Saturday, 25 February 2012

# 32 [13 July 2009]

Some friends kindly invited us to the stay with them at the coast. After a morning of swimming we decided to visit the ‘Maternite Suisse’ not far from their house. During 1942 mothers-to-be from Rivesaltes and other local camps were allowed to stay for a month before their babies were born, give birth and then they had to return to the camps.

I had planned to film at the hospital a while back, so when I arrived I was eager to experiment. The trial footage of the rooms lacked contrast and colour, so I headed for the roof terrace, here I found a quite stunning metal glazing structure which I hope will form the basis of a new series of videos.

The walls of the building are lined with old photographs, some showing shockingly thin and tiny babies but many showing happy times too - a line of babies sleeping outside in the shade, smiling children being bathed in the garden... You can't help imagining what a haven of peace this must have been.

Whilst I was filming in the hospital my wife chatted to a lady at the desk who explained a little about the history of the place.

The Red-Cross worker, Elisabeth Eidenbenz, who started the hospital tried to keep the mothers in this sanctuary for as long as possible, up to four months. She also hid them and tried to help them escape. There was a story of Lucie who was taken to the Maternite by the Germans, when they returned for her she wasn’t there – they told Elizabeth that she had three hours to find her or she would go in Lucie’s place (on the train to an undisclosed destination); Elizabeth packed her bags, but the Germans found Lucie in a field.

My wife questioned the lady on the reception about current reactions to discussing France’s involvement with the Nazis and she replied that the memory of the war is still too close, there existed too much animosity, some people saw terrible things and some people did terrible things. She believes that it is the next generation who will change this.

We wanted to chat longer, but had to leave. The assistant has our email address and is going to contact us as my wife has offered to voluntarily translate the hospital’s leaflets from French in to English. She is also going to track down a copy of Friedel Bohny-Reiter’s ‘Journal de Rivesaltes’ (also a Suisse Red-Cross worker, who documented the day-to-day goings on at the camp and who sent expectant mothers to La Maternite Suisse), it’s out of print and quite essential for my research.

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