- Contributed by
- Ron Goldstein
- People in story:
- Denise Bloch and Muriel Byck
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 May 2004
Two Jewish Heroines of the SOE Part 3
By Martin Sugarman
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
As the Allies approached Paris, the Germans were forced to move all their prisoners further east and into Germany. Imprisoned at the infamous gaol in Fresnes twelve miles south of Paris, Denise was taken to Gare de L'Est by coach on 8 August with Szabo and Rolfe. They had all been in Fresnes prison at the same time, but unbeknown to each other. A report written by Vera Atkins - when seconded to the Judge Advocate General's Branch HQ BAOR, 13 March 1946 (40) - mentions that Denise had also been seen in interrogation centres at both 3, Place des Etats-Unis and the notorious 84 Avenue Foch, in Paris, Gestapo HQ.
Each prisoner was given a small parcel by the Red Cross, enough to last for two days. Their third class railway wagon was attached to the end of a heavily guarded train carrying three hundred German wounded as well as male prisoners. The women prisoners - separated from the men, who included Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas, 'The White Rabbit' - were chained by the ankles in pairs.Vera Atkins' report (41) states that other SOE agents on the train with them included Major Peuleve and Squadron Leader Southgate en route to Buchenwald. After many hours delay,the train left on that hot August late afternoon en route to Germany.
The following day the train was attacked and damaged by the RAF, so they had to continue the journey on trucks later that night. (During this attack occured the famous incident when Violette Szabo crawled into the male prisoner section to bring them food and water). On reaching Metz, they were billeted in stables for the night; agent Bernard Guillot alleges he saw many women prisoners at this time whilst he was being moved between prisons and especially mentions Denise in his de-brief of 12 April 1945 (42) .
From here the girls were then sent on to Gestapo HQ in Strasbourg. Later they reached Saarbrucken; here the three girls were seen by Mlle. Monique Level, a French prisoner, as they arrived, with Lilian looking quite ill (43). Finally, they arrived at Ravensbruck after a week's brutalising journey. The date was 22 August 1944 (44).
Details of Denise's imprisonment and death are described by E H Cookridge's 'Inside SOE' (45). The three SOE girls managed to share the same bunk in their hellish prison hut. Here they were seen by SOE agents Yvonne Baseden and Eileen Nearne (46). But after three weeks at Ravensbruck (the world's largest prison for women ever known) she and Szabo and Rolfe were taken to Torgau (with Nearne) on 3 September, a Labour camp one hundred and twenty miles south of Ravensbruck where conditions were slightly better and they worked in a factory. Nearne said they were in good spirits, especially Violette, who was constantly planning an escape (47). Lilian, however, was unwell (48). Later, Nearne was sent elsewhere and never saw them again.
Several weeks later (5 October) they were returned to Ravensbruck. Again after two weeks (19 October) they were moved (49) and sent east to join an Aussenkommando - three hundred miles away near Konigsburg - labouring in heavy forestry and building work at an airfield. They travelled by truck arriving in November 1944 and worked for three months in the harshest conditions of an East European winter, mainly with Russian and Polish POW's (50). Both Lilian and Denise were very unwell as a result of the ill treatment here whereas Violette had stood up to it better. Witnesses described how all three always stuck together and showed remarkable spirit (51).
Violette became particularly friendly with Solange (note 50), whilst Lilian (who was increasingly ill and in the hospital) was befriended by Renee Corjon (note 48). Then on 20 January, the three agents were again returned to Ravensbruck; they speculated (Solange and Corjon) that it might be for repatriation via Sweden or Switzerland. Little did they know that it had been decided by Berlin to carry out systematic mass executions; the Allies were fast approaching and the Germans wanted to kill prisoners who had witnessed atrocities or who were considered 'important' and constituted a 'danger' to the German State (52).
At Ravensbruck, Baseden saw them yet again and was shocked at their much deteriorated health. They told Baseden that they had managed to contact some male POW's on their transport back and given them a list of agents they had seen imprisoned, hoping it would get back to London. Baseden alleges they were optimistic about getting onto another transport perhaps to perform lighter work outside the camp, and that a French prisoner, Mary de Moncy - who worked in the infirmary - had been able to get them some food and clothes (53) It was de Moncy who told Yvonne Baseden later that one day the girls had been taken to the punishment cells for solitary confinement, all three being in a poor state and Lilian unable to walk. After a further three days they were moved to an "L" shaped block of cells called the bunker (a kind of prison within the prison) and were seen by an unnamed Czech woman (54). Odette Churchill, GC (55) describes this abominable place thus - 'A short passage with a barrel gate at the end with spikes leading to the floor and ceiling , had on one side the cheerful rooms of the SS.....the gate swung on a spring hinge and led to a flight of stairs descending to a stone underground second passage with white electric light, and cells on one side, which were all in darkness inside....the cell doors had hatches through which food was passed'.
A day or two later all three agents disappeared.
After the war, it was discovered, however, (see below) that the three women were taken from their cells to the yard behind the crematorium at about 1900 hrs one evening. Denise and Lilian had been badly treated and were on stretchers; only Violette was able to walk. Camp Commandant SS SturmbannFuhrer Fritz Suhren read the death sentences ordered by RSHA in Berlin, with Second in Command Schwartzhuber also present. SS Sergeant Zappe guarded the girls whilst this was done . SS ScharFuhrer (Sergeant) Schulte (or Schulter) - a block leader from the mens' camp - then shot each girl in the back of the neck as they knelt down with a small calibre gun, as SS Corporal Schenk (in charge of the crematorium) brought them forward and held them. Camp doctor SS SturmbannFuhrer Trommer certified the deaths and the clothed bodies were removed singly by internees and immediately cremated. The camp dentist, Dr Martin Hellinger, was there to remove any gold teeth.
Suhren was arrested by the Americans on 3 May whilst bringing Odette Churchill GC from Ravensbruck to the American lines as a mitigating offering. He escaped, was recaptured, escaped again for two years, was recaptured again in 1949 by the British when he was found working in a brewery, and then handed over to the French. They - as Peter Churchill wrote (56) 'had no foolish sentiment about these murderers' and tried and then executed him in - ironically - Fresnes prison. The dentist received 15 years in prison, was released in 1951 and practised in Germany for years afterwards (57).
For months after the war, it was unofficially believed that the three girls had been liberated by the Russians and that they were possibly on their way home via Siberia, or even Sweden. This had happened before to some survivors of the German camps. A document in the SOE files, however, (58) dated 28 April 1945, states that SOE believed the three girls were still at Ravensbruck! Then in April 1946 a newspaper story about the missing girls was seen by a Mrs Julie Barry living at Joyce Grove, Nettlebed in Oxfordshire. She was a Guernsey woman who had been deported to Ravensbruck and allegedly forced to become a Kapo (No. 39785) in the Strafeblock (59). Barry was in fact a Jewish refugee who had arrived in Guernsey in July 1939 as Julia Brichta and in April 1942 married a local man Jeremiah Barry. However, she was denounced by local Guernsey residents and deported to Ravensbruck via France on 5 May 1944 (60).
When interviewed by two War Office officials, Barry's story was that she saw the three girls at Ravensbruck in rags, faces black with dirt and hair matted, spoke to them and gave them food and clothing. She especially remembered Violette Szabo.But her story cannot be confirmed. Another British POW at Ravensbruck was Mary Lindell. Escott quotes her (61) as affirming that the usual method of execution there was by hanging, and she had it on reliable authority from others in the camp that the girls clothes were returned to the stores intact after execution. Baseden (62), however, disputes this based on information from Mary de Moncy, who said their clothes were never returned.We will probably never know the truth of the manner of their death (63).
Meanwhile, Vera Atkins went to Germany on her own initiative and got herself attatched to the Nuremburg War Crimes Investigation team (64). She began conducting inquiries in Germany on all missing agents. At Minden prison she found and interviewed ObersturmF
uhrer Johann Schwartzhuber, SS, the Second in Command (Schutzhaftlagerfuhrer or Camp Overseer ) at Ravensbruck, and previously a prominent prison guard at Auschwitz, on 13 March 1946 (65).
After some strong words from Atkins, a guilty looking Schwartzhuber admitted that the three women had been brought back from Konigsburg and put in the cells at Ravensbruck. He then confirmed how the girls were killed (see above) adding that a female overseer escorted them to the crematorium yard (Barry?) but was sent back before the excecution. He said 'All three were very brave and I was deeply moved......we were impressed by the bearing of these women....and annoyed that the Gestapo thermselves did not carry out these shootings.....I recognise with certainty the photograph of Danielle Williams (Denise Bloch) and I think I recognise the photograph of Lillian Rolfe. I know that the third had the name of Violette.' The translation was confirmed by a German linguist Captain A Vollman.
Schwarzhuber also confirmed that Lilian Rolfe was unable to walk and had to be assisted to the place of execution; this was a long trek, from the cells via the kitchen, through the main gate, past the garage, to the crematorium itself. Barry insists that only Violette walked and the other two were on stretchers. Violette was shot last and had the final agony of having to watch her friends murdered in front of her.
Like Suhren (who also testified to the supreme courage and cheerfulness of the girls), Schwartzhuber was sentenced to death after his trial in Hamburg and hanged. Thus, the indefatigable Vera Atkins was only able to write letters of condolence to the girls' families in the Spring of 1946 and only after this evidence from Vera Atkins was Whitehall able to issue death certificates for the three agents - over a year after the murders.
Thus was Denise Bloch's short, brave life. Like many others she has no known grave but her name is proudly carved on four memorials - lest we forget!
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.