sharing the same reaction. It was a good way of describing our personal connection. Fanny remarked how striking it was that such complicity could exist between a young American student, born after the war, and a Polish-born Viennese refugee, French resister, survivor of two concentration camps, and lifelong Communist Party activist.
Fanny and I met in April 1978, on a train from Paris to East Berlin, for a pilgrimage to Ravensbrück, the only concentration camp for women, for the most part political prisoners. The pilgrimage, as it was (and is still) known, was an annual event organized by the Amicale de Ravensbrück, the association of former women prisoners that formed in 1945 for the purpose of educating the public about the camp, supporting the survivors, lobbying the government for recognition and benefits. Like the other amicales, or “friendship associations,” it was part of a network united by the umbrella organization FNDIRP, the National Federation of Deported and Imprisoned Resistance Fighters and Patriots. I was in Paris with a year-long fellowship to study the role of women in the French Resistance. Having contacted the organization in an effort to locate and interview women resisters, I met with its director, Cécile Lesieur. The timing was excellent; it so happened that some eighty survivors of Ravensbrück would soon be traveling to the camp for a pilgrimage. Cécile Lesieur invited me to join them. I could meet the members myself and visit the camp for the first time.
Paula Schwartz is the Lois B. Watson Professor of French Studies at Middlebury College and a scholar of World War II France and the Resistance movement.