Excerpt from “The Valley of the Shadow” by H. Oloff de Wet ~~Women~~

Eventually sleep must have taken me from the green-lit cell, away to liberty in my dreams. I knew it was past midnight when the sound of passing feet roused me. Nothing extraordinary in itself, footsteps in the night; but these footsteps, what were these? It was the Death-squad with women – among the warders’ footsteps were the small, quick steps of women – strange and awful, sweet and piteous in that corridor of sighs: Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate!

My neighbour in the next cell had noticed too. I heard him tapping on the wall, a nervous, agitated beat, saying: do you hear? Women! Women! What’s it mean?

And we both think of the scaffold and gallows.

A great silence settles over the corridor.

I feel a strange sensation in my heart; something awakes from a long sleep. It was more than a year since I had seen a woman, and the sound of those passing feet awoke a strange yearning within me – just to hear the voice of, and see, a woman.

Next morning, in ironic fashion, my wish was granted. I saw twelve of them – hanged. And I heard their voices too – singing as they were marched to the gallows.

Three at a time they went.

I can see it now as I saw it then. The most inspiring sight of all my life. Young women, all of them – children of France – defeated but unconquered. The gallows black against the red dawn. The dark wall of the prison. The first vision of a stormy sun striking the roof-tops. A group of S.S. officers standing in the yard; three felons up on the platform adjusting the ropes. The girls, bare from the waist up, are guarded by troops of the S.S., who, with blows and kicks, try to interrupt the sacred hymn of France – Rouget de Lisle’s “Chant de l’Armée du Rhin.”

Clear ring the words across the dawn.

Down they drop in threes. The new ropes squeak with stretching. The young faces contort and blacken, tongues extended, while the bodies spin at the end of the ropes. The manacled hands, elbows out, strain up the spine or straighten out far behind.

Still the chant continues: hymn of defiance and pride till the last three go, cutting short the final verse. In that instant there is a crash of broken glass, and even as the three forms are in mid-air, from a cell above there break forth the missing lines. How clear and pertinent they were!

 “. . . . de leurs vertues.
Bien moins jaloux de leur survivre,
Que de partager leur cercueil,
Nous aurons le sublime orgueil
De les venger ou de les suivre.”

And there is no doubt those words went far beyond the prison walls, beyond the boundaries of Germany, to find echo in the Haute Savoie, Brittany, Paris, and wherever the Maquis and Citizen Army of France were avenging her fallen children.

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3 Comments

Filed under Literature, Military, Non-Fiction

3 responses to “Excerpt from “The Valley of the Shadow” by H. Oloff de Wet ~~Women~~

  1. Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate!
    This quote is from Dante’s epic poem, Divine Comedy. It is from the first part, known as Inferno, and translates to English as “All hope abandon, ye who enter in.”

  2. “Chant de l’Armée du Rhin.” (English: War Song for the Army of the Rhine)
    This was the original name of the French national anthem, La Marsellaise, written by Rouget de Lisle in 1792.

    This last part of the last verse is translated to English as:
    And the trace of their virtues.
    Much less keen to survive them
    Than to share their coffins,
    We shall have the sublime pride
    Of avenging or following them.

  3. Stephen Bloomfield

    That made the hair on the back of my neck stand up

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