the cream puff
Today may be the 13th of May 1945. Fernand Devaux and Georges Dudal wait, in quarantine, at the Dachau camp.
This quarantine is different though. 2 weeks earlier, the american troops arrived, Dachau was freed. Himmler himself ordered for everyone to be murdered, but the mayor of Dachau contacted the Allies, so they could intervene before the massacre.
The prisoners are free, although not entirely. A new typhus epidemic is spreading inside the camp, so the Allies created a quarantine. The prisoners are well fed and treated, but they can't get out yet.
Fernand Devaux and Georges Dudal have had enough of this, the quarantines, the death marches, the camps, the german rules, the american rules, it’s been too long, far too long. They decide to escape, they want to come back to France earlier.
Dudal and Devaux hide at the back of the truck, and just like that, they are out. Who would have thought they would escape one day from an american camp?
Now what? Now Dudal and Devaux’ journey back to France begins.
The first day is difficult, they cross a line of prisoners, maybe a thousand of them, dead, burning on the side of the road. This is what almost happened to them in Dachau, if the Allies hadn't arrived earlier.
They have had enough, the violence, the murders, the atrocities, the pain, they have to get away from it all, as soon as possible. It has been 4 years and a half, painful years of imprisonment, enough is enough. Dudal and Devaux try to think about something else. So they talk about what they have always talked about in tense moments.
Every food they could eat, every recipe, everything they were missing, every dish they wished they'd eat. Anything to clear their minds from this, from the camps, from it all.
Food was on every prisoner’s mind, Dudal and Devaux were amongst the best at talking about it.
Back in 1940, Fernand Devaux was 18. He started resisting even before France was occupied, even before it declared war against Germany, his communist engagement started years earlier. He worked from an early age, read, stayed informed about the situation in Germany, the rise of Hitler. To him, the values the communist party carried, solidarity, equality, freedom, those were the answer, it was obvious. Yet his country lost, then his country turned against him.
Arrested because he was a communist at the end of 1940, he was sent to Aincourt, this is where Fernand and Georges Dudal met, their friendship began, from Rouille, Compiègne, then german occupied Poland.
At first, Georges and Fernand were separated, Georges in Birkenau, Fernand in Auschwitz. They both struggled, they both survived, and in March of 1943, Georges came back to Auschwitz, he was one of the 60 45000 who survived Birkenau. 24 out of 600 prisoners.
Georges Dudal managed to be assigned to the kitchen kommando, a lucky kommando. From there, he was a little more protected from hunger than the rest, from there he could help, just like he was helped before. He could put some extra food on the side, gather any leftovers, he even managed to replace the sugar for the SS’s coffee with saccharine and keep it for his friends. But Georges witnessed hunger first hand.
The food was rationed, coffee in the morning, soup at lunch, and some bread at dinner, making for an average of 1400 calories. Some person in charge of the camp administration decided that 1400 calories was a good daily ration for a prisoner.
1400 calories is a bare minimum for a person, that person would only be able to rest.
It is barely half or third the minimum, as most prisoners work all day long, some in strength demanding kommandos.
And that food is never distributed evenly. The kapos are always first and often triple or quintuple their own rations, then some groups get some extra rations, depending on their relationships with the kapos. Sometimes, because a roll call is extended, or a guard or kapo decided so, there is no lunch or dinner at all.
This is not enough food for a prisoner, not nearly enough. Prisoners lose weight first, then muscle mass, until they can barely move. Hunger sometimes makes people lose their will, sometimes their mind.
In 1943, german administration needed prisoners to work for the war effort, it took them a long time to understand that a badly fed prisoner would be of no use. Rather than raising the daily rations, some prisoners, including the 45000, were allowed to receive packages from their families, including food packages. It wasn't even close to being enough, as the packages were once more often stolen by the kapos. Anyway, in the few cases where the prisoners were fed better, they would rather spend their energy sabotaging discreetly the war effort than contributing to it, the war effort could go to hell.
When Georges met Fernand again, he could barely recognise him. With a friend, he took him, he hid him, fed him, put him back up on his feet. He saved his life, brought him back from the dead. For Fernand, there was no such thing as luck, solidarity and friendship were far more important. Or maybe luck is simply the other one.
Back to the present, Dudal and Devaux find a place to sleep thanks to a group of nuns who indicate a safe spot.
Their second day starts, they find some food inside an abandoned Red cross truck, but it isn't much. Georges and Fernand keep on talking about food, about all the things they will eat back in France, Georges tells Fernand about the woman he wishes to marry, Germaine. But France is a long way, there is still 700 kilometers to go. Walking by foot might not be the best option.
A day later, they find a repatriation camp in Augsburg. There isn't much to eat, they are hungry, they look for food, they don't find much.
A cat passes by, a black cat. They make a difficult decision. That night, other prisoners can smell some meat cooking, they join Georges and Fernand. Georges explains which type of meat it is, 2 prisoners accept to join them and share the food. It isn't great meat, but it is food.
The next day, a truck takes back some prisoners to the West, Georges and Fernand sneak in, it brings them to Ulm. The camp is packed with prisoners, all impatient to be back. This might take weeks.
It surprisingly doesn't take long, Georges and Fernand jump into another truck to Sarrebourg. They pass the alsacian territory, briefly integrated to Germany. With the end of the war, it should become part of France again. Georges and Fernand don't think too much about it, they still focus on food, even more since they arrived in french territory. So much food to eat.
The population of Sarrebourg welcome them with open arms, Georges and Fernand are confused. Last time they were in France, they were prisoners, looked down, judged without trial, and now they are welcomed.
They take one last train and arrive in Paris, finally, on the 19th of May 1945! It has been 4 years and a half, and they finally return to Paris as free men.
Fernand and Georges are pushed to register at the Lutetia hotel before going back to their families, they comply. Their surprise is complete as they meet the 45000 they left in Dachau, Eudier, Besse, Aondetto and many others, they arrived a day earlier than them. Had Fernand and Georges been a little more patient in Dachau instead of escaping, they would have arrived in France earlier, by plane.
Now Georges must run to meet with Germaine and hope she’ll marry him. Then, even if they’ve had enough. even if they suffered more than the human body could take, even if they wish to leave it all behind, they’ll have to talk about what they saw, the camp, the killings. They will also have to carry on with the spirit which drove them all along; the solidarity, the faith in a better and fairer future. None of this will be easy, but they’ll have to try their best.
But first they eat.
Thank you for listening to this episode of 31000/45000, the story of 2 trains of french members of the resistance. My name is Matthieu Landour Engel.
This episode was about Fernand Devaux and Georges Dudal, and their travel back to France.
Food was a major topic of discussion amongst the prisoners, and I wanted to convey this with Fernand and Georges, as they were close friends and Georges in particular worked in the kitchens.
So the prisoners were given 3 meals a day. The first meal was not really a meal, it was more coffee or herbal tea, which was referred as boiled water. The noon meal was a litter of soup, yet you had to try to get some of the solid food inside the soup, which was at the bottom, otherwise it was pretty much boiled water once more. The dinner was 300 grams of black bread, served with about 25 grams of sausage, or margarine, or a tablespoon of marmalade or cheese.
Those 3 meals had low nutritional value, and coupled with the effort demanded during the kommando and the fact that food serving depended on the mood of the kapos and SS, the prisoners lost their weight and energy very quickly. Starvation led to exhaustion, which often led the prisoners to the selections and the gas chambers.
Fernand and Georges ended up marrying Yvonne and Germaine, 2 sisters, so they became more than friends, they became family.
Fernand Devaux and Georges Dudal were key elements in the conservation of the memory of the 45000 deportation, with Andre Montagne and Lucien Ducastel. They gave a substantial help to Claudine Cardon Hamet in creating her books 1000 hostages for Auschwitz and Red triangles to Auschwitz. Fernand Devaux was also co responsible for the creation of the website memoire vive.
Fernand Devaux was the second to last 45000 alive, he passed away on the 18th of May 2018. The last 45000 may be Mario Ripa, I am not completely sure.
I was lucky to have a conversation with MArtine Devaux, the daughter of Fernand Devaux, she kindly gave me informations about her father, told me about his life.
My sources for this story mostly come from the book 1000 hostages for Auschwitz, by Claudine Cardon Hamet, le convoi du 24 janvier by Charlotte Delbo, the website politique-auschwitz-blogspot, memoire vive, the foundation for the memory of deportation website , the Maitron website, and the fantastic website auschwitz.org
Thank you very much for your attention, next episode will be about Rene Maquenhen and a celebration.