Story Excerpt

The Refusal Camp

by James R. Benn

Art by

The factory floor was thick with noise and odor. The clatter of metal and the squeaky wheels of heavy trolleys on cold concrete. The stench of acetylene cutting steel and the sharp, oily tang of scrap metal. The smell of bodies crammed together along workbenches, women in striped dresses worn over filthy layers for warmth.

Malou worked quickly, assembling the machine parts that were brought to her table in a never-ending stream of metal and wire. She had no idea what they were for. No one did. Not the prisoners, not the guards. A Nazi secret weapon, some said. What else could it be? Why else would the Germans transport the women here every day from Ravensbrück, even issuing them extra rations?

Weapons. It was horrible enough to be a prisoner in the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. Being forced to build weapons for the Nazi war machine was far too much to bear. But this was not the time to think about it. They’d already decided.

Malou looked across the table to Jeannie. This was Jeannie’s plan. When she gave the signal, they’d act.

At the other workbenches, women gave slight nods of acknowledgement. The Slovaks at the next table. The Dutch women. And beyond them, the Poles, where Lena watched the guards with quick, furtive glances. Some kept their heads down. One of the new workers, a young girl from Reims, looked like she might break down as she fumbled with the metal parts in her trembling hands. Malou was new herself, arriving in camp less than a week ago, but she wasn’t anywhere near her breaking point. Not yet.

No matter. Not all would go along, but no one had betrayed their plan.

A metal door clanged open. Herr Barth swept in, his white lab coat swirling behind thick hips as he grasped a clipboard like a deadly weapon. Armed guards with truncheons at the ready followed, a familiar routine during visits by the general manager of this Siemens factory.

Malou, with her sharp eye for potential threats, spotted an unfamiliar figure trailing Barth. A stocky man in a gray SS uniform, his indifferent eyes nearly hidden behind tortoiseshell glasses. He looked like a bureaucrat. They were the worst, but perhaps not an immediate threat.

Malou looked down at her work. It did not pay to be noticed.

“Ladies,” Herr Barth barked as he halted at the end of a table. One of the guards thumped his truncheon on the workbench, nearly knocking over a pile of electrical parts. Barth shook his head and motioned the man back. “Ladies, your work falters. We are behind schedule.”

Jeannie set down her component with a thud, stood, and stepping back from the workbench, folded her arms across her chest.

Malou did the same. Other Frenchwomen at her table followed suit, and like a ripple spreading across a pond, women at other tables did as well. Valerie, the new girl from Reims, wept but kept working, her shaking hands barely able to hold the electrical cables. Malou doubted she’d last long. This place showed no mercy, tolerated no weakness, and Valerie had little strength to fall back on. She wasn’t political or part of the Resistance, simply a girl who’d been taken in one of the roundups. The Germans went for city girls with small, delicate hands, and pretty hands were Valerie’s misfortune.

Lena was first among the Poles to stop work. Most followed her example.

“What is this?” Barth roared. “What are you doing? Get back to work!”

“No,” Jeannie said, looking straight at Barth, her voice unbelievably calm. “We refuse.”

“You cannot refuse!” Barth sputtered, motioning for the guards to deal with the women. “It is not allowed.”

Barth’s bodyguards hesitated, unsure of what to do. This had never happened. The other guards in the room, German women from the camp, moved swiftly, striking their charges whether they were working or not. Barth backed away, his eyes flitting nervously toward the exit.

“Stop.” The SS officer spoke, his voice breaking through the growing cries and clatter.

“Halt,” Barth repeated somewhat uselessly. The guards had already backed off, but Barth was intent on asserting his authority. “Sturmbannführer Morgen says to stop.”

Malou looked to Jeannie, who raised her eyebrows in surprise. Everyone stared at the SS major, shocked at this unexpected turn. Everyone except Lena, who whispered to the woman next to her.

“On what basis do you refuse?” Morgen asked, walking between the tables and addressing Jeannie.

“We are prisoners of war,” Jeannie answered, her chin jutting forward. “As such we should not be required to work on weapons. It says so in the Geneva Convention.”

“Interesting,” Morgen said, nodding. “What is your rank? Your branch of service?”

“I am a Frenchwoman,” Jeannie said. “And I refuse to make weapons for the enemy of my nation. It is my right as a prisoner. We refuse, those of us who stopped working. We are in the refusal camp.”

“You are in my factory,” Barth said, shouting more loudly than he needed to. “And you will work.”

“Wait,” Morgen said, holding up a hand in Barth’s direction, then turning to Jeannie. “Tell me, what weapon are you working on?”

“I do not know its precise function,” she answered. “But I am certain we are not here to make refrigerators for the Reich.”

“Doubtful, I agree,” Morgen said, his tone conversational. “As for your status here, were you captured in uniform? As a combatant?”

“No,” Jeannie said. “I was picked up, that’s all. I have no idea why I am here, and the camp officials do not either.”

True enough, thought Malou. Jeannie had been the first to befriend her when Malou arrived. She’d confided to her that Jeannie Rousseau was her real name. She’d had so many false identities in her Resistance work that when she was delivered to Ravensbrück she simply gave her real name, which thoroughly confused the Germans.

“And you cannot tell me what you are constructing here, can you?” Morgen asked.

“As I said, no, not exactly.”

“Well, this is an interesting legal question, but one that cannot be settled today,” Morgen said. “I suggest you return to work for now. I will be back tomorrow.”

“Sturmbannführer, these women should be punished,” Barth said.

“You say you are running behind schedule, and you plan to punish your workers?” Morgen said. “If you wish, but it seems unproductive.” With that, Morgen shrugged his shoulders and turned away from

“Back to work, everyone!” Barth shouted, immediately obedient to the SS major’s suggestion. Jeannie and Malou looked at each other. Was there anything to be gained by continuing? From across the room, Malou saw Lena pick up her tools and return to work. Others followed, as did Jeannie.

Malou did the same. It was over, and it had been very strange.

Morgen moved among the prisoners, chatting as if he were a welcome visitor. He was greeted with frightened stammers, blank looks, and the occasional forthright response.

“And you,” he asked Malou, “were you taken in uniform?”

“An evening dress,” Malou said, her eyes on her work. “In Paris.”

“A whore,” one of the guards told Morgen, pointing her truncheon at Malou. “In league with the Resistance and selling drugs on the black market.”

“Are they feeding you well here?” Morgen asked, ignoring the guard, who appeared deflated.

“The bread has very little sawdust,” Malou said. “The vegetables in the soup are only half rotten, which makes this food haute cuisine compared to the camp’s. Is there any other way in which I can assist the SS?”

“I doubt it,” Morgen said, moving on to speak to two more workers before leaving.

Barth waited until Morgen was gone, then retreated to a corner of the room, whispering to his bodyguards. One departed, the other joined the Ravensbrück guards as they circled the prisoners, watching for any sign of renewed disobedience, slapping their clubs against their legs, and muttering curses.

Guards and officers didn’t like anything that threatened their position. The work stoppage and Major Morgen’s response had done just that, making everyone nervous and on edge. In the cramped confines of this machine shop, the dread rose as each prisoner waited for retribution. It might not come now, with all the delicate parts close at hand, but it would come.

*   *   *

Malou sorted insulated cables for the next round of assembly, her attention suddenly drawn to slamming doors and shouted orders. The female guards took up position around the workbenches as Barth and his men stormed in.

“To the mess hall,” Barth ordered. It was early for the midday meal, but no one objected. Extra rations were part of the reward for working at Siemens. A piece of black bread and actual vegetables floating in the soup. The difference between living and slowly dying.

Guards shouted for them to hurry, pushing and shoving the women as they lined up to exit the side door. Barth stood close by as a guard counted off the prisoners.

Valerie was ahead of Malou and stopped suddenly next to Barth.

“Please, Herr Barth, I want to go to the refusal camp,” Valerie cried out, grasping his arm. “I’m no good here, please, can I go?”

“Get off me,” Barth yelled, stepping back as a guard clubbed Valerie.

“No, Valerie, that’s not what I meant,” Jeannie said from behind Malou.

“I want to go to the refusal camp,” Valerie bawled, tears streaming down her face as she reached again for Barth, the false vision of some safe place driving all reason from her mind.

Guards streamed to the disruption, truncheons crushing bone as Valerie fell. Blood splattered against Barth’s white coat, and a great pool of it seeped from Valerie’s head.

“There!” Barth raged at Jeannie. “That is what you accomplished today. You made this poor girl mad!” He stepped back, the blood coming close to ruining his shoes, and pointed at Jeannie. “Take her back to camp. Now. Let Commandant Suhren deal with her.”

Jeannie was bundled away, alive, at least.

“Enjoy your luncheon, ladies,” Barth said as Malou filed by.

*   *   *

In the mess hall, Malou dipped her bread into the broth, softening it. Her stomach was in knots, but she had to get the food down. It was life.

“She wouldn’t have lasted long, you know,” Lena said from across the narrow table. “She couldn’t adapt.”

“Who could adapt to this place?” Malou said, focusing on her soup. There was little time to eat.

“You. Jeannie, certainly. I did,” Lena said. “Most of the others selected for this job. At least it was quick. She was out of her mind, probably a blessing.”

“A smashed skull is as much a blessing as a visit from an SS officer,” Malou said, draining the soup from her bowl. She took a crust of bread and rubbed it over the bottom, soaking up any residue. Chewing the bread, she ran her finger inside the bowl, rescuing the few crumbs left behind.

“What do you think of the food?” Lena asked.

“What a ridiculous question,” Malou answered.

“No, I am serious. What’s your assessment?”

“The same thing I told that SS bastard,” Malou said, realizing the Polish girl was genuine. “There’s more sawdust in the bread. Last week it was almost decent. There were more vegetables as well. There’s fewer now, and some are rotten. Why?”

“We used to have meat; can you believe that?” Lena said. “Not much, but it was there.”

“Wonderful,” Malou said. “Are you going to share recipes with Major Morgen?”

“What brought you here?” Lena asked, ignoring the sarcasm.

“A train. Now leave me alone, will you?”

“Don’t ignore Morgen,” Lena said. “If he returns, there may be some value in it.”

“Right. I might be able to strangle him with an electrical cord before they get me.”

“You won’t. You’re not ready to give up,” Lena said, licking her spoon.

“How old are you?” Malou asked. The girl’s face was smudged with grease, but beneath the dirt was a young face.

“Seventeen,” Lena said. “Old enough.”

“For what?” Malou asked.

“To see what’s going on,” Lena said. “I’ve been here almost two months. They put me to work here the first day I arrived.”

“Get up! Now! Back to work,” guards yelled, thumping their truncheons on tabletops. The prisoners queued up silently. Talking while moving between buildings was forbidden, and the line shuffled to the machine shop, the evidence of the morning’s violence still vivid.

Malou vowed she would survive and take her revenge on Barth and as many others as possible. How, she had no idea. But she would not forget Valerie, or the other girls she had witnessed being brutally beaten since she’d arrived.

Lena’s questions about food gnawed at Malou as she worked. And why was Morgen asking the same thing? What possible value could there be in an SS officer snooping around and asking questions about prisoners’ meals? There was no love lost between Barth and Morgen, but what did that mean for the survival of even a single prisoner?

Nothing, as far as Malou could see. She put away those thoughts and focused on her work. Too many mistakes, and it was the punishment detail. The severity of the punishment depended on the severity of the mistakes. Sometimes women came back in two days. Sometimes never.

If she knew what they were building, she might be able to sabotage it, but she had no idea what all these wires did. Even so, as she connected one of the cables, she cut away the sheath surrounding the conductors and snipped one of the inner wires short. Perhaps it made no difference. Perhaps something would blow a Nazi to bits.

Malou smiled. She caught Lena watching her from across the room. That girl seemed very sure of herself. Did she know what they were building? Did she have her own ideas on sabotage? Lena had some odd ideas about the SS, but there was something about her Malou admired.

It was common knowledge that the Germans picked up young women with small hands to do this delicate work. Lena had mentioned she’d been taken in just such a sweep, not for any specific resistance activity. But how true was that?

Just as Jeannie was hiding from the gestapo in plain sight, so was Malou. She had her own secrets. Was Lena more than a prisoner brought in for slave labor?

Lena wore a red triangle with a P for Pole. Malou’s was plain red, marking her as a political prisoner. There were other colors as well. Blue for forced labor, black for asocial, brown for the Roma, pink for homosexuals, and purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses. And the yellow double triangles for Jewish prisoners.

Malou earned her red triangle by working at a high-class brothel in Paris. A hostess who greeted clientele and entertained them while they waited their turn. Germans, mostly. It was the perfect job for an agent of the Special Operations Executive.

Before it all fell apart on the eve of Liberation.

She shook off the memories, thankful that the gestapo thought of her as a small cog in a Resistance cell doing black-market work on the side. She’d been interrogated but managed to stick to her identity as Malou Lyon. Her worst fear was that based on her past employment she’d be sent to one of the concentration camp brothels operated for SS guards.

She’d kill herself first.

“Zofia Janicki!” shouted Barth as he entered the room, this time escorted by four guards armed with rifles at the ready. He carried one of the electrical components trailing multicolored wires.

A girl working near Lena stepped back from her workbench, eyes darting to the exits. They were all guarded. She let out a heavy sigh and waited for the inevitable.

“Prisoner Janicki, this is sabotage,” Barth shouted, holding the component. “The cable is not connected at all. Did you think we would not check your work?” He removed a metal plate and let the unattached wire dangle for all to see. He snapped his fingers, and two guards grabbed the girl roughly, dragging her to the door.

“Niech żyje Polska!” shouted Zofia, before a guard struck her from behind with the butt of his rifle.

“You have been warned,” Barth said, tossing the component on Lena’s workbench. “Repair that immediately.”

Two shots shattered the air, echoing against the brick building.

Long live Poland.


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