January 27 is Holocaust Memorial Day, and this year’s theme relates to the survivors. The Norfolk Record Office holds the records of one such survivor, Elsie Marechal, born Elsie Bell. She was born in Middlesex on 21 June 1894. Because of her poor health she was brought up by relatives in Great Yarmouth and attended the Priory School. In September 1913, she went on to the Teachers’ Training College in Norwich, then in College Road. She moved to London in 1915 to take up a teaching job. In the same year she met Georges Marechal, The couple married in 1920, and moved abroad to Koblenz. The family moved to Brussels in 1929. They were in Brussels when Belgium was invaded by the Germans on 10 May 1940: the Marechals became actively involved in helping Allied soldiers to escape from the Germans. They were caught and were taken to St Gilles prison, where they were interrogated and tortured: Georges was shot in October 1943, and Elsie spent the rest of the war, first in St Gilles prison in Brussels, then in German prisons and concentration camps, enduring many months of sheer hell.
These are the kinds of experiences that she went though:
At the beginning of February the old, the thin and ill were sorted out. We passed in a long queue stark naked one after the other before the doctor who put the medical cards on one side of all those picked out as unfit. All these were sent to a camp, a ‘Jugend Lager’ as they called it, a few miles from Ravensbruck to be specially looked after. This special treatment turned out to be starvation – no blankets and long poses in the cold. Several died and after a short time all those who remained were sent on transport – the black transport – none of those in that transport have been heard of since. Everything leads us to believe that they were exterminated in the gas chambers.
Later she was moved from Ravensbruck to Mauthausen, enduring a terrible journey:
One day, the 1st of March, everybody was ordered out, so in a few minutes we were outside with all our worldly possessions in a linen bag. We left Ravensbruck, a long column of 5,000 women marching five abreast. We each received a loaf of bread and a small packet of margarine and sausage as food for the journey which was reckoned to last four or five days. We waited for two hours until we were cold to the bone before the train arrived. Then we were pushed into cattle trucks – 70 or more women to a truck. Then followed the most painful journey of all. It started snowing and freezing once more. We journeyed south, crossing Czechoslovakia to Mauthausen in Austria, one of the worst reputed camps for men. In each truck was an SS and an offizierin who had the luxury of straw to sleep on; there were also two tin pails for lavatory use. The first day we were able to get water to drink, but the following days we had only snow to quench our thirst. As for washing, that was out of the question.
Elsie survived, and lived in Belgium after the war, from where she wrote this account of her experiences which she sent to the Teachers’ Training College. It is now held by the Norfolk Record Office, one of the most moving and tragic of the many thousands of stories held there.
Happy stories, sad stories, inspiring stories, the Norfolk Record Office has them all – come along and see for yourself!
Complied by Frank Meeres, Archivist, Norfolk Record Office