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Biography Emma Arnold Chapter 5 (1943-1945): Taken Away!

About five weeks after Simone’s departure on August 24, 1943, a rural policeman made the climb up to Bergenbach. Emma guessed that he had come for her. Before he could reach the farm, she ran down to meet him to shield her mother from the shock. The man handed her a paper. It ordered her to report immediately to the police in Krüth. He made an unexpected offer, though. She could go unescorted, and could even choose the route she would take. He would take another path. Emma decided to take the shortest way, the path she used to go to the factory.

She knew she had just been given the chance to escape. Had she simply climbed to the top of the mountain range, she could have stepped over the German-French border to safety. But Emma also knew the Nazi policy of reprisal. The cost of escape could be her husband’s life, and even that of her parents. She did not delay. Even before the policeman returned to the station, Emma had reported in. She was told to take the train and report immediately to the police in Mulhouse-Dornach.

A country hunter offered Emma an opportunity to escape over the nearest border, which meant some steep climbing up the mountain
A country hunter offered Emma an opportunity to escape over the nearest border, which meant some steep climbing up the mountain

The police station stood opposite the Catholic rectory, where the priest lived. Emma stood in front of an older policeman, a German. With an embarrassed nod toward the rectory, he said apologetically, “A rabbit chased by a pack of dogs has no chance of escaping.” He had been ordered to arrest Emma and to turn her over immediately to the Gestapo.

Since Adolphe’s arrest, Emma had always worn a medical corset. In it was an air pocket, where she carried a tiny Bible. At the prison intake area, Emma had to undress. Discovering the strange-looking corset, the female guard said, “We have no time to undo that complicated girdle.” A few days later, Emma was transferred to the Alsatian camp of Schirmeck, where she found four Witnesses from Mulhouse. Without explanation, she faced no further body searches and was able to smuggle the Bible into the camp. She divided it right away into five parts, one for her and each of her “sisters.”

Immediately in Solitary Confinement

The first job Emma received was to mend a blanket. She had hardly gotten started when a young female guard named Lehmann took it away and gave her a military uniform to mend. Emma refused to do the war-related work. She had to appear before Commandant Bück, and he sent her to solitary confinement in the “Bunker.” He ordered that she get no food until she finished the job.

Barely arrived in the camp and she had already landed in solitary confinement. Bück checked on Emma every day, repeating that there would be no food until it was done. She calmly replied, “Perhaps you’ll have to step over a corpse for the first time.”

On the third day, Bück said, “You foolish woman! Once you mend the jacket, it will go to a prisoner.”

“You could have said so before,” she said as he left with a smirk.

The next day, he found the jacket mended and neatly folded. He picked it up for inspection and flew into a rage. She had made it into a civilian jacket.

“Didn’t you say it would go to a prisoner? Surely you wouldn’t give a prisoner a military garment, would you?”

“You will remain here as long as I say!” he thundered. Two full weeks passed before her release.

Upon her return to the barrack, Emma made it her goal to provide a moral refuge for the humiliated and battered newcomers, offering them consolation in the form of Bible texts, helping them adjust to camp life, and giving them help whenever possible. Among those who regularly came to her was a group of very young girls, who regarded her as a mother.

The girls were gathered around listening to Emma’s Bible reading when they were discovered by Lehmann, the dangerous guard whom the prisoners nicknamed Hyena. She turned her large diamond ring to the inside and slapped the girls violently, scarring their faces for life. Emma she dared not touch, but she sent her to Bück. Bible reading was a crime, fomenting open defiance. For that, Bück sent Emma again to the Bunker. But this time the guard put her in a cell next to the interrogation room, where daily she had to listen to the terrifying screams of torture victims. On some days blood trickled under the door into her cell.

Visit by an “Admiral”

The cell door opened and a heavily decorated visitor stood there surrounded by his body guards. Emma stood at attention and said, “Arnold, Emma: Bibelforscher.”

“Ha! You read that Jewish book!” he snorted.

Emma knew nothing about military decorations and replied politely, “Yes, Admiral!”

He burst into loud laughter and walked away. “An admiral! I’m an admiral!”

Later her guard returned and told her, “You are really lucky! That was Himmler. He came to clear out the repeat prisoners!”

Even in that chamber of horrors, Emma found some help. A hot-water pipe ran near the floor of her cell. The heat source was just the treatment she needed for a case of cystitis. It went away after several weeks of isolation. Bück sent her back to a barrack without running water. Female prisoners with syphilis were confined there, and three women had to share the same water basin. Emma used the little cash she had to buy chlorine, foiling another of Bück’s schemes.

The entire camp was transported to Germany to work in the armaments section of Gaggenau. Emma was assigned to work for a hostile SS family. They treated her mercilessly and refused Emma even a glass of water. Still, she incessantly used her sewing skills, making new garments for the children out of worn out clothes.

Heavy bombing raids sent people scrambling for cover in a shelter. As a camp inmate, Emma was not allowed to mingle with civilians and had to run back to the air-raid shelter in the camp. She crossed through a tomato garden as the bombing intensified around her and buried herself in the soil just as a sulphur blaze ignited everything around her. She made it back to the camp without harm.

At Death’s Door

Emma developed a heavy cough and had to be replaced by Marguerite, another Witness prisoner. The cough deepened and Emma was confined to bed. A male prisoner, who had been a doctor, came in to do electrical work in her barrack. He told Emma that the cough was not from a cold but was a symptom of starvation that signalled imminent death.

The five sisters in 1950
The five sisters in 1950

The air-raid alarm sounded once more, sending everyone to the shelter. Joséphine, Rose, Marguerite, and Hélène, all of whom had been taught the Bible by Emma, decided not to leave their “mother” alone. Kneeling around her bunk, they took turns praying aloud. The extraordinarily violent bombing shook the ground like an earthquake. A deafening blast drowned out what seemed like their final prayer. Then the “all clear” alarm sounded, announcing the end of the air raid. Opening the barrack door, they saw the surrounding barracks in ruins. Only theirs had survived with little damage.

Rose Gassmann
Rose Gassmann

A group of older men surrounded the commander, beseeching him to give them inmates who knew how to harvest potatoes. Rose offered her services, even though she had never seen a potato field before. The commandant assigned her to one of the men. On the walk to the farm, the elderly farmer asked why she had been sent to camp. When she explained, he suddenly stopped and pointed to a dairy farm. “Go over there. The old woman is one of you people. Talk to her while I go buy some cigarettes.”

The woman, like all farmers, had to follow strict rationing rules, but she offered Rose a tiny bit of milk. Rose wanted to take it for Emma. They found a little bottle, which Rose could hide in her shoulder pad. She was searched with her arms in the air each time she entered the camp, but the guards never found the bottle tucked just above her sleeve. Rose worked for the farmer for many days, and for many nights Emma secretly drank the milk and ate a small carrot that Marguerite smuggled in. Their repeated bravery over a period of weeks saved Emma’s life.