Ginette White, nee Bouvier, has lived a charmed life. The Grove City resident of more than 40 years lived through the Allied capture of Berlin during World War II, risked her life to rescue French compatriots and saw exactly how the Jews were mistreated by the Germans.
She spent almost all of WWII in Germany. While she was about to return home after the war, White saw emaciated Jewish men, women and children coming out of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany.
“We knew where they came from because they were in their striped clothes,” she recalled. “They were nothing but skin and bone. They were so skinny, their eyes were so sunken in … it was sad. They were malnourished. They could not even walk. If the wind blew, it would have blown them away.”
White was born in 1923, in a French town near the German border. She grew up speaking French and German. Her father, an army man, and her brother-in-law, were called to duty in mid-August 1939. Her only brother also joined, but was sent home, she said, because he had four children to support. Her brother-in-law wasn’t as lucky. He was captured by the Germans in 1940 and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp.
It’s been more than 50 years since WWII began, but White still vividly recalls her experiences, sometimes down to the hour of a particular day. At 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 2, 1939, she recalled, her mother asked her to be quiet as they listened to the radio as the French president declared war.
The German’s blitzkrieg of her town didn’t go into full throttle until the following April, she said. When the Nazis began advancing through Europe, White knew it was only a matter of time until they took over her town. Then, one April morning she saw something strange.
“I remember seeing two nuns walking with their heads like this,” White said, bowing her head down. “They had a funny walk for being nuns.”
Those two nuns turned out to be German spies. “Somehow the French people got a hold of them and interrogated them,” she said.
Orderered to go to Berlin
About six months later, White was ordered to go to Berlin to work as an interpreter for a manufacturer of U-boat parts. The factory employed about 600 French men and women.
She arrived in Berlin a few months after turning 18. She stayed there until the war ended in 1945, never knowing the fate of her parents. She was reunited with them after the war.
White said she knew about the Nazi concentration camps while she worked in Berlin. But, she said, “we didn’t know the Germans were killing (the Jews) the way they were doing.”
The factory and her boarding house were right in the heart of Berlin, very close to Friedrichstrasse and the famous Brandenburg Gate.
She recalled seeing Adolf Hitler one evening in 1944, when the fuhrer was addressing his followers. Morale among the Germans was low, she said, and “he came to give a pep talk. Security was very, very tight.”
The Allied air raids
Allied bombings of Berlin happened once or twice a week. The worst attack came on Feb. 3, 1945, White said.
She was walking to work with a friend at 6:30 a.m. The sky was beautiful that morning,” she recalled. “I looked up and told my friend, ‘You know, the Tommy (British forces) is going to come today.’ At about 8 o’clock, you could feel the tension in the German people.”
She heard that the Allied planes were on their way, but they hadn’t reached Berlin by 9:30 a.m.
White spent the morning in an air raid shelter, which was “a little ditch in the ground about six feet high.”
Since the raid hadn’t begun by 10:15 a.m., White decided to rush home to get some clothes. On her way back, she looked up at the sky again.
“The sky was all smoky,” she said. “You knew they were going to bombard all over. When I came back down, I told the French people, ‘Oh brother, they’re going to be good … You ought to see the sky. You can see nothing. It’s all black with smoke.’
That was the beginning of the Allied air raid. “That morning the bombs fell everywhere,” she recalled. “Berlin got smashed up that day.”
Whe the raid ended, White snuck outside to see the devastation.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “There were bodies all over the place. They got killed by the explosion ripping out their lungs.”
A little over two months later, White was back in the shelter for five days.
“The Russians were close, the English were coming, the Americans and French were close by, too,” she said, illustrating on a sheet of yellow paper exactly how close the Allies were.
The Allies arrive
Between April 14 and May 7, she said, the air raids were constant. When the bombings ceased on May 7, White finally came out of the shelter and saw her first Russian.
“Not very far was a tank,” she said. “It opened fire and you could see the fire come out the mouth of the gun.”
The Russians, she said, were “near savage.” The soldiers must have been ordered not to harm the French, she said. “But when they got hold of the German ladies, they raped them.”
The Russians used flamethrowers on fleeing SS troops and the burnt carcasses lay in the streets for nearly a month. “And boy, what a stinking mess it was,” she remembered.
Working for the French underground
Living through the Allied liberation, however, wasn’t the only time White risked her life. There were those times when she worked for the French underground, smuggling French prisoners from German prison camps back into their homeland.
To do this, she and other members of the French underground freed prisoners by cutting holes in the camps’ fences. Then she and prisoners rode in coal cars for nearly six hours, burying themselves completely, leaving just a hole just large enough to breathe.
“I knew where the border was and I knew I was supposed to go so many minutes from the border,” she said. “You look at the watch and as soon as the many minutes go, we jumped off the train.” The prisoners were taken to a church while White crept onto another train and went back to Berlin.
But White was never afraid of being caught. “I always figured I’m a smart person,” she said. “And if I get caught, you die only once. That was what I was trained for. I never got scared even during the bombardment.”
And through all this, White often survived by eating birdseed she and her friends stole. The little real food they got was often given to the babies of other French women in the factory.
She believes Hitler escaped
Grove City resident Ginette White, who spent most of World War II as a French interpreter in Berlin, believes that Adolf Hitler escaped just before Berlin fell and did not die along with Eva Braun.
“I was right among the German people and I knew their feelings,” she said. “And I knew if he really was dead, they would have showed his body. We’ve never seen it.”
But the lack of Hitler’s body isn’t the only point she raised. When the Third Reich’s defeat was imminent, White said she remembered seeing a large avenue in Berlin barricaded and covered with fish nets.
“Little planes were coming in, (planes) that could carry two or three people,” she said. “Hitler could have got in and taken off. What was the reason for putting fish net? He escaped. It’s my belief.”
Her experiences have left her feeling bitter about the Germans. “I hate them for what they did, the way they treated people,” White said.
The Germans, she said, “were very lucky” that the Americans, and not the French, occupied their country after the war. For had the French taken over, she said, Germans would have found life to be much harder.
Life after the war
In 1946, White met an American sailor, Dale, at a post office in Paris. They wanted to get married soon after, but were forced to postpone the wedding three times.
They finally married in April 1947.
Now retired, she and Dale act as foster parents, something they’ve been doing since 1967. They’ve raised over 14 foster children, and almost all of them still return to visit. She’s now looking after 2-year-old Anthony. One of White’s foster daughters is planning on adopting him, she said.
Today White still doesn’t understand why an estimated 6 million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis.
She remembers a Spanish girl who was “free to come and go with us in Berlin” – that is, until the Nazis found out she was Jewish.
“Before they took her away, the men and women gave her some bread. A German soldier took that bread, threw it on the ground and smashed it with his heels. And she never came back. “You couldn’t believe what you saw,” White said. “You couldn’t believe that any human being would treat another human being that way.”
*Article courtesy Barbara Louise Nichol Hollinger
Original article published June 1992
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