The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Trial of German Major War Criminals

Sitting at Nuremberg, Germany
21st January to 1st February, 1946

Forty-Fourth Day: Monday, 28rd January, 1946
(Part 1 of 9)

[Page 182]



DUBOST (Counsel for France): With the authorisation of the Court, I should like to proceed with this part of the presentation of the French case by hearing a witness who, for nearly three years, lived in German concentration camps.

THE PRESIDENT: Would you stand up, please? Do you wish to swear the French oath? Will you tell me your name?


THE WITNESS: Claude Vaillant Couturier.

THE PRESIDENT: Will you repeat after me: I swear to speak without hate or fear, to state the truth, all the truth.

(The witness repeated the oath after the President).

THE PRESIDENT: Raise the right hand and say "I swear."


Direct Examination


Q. Is your name Madame Vaillant Couturier?

A. Yes.

Q. You are the widow of M. Vaillant Couturier?

A. Yes.

Q. Were you born in Paris on 3 November 1912?

A. Yes.

Q. And you are of French nationality, French born and of parents who were of French nationality?

A. Yes.

Q. You are a Deputy in the Constituent Assembly?

A. Yes.

Q. You are a Knight of the Legion of Honour?

A. Yes.

Q. You have just been decorated by General Leugentilhomme at the Invalides?

A. Yes.

Q. Were you arrested and deported? Will you please give your testimony?

A. I was arrested on 9 February 1942 by Petain's French police, who handed me over to the German authorities after six weeks. I arrived on 20 March at the "Sante" prison in the German quarter. I was questioned on 9 June 1942. At the end of my interrogation they wanted me to sign a statement, which was not consistent with what I had said. I refused to sign it. The officer who had questioned me threatened me, and when I told him that I was not afraid of death or of being shot, he said, "But we have at our disposal

[Page 183]

means for killing that are far worse than merely shooting." And the interpreter said to me," You do not know what you have just done. You are going to leave for a concentration camp in Germany. One never comes back from there."

Q. You were then taken to prison?

A. I was taken back to the Sante prison where I was placed in solitary confinement. However, I was able to communicate with my neighbours through the piping and the windows. I was in a cell next to that of George Politzer, the philosopher, and Jacques Solomon, physicist. M. Solomon is the son-in-law of Professor Langevin, a pupil of Curie, one of the first to study atomic disintegration.

George Politzer told me through the piping that during his interrogation, after having been tortured, he was asked whether he would write theoretical pamphlets for National Socialism. When he refused, he was told he would be in the first train of hostages to be shot.

As for Jacques Solomon, he also was horribly tortured, and then thrown into a cell and only came out on the day of his execution to say goodbye to his wife, who also was under arrest at the Sante. Helen Solomon Langevin told me in Romainville, where I found her when I left the Sante, that when she went to her husband he moaned and said: "I cannot take you in my arms, because I can no longer move them."

Every time that the internees came back from their questioning one could hear moaning through the windows, and they all said that they could not make any movement.

Several times during the five months I spent at the Sante, hostages were taken to be shot. When I left the Sante on the 20 of August, 1942, I was taken to the Fortress of Romainville, which was a camp for hostages. There I was present on two occasions when they took hostages, on the 21 of August and the 22 of September. Among the hostages who were taken away were the husbands of the women who were with me and who left for Auschwitz. Most of them died there. These women, for the most part, had been arrested only because of the activity of their husbands. They themselves had done nothing.

Q. When did you leave for Auschwitz?

A. I left for Auschwitz on the 23 of January 1943, and I arrived there on the 27.

Q. Were you with a convoy?

A. I was with a convoy of 230 French women; among us were Danielle Casanova who died in Auschwitz, Mai Politzer who died in Auschwitz and Helene Solomon. There were some elderly women - Q. What was their social position?A. They were intellectuals and school teachers; they came from all walks of life. Mai Politzer was a doctor, and the wife of the philosopher George Politzer. Helene Solomon is the wife of the physicist Solomon; she is the daughter of Professor Langevin. Danielle Casanova was a dental surgeon and she was very active among the women. It is she who organised a resistance movement among the wives of prisoners.

Q. How many of you came back out of 230?

A. 49. In the convoy there were some elderly women. I remember one who was 67, and had been arrested because she had in her kitchen her husband's shotgun, which she kept as a souvenir and had not declared, because she did not want it to be taken from her. She died after a fortnight at Auschwitz.

THE PRESIDENT: When you said only 49 came back, do you mean only 49 arrived at Auschwitz?

THE WITNESS : No. Only 49 came back to France.

[Page 184]

There were also cripples, among them a singer who had only one leg. She was taken out and gassed at Auschwitz.

There was also a young girl of sixteen, a high school pupil, Claudine Guerin she also died at Auschwitz. There also were two women who had been acquitted by the German Military Tribunal, Marie Alonzo and Marie-Therese Fleuri; they died at Auschwitz.

It was a terrible journey. We were 60 in a wagon and we were given no food or drink during the journey. At the various stopping places we asked the Lorraine soldiers of the Wehrmacht who were guarding us, whether we would arrive soon, and they replied: "If you knew where you are going you would not be in a hurry to get there."

We arrived at Auschwitz at dawn. The seals on our wagons were broken, and we were driven out by blows with the butt end of a rifle, and taken to the Birkenau camp, a section of the Auschwitz camp. It is situated in the middle of a great plain, which was frozen in the month of January. During this part of the journey we had to drag our luggage. As we passed through the door, we knew only too well how slender were our chances of coming out again. For we had already met columns of living skeletons going to work, and as we entered we sang the Marseillaise to keep up our courage.

We were led to a large shed, then to the disinfecting station. There our heads were shaven and our registration numbers were tattooed on the left forearm. Then we were taken into a large room for a steam bath and a cold shower.

In spite of the fact that we were naked all this took place in the presence of SS men and women. We were then given clothing which was soiled and torn: a cotton dress and jacket of the same material.

As all this had taken several hours, we saw from the windows of the block where we were, the camp of the men, and toward the evening an orchestra came in. It was snowing and we wondered why they were playing music. We then saw that the camp foremen were returning to the camp. Each foreman was followed by men who were carrying the dead. As they could hardly drag themselves along every time they stumbled they were put on their feet again by blows with the butt end of a rifle.

After that we were taken to the block where we were to live. There were no beds but only bunks, measuring 2 x 2 metres, and there nine of us had to sleep without any mattress, and the first night without any blanket. We remained in blocks of this kind for several months. We could not sleep all night, because every time one of the nine moved - this happened unceasingly because we were all ill - she disturbed the whole row.

At 3 in the morning the shouting of the guards woke us up and with cudgel blows we were driven from our bunks to go to roll call. Nothing in the world could release us from going to the roll call; even those who were dying had to be dragged there. We had to stand there in rows of five until dawn - i.e. until seven or eight o'clock in the morning in winter, and when there was a fog, sometimes until noon. Then the kommandos would start on their way to work.


Q. Excuse me - can you describe the roll call?

A. For roll call we were lined up in rows of five, and we waited until daybreak, until the "Aufseherinnen," the German women guards in uniform, came to count us. They had cudgels and they beat us more or less at random.

We had a comrade, Germaine Renaud, a school-teacher from Azay-Le-Rideau, in France, who had her skull broken before my eyes, from a blow with a cudgel during the roll call.

The work at Auschwitz consisted of clearing demolished houses and especially draining of marsh land. This was by far the hardest work, for all day long we had our feet in the water and there was the danger of sinking. It frequently

[Page 185]

happened that we had to pull out a comrade who had sunk in up to the waist. During the work the SS men and women who stood guard over us would beat us with cudgels, and set their dogs on us. Many of our friends had their legs torn by the dogs. I even saw a woman torn to pieces and die under my very eyes when Tauber, a member of the SS, encouraged his dog to attack her and grinned at the sight.

The causes of death were extremely numerous. First of all, there was the complete lack of washing facilities. When we arrived at Auschwitz, for 12,000 internees there was only one tap of water, unfit for drinking and it was not always flowing. As this tap was in the German wash-house we could reach it only by passing through the guards, who were German women prisoners, and they beat us horribly as we went by. It was therefore almost impossible to wash ourselves or our clothes. For more than three months we remained without changing our clothes. When there was snow, we melted some to wash in. Later, in the spring, when we went to work, we would drink from a puddle by the road side and then wash our underclothes in it. We took it in turns to wash our hands in this dirty water. Our companions died of thirst, because we got only half a cup of some herbal tea twice a day.

Q. Please describe in detail one of the roll calls at the beginning of February.

A. On the 5 of February there was what is called a general roll call.

Q. In what year was that?

A. In 1943; at 3.30 the whole camp -

Q. 3.30 in the morning?

A. In the morning at 3.30 the whole camp was awakened and sent out on the plain, whereas normally the roll call was at the same time, but inside the camp. We remained out in front of the camp in the snow until five in the afternoon without any food. Then when the signal was given we had to go through the door one by one, and we were struck in the back with a cudgel, each one of us, in order to make us run. Those who could not run, either because they were too old or too ill, were caught by a hook and taken to Block 25, "waiting block," for the gas chamber.

On that day 10 of the French women of our convoy were thus caught and taken to the waiting block.

When all the internees were back in the camp, a party to which I belonged was organised to go and pick up the bodies of the dead which were scattered over the plain as on a battlefield. We carried to the yard of Block 25 the dead and the dying without distinction, and they remained there stacked in the courtyard.

This block 25, which was the anteroom of the gas chamber, if one may so call it, is well known to me because at that time we had been transferred to Block 26 and our windows opened on the yard of Block 25. One saw stacks of corpses piled up in the courtyard, and from time to time a hand or a head would stir amongst the bodies, trying to free itself; it was a dying woman attempting to get free and live.

The rate of mortality in that block was even more terrible than elsewhere because, having been condemned to death, they received food or drink only if there was something left in the cans in the kitchen; which means that very often they went for several days without a drop of water.

One of our companions, Annette Epaux, a fine young woman of thirty, passing the block one day, was overcome with pity for those women who moaned from morning till night in all languages, "drink, drink, water!" She came back to our block to get a little herbal tea, but as she was passing it through the bars of the window she was seen by the Aufseherin, who took her by the neck and threw her into Block 25.

All my life I will remember Annette Epaux. Two days later I saw her on the truck which was taking the internees to the gas chamber. She had her arms

[Page 186]

round another French woman, old Clina Forcher, and when the truck started moving, she cried, "think of my little boy, if you ever get back to France," Then they started singing the Marseillaise.

In Block 25, in the courtyard, there were rats as big as cats running about and gnawing the corpses and even attacking the dying, who had not enough strength left to chase them away.

Another cause of mortality and epidemics was the fact that we were given food in large red mess tins, which were merely rinsed in cold water after each meal. As all the women were ill, and had not the strength during the night to go to the trench which was used as a lavatory, and the access to which was beyond description, they used these containers for a purpose for which they were not meant. The next day the mess tins were collected and taken to a refuse heap. During the day another team would come and collect them, wash them in cold water, and put them in use again.

Another cause of death was the problem of shoes. In the snow and mud of Poland, leather shoes were completely worn out at the end of a week or two. Therefore our feet were frozen and covered with sores. We had to sleep in our muddy shoes, lest they be stolen, and when the time came to get up for roll call cries of anguish could be heard: "My shoes have been stolen." Then one had to wait until the whole block had been emptied to look under the bunks for odd shoes. Sometimes one found two shoes for the same foot, or one shoe and one sabot. One could go to roll call like that but it was an additional torture for work, because sores formed on our feet, which quickly became infected for lack of care. Many of our companions went to the "Revier" for sores on their feet and legs and never came back.

Q. What did they do to the internees who came to roll call without shoes?

A. The Jewish internees who came without shoes were immediately taken to Block 25.

Q. They were gassed then?

A. They were gassed for any reason whatsoever. Their conditions were moreover absolutely appalling. While we were crowded eight hundred in a block and could scarcely move, they were fifteen hundred to a block of similar dimensions, so that many of them could not sleep during the whole night or even lie down.

Q. Can you tell me about the "Revier?"

A. To reach the "Revier " one had to go first to the roll call. What ever the state was...

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