Although they are young and strong, their living and working conditions are beginning to take a toll on the brothers’ health. The factory work seems to involve machine tooling, possibly with metal lathes, and it can be dangerous. Fonfon was off work for a couple of days when he got a shard of aluminium in his eye. It was painful and prevented him from reading and writing but the eye doctor told him it would clear up on its own and now he’s fine. And a few weeks later, on January 25th, Riri writes that he has developed a boil under one arm. The doctor lanced it and he expects to be back at work soon. In fact, he will be off for more than a month as the boils spread to other parts of his body.
In an earlier letter Zézé had asked about the medical facilities at the camp so Riri takes the time to explain at some length. He is impressed with the health insurance in Germany, which he says is much more generous than in France. The camp has a staff of nurses; at first they were French and Belgian, but are now supplied by the German Red Cross. The nurses treat minor health issues but in order to be signed off work it is necessary to see Dr Pignel, a German doctor who, Riri says is “très chic” (meaning that he likes him, rather than that he is fashionable). The workers receive 40% of their pay if they are off sick and 60% if they are signed off as a result of an industrial accident, as was the case for Fonfon with his hand and eye injuries. Consultations and medication are “practically free”, costing 25 pfennigs a time. “You had to pay so much more when you had that problem with your leg” he says to Zézé. In fact, as with the food rations, the brothers are relatively privileged thanks to their status as foreign workers.
Germany was the first European country to establish a system of workers’ compensation at the instigation of Otto von Bismarck in 1883 and France was quick to follow, with the law of 1898 which obliged employers to compensate their workers for industrial accidents. Further legislation in the 20s and 30s set up insurance for the risks of illness, maternity, invalidity, old age and death for employees, financed by the employer, plus a special scheme for farmers. But cover was patchy and depended largely on a householder being in paid employment. It was not until 1945 that a comprehensive social security system was introduced in France.
In Germany the extensive welfare system of the Weimar Republic had been roundly derided by the Nazis when they first came to power. The idea of supporting weaker and dependent members of society was anathema to their doctrine of Social Darwinism, under which only the strong and productive deserved to survive. Those whom Hitler described in Mein Kampf as “degenerate and feeble” were to be weeded out by whatever means, and he cut welfare spending in 1933 in order to concentrate resources on re armament. But in view of the terrible suffering in Germany during the post war years and the depression, the Nazis took over a Berlin welfare organisation, transforming it into the National Socialist Welfare, the NSV, which operated as an organ of the party throughout the country. Support was restricted to those of Aryan descent, and further specifically excluded such people as alcoholics, tramps, homosexuals, prostitutes, the ‘work-shy’ or ‘asocial’, criminals and those suffering from hereditary illnesses, most of whom were more likely to end up in concentration camps or worse.
The Nazis had no intention of increasing taxation to pay for welfare but rather used confiscated Jewish assets and the theft of benefits and wages from forced labourers and the populations of conquered territories to finance the scheme. A further, very visible financing effort was the annual Winter Relief drive, the WHW, which officially depended on voluntary donations. Goebbels asserted that this was neither state welfare nor charity, but rather a new type of “racial self-help run by the German people for the German people”. In actual fact the donations were more or less compulsory, with tins being rattled threateningly by uniformed SA troops and members of the Hitler Youth and a tally kept of who had given how much.
Little lapel badges were given out to show that you had donated and these were changed every week. The journalist Harry Flannery, writing in 1941*, describes the scene: “Almost every Sunday there were men and women on the streets rattling their little red boxes for Winter Relief … As I walked down Unter den Linden … German bands played on the island spaces between the two roadways and figures in character, including comic cows and horses danced to the music. (The lapel badges changed) so that you might get tiny flowers one week, miniature books on the war, small tanks, anti-aircraft guns, flamethrowers and other weapons on another.” With such a multitude of subjects these badges became collectibles – flamethrower anyone? – and Flannery continues: “On another day (they) were small glass badges on which were relief heads of Germany’s prominent men: Hitler, von Hindenburg, Bismarck, Goethe, Schiller and others. As a publicity manoeuvre the Nazis turned out less of the Hitler head so that they became more scarce and (could be exchanged for) as much as two hundred marks”. He is rather pleased with a cheeky reference he slipped into one of his dispatches. “In my script that day I managed, despite the censors, to say that the Germans were offering high prices for the head of Hitler.”
Riri is bored, stuck in the camp on his own. He does not complain, but the strain is clearly beginning to tell. “Ah if only you knew”, he writes at one point, only to cross out the phrase and move on to cheerier news.
“I forgot to tell you that Mme Bernard slipped some extras in to the parcel with the gnole. Uncle Firmin doesn’t know so please don’t mention it to him but whichever of you sees her first should thank her very much from us for the ‘pain d’épice’, two bars of chocolate, the packet of macaroni and two packets of cigarettes that she sent”. He is touched that someone who is not part of the family would do such a kindness.
But life is monotonous. He repeats the request for more gnole. His shoes have worn out and their clothes are threadbare. He feels bad about asking for things to be sent, but has no choice. You can feel that the brothers’ morale is being stretched.
At the end of February Riri is still off work and feeling nostalgic. Toutou has written about upheavals at home: “what a lot of changes you will find in our little world” she says. “Ah yes” he replies, “not just there, but everywhere. As I’ve said before our mental suffering is much greater than any physical hardship. Separation, exile, this life as factory workers which is not our own literally knocks us sideways at times.” Their faith sustains them and the brothers are keeping up their spirits by dreaming of the day when they will return, although they realise that will not be for another three months at least. “We will have nine months worth of stuff to tell you, its impossible to put everything into a letter, so you’ll just have to sit and listen to us!”
The girls have asked their brothers to send them a photograph of themselves and Riri says that they will get this done on Saturday. When will it arrive?
*Harry Flannery: Assignment to Berlin. The Right Book Club 1943.
Header image: Detail of a WHW fundraising badge. Source Wiki media commons
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