Adolf Hitler views victory parade in Warsaw, Poland - 1939
The tragic rendez vous with destiny between Anne Franck and Hélène Salamon, the mother of Yvonne born at the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.
During the six months the baby Yvonne spent at the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen she never cried; her mother Hélène hid her from the SS guards by giving Yvonne her breast which she took silently. As astonishing as this could ever be, the SS guards never realized that she existed!
Hélène was born in Poland in 1905 and at the age of 16 she met the future father of Yvonne, Nathan from Russia in Warsaw. Well, when I say the father of Yvonne, not really but once you finish reading Normandy American Heroes blog you will understand what I meant by “her father”!
Young, the parents of Yvonne are considered anarchist, not too far from the communist regime ideal living in a catholic anti-Soviet country. To make matters worse they are Jews, and Jews are sent to prison! They know they are going to be sentenced. Per their lawyer, for their acts of rebellion, they could be sentenced 5 to 6 years in prison, this is why they decide to run for it and one morning of 1924 find themselves in Paris before heading off to Montpellier – France.
The first few years in France are days of happiness, the first child, a boy named George is born in 1931. The young family then decides to move to Marseille where in 1937, Hélène gives birth to a girl named Maggie. During their years in France, Nathan becomes a doctor and Hélène a midwife but in September 1939 WWII is declared and theirs lives will change forever.
Nathan finds himself drafted in the French army and becomes quickly a Prisoner of War after the defeat of France in 1940, and is sent to Germany.
Victory parade in Paris, France - 1940
Three years later, October 1942 a rumour spreads out that the Germans are coming to Marseille (Operation Torch will give the pretext for the Germans to occupy totally France).
Hélène decides to hide her son George in a church in the Alps under the protection of a priest whilst Maggie, who then is only five, is hidden by a widow who doesn’t have any kids. Hélène promises her daughter she will come back soon for her…
Finally, in November 1942, the Germans take the town of Marseille and less than one month later, on the identity card of Hélène is stamped the word: “Juif” (Jew). This means she doesn’t have anymore the right to work as a midwife.
That’s when she decides to join the French Resistance, to work with Louis whom she knows as he had studied medicine with her husband. Hélène now is going to live like a clandestine! Her mission will be to carry out mail like a liaison officer without ever opening up the letters and reading them. After the war she will state that her French Resistance activity was simply to deliver a letter to a person or to drop it off in a mailbox.
One day, in February 1944, Hélène who is in Nîmes (known as the most Roman city outside Italy thanks to the Amphitheatre and the Roman temple “Maison Carrée”) is here to deliver a huge envelope. Once completed she gets ready to go back home, to catch the train to Marseille when all the sudden she is arrested by two men in black who take her into a car and drive off.
They are members of the infamous French Militia of the Vichy Regime of Petain who were more than motivated to do the dirty work of the Gestapo!
Flag of the Vichy Regime Flag of the Third Reich
Once at the French Militia office, they tell her that they have read the contents of the envelope which has given them some very interesting information on the terrorists.
Surprisingly enough, some of the names they found in the envelope are known by their services. Louis for example and they ask her: “Who is Louis?” She replies: “Louis is a lifelong friend, he is a doctor who asked me to deliver some letters which contents I have no idea of, it’s the truth!”
They put her in a dark humid cell where Hélène has no choice but to sleep on the floor all dressed up, shivering from the cold without having anything to eat or drink. Her mouth is burning from the thirst, her lips are dry and chapped…continuously she is questioned by the French Militia, but she still finds the strength to resist.
While in the cell she realizes that she’s late for her period: "Oh my God I'm pregnant!" She had considered to end her life and now her baby to come stops her from doing so.
Hélène is then turned over by the French Militia to the Gestapo. The Gestapo officer tells her: “We were told that you do not want to talk, just as well as we don’t want to listen to you!” They beat her up with brutality before dragging her down in the basement.
Faintly she hears her name called: “Hélène, Hélène, soon they are going to take you to the toilet. Behind the toilet, you are going to find a small piece of sugar”.
Yvonne, her baby to come, will testify years later that her mother told her that was the tastiest sugar she ever ate in her life!
Two months later, April 1944, Hélène is transferred to the French internment camp of Drancy near Paris for Jews arrested, who sooner than later were sent to extermination camps such as, but not limited to, Sobibor and Auschwitz. The site is horrifying with some barracks and thousands of children, adults, elderlies and invalids out in the open.
Every day, more people are imprisoned, every day more people are taken to the trains…leaving the camp, heading off to their tragic destiny. Some say in the camp, probably to try to reassure themselves, that they are heading off East to work in factories.
In Yiddish they say that the ones leaving are going to Pitchipoi, an imaginary place where the Jews of Drancy believed they were deported to: mysterious, disturbing…. very disturbing.
Hélène will leave Drancy in May 1944 climbing into a truck while the ones staying at the camp start singing: “Ce n’est qu’un au revoir” (Till we meet again)
Hélène was totally distressed as she climbed in a train at the Paris train station "Gare de l’Est", heading off to Bergen-Belsen, in the North of Germany.
There, as she got off the train, she saw a camp encircled by barbed wires and miradors. She heard the frightening barking of the dogs and the horrific site of the inmates dressed up in striped clothing with an empty look in their eyes. Hélène could smell the horrible stench surrounding her body, invading her soul; she will comprehend later on in time that the smell was the smell of the corpses burning in the crematorium.
All the barracks there are identical: no heating, bunk beds with two prisoners sharing a straw mattress per bunk, a very thin smelly filthy blanket for each prisoner and a collective shower.
It’s in this environment that Hélène, four months pregnant, will give birth to Yvonne.
The worst at the camp was to be continuously hungry, the prisoners had a soup at lunch and for dinner. Half a ladle of a transparent liquid with a few bits of vegetables floating around and once per week a loaf of bread, a black loaf of dry hard bread.
In the camp, the loaf of bread was worth millions, and for Hélène the means to trade the loaf for a piece of textile. Why so? Hélène needed textile to make diapers for her baby soon to be. She also traded her loaf to get some powder milk.
By then, Hélène only weights 30 kg (66 pounds) and has therefore her belly all swollen, but the SS don’t pay attention to her as all the other women, due to the famine, are in the same state: swollen bellies! The SS will never suspect that she was actually pregnant…
Hélène, as her term gets closer, recalls the lessons learned to become a midwife. She’s scared to be discovered, to lose her baby. She remembers what the nutritious needs are for a fetus to grow and desperately knows she can’t give it to her nor herself.
When she talks to her soon to be baby, she tells the baby that she can feel it grow, move faintly and that it relieves her: “My baby, you are alive, you are growing in me and this gives me an incredible force, a lot of hope as I have the fierce determination to give birth to you. You are my obsession and last hope to survive the horror here of this camp. Thanks to you my love, I can forget all my troubles”.
It’s sometimes easier to save someone else than oneself
As months go by, Bergen-Belsen concentration camp becomes a place of death where corpses are piled on top of each other, where the kids, as a game, choose each a stack of corpses and count how many they have! Whoever has the highest number wins.
Hélène, like the vast majority of the prisoners, sleeps next to the dead, lives and walks by the corpses in a cold, shivering environment. The lice start to spread out; not the ones you have in your hair, no the lice found on dead bodies, the lice that eats out the corpses and passes on the typhus.
Do not forget that during the winter of 1944 / 1945, the temperature, most of the time, is minus 20 degree Celsius. In the camp you have no hot drinks, no hot food, no heating, no winter clothing…it's hell on earth.
Luckily for Hélène, she has a bit of respite by working at the infirmary where there is some heating, that’s what probably saved her and the baby to come?
Hélène will later tell her daughter Yvonne that one day, next to her bunk, she saw a young fragile girl laying there. She asked her weakly:
- “Hello, what is your name?”
- “Anne… Anne Frank”
- “And how old are you?”
- “I’m fifteen years old”
Anne is hit by the typhus, nevertheless she continues to sing joyfully! She sings in her native language, the Dutch. She tells Hélène that one day she will visit Paris. Hélène smiles at her, encourages her not to stop dreaming but it’s written on her face, death will soon take her away.
Marcelle Christophe and her daughter Francine
In March 2020, a very moving testimonial of Mrs. Francine Christophe was given. At Bergen-Belsen she was only 8 years old when she witnessed the birth of the baby girl Yvonne. Normandy American Heroes knows that Hélène, who has since passed away, always refused to tell her daughter Yvonne, the conditions of her birth… Thanks to Francine we have a small glimpse of that important day!
Francine was born August 18th, 1933 the year Adolf Hitler took power. While in Bergen-Belsen at the age of 8 she wanted to remind everyone at the conference that being children of POW, they had certain privilege. When they were deported from France, they were authorized to take with them a few belongings with them. A woman would perhaps take a piece of chocolate, another one a piece of sugar or a handful of rice?
- Francine: “My mum Marcelle took with her two pieces of chocolate”.
- She would tell her daughter: “We will keep it for the day where I will see you will really need it; I will give you this piece of chocolate which will help you get some energy back.”
- Francine: “Well there was among us a woman who had been deported while being pregnant. It was of course impossible to see as she was so skinny. But one day, the day of delivery had come, and she went off with my mum to the “Krankenrevier” (clinic in a concentration camp), my mum being the barrack chief. Before leaving my mum tells me: “You remember that I have kept a piece of chocolate?” “Yes mummy” Her mum: “How do you feel?” “I’m fine mummy, not feeling too bad”.
- Her mum: “Well if you authorize me to do so, I will bring this piece of chocolate to our friend Hélène because giving birth here in this miserable place, she may die and if I give her that chocolate it might help her?”
- Francine replied: “Yes mummy, give it to her”.
Hélène gave birth to a tiny baby, a small sickly child. The mother ate the chocolate, she didn’t die and came back to the barrack.
- Francine: “The baby never cried, never! Not even whine. Six months later the camp was liberated, we unwrapped all his rags and oh miracle, the baby cried! It was at that moment that the baby was born. My mum and I brought her back to France. A tiny little living being of just six months.”
- Francine: “Many years later, I organized a conference entitled: What if we had had psychologists to follow us after 1945, would our lives have been different? Quite a few people came, survivors, witnesses, specialists, curious etc., all with different ideas which was good when all the sudden a woman presented herself".
- The lady: “I’m a psychiatric living in Marseille and before sharing with all of you my presentation I have something to give to Francine Christophe.”
- Francine: “That’s me”. I see her search in her trouser pocket, she takes out a piece of chocolate, she gives it to me and says: “I’m the baby”
As for Yvonne, this is what she managed to learn later on in time concerning her birth, this is how she imagined it took place.
“It’s dark, late at night, my mum has her first contractions. She goes to the clinic where someone helps her lay down some blankets on the ground and just above, my mum puts a clean sheet she had washed with cold water and a bit of soap. She lights up a candle and hides the flame under a pan so as not to be seen by the guards. Now being a midwife, she knows it’s not going to be easy to give birth and that she is going to need a lot of strength to succeed. But weighting only 30 kilos and the extreme loss of her muscle mass, the delivery work is going to be long, difficult and painful.
Nevertheless, my mum finds the strength to push and finally I’m born without making any noise at all! I don’t cry nor shout as if I already understood that I had to hide and stay quiet?
I’m so small, weighting less than 1.5 kg (3.30 pounds) but for my mum I’m simply beautiful. My mum cuts by herself the umbilical cord, brings me close to her body warmth and oh miracle she realizes she has a bit of milk in her breast! So, I suckle on my mum’s breast before she wraps me up in fabrics she had exchanged for her loaf of bread.
And for six months I will live hidden under her robe, in security against her loving body without ever moving, crying or whining.”
Hélène decided to call her daughter Yvonne because of her fondness for Yvonne De Gaulle, wife of the famous French General De Gaulle who made a call for resistance on the 18th of June 1940 on the BBC from London. It was also Hélène pseudonym in the French Resistance.
Hélène only thought at the camp was to find a way to feed her baby, it occupied all her days and whatever she found, her baby accepted: soup made of rutabaga, raw beetroot that she chewed on before giving it to her baby’s mouth and sometimes some powder milk she managed to get, mixed with a bit of cold water.
April 9, 1945, feeling that defeat was becoming a reality, the SS evacuated all the Jews from the camp probably to use them as hostages or human shield and made them climb into trucks. Yvonne, the baby still clinging to her mum’s body, hidden under the robe didn’t make a sound, didn’t cry, didn’t whine! They arrived at the train station where they climbed into cattle cars, not knowing where their fate was taking them.
Could there be a worse place than Bergen-Belsen? Sadly, the answer is yes.
The journey by train was worse! Everyone had the dysentery; they were of course no toilets in the wagon not even a basin, so people had no choice but to relieve themselves directly on the wooden floor.
Sometimes the train made a stop, Hélène would get off and pick up some grass which she chewed and gave directly to the mouth of her daughter. She also took some water found in the ditch to mix it up with the powder milk she had saved and gave it to her.
Overall the train went around in circles for fourteen long days! Why? Yvonne will learn later on in time that the Germans were surrounded by both the British and Russian troops.
Finally, on the fifteenth day the train stopped. The prisoners couldn’t hear the shouting of the SS guards anymore, did they run away? When all the sudden they saw coming toward the train Russian soldiers!
Hélène had only one idea in mind, wash herself, wash herself from the filth. She heads off to a house where the German woman lets her in reluctantly. She sees, once inside, food everywhere. So, tempting but she knows, per her studies, that having starved to death, eating too much in one go will surely kill her.
The owner gives Hélène a bedroom, and there, in that room, a miracle occurs! Hélène removes the handmade nappy from her baby, separate the baby from the warmth of her body and for the very first time, the baby cries!
She cries like a baby that was just given birth…but six months later!
Nathan, the husband of Hélène also survived the war; they will finally meet again in Marseille in January 1945. When Nathan see his wife with a baby in her arms he is stunned. Having been made prisoner in 1940 whose baby is this?
Hélène makes up a story of having adopted her in the Netherlands, does he believe her? Probably not, nevertheless he decides to give his name to this little baby girl, Yvonne.
Yvonne will say, later on in time, that her father Nathan never wanted her to know he wasn’t her biological father. It took Yvonne a long time to decide if she should or not share this in her memoirs, wanting to make sure not to smear his name. But, how could she? What he did was honorable, he gave her his name, he raised her, loved her like all his other kids.
The only truth that her parents were willing to share with Yvonne was on her identity card. She could see written on it, Yvonne Salamon, born August 15th, 1945 in Marseille… but at the age of 16, Yvonne starts to be more and more curious. The camp where her mother was imprisoned was liberated in April 1945, when was she conceived and where?
When Yvonne talks to her mum this is what she replies: “Listen Yvonne, this is what happened. Dad who was a POW escaped and managed to enter Bergen-Belsen without been seen, that’s how you were conceived, simple as that”.
It’s surely a fairytale but Yvonne desperately wants to believe it until she sees the famous movie “Night and Fog” directed by Alain Resnais… seeing it she realizes that what her mother had told her simply couldn't be true. No one in his right mind, and even if he wanted to, would enter a camp and hope to escape!
Then Yvonne asked herself: “Was my mum raped by a Nazi?” Hélène, her mum, swears that it never happened! But doubts are now there, and they will be anchored in Yvonne’s all the way to her 28th birthday.
One day, Hélène Salamon receives “La Légion d’Honneur” (Legion of Honor) medal and Louis, her companion during the French Resistance period is there. When Yvonne sees him, she is stunned, straight away she realizes that they look alike, especially the face!
So, after the ceremony, Yvonne goes up to her mum: “Mum, Mum, I beg you, stop lying to me. Is Louis my biological father?”
Hélène answers: “Yes, yes my love”.
From that day on, can be read on her identity card: Yvonne Salamon, born October 20, 1944 in Bergen-Belsen.
Her mother Hélène passed away December 5, 1987 at the age of 82.