Pea Soup and a Boiled Egg
- Deviation by Luce d’Eramo, translated by Anne Milano Appel
Pushkin, 347 pp, £20.00, January, ISBN 978 1 78227 388 2
Luce d’Eramo escaped from Dachau in October 1944. Part of a work crew that was transported into Munich every day to clean the sewers, she slipped away one afternoon during an air raid, running from one doorway or alley to the next as light snow fell on the city. Ditching her rubber work clothes, she hid first in a railway siding, then made her way to an air-raid shelter to lose herself in the crowd, before ending up at the Labour Bureau’s transit camp, ‘where foreigners stay while awaiting a new job or repatriation’. Lax security and chaotic record-keeping made it possible for her to conceal herself in anonymity.
‘Escaping was extraordinarily simple,’ she writes – ‘È stato straordinariamente semplice fuggire.’ That’s the first sentence of Deviazione, her autobiographical novel, originally published in 1979 and only now appearing in English translation, 18 years after her death. It’s the first of many sentences that have you wondering if she can possibly mean what she says. ‘Extraordinary’? Sure. But ‘simple’? Really? Her account of her experiences during the Second World War is as horrifying as you would expect – she witnessed, and endured, unimaginable suffering and depravity – though the prevailing mode of her book is a destabilising irony. And the story of how she came to be in Dachau by her own deliberate choice is anything but simple.
Lucette Mangione was born in Reims in 1925 to Italian parents. The family returned to Italy in 1938: first to Rome, and then, after 1943, following Mussolini’s government north to the Republic of Salò, where her father, a former pilot, was made undersecretary of aviation in the Germans’ puppet regime. In February 1944, Luce, 18 years old and a naively committed Fascist, ‘troubled’ by the ‘outrageous stories’ she was hearing about the Nazi camps, ‘realised that the only way to learn the truth … was to ascertain it first hand’. She ran away from home, with pictures of Hitler and Mussolini in her backpack, and went to Germany to volunteer in a labour camp.
She worked at the vast I.G. Farben factory complex near Frankfurt. Her first job was on the top floor of the chemical plant, keeping an eye on the thermometers. Her barrack mates don’t trust her (I realise I’m slipping into the present tense here; the novel does that too, as well as shifting between the first and third person; the narrator or protagonist’s name also varies, sometimes Lucie, sometimes Lucia, sometimes Luzi, sometimes Lùszia). Some of the women think she’s a spy; others that she’s getting special treatment ‘per omertà di classe’ (which Anne Milano Appel translates as ‘because of class solidarity’, but might have been better left as ‘omertà’): ‘She’s hardly a worker like us.’ Stung by the accusations, Lucia decides to eat in the canteen with the Russians and Poles, to prove she’s ‘more democratic’ than the French and Italian women who’ve been taunting her. She doesn’t realise that the segregation is enforced by the Nazis. ‘Since you love them so much,’ the foreman tells her, ‘go work with them.’ Demoted from the thermometers on the top floor, she joins the Russians and Poles outside the factory, loading and unloading blocks of frozen sulphuric acid by hand.
Towards the end of April, it occurs to her to organise a strike. She suggests it to Martine, a young Frenchwoman. But Martine laughs at her, tells her she’s crazy. She’s disappointed, thinks they’re ‘all afraid’; but it turns out that the French workers have a deeper reason for discouraging her: they have been planning a strike for more than a year. ‘The task of the French militants was to ensure that an uprising of foreigners employed in the factories coincided with the Allied landing in Normandy, in order to weaken the Nazis on the home front.’ Lucia’s zeal threatens the whole enterprise, which entirely depends on timing for its success. In the end they decide to recruit her. The plot spreads through the factory by whispers. In early June, the workers down tools and hole up in the lavatories. The guards set off the air-raid siren to get them out. It’s frightening, but the strike holds. Then the voice of the director comes over the loudspeakers: ‘In all the canteens, for all foreign workers employed at I.G. Farben, there will be pea soup and a boiled egg.’ The leaders of the strike try to hold the workers back, but it’s impossible: ‘The tide that pressed towards the canteens prevailed.’ As they eat their soup and egg, a voice promises them that tomorrow they’ll all get a herring.
Four days later the ringleaders are arrested. Lucia is separated from her friends – ‘save yourself at least,’ Martine urges her, ‘play your Fascist cards’ – and put in a cell with a pregnant German woman. ‘I won’t describe those ten or so days,’ she says – but she does describe them. Perhaps what she means is that her description will fail to convey the full horror. Her cellmate used to manage a post office with her husband and they stole food parcels destined for the Russian front. He was shot as soon as they were discovered; her execution has been delayed until after she gives birth. One night she tries to hang herself, but Lucia intervenes: ‘Her hands clutched the grating above her and she tried to kick. Standing, I held tight to her knees, my cheek against her belly. I felt the foetus stirring gently through the cloth and taut flesh.’ Lucia loses the struggle, but the Nazi authorities commend her ‘for trying to save the unborn child for the Third Reich’, take it as evidence that she has ‘reformed’, and send her back to the factory.
The women in the I.G. Farben barrack assume, not unreasonably, that she’s been spared for betraying her comrades. Isolated, in despair, she lies awake in her bunk. ‘At the thought of tomorrow and the days to come, I made up my mind … What would I do with what I’d experienced here?’ She swallows rat poison – and comes round ‘in a neat white and blue hospital room’. The Italian consul comes to visit her, tells her it’s a ‘hospital for Germans only’, and that she will be ‘officially repatriated’. ‘Don’t think about it any more,’ he says. ‘It was a terrible nightmare. It’s over.’
After six weeks in the hospital for Germans only, she is put on a train to Italy and twenty hours later arrives in Verona. She should be taking a connecting train to Como, where her parents live in a villa requisitioned for them by Mussolini, but instead she wanders the city, steals a peach from a fruit stand, eats three plates of polenta and two slices of chestnut cake at a trattoria. A group of Fascist soldiers proposition her and she goes to a bar with two of them, but later gives them the slip. Arrested for breaking the curfew, she spends the night in the cells at the police station and is kicked out at dawn, after promising to take the first train to Como. The closer she gets to the station, however, the more intolerable the prospect of returning home becomes. And then, in a side street, she sees a group of prisoners being ‘herded’ by six SS men with machine guns. They tell her to get out of the way. ‘Take one more step towards me and we’ll all scream,’ she says. ‘It’s our signal.’ The SS sergeant tells her to get in line with the others. Her identification papers and repatriation certificate – proof that she isn’t a Partisan at all, but ought to be at home in Como with her Fascist father – are still in her bag. She pretends to stumble and drops it. The train journey to Dachau, fifty prisoners in a closed freight car, takes four days.
Despite everything she’s already suffered, Dachau is far worse than she imagined. ‘Astonishment was perhaps the strongest feeling I experienced on arriving … To the point of sometimes not believing what I was seeing with my own eyes at the very moment I saw it.’ She was in the camp for 12 weeks, ‘kicked, beaten, spat on’. She has to wear a black triangle, denoting her as an ‘asocial’ prisoner, not the red triangle of a political detainee she’d been hoping for. (It’s dangerously easy to get sucked into the deranged logic of the Nazis’ obsessive classification systems.) Most of her 42 barrack mates ‘are’ – it takes two pages for the language to shift from describing prisoners as being ‘branded’ by the triangles to essentialising them as ‘being’ the triangles they wear – black triangles like her, including two ‘petty thieves’ who one night end up stealing from each other. ‘Three pink triangles lived on a pair of top bunks’ and ignore everyone else. Only one woman in the barracks wears the green triangle of a ‘common criminal’. The prisoners with yellow triangles are nowhere to be seen. D’Eramo might have found it harder to escape if she’d been marked with a triangle of a different colour.
Witnessing two guards about to rape a Flemish girl using a live rat, she sings ‘Deutschland über alles’ in an attempt to distract them. They drop the rat, forget the Flemish girl and turn their attention on the narrator. She asks in her best German if singing the anthem of the Third Reich is forbidden. ‘I must confess that I didn’t even hate them any more,’ she says of the guards. ‘Instruments of a power they didn’t understand, they deluded themselves into believing that they weren’t automatons by committing cruel acts that no regulation required of them.’ After joining the sewer-cleaning crew, she takes up singing Nazi anthems while rifling through bins for scraps to supplement the camp’s starvation diet: ‘The illiterate soldiers of the SS followed me with uncertain eyes.’ It isn’t clear why her singing means the guards don’t stop her; perhaps it’s enough that she believes it will keep her safe. Back at the barracks, though, it puts her in danger. One evening in the toilets, trousers round her ankles, she’s beaten up by a group of prisoners. The next day she starts planning her escape.
From Munich, she makes her way on foot across half of Germany. It’s easy enough to evade recapture, given the chaos: she can claim to have been a foreign worker at any bombed-out factory. (She says at one point that there were three million escapees from the Lagers wandering Germany during the last months of the war: can that be true?) ‘Between one incinerated Ausweis’ – ID card – ‘and another, I was a Belgian Walloon from Namur and a Lithuanian from Wilno.’ She gets a job cleaning a house in Munich where a group of American POWs are billetted, with sheets and pillowcases and enough provisions for them not to think twice about throwing away stale bread and half-smoked cigarettes. She ‘hated them so much for their prosperity and comforts and the camaraderie they enjoyed as equals with the SS who guarded them … that one day I slashed the mattresses and sheets under the tightly tucked covers, and I was forced to flee.’
She ends up in Mainz. On the afternoon of 27 February 1945, the RAF bombed the city. After the air raid, a German girl outside a bombed-out house begs passers-by to rescue her parents, who are trapped inside. Luzi (as she is now calling herself) agrees to help. They’re just about to break through when one of the walls of the burning building next door collapses. ‘It happened in an instant: I just had time to glance at the wall behind me, turn my back to it, and cover my face with my arms. What a stupid way to go! I thought. That was all.’ Her injuries are catastrophic: a fractured skull, broken ribs, broken pelvis, compressed spinal cord, phosphorus burns all over her body. (The people they were trying to rescue meanwhile dig themselves out unaided.) A German officer takes her to hospital, where she’s dosed up on morphine and expected to die; she’s moved to a bed in the room they’re using as a morgue because the actual morgue has been destroyed. One day she wakes up to find a dead body in the bed with her. She can feel the cold flesh with her hand. Then she realises that the body is hers: ‘I understood in a flash that I had died. But what about the pain? It must have been what it felt like to decompose.’
Paralysed from the waist down, she’s in the hospital for months. At last the war comes to an end: ‘One day, the second day-shift nun, Schwester Johanna, florid, white and rosy, stood on a ladder and removed the portrait of Hitler, which she hurled to the ground and trampled frenziedly.’ Most of the German patients tell the Americans that they are not now and have never been Nazis. The narrator, however, insists on her Fascist past, and the Americans are impressed by her ‘sincerity and dignity’. Dreading the thought of returning to Italy (‘What would I do with what I’d experienced here?’), she hatches a plan to go to the USSR by marrying a Russian-born Polish boy. But she soon has second thoughts about that, and the only way to escape her husband and the Soviets – though perhaps it also fulfils an unconscious wish – is on a train which is passing through Germany on its way to Italy, carrying Italian prisoners home from Russia. They cross the Brenner Pass on 4 December 1945.
The story isn’t told chronologically. D’Eramo’s book is divided into four parts, arranged in order of composition – a process that took more than two decades, with other books and essays written in between. Raskolnikov e il marxismo came out in 1960; a critical study of the works of Ignazio Silone in 1971. Part One, ‘Escape from the Lagers’, set in autumn 1944, was written in 1953 and 1954. Part Two, which jumps ahead to the accident in Mainz and the end of the war, was written in 1961. Part Three, ‘First Arrival in the Third Reich’, which looks back to the spring of 1944, was written in 1975. Part Four, ‘The Deviation’, written in 1977, is more complicated: as well as filling in some of the (substantial) gaps in the previous sections – most significant, what happened between June and October 1944, between the strike at I.G. Farben and d’Eramo’s escape from Dachau – it describes the circumstances in which they were written. The action in Parts One, Two and Three is set exclusively in Germany; for the first two hundred pages of the novel, d’Eramo’s wartime experiences are isolated, or quarantined, from her life after the war. In Part Four, the barriers become porous.
The author met her husband, Pacifico d’Eramo, in a hospital in Bologna in 1946. He, too, had been injured, though less severely. They moved to Rome and their son, Marco, a journalist, was born in 1947. One of the few straightforwardly fictionalising moves that d’Eramo makes in Deviation is to change their names: the husband in the novel is called Domenico and the son Lorenzo. The couple separated in 1953. As her marriage was breaking down, d’Eramo began to recall, and then to write down, the suppressed memories of her ‘German parenthesis’. ‘Held captive by paralysis, by fever, by drugs, by the betrayals, and by my jealousy, what else could I do but look for a less imprisoned version of myself?’ It’s notable that remembering what happened and writing it down seem to have been not only more or less simultaneous, but substantially the same process: for d’Eramo (and not only for d’Eramo) writing is remembering. Of the many ‘fictionalised accounts … composed during the years of my marital crisis’, she selected the two chapters that make up Part One because they were the only stories that ‘retraced the events I’d experienced without adapting them to a narrative thread … letting them unfold as they’d actually happened’.
Even if we take her word for it that the events in these chapters ‘unfold as they’d actually happened’ and that she didn’t adapt them ‘to a narrative thread’ (though such disclaimers are as old as storytelling), they are still strung along a narrative thread which is taut and neatly woven. There are characters and dialogue, and imaginative use of language (the snow falling on Munich is said to be vibratile – ‘quivering’, though Milano Appel translates it as ‘dithering’), and a story that begins dramatically in medias res, with the escape from Dachau, and develops over the course of a deliberately limited timeframe. Deviation is a well-made novel, in other words – which doesn’t make it any less autobiographical, or any more or less dishonest than most memoirs. Given the extremity of its events, it also shows up how little is at stake in much of what is now labelled ‘autofiction’.
D’Eramo’s memories of being sent back to Italy after the strike at I.G. Farben, and getting herself rounded up by the SS, took much longer to surface: ‘I had to turn fifty before acknowledging that I had been repatriated … I wanted it to be the Nazis who had captured and imprisoned me.’ This is, in multiple senses, the ‘deviation’ of the title: the detours of the journey from Germany to Verona and back; d’Eramo’s avoidance of the facts long afterwards; also perhaps the deviant behaviour of deliberately getting herself arrested and sent to Dachau. A sense of survivor’s guilt is one of the motives that impels her to dump her documents and surrender to the SS in Verona, and it haunts the entire book. Much of the energy in d’Eramo’s story comes from the tension between her self-destructive impulses and her forceful will to live. But it’s intimately bound up with another impulse: ‘I was crushed by a sorrow and shame that paralysed my resolve. I had to shed my social class.’ (Her own earnestness on this score occasionally leads her to mistaken assumptions about people’s intentions. A foreman at the Farben factory is always winking at her and showing her his clenched fist. ‘I kept smiling complicitly at him. One day he rubbed up against me and said in my ear: “Tonight?” She takes a closer look at his fist and notices that his thumb is poking up between his fingers. ‘I had mistaken a proposal to fuck for a communist salute.’)
The need to throw off her social class persists long after the war. ‘How easily my class-conscious skin had grown back,’ she writes of herself in 1960, ‘like that of a snake.’ She describes the anger she felt at the ‘social circumstances that enable certain people to pass through the history of their time unscathed’. She’s thinking here of her father, who was tried after the war, but acquitted, having ‘never performed military actions but only administrative functions’; and of her uncle, an engineer and high-ranking Fascist, who went on to hold a senior position in Confindustria (the Italian equivalent of the CBI). And we catch glimpses of people whose social circumstances are very different from those of her family. In the autumn of 1961, d’Eramo and her 14-year-old son went to Germany:
As we drove through Frankfurt that night, Lorenzo shouted: ‘Pizzeria!’ … When we went in, however, the burst of joy faded at the sight of the poorly dressed immigrants crowded into the room, almost all from the south, their faces guarded, their eyes fiery. They helped me manage the steps in the wheelchair, asking and answering questions. They lived in the barracks, of course, the ones outside the city, in the camp called Pfaffenwiese, on the way to Mainz, yes, that’s the one, the old Frankfurt-Höchst Lager.