Interview of Charlotte Ambach by Lynn David, Green Valley, AZ, February 1 and 2, 1997
Transcription by Bruce Bolinger, February 2017
Table of Contents
- Charlotte’s Family
- Schooling in Brussels
- Fleeing the Nazis
- The Occupation
- Working for Organization Todt
- Edouard Cleeren & Espionage for the Allies
- Aid to Fugitives and Airmen
- Four Airmen
- Art Horning
- Her First Arrest
- The Second Arrest
- Initial Imprisonment
- Communicating in Morse Code
- Interrogation in Atwerp
- Laeken Prison
- Interrogation by the Gestapo and GFP
- St. Gilles Prison
- Arrest of Her Brother Dick
- Their Trial and Fellow Defendants
- The Bicycle Ad
- Prison in Frankfurt
- Prison in Bonn
- Prison in Cottbus
- Transport by Coal Car
- Bombing of Dresden
- Waldheim Prison, February 1945
- Prison Work
- Search for Food
- Arranging for Evacuation, Travel by Army Truck
- Train to Brussels
- Brussels Train Station, News of Family
- Family Reunion
- Hidden Papers in Their Apartment
- Communicating in Prison
- After the War
- Quaker College, England
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Rest at Monaco
- Charlotte’s Father
- Frankfurter Housekeeper
- Loss of Citizenship, Issued Nansen Passport
- Charlotte’s Brothers
- Emigration to Canada and the U.S.
- Volunteering for the Red Cross
- Move to Arizona
- Charlotte’s Decorations
(Charlotte Ambach was born July 4, 1922 in Hilversum, The Netherlands, and passed away April 9, 2003 in Green Valley, Arizona. She was a member of the Air Forces Escape and Evasion Society for many years.)
1. Charlotte’s Family
Charlotte’s father was German and her mother, Elise Chabot, was Dutch. Elise had been married before, also to a German, and they had three sons. She was then widowed. Charlotte’s father, Georg Ambach, had been married before as well, had one son, and he, too, was a widower. As a result, Charlotte had four half-brothers. At the time of the interview, three were still living, one in Green Valley, another in Montana, and the third in Germany (her father’s son).
Charlotte was five when her parents moved from The Netherlands to Germany. She was seven when they moved from Dortmund (?) to Frankfurt. Her schooling was first in Dortmund, then Frankfurt.
She was born with an upper eyelid paralysis which required an operation to correct it.
2. Schooling in Brussels
At age 13, her parents divorced and she, her sister, and her mother moved to Brussels where her mother’s parents lived. Charlotte’s mother first sent her to a Belgian school but, not knowing French, Charlotte fell behind. Next Charlotte went to a German school but Elise did not know it was completely pro-Nazi, a part of the Fifth Column.
At age 14, Charlotte’s school assignment was to write a vitae before beginning high school. She made it clear that she was not going to be a Volks Nazi, i.e., a Nazi companion. And she did not want to give up her Jewish friends. The school called Elise in to pillory Charlotte. It was 1936. Charlotte was completely ostracized. Her girlfriends’ phone calls all stopped. Elise told Charlotte “you are not going back to that school.” Instead, Elise enrolled her in a Flemish school.
By age 14, Charlotte spoke German, Dutch, and fair English. She would answer questions in her English class instruction in the Flemish school. (Unclear) Her French was still not good. The Belgian students at the school had learned Dutch and German. Charlotte also learned typing and shorthand.
In 1939 her father took them on vacation to Budapest while Elise stayed at a spa at Bad Homburg in Germany. Elise advised all the foreigners staying there to get out of Germany because war was coming. Elise had to wait for days for her daughters to get back from Budapest. Elise had been so vocal that her husband’s secretary hid Elise in her house. Elise’s daughters were told where she was in hiding. As soon as they arrived, she took them to the train station and returned to Belgium. This was Elise’s first brush with the Nazis.
Charlotte’s father, Georg Ambach, was CEO of the Frankfurter Zeitung, one of Germany’s best papers. A reporter of the paper was one of the most famous spies [for the Nazis or the Allies?]. The Zeitung was freer than most papers. It was given grudging approval for what it wrote. Nevertheless, it was very cautious about what it published.
The day after they arrived back in Brussels was when the war started in Europe.
After their return to Brussels in 1939, Charlotte thinks she got a job as a secretary rather than returning to secretarial school.
Charlotte became involved with all sorts of people fleeing Germany—almost all young, Jewish, socialist, communist, or dissenting Christians. They were all anti-Nazi and were being hunted by the Nazis for one reason or another.
Charlotte’s sister, Madelon, had been in school in Holland.
4. Fleeing the Nazis
It was May 1941. They woke up early in the morning because of the noise of shooting. It was the German invasion. They had been living in a two-part house with Jewish friends living below them. Elise told their friends to flee to Switzerland, which they succeeded in doing.
A lot of her friends were anti-Nazi dissidents and tried to flee Belgium. There was not much resistance to the German invasion of May 10. By the 14th or 15th, Charlotte and her family had finally been able to find a car and driver. Taking their clothes, jewelry, and money from the bank, they tried to escape. Complicating matters was that they were German but anti-Nazi. There were six in the car, Charlotte, her mother and sister, the driver, and the two people who owned the car. They tried to escape to France. It was quite a group, columns of people on the roads—civilians fleeing in cars, bikes, horses and buggies, or walking. It took a day or two to reach the border, with them stopping along the way. They carried quite a bit of petrol with them, passing other cars on the side of the road that had run out of gas.
Most of the refugees were interned by the French in a big barn on the border. Most were Jewish. There were 60-70 people in the barn, just across the border in France. There was an English sergeant who guarded the barn while they were there. He would call her “kleine augen” (“Small eyes.”). Then the English left and the French Army took over. Elise and her daughters were released because of the German advance. It was ten days to two weeks before the Germans fully occupied Belgium. The French confiscated their car, released them, and sent them back across the border. They headed back on foot. Elise began to feel unwell so they stopped and were grateful to get a room and bed at a farm. By then they were very much in need of food. They saw a big car bringing bread to a Belgian Army post. They were very tired. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. A Belgian sergeant took her to a kitchen and gave her coffee and bread, pushing bread into her arms. After a while they resumed walking.
While on the roads they were strafed by German planes. One time, hiding in a ditch, the person next to the person next to her was killed.
By then the German Army overtook them. Charlotte waved at the Germans. They asked, “What do you want?” She replied, in German, “I want a ride!” They were asked what they were doing there. The German drove them to the next village and asked for a place for them to stay. They were able to stay at a hotel for 48 hours. Elise was not well and was put to bed. After having a meal of steak pommes frites in the hotel, Charlotte fell asleep at the table. She finally awoke and returned to their room.
Awakening at 11 the next morning, they ventured out of the hotel and found a truck that would take them to Brussels. They had just one hour to get ready, racing from the hotel to the truck. On their return home they were relieved to find that nothing had been damaged or confiscated. Their whole experience had taken some two to three weeks and by then it was the beginning of June. The city was not as busy as it had been before the invasion. They had just been focused on getting back. They were tired and dirty. They just wanted to be themselves again.
5. The Occupation
During the first few weeks of the occupation she and her sister Lonnie (Madelon) didn’t go out much, just to the corner store. Charlotte did not immediately go back to work. She waited to see what was going to happen next.
The house next door was occupied by a German officer. One time one of the German soldiers did something to annoy them. The officer, a poet by profession and a very nice man, came over to apologize. The Germans were still trying to maintain good relations with the country they were occupying. That officer was soon replaced by another officer.
Charlotte and her family had a terrier named Rokki. He had been born and bred in their house in Germany and had accompanied them on their walk back from the French border. Rokki did not like the shiny boots of the Germans and would pee on them even when the Germans were wearing them. He also would lift his leg against a German car if it was waiting there for the officer. He clearly did not like the German uniform.
One of Charlotte’s brothers, Dick, had been drafted into the German army. (His twin brother had been drafted into the U.S. Army.) One time Dick, while on leave, came to visit them in late 1941 or early 1942 wearing his German unifrom. Rokki had not seen Dick for several years. All of a sudden, Charlotte saw a little tail movement. After some ten minutes she could see a real change in the dog. Finally he began screaming in delight. He had been confused by the uniform and boots. Charlotte never has heard an animal screaming like that. He was completely out of his mind with joy.
After several weeks Charlotte and Lonnie (Madelon) looked for jobs and began to see their friends again. In 1941 Lonnie found someone they knew—part of their circle of friends—and got married on July 1, 1941. Lonnie and her husband went on a camping honeymoon. There being no cars, they took their bikes and a tent with them. Lonnie’s husband wrote, “Today my wife is 19 years old.”
6. Working for Organization Todt
By then Charlotte was working for a small, private company in Brussels. She was then asked to work for the O.T. (Organization Todt), described by Charlotte as a German paramilitary organization. OT saw to it that all the cranes at the port of Antwerp were confiscated for the German Army. One of the best friends of her brother had a big company in Antwerp that had only 2-3 cranes left and would go out of business if they were confiscated as well. She complained to her boss about it and the boss saw to it that the cranes were not touched.
7. Edouard Cleeren and Espionage for the Allies
One time, after returning from work, she was met by Lonnie who was very mysterious. In their living room was a young man, Edouard Cleeren, an officer in the Belgian Army who had fled to England, been trained there, and parachuted back into Belgium to organize an espionage organization. Using Morse code, he would pass on information on troop movements, etc. Cleeren’s first step was to look up old army buddies, one of whom was Emile Frisque, Charlotte’s brother-in-law. When he went to the Frisque apartment, on the floor above where Charlotte and Elise were living, Frisque was not home but Lonnie was and brought him down to meet Elise. In need of a meeting place for his activities, Cleeren asked Elise if he could use their apartment. It was agreed upon and Charlotte and Elise would remain in their bedrooms or go out so that they did not see the visitors and vice versa. That went on for awhile. Charlotte then asked if she could help. She wasn’t affected by the curfew [because of German cititzenship?].
A friend of theirs was one of the few lawyers who could plead before the German military tribunal. [This is probably Freddy Eickhoff.] He spoke German but not well enough to write in it. So he would write in French and Charlotte would translate it into German. Eickhoff would call at 7 p.m. and have her come to his house to translate for use the next morning. It might take until midnite and Charlotte would have to walk home, there being no trams or buses running. Eickhoff would not tell Charlotte who was involved in what he was doing.
Meanwhile, Charlotte was doing more and more for Eduard Cleeren, including delivering things to “letter boxes.” She would get scraps of paper with notes on them and type up the information for delivery to England, including such things as arms that had been found [parachute drops?], troop movements, trade ___, confiscation of materials—all things that were important. The typed up notes would then be microfilmed with the microfilm being sent to England and the original notes destroyed.
One evening she had to go out to see about one such translation and was carrying incriminating papers on her, which she recognized after the fact wasn’t very wise of her. All of a sudden a German soldier stopped her and wanted to know what she was doing. He was astonished when she spoke German. She explained her work and was having to walk home. The soldier said it was very dangerous to be out late and accompanied her quite a long way home, with her having all these incriminating documents on her! Something similar happened again.
Before the invasion, Brussels had had an excellent public transportation system. It continued after the occupation began but not after curfew. Very few people had petrol and if they had any they were very careful with it. It was mainly used only by people in certain lines of business and by trucks.
There was no bombing in Brussels in 1941 (only in May 1940). Nor was there much flying over by Allied planes. There was some Resistance but it was starting to get organized. Edouard Cleeren had been dropped into Belgium near the end of 1941. There was some sporadic violent Resistance actions, such as killings. Charlotte and her friends would drop sugar cubes in the tanks of German cars, slash their tires, and siphon off their gas. But these were more just mischievous.
When Charlotte was invited to work for Oganization Todt, Edouard Cleeren jumped at the opportunity of having her there. [While typing letters and documents Charlotte would make extra carbon copies for Edouard of anything that looked useful.] At the same time, Charlotte’s sister Lonnie began working for an office which handled denunciations of people as being anti-Nazi. She suppressed many of the letters. Lonnie was also working in the Resistance, doing anything that came to mind.
Organized Resistance had only begun in a small way, mainly being intelligence-gathering and some armed actions. The French term, “Maquis”, became synonymous with Resistance.
Eduard Cleeren started an espionage line known as Service Bravery. There must have been ten to twenty-five meetings at their place when Edouard was there. After his arrest, it never came out at any of Edouard’s interrogations that he had been holding the meetings at her place. But he was arrested before Charlotte and her family became very much involved in it. A lot of people associated with him also were arrested, several of them people [from whom] she had collected papers. He had given her the address of a friend of his. One time Charlotte rang a bell at an apartment and the very frightened wife of the man she had come to see answered the door and said he had just been taken away by the Gestapo or GFP a half hour earlier. Obviously Edouard’s line had been infiltrated for the Germans to have known so many people and have arrested them.
Asked by the interviewer how close the Germans were to knowing she was involved, Charlotte said there hadn’t been any connections made to her. It was then that Ernest van Moorleghem took over the line. Charlotte did not yet know him. Edouard had told her that only when you can’t go anywhere else, go see Ernest, a Belgian police officer. (The Germans had allowed the local police to continue working.) Charlotte went to find him at his police station. A secretary was present, so Charlotte had to be guarded in what she said. Charlotte explained to Ernest that she had some information regarding a personal problem and wanted to talk to him. After Ernest dismissed his secretary, Charlotte explained that Edouard had given her his name. Ernest would become very close to her.
8. Aid to Fugitives and Airmen
Charlotte now began to receive evacuees from Holland. They had been in the Resistance but had been “burned,” i.e., their names were known, they were in danger, and could not stay in Holland any more. She also began to receive intelligence from Holland. They needed a line to evacuate the Dutch people. At first they used the intelligence line but that was too dangerous for both the refugees and the line. [Here she probably is referring to the intelligence portion of the Luctor et Emergo/Fiat Libertas Line of which she had become a part.] They had to have something separate and they started looking for an evacuation line.
In March 1943 they started to evacuate people. Ernest found Alphonse Escrinier who was with a different line [probably referring to Service EVA] and found several other people. During her previous work with Edouard she knew quite a few of the people who subsequently were arrested because of delivered papers to them. But with Ernest she knew very few. She Escrinier she knew only by voice. He would phone her and give her assignments. She never saw him or knew his name.
At that time she may still have been with Organization Todt but she may have let something slip that was anti-Nazi. Her boss was willing to let her stay but a subordinate brought it up and he couldn’t do anything but let her go. But while still there she made extra copies of anything interesting and they were microfilmed and sent on over [to Allied Intelligence]. She was quite well-liked by her boss. There may have been some jealousy on the part of someone else working there that resulted in her being forced out. It if had been left to the boss, she thinks he would have let her stay. He didn’t seem anti-Semitic.
Charlotte thinks she got another job somewhere. But her main job was working with the lawyer ‘Ankoff.” [This is probably Frederick Eickhoff a lawyer who defended helpers of Allied airmen. His papers are now stored at the WWII archive SOMA-CEGES in Brussels.]
Some of people guided out of Holland were women, either Resistance members or Jewish. [She shows Lynn David, the interviewer, a list of people she helped but it only contained names of airmen.] One man was a Frenchman in the military. [Was this Auguste Garry, French POW and chef, who cooked a dinner for Charlotte and Elise?]
Where Charlotte picked up airmen was changing constantly. She would get a phone call and be told to pick up someone at one location and take him to another. When they hid an airman, it usually was only for a few hours, though they did have one or two who stayed overnight.
Her sister Lonni now had a baby and Lonni and her husband didn’t want to do any more Resistance work. Plus he had a job and Lonni was very occupied with her baby.
9. Four Airmen
One of the more memorable occasions when she moved airmen required her going all the way to the Dutch border. First she went from Brussels by train, then by bus, and finally on a bicycle, lent to her for the rest of the journey. She arrived between five and six p.m when it was getting dark. Two were Irish, one British, and one American. It was in Weert [north of Maastrict and Liege]. The contact person was a baker living in an old, low-ceilinged house. When she arrived, the airmen nearly brained her, they were so happy to see her, because they put her on their shoulders without realizing the ceiling was so low. They were so happy to see her. The young men must have had a drink before she arrived. “We had a pretty jolly good time.” [The contact persons probably were the Bergmans, members of the Luctor et Emergo/Fiat Libertas line. Charlotte referred to them in her file at the CEGES-SOMA WWII archive in Brussels. They had been living in Bree, in Belgium, and went underground in Weert.]
The next morning the six of them set off on bikes, Charlotte and the baker first, followed by the four boys, two-by-two, their destination the bus station. There the baker bought tickets for her and the airmen before returning home. She told her charges, “Just follow me.” The bus delivered them to the train station. Taking the most intelligent one aside, Charlotte told him that, if she began blowing her nose, that would be the signal for him to get the other three airmen off the train. After boarding, they all settled into different compartments. When they arrived in Brussels, one of them had fallen asleep. Her airman assistant went into the sleeper’s compartment and shook him awake. “What?” the sleeper said. Fortunately, no one paid any attention. Besides, Charlotte pointed out, in Dutch there is a “Wat” with the same meaning. Charlotte got the men to her and Elise’s apartment, where they stayed only a few hours.
One airman, an American, had a fairly large parcel. From the living room of the apartment you could see into the hall. He had put the parcel on top of a cabinet and kept glancing at it. Charlotte and Elise asked him what was in it. “Klompers,” he replied, that a farmer had given him, and he did not want to lose them. They were precious!
Airman Jackson was over six feet tall. He looked out their window, saw some German officers and wanted to yank open the window and jump down to kill them. “Don’t, don’t, for heaven’s sake, don’t!” they cried.
During the daytime they had their drapes open, but at night they were closed because of the blackout. If your windows were not dark enough, the Germans would shoot into them. Or, once in a while, they would shout and then one of the soldiers, trigger happy, would shoot.
10. Art Horning
Art Horning, “my boy”, was an airman who remembers her. One time she was guiding four airmen somewhere. “I got them onto the tram. We were standing on the outside platform. A man also standing on the platform was eyeing them and was obviously suspicious. Suddenly he jumped off the tram and ran toward the Palace of Justice where she knew there was a German post.” She said to the boys, “Next stop and out!” So she led the airmen through a maze of little streets, left, right, and so on—a maze—and finally boarded another streetcar and continued to their destination. There were no further problems. Art Horning would remember this incident.
[For a list of airmen helped by Charlotte with pictures of most of them click here.]
Asked if she ever was aware of anyone having to be paid off to look the other way, she said she never had anything to do with that. But she would relay to Edouard or, later, Ernest that someone was in dire need of financial help and ask whether the organization could help. She, herself, was never paid a cent. No one in the organization was ever paid anything, but some people were helped. They might be given food or clothing. “We had only so many (legal) rations for a family. So, if we gave from our rations to the boys, doing so left us short. But once in awhile we got extra food stamps or a little money. Not her family, however, because her mother, who was well off, could buy on the black market. But there were other people who were hurting and who had children who needed to be helped. No large amounts of money were involved.”
When Edouard was parachuted in he had an enormous amount of money on his person and there were sources where he could go and get money that had been arranged for previously. There were all kinds of ways of getting money to him.
Quite large sums did go through the hands of highly placed Resistance workers, who would pay for the train transportation the boys needed, their clothing, food, and so on. This went on for years. Many of the people who wanted to help were poor themselves. There had to be compensation for what they gave or what they sacrificed.
12. Her First Arrest
“We were in touch with a Dutchman. This was at a time when we were trying to find a line for evacuating Dutchmen. We went to a little bar where we sometimes met some people who were of the same frame of mind as we were. There was a razzia (raid) by the Germans. I had on my person some papers—two little slips of paper and a photo about that big (gestures with her fingers). Can’t remember what the photo was—people, place, or whatever. We were arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Gestapo HQs and there were quite a few people among us. While I was sitting in the back of the car I took some of those papers, put them in my mouth, and got them down as fast as possible, chewing them and swallowing them. The photo was a bit of a problem. I took it and crumpled it so completely that they couldn’t see what was on it. As they let me out of the car, I dropped them.”
When interrogated, she told them who she was [raised in Germany and the daughter of a German newspaper editor] and they said, “What were you doing there?” “Oh, just dancing and having a drink, you know, having fun.” “But didn’t you know that that was where people gathered…” “’But how should I know?’” playing very innocent. After three days in prison I was released. The Dutchman with us [probably Jan Wannee, head of the Luctor et Emergo/Fiat Libertas line] was not so lucky. He remained in prison for three weeks.” Released with her were three other people, a girl and two boys with whom she became quite friendly afterwards. “We would meet to play bridge. One of them later was in the military, became an auditor, and was a lawyer. We became a nice group of friends.”
“So they (the Germans) let me go.” Not only that, but it came in quite handy. She was summoned before one of the high muckety mucks and he asked, “How could you do this? I am sorry we arrested you. If you ever need anything, do come to me and we will help you.” He was one of the high persons in the Gestapo. Charlotte thinks that either her mother phoned and tried to find out where she was or that Charlotte was allowed to call her mother. So she was allowed to go and even permitted to visit the Dutchman [Wannee?] and bring him some food items and things like that. He was released after three weeks. He was in the Resistance and had specifically come to bring things to Belgium. But the Gestapo didn’t know who he was and they didn’t find any incriminating evidence on him. That was the first time she was arrested.
13. The Second Arrest
The second arrest was in connection with the airman Tom Applewhite. (Charlotte was quite peeved that at the AFEES reunion in St. Louis he said he did not know her!) He had come over with a passeur, a guide from Holland. He was quite insistent that he wanted to be with his buddy, Nello Malavasi, had been left in Holland. Against our better judgment, we agreed to have his buddy brought over. I was not involved in bringing Applewhite over, the passeur was. The passeur brought him to our house. Then he or someone else came to fetch Applewhite and take him somewhere else. Our home was the first station for Applewhite in Belgium. It was while he was at our house that he was insistent that he wanted to wait for his buddy so that they could travel together. We talked to the passeur and finally agreed to let the other airman come over. The only day the passeur could go back and return with his buddy was the 15th (I think) of November, King Leopold’s birthday, which was a day when the the German police were doubled because there had always been demonstrations—by students, whatever.
We learned later that the passeur, Willem Schmidt, had been arrested with Tom’s buddy. The passeur was on the tram with the airman and even though they were not standing together and even though their papers were alright, the police went up to Tom’s buddy and asked him for his papers—in French, Dutch, and German, and then they asked him if he spoke English and he replied, “Oh, yes, yes,” happy that finally someone spoke his language. Asked if he was alone here, he said “No” and pointed out the passeur. The police brought them to Antwerp. The airman was taken off and the passeur was asked where he was going and knocked about some, not much because he arrived half an hour late on the train. “It was my stupidity; I should have left and not stayed at the station to wait for him. He came with one of the Gestapo who was wearing overalls, who I thought was the airman. The airmen arrived in funny clothes quite often—clothes that they could get. When they came through the gate she saw the revolver [under the man’s clothes?]. This was at the North Station in Brussels, early afternoon.”
She was arrested on the platform. She had no idea what type of gun he was carrying. All she knew was that it was a gun and that it was lethal. She had no memory of being handcuffed. “There were four or five other Germans around us so there was no way to escape. I would have been shot.”
“We stayed in the station an hour or two and then they took me and the passeur back to Antwerp. There was no way to talk to him.” Even if she hadn’t been arrested there, the passeur could have told the police where her home was. “We would have been arrested anyway. I was put in prison.”
“One of the ironies is that we were arrested by the GFP, the secret field police, similar to the US military police. Later we learned that the Gestapo had already been surveilling us, trying to find out who the next link [in the line] was after us – not so much me as after Ernest. They hadn’t found out. They were pretty sore that the GFP had cut us off completely. They would have preferreed to leave us still working in order to roll up more and more of us.”
She was supposed to have taken Malavasi back to her house. The GFP man [in his disguise as an Allied airman] could just as well have chosen not to arrest her immediately and would have been taken back to her house.
“My mother and sister were arrested the same day. My brother-in-law was also arrested and Ernest [van Moorleghem] a day or two later.”
“The GFP did not know that the Gestapo was already on our trail and unintentionally foiled the Gestapo’s efforts.”
“The passeur [Willem Schmidt] died in a camp. Karst [Smit] would know. I think he was condemned to death.”
14. Initial Imprisonment
Charlotte was first taken to the main prison in Antwerp, where she remained for three days. Her mother was brought to the cells in the caserne of the Prison of Laeken. There were nine cells there, used for soldiers who had done something. “This is where I was brought and where my mother was brought.” Her sister was taken to St. Gilles. They were not in the same cell in Laeken. They were at Laeken three months. Her mother was in the cell directly opposite to her. Charlotte was in a cell by herself. She still had her purse, her own clothes with her, while in prison in Belgium. It was while she was in Laeken prison that she learned Morse code.
Charlotte had a synthetic armband which she could slide off. Fairly soon she heard her mother asking the guard various things, such as when the guard opened her mother’s cell to give her food, and “I recognized her voice.” Then Charlotte started shouting “Musha” our name for her and started talking to her. But we weren’t allowed to talk. The she heard another voice and it was Ernest. He was also there. “When I started talking to my mother, he chipped in.” She spoke Dutch to her mother. He understood Flemish, a dialect of Nederlandische, but spoke French.
“We knew where we were. My mother was in the cell opposite mine and “chou” was in one cell removed from mine.” [“Chou” literally is a French word for “cabbage” but “mon chou” is used to mean “my dear.” Apparently Charlotte was using it as a term of endearment.] There were five cells on one side and four on the other. Charlotte was on the side that had five cells, next to the last.
Charlotte started singing. Then thought to put words to her song, singing in opera style and her mother sang back, also in opera style. They sang in Flemish or French. There was only one guard at a time. One was Lemline [?] who was a very kind, very nice little man. That is why they called him Lemline, “little man.” He didn’t know quite what to do with them. He told them they weren’t allowed to talk with each other. When they began to sing, he wasn’t sure if they were allowed to sing. “Chou” also began to chip in with a song.
Who were in the other cells? Then she didn’t know. Now she does, “including the one between “Chou” and me and the one [inaudible]. The one between us was a certain Johnny Johnson, who had been a sailor, had been in Wales, spoke English very well, served in the Resistance, was arrested, and knew most [Bost?] very well. On the other side was a man in chains. She can’t remember his name any longer but she met him in the resort area after the war where political prisoners were sent for a month or two to recuperate. She never saw him while he was in the cell in chains. She did see Johnny one time while in the cells. There was a little grate in the floor for air and the hair cutter came in to cut his hair. A chair was put in front of the door. She was able to lie on the floor and look through the grate up at his face. She didn’t know him before the war but did get to know him after the war.
15. Communicating in Morse Code
Charlotte felt she had to communicate, so she knocked, once for A, twice for B, three times for C, and so on. “That way we started communcating. Johnny asked me if I knew Morse code and I said, ‘No.’ Then he said ‘OK, then I’ll teach you.’ I had a kind of sharp thing, maybe a hat pin, with which I could make scratches. Or it may have been the pin from a brooch. He gave me the whole Morse alphabet which I scratched into this little thing,” pointing to an object the interviewer was holding. “I had to make a sharp noise for the dots and muted kind of noise for the dashes. “What I did was…” She gives a demo on the table. “And that is where the armband came it.” She had an armband made of synthetic material. She used it to make the dots and her fist made the dashes. “In the beginning my knuckles were bleeding.”
16. Interrogation in Antwerp
She was in Antwerp for three days. The day she arrived they immediately brought her to the prison. It was in the middle of the night (Nov. 15-16?). The jailer complained that they didn’t ordinarily take admissions in the middle of the night but was told he had to. The first night was not bad; “they just asked me a lot of things.” But the next day they verified with Guillaume [Willem Schmidt], the passeur that was….. There was both physical and mental torture of her, mental because of what they told her they had done to Guillaume. Then she could hear Guillaume being slapped around.
17. Laeken Prison
Right after her arrest, while still in prison in Antwerp, they came for her in the middle of the night, put her in a GFP car, and drove and drove. It was a moonlit night and very light out. Finally they arrived at Laeken Prison, i.e., the prison of the Laeken barracks. She was brought into a big room. Next to the room was a bathroom. She had to go! There were several men. She had a pretty rough time in Antwerp under interrogation. It was very unpleasant. She asked if she could use the bathroom. She was told that she could but first someone did something to the windows so that she couldn’t escape and left the door partially open. One man was rather short, not very good looking. He put his arm around her and said in German, “You poor little girl. We will ask you a few things. Have you eaten?” to which she replied, “No, I haven’t.” “Oh, are you hungry?” “Yes, I am.” Then he gave me some white bread, which she hadn’t seen in ages, some sausage to go with the bread, and some absolutely delicious cheese, an apple, and a glass of red wine. Then he directed that a cup of coffee be made for her and asked how many sugars. By the time she got to Laeken Prison she was ready for a nice meal and a fatherly arm around her shoulders.
Then he started asking her all kinds of questions, very kindly, very nicely. She was scared out of her wits but in seventh heaven because of the nice treatment. He looked as if he could be pretty brutal. The GFP had been the nasty ones. It was the good cop, bad cop type of game. Then he asked if she wanted to see Ernest. She replied, “Yes, if I can.” Indeed, they let Ernest in and they fell in each other’s arms and were allowed to stay in each other’s arms for a while.
There was a steel door. The cell was not wide but was long, maybe five feet wide by ten feet long, and part of that was occupied by the wall. There was a bed with a heavy frame in the wall which was probably the same on the other side of the wall. It was hanging free. The cell was equipped with a table, chair, a fairly thick straw mattress, a rough blanket, and a vat that was the toilet, maybe with no cover. The prison was part of the Palace of Laeken, where the king lives. There were three meals a day. “We got some bread, tea or coffee, ersatz jam, and, at noon, soup.” This was in December and part way into January.
[Interviewer hands Charlotte something she had previously handed him, asking her to read what it written on it: “Lottie Ambach-Chabot, 4 July 1922, rue Jules Lejeune, 4, 2nd floor, Ixelles, arrested 15 11 1943, 3j caserne, cell D417, 397, St. Gilles. This is cashoux (sp?) here so 1 Mar 1944. The cashoux (sp?) is a separate punishment cell.” She then names other prisoners: “Barbas (sp), Fernand (?), other prisoners.”
Charlotte’s mother, Elise, learned that they could have books to read and so paid for paper and scissors to make neat book covers. Elise would underline certain passages so that Charlotte, from her cell, could read what Elise wanted to know.
The nice guard who provided the books came in the evening. He would knock at my mother’s cell and chat with her and then he would come and knock at Charlotte’s door and say, in German, “Your mother wishes you a very good night.” Charlotte would thank him. Then he would turn to her mother and say, “Your daughter wishes you a very good night.” He was so nice.
Charlotte’s cell had one light with a bare bulb that was on all the time, even at night.
Charlotte was in the prison at Laeken [a suburb of northwest Brussels] for two months. She had no change of clothing and no toothbrush.
18. Interrogation by the Gestapo and GFP
Asked if her spirits were still good, Charlotte replied, “Yes, there was still my youthful defiance.”
During the interrogation, they wanted names and places and “I wasn’t forthcoming.” But many she didn’t even know, which was intentional. She knew Guillaume, but not his name. In the case of Maurice [sp?], she only knew his voice but not what he looked like. “They never connected me [to the others].’
The Gestapo got one shot at her, it was that night [?]. Three or four times a week she was taken to the GFP HQs and interrogated during the two months at Laeken Prison. These interrogations weren’t as bad, but they weren’t very pleasant either. They would interrogate you in the morning and then they would go out. Meanwhile they had to keep me somewhere. In the cellar they had these little boxes [shows interviewer how small]. There was a little seat, two ft. by two ft. She had to duck to get in the box and had to sit there for two hours, and it was right where the heating was. She was still in the same dress. No one had been able to get her another dress. She had been given some water and had been able to wash. She had been able to rinse out her underwear, but it was cold water she had to use and didn’t dry very quickly, and she had to put the underwear back on since she needed it on her.
In the box she wasn’t just perspiring, she was sweating. Sweat was running down her whole body. “Once when I came out of the box and was brought up to the GFP interrogator he said, ‘you stink’ and she replied, ‘yes.’”
Charlotte was interrogated, then her mother was interrogated, and then Charlotte was called back to verify whatever [her mother had said].
One time the interrogator said to her, “Who the hell did it?” Ed Anschutz [sp?] had said that he had done it. [Unintelligible] had said he had done it. “I said that I had done it. He was so angry. He knew we were lying but we were lying by incriminating ourselves so that we could never be asked to testify against anyone else because each of us had said we had done it!”
19. St. Gilles Prison
“After the two months [at Laeken] we were brought to San Gilles Prison in Ixelles, not very far from where we used to live. And that is where my sister had already been for quite a while. My mother and I were moved at the same time. We came together. We were even in the same cell together toward the end of our stay there. My sister came from somewhere else. I am not sure if Ernest was brought to St. Gilles then or not.” Charlotte was never together with her sister in a cell.
Interviewer: How many cells were there in St. Gilles? “There was a rotunda and wings that went off from it. One wing was the women’s wing, the others were all men’s wings. One, or at the most two, were for criminals. The others were all political.”
20. Arrest of Her Brother, Dick
“In the meantime my brother had been arrested—Dick, the brother who was a German soldier. He deserted from the German Army and had been in hiding. We found a very good hiding place for him. And my mother helped him because he needed some friends. He hadn’t heard from us for a few days, so he went to see a friend of my mother’s because he didn’t want to come to our place. And he found that she also had been arrested because she had been a friend of my mother’s. [This must have been Nel van Gellicum.] And everyone who came to her door was arrested and so my brother was also arrested. During interrogation, he gave a completely fictitious name, Bossboom (sp?), and that he was a Dutch student who had been unable to get to England. He kept this up for ten months or longer. They beat him so much that he decided a least a bullet is clean. This, the beatings, is a messy kind of death. So he told them who he was. And they said, ‘Oh, you are Mrs. Chabot’s son. We have been looking for you.’ He was put on a train for Germany where he was to be court-martialed. That was on the Phantom Train that was sabotaged by the engineer and never made it to Germany, the train that was shuttled back and forth. All the prisoners had been shoved into the train, prisons had been emptied. The train went back to Brussels to be repaired. There were quite a few stories written about it.”
“My brother and a few others had tried to scrape away the floor and take some [inaudible] and to escape when the train stopped. Finally, when the train was near Brussels, he got out and escaped.”
“My sister was very soon brought to another prison which was a lesser prison for women. Our cell was looking out over toward the men’s wing. Dick was at the window. We could see him and he could see us.” They had to pry up something [to stand on?]. So we knew each other. On Sundays they could attend any religious service they wished, Catholic or Protestant. There were no Jewish services. “Once when we went to the prison church we were in these little closed-in pews. At a certain moment we saw the men come it. My mother was next to me and we saw Dick. I saw that my mother was fainting and I tried to hold her up. It was just momentary and she came to again because she had seen Dick. That was how we knew he was there. And afterwards we saw him at the window.”
21. Their Trial and Fellow Defendants
Charlotte’s trial occurred while at St. Gilles Prison. They had spent three days at Antwerp, approximately two months at Laeken, and were at St. Gilles until June of 1944. It was during their time at St Gilles, when the trial occurred, that she was condemned to death. [She shows her document.] “Was this the date—June 2? No, May 1944 when the trial was held. It started in May 1944. I think it was June 2 when we were condemned. [She is examining the documents. Looking at the documents, she finds a date, May 24.] “Maybe this was the beginning of the trial and June 2 was when we were condemned to death.”
[The Ambach trial record gives the following names of defendants: Ernest van Moorleghem; Elise Chabot; Charlotte Ambach; Paul Boutet of the Salvation Army; Louise Collet; Dr. De Winter, a Jewish doctor; Dr. Georges Bray; Petronella van Gellicum; Elisabeth van Altena; Paul van Cleef, a Jew; and Ghislain and Armand Gaspard.]
All the people who worked with them were tried at the same time. As an example, she cites “the man from the Salvation Army, Paul Boutet. Paul Cumbracht [sp?] had worked with us.” The interviewer asks “All of the people on the list were associated with you?” “Yes. First on the list is Ernest, next Chabot, third is Ambach. Paul Boutet died in Germany. He was the captain of the Salvation Army. She [referring to Louise Collet, the fifth person] helped us with the boys. She was Swiss. The sixth was a doctor who operated on one of the boys. Dr. De Winter operated on one of the boys who had a torn stomach. [Then refers to Dr. Bray]. [Next referring to #8, Petronella van Gellicum] this was the friend of my mother where my brother was arrested.”
Interviewer asks if “Van Hellicum [Charlotte’s pronunciation of Van Gellicum] was the one who had been keeping her brother. “No. He had no news of us and went to see her and see if she had any news. But she was already arrested and then he was arrested at her house.”
Now pointing at # 9, Elizabeth van Altena, “That was another friend of my mother.” “#10, Paul van Cleef, was called Van Bracht [sp?]. That was his other name. He also worked with someone else. He came back. I don’t quite remember Ghislaine or Armand Gaspard (#11). They also obviously had worked with us.”
22. The Bicycle Ad
Charlotte had a bike which she hadn’t been using much, partly due to the difficulty of buying tires. She had put a little ad in the window of one of the shops near where they lived. “Nearly every single person to arrive at our flat to inquire about the bike was arrested. I was confronted with a few of them. I remember one of these. He was a little man with reddish hair, a reddish nose, and he looked a little like a clown. He was scared out of his wits. He was trembling all over. The asked me who he was and I said ‘I haven’t the foggiest idea.’” They asked him if he knew her and he said no. He was the second or third person with whom she was confronted. Finally, she said, “these are just people who came to buy a bicycle.” They apparently were all released finally. “You had to be careful about what you did or said.”
23. Prison in Frankfurt
By her birthday, July 4, they were in Frankfurt. They stayed in prison for a little while, then were put on a transport. Where they were put in Frankfurt was the Hoffbakker [sp?] in the middle of Frankfurt. It was not a prison but a police holding place. There were many prisoners there. Her mother was with her, but not her sister. Lonnie, instead, went to several entirely different prisons. “I think that she was at one time in Ulm [sp?].” Charlotte shows the interviewer the complete copy of her trial record.
They were at Frankfurt in the holding cells for only a short time. “We were told we were going to go to Poingetimane [sp?], which is just outside of Frankfurt and that is where the prison and the guillotine were. My mother was scared out of her wits.”
“When we arrived at the station in Frankfurt, we had to go into a room. There were tables with people standing behind them. We had to go Indian file past one after another and then into another room. I saw a man who was standing about there [Charlotte points to a pad on her lap representing the room] looking intently at each prisoner who came in. When I came in, he didn’t look any further and he just followed me with his eyes all the way through the room. And when I went out into the other room he was still looking at me. Then we had to come out of that room, through the same room, and into the station again. And I saw the man again and he followed me with his eyes all the way again and definitely had dismissed everyone else. And when we were standing outside the room in the station, he came out. He was looking at me and said to come here. All the other people there were Belgians, Dutch, whatever. I was the only German there. I went over to him. He asked ‘Are you Lottie Ambach?’ I said, ‘yes.’ ‘Does your father know that you are here?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ He said, “I will see what I can do.’ Apparently he either forgot [to talk to her father] or never reached her father. I am positive that this man had worked at the newspaper where my father was. He must have seen the name ‘Ambach’ [on a list] and thought, ‘Aha, that must be the daughter’ and he was looking for me when I came in and to see if it gelled with the age, date, and so on. Nothing ever went on [resulted], neither positive nor negative” as a result of her conversation with him.
“At Frankfurt, when we arrived at our cell, there were three-level bunkbeads. The lights went out at 10 p.m. When we arrived it was very hot—it was July and badly aired. The women already there were practically naked, just wearing underwear. They started asking us what we were there for. We said “Political”. My mother and I spoke German and asked what they were there for and they said, ‘Free love.’ We weren’t quite sure what they meant by “free love” and my mother and I moved closer to each other! [Charlotte laughing.] What it meant was that these girls had had affairs with workers from the various occupied countries who had been put into the workforce in Germany—French, Dutch, whatever, and weren’t married. If the boy promised to join the Waffen SS and to marry the girl, then she wouldn’t be punished, but most of the boys didn’t because they thought only of escape and returning to their own country. Some of the girls were pregnant and the children, when born, were taken away. My mother and I got our bunkbeds and the next morning one of the girls looked vaguely familiar and I said, ‘Weren’t we in school together?’, and we were.” Charlotte had been in school in Frankfurt from ages 7 to 12 or 13 and had gone to school with her. [Here she explains the system of forced labor at factories or farms. These girls had gotten to know the non-German laborers, had had affairs with them, and were political prisoners as a result.
24. Prison in Bonn
“We stayed in a holding cell in Frankfurt a few days and then we were transported to Bonn and stayed in a prison. Above the cell door my mother scratched in something from Matthew, ‘How does it help a man to win the whole world but to lose his soul?’” They were there a few days and then were sent on to Cottbus. Later her sister came through Bonn and by coincidence was held in the same cell. When she turned around, she saw the inscription and said, “Ahh! My mother has been here!” Elise may have used ink to make the inscription more visible.
Since their arrest, they had been able to get some clothing. Charlotte’s sister’s in-laws had been allowed to go into their apartment to take clothes, underwear, soap, toothbrushes, and all kinds of things and deliver them to St. Gilles. That was probably the end of January or beginning of February. The dress and underwear Charlotte had been wearing on November 15 when arrested, she had been wearing for two months. She just dropped them somewhere when the fresh clothes arrived. They had not had a bath or shower from November through to June when they finally came to Cottbus. There they had a shower about once a month.
25. Prison in Cottbus
“We were in Bonn and Frankfurt each only for a short time, but Cottbus was for a long time. It was there that the ‘NN’ was put behind our names. It is ‘Non nomen,’ Latin for ‘No name.’ Among prisoners it was called ‘Nacht Namen,’ and ‘Night and Fog.’ You became a number and you were only known as a number. Most NN prisoners just disappeared, no records, no graves. I still have my number from Waldheim when we became numbers. We were condemned to death and supposed to disappear without anyone knowing, or whatever.” [According to Hitler’s Prisons, Legal Terror in Nazi German, by Nikolaus Wachsmann, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 272-273, “Following the invasion of the Soviet Union, resistance to the German occupation in Europe had flared up. The Nazi leadership responded by stepping up the terror against the civilian opposition. In September 1941, Hitler ordered that arrested civilians, who could not be quickly sentenced to death, should no longer be tried by military courts. Instead, they should secretly be deported to Germany. They would disappear in ‘night and fog’ (Nacht und Nebel, or NN), and their family and friends would never hear from them again.” “At the end of April 1944, a total of 5,289 NN prisoners…were held in German penal institutions.” “NN prisoners were forbidden to write or receive letters.” “Many NN prisoners died inside the penal institutions…The cloak of secrecy over NN prisoners was not even lifted after their death. If they were executed or died in captivity, their relatives were not informed, their farewell letters were suppressed, and their bodies secretly buried by the Gestapo”]
“At Cottbus my mother and I were very lucky that we were in the same cell together. There were six or seven people in the same cell. There we also had to work, making insignia in different colors [pointing to a “collar” around her neck] for German uniforms, mainly the Army. We had to sew them all by hand. That way we got a lot of colors to work with. We made flowers with them. We sabotaged what we could.”
“After we were at Cottbus a month or two, newcomers arrived. All of a sudden we met Jet Roosenburg [of the Fiat Libertas escape line]. I didn’t know Joke Folmer or Nel Lind [also of Fiat Libertas]. We had known Jet with short black hair. My mother and I were looking out the window (they were so low that we could look out). Elise said ‘What does she have in her hair? It looked as if she had wheat in her hair but it was because she had died her hair blonde in order to escape detection or whatever and it had been growing out and it looked like little wheat hairs. That was when, in addition to Jet, that Joke Folmer and Nel Lind arrived. They had been transported from Holland. We got to know Joke and Nel personally, not just from some boys we took over from them.” [For the story of Jet, Joke, and Nel during the liberation of their prison and their experiences trying to get home during the chaotic conditions at the end of the war, see Henriette (Jet) Roosenburg’s book, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, Pleasantville, NY: Akadine Press, 2000, originally published in 1957.]
“At Cottbus we had to relinquish our own clothing and were issued uniforms. We had something like golf trousers or knickers that went under the knees, with two flaps, one that you tied in the back and the other in front. Over that we wore dresses that were sack-like. We were fortunate to get fairly heavy material in those dresses. We took some rope to make some sort of belt to make the dress snugger. She couldn’t recall if they had shirts. Their shoes were wooden soles with a very hard leather cap over them. There were no socks. The shoes were quite painful to walk in.
“Joke, Nel, and that group got tennis dresses of light-grey thin material, while ours were dark grey of heavier material. As the weather got colder and colder, they had a lot more trouble than we did.”
Charlotte and Elise were there from September 1944 to February 1945, all through the winter.
In Cottbus the windows were low enough that we could look out, unlike [inaudible], where there was only a tiny opening way up in the window. Charlotte said that their friends, “Jet, Nel, and Joke were in one cell and they sang together and I responded also by singing. [According to Joke Folmer, Charlotte had a beautiful singing voice.] We were on the same floor in the same building used for all the political prisoners. The common criminals were in another building or on another level. We never saw much of them.” One day she was caught singing and condemned to three days with just bread and water, “which in a way I was happy about because I got more to eat than the awful soups that they made. When we had rutabaga soups and there were bugs floating in it, we would joke that at least we were getting some protein. They put me in another cell where I was alone. There was a huge heap of corn husks. When I first was there I heard little chirpings and I realized there were mice. I got three big hunks of bread at every mealtime and plain water. And I was quite happy because it was a lot more (food) than I usually (would) get. After three days alone with the mice they had become quite tame. They would come out and I would throw them pieces. They were rather cute and good company. If I had been there further, I could have tamed them further.”
“At Cottbus we usually got a slice of bread in the morning and then we got some kind of warm liquid which was supposed to be either tea or coffee. And someimes we got an ersatz jam or something like that. At lunchtime we had some kind of soup. The bread had to last for the morning and evening meals.” [In Wachsmann’s Hitler’s Prisons, a female prisoner at Cottbus penitentiary reported that in May 1940, “’one after the other collapses. This is not surprising, given the small rations….In the evening I can hardly stand up. 12 hours’ labor is a bit much. We are growing old and drained before our time.’ In the following years malnourishment became worse.”)
In Cottbus she made her first pillbox hat out of cord or whatever she had found, decorated it with some felt pieces, and tied it under her chin. She made quite a few. One of the guards looked through (the bars) and confiscated everything. “I always bragged afterwards that [inaudible] should have seen (my?) haute couture and copied me.”
“We were moved to a new cell with a capacity of nine (?) people and we came together—Jet, Joke, Nel, my mother, and me. We had a real toilet in the corner, closed in. The funny thing was that the floor started to sag and all of a sudden we heard a voice. We were sitting there and wondered. We realized that the prisoners in the cell below us were shouting, ‘Hello, hello!’”
“When we arrived in Cottbus there were 70 in our group. We had to undress and all our clothes were taken away. The first few moments were rather awkward because we were all strark naked. The only things they left us were our handbags, our hats, and, one case, an umbrella. There was one lady who must already have been in her 70s—we called her grandmother—and she had a hat, an umbrella, (and a purse?) and otherwise was stark naked. We were in that room for a while before we got our prison uniforms. There were huge doors allowing the room to be expanded into a much larger room. After two hours of being naked, you no longer saw each other as naked and just talked to each other. You are not embarrassed; you aren’t conscious of it anymore. Then the doors opened and we saw a lot of men prisoners and we stared at them, looking for friends, brothers, etc. Some of them were naked and some half dressed. Then the guard closed the door. He hadn’t known we were there. After that we got our clothing and were put in the cells.”
The wide trousers and wide dresses had their uses. “Once we passed close by a bread wagon and one of the prisoners was able to steal two or three loaves and shoved them in her trousers. They must have had rather good meals (after that for awhile).”
“When we still were in the holding cells in Frankfurt, there was a bombardment and one of the flour trucks was hit. The flour spilled out on the street and the prisoners gathered it up, along with bits of broken glass from the bombardment. Eating became a handle (?) to our life and eating that (meant, showed, demonstrated that?) nothing bad happened to us.”
One time while still at Cottbus, Charlotte and Elise had to share a cell with one other woman who was married and had children. At that time “my mother was sick and had to go to the infirmary every day where she got extra milk and some medication too.” Elise had the bed, a metal frame with a mattress. The other woman and Charlotte had to share one straw mattress. “I think she was on mal de mer [sea sickness?] and since there weren’t any men about, she wanted some loving and with there being no men, the next best thing was me. I didn’t know how to keep her off me. It was a painful experience. This lasted for a week or two at most and then we were put back into our other cells where Mother and I were put with other people. A little bit trying!”
“At Cottbus every so often we were herded together and we were led outside to a walled-in garden where we walked around and got our exercise. This should have been a regular thing. Sometimes we had it two or three days in a row and then not for a whole month. Whenever it suited them (prison administration) and when they thought they could spare the time.” It was on one of those walks when one of the girls was able to get a few loaves of bread from the bread wagon and push them into her wide trouser legs.
“In Cottbus, there was one guard whom we called the ‘clown’. She had bright red curly hair, reddish cheeks, and the colors that go with a redhead, pale skin, bluish. She was one of the kindest people I met in the whole prison system, or the world. You could see on her face that she was suffering for us or with us. She had enormous empathy. She went to Waldheim with us. After it became Russian territory, we tried everything to get her out of there, because we knew she would be treated badly, because we knew she was a very good, very kind, very helpful person. Once in a while she passed us a piece of bread surreptitiously, all kinds of things. Without endangering herself, she tried to help us with whatever she could do. On the other had, there were some guards who were brutal, very nasty. There were female-only guards in the female-only prisons.
All the work making badges (for German uniforms) was done in the cells. The badges had to be put onto something. They also did other things. (This was the period when she made the pillbox hats.) When she ended up in the cell with Jet, Joke, and Nel, there were nine people in the cell.
“I was standing in front of the window where the wash basin was, mostly stripped, washing myself, and all of a sudden, Jet shouted “Lotte” and I turned around full face with a [woman] guard and a prisoner who had come to repair the toilet. He was a very pleased man! I was young and pretty then. So I had to put something on and get out of the way so that he could do the repair work.”
The nine women were together a month or two before being moved to Waldheim. There was no separate shower or bathroom in the cell. It was a fairly large cell with bunkbeds for two and four beds to sleep nine people. “We had quite a bit of fun there with Nel, Jet, and Joke. There was another Dutch girl, the one who had been overly friendly. She didn’t try to do anything. There was safety in numbers!”
When Charlotte was nabbed for singing, she was taken to the prison jailer. Asked why she was there, she said,”Singing!” He used a pun to say that she was there only to “growl,” i.e., to serve prison time. “It was rather witty of him. Most of the Germans were not known for their wit; they didn’t have a very good sense of humor.” That was when she was sentenced to three days of bread and water in solitary.
“Sometimes the guards pased by each of our cells and placed in each of our hands some white powder, which was a soap powder. Afterwards they took us to the showers.
“About a half hour before we were to leave for Walheim, we were told to get our things together, but not told where we were going. There was not much to take. We didn’t have toothbrushes, wash cloths, night shirts, or extra underwear. We didn’t have much of anything, just the clothes we were standing up in, the prison uniforms we had on.
26. Transport by Coal Car
There was no explanation of where they were being taken or why. One thought was that they were being taken to a prison where they would be executed—by being beheaded. “Is this going to be the day that….?!” During their various moves they never knew where they were going, whether they would be going together, whether it would be to prison or a concentration camp, into solitary or together in cells, whether they were [inaudible]. The nine of them were in the one cell, eight or nine in each of the other cells, for a total of 70. We walked to a train. All were placed in one coal car. There were no food rations or, at best, some little ration like a piece of bread. The trip took 1 ½ to 2 days, spending two nights en route in the coal car. There was not enough room to lie down. Some had to stand so that others could lie down. Her mother was rather weak and not well at all and began to fantasize. “I was rather concerned about that. Some of the guards were smoking and then stubbing out the cigarettes. Jet got the stubs, had a toothpick, put the left over tobacco together into a cigarette, and gave each of them a smoke. We hadn’t smoked in such a long time, we were drugged.”
Charlotte was in a crouched position and felt something fall on her. It was a bag from one of the guards. “It was dark and I felt around in it and realized it was bread. I took two pieces and we distributed it. It was without butter but we had been without it for so long that the bread was quite good. We each had about a quarter of a double sandwich. Apparently a female guard had put it on a seat near her and hadn’t noticed when it fell down. It was in a clothes bag. The guard may have done it on purpose because she was a very kind and wonderful person.
Elise started being very vague about things. “My mother always saw things in the best light.”
27. Bombing of Dresden
Body heat kept them from freezing. The train made periodic stops and starts. The stops were not at stations, but just on the tracks. At one point they were on a siding and they heard a lot of shooting and realized they were near Dresden but far enough away to be safe. They could hear the bombing and the sky was all lit up in all colors from the burning. The flames were all shooting up. [According to a Wikipedia article on the bombing of Dresden, there were four raids on Dresden between Feb. 13 and 15.] “We continued on and finally arrived in Waldheim proper. We were very tired. We were black and dirty but hadn’t realized it. When the train stopped, the guards could wash and go to the toilet, get some bread, and had other possibilities which, of course, we didn’t have.”
28. Waldheim Prison, February 1945
“Arriving in Walheim, we came out of the train limp and utterly exhausted and had to walk to the prison. We were shuffling along and coming from the other direction were the civil defense, kids 12, 13, or 14 years old and men 70 or 80 years old, but nothing in between. No young men, just very young kids and very old men, although with some German soldiers with them. And they were marching with pitchforks and rakes and they were going to defend Germany. We looked at each other and all straightened up. If those people were all there were to defend Germany, it won’t last much longer. They were not going to the front but were going to defend against the Russians who were coming closer. The marchers were not coerced but were eager to defend the Fatherland and were singing patriotic songs. When we saw that if Germany had to rely on these kids and these decrepit old men who could barely walk properly anymore, it gave us a big boost.”
“We walked through the little town to the prison. We were no longer [people with] names there. We were just numbers. That’s when we were given numbers.” Charlotte was assigned number 4000. “Of the 70 prisoners on the train, none died, but some were in pretty bad shape”
At the Waldheim prison we were all herded into a big hall where they had to wait. “Then we were given big bowls into which was slopped something we hadn’t had in a long, long time, noodles and, I think, ham and a little bit of sausage. It was somewhere between soup and sausage with vegetables. We were given spoons and we had large bowls of that nice hot soup. I licked out my bowl. I realized the black streaks on the bowls came from my hands. The other prisoners were black also.”
Charlotte may have known they were to be executed. When she got the paper giving her # 4000, she knew it would be in Waldheim.
They were showered and got clean clothes before being put in cells. Each had a little scarf in black and white. They were no longer wearing the funny trousers. Instead, they got a different type of trousers. But they still had the old clog-type shoes. They were also given dresses.
“We even got sheets on the mattresses, grey, rough cotton on linen. We each got a sheet. There were not enough mattresses. We were so excited that we had sheets that we couldn’t sleep all night.”
All the 70 prisoners became sick from a bad cold, at best, to pneumonia, at worst. Each was given one to two aspirins. Some were cured with the aspirin. All of them recovered.
In Waldheim they were assigned six to a cell, arranged alphabetically (Ambach, Chabot, etc.). Initially she was placed in the same cell with her mother but when they embraced, her mother was taken out and put in the cell next door. “We were not allowed to be together because we knew each other.”
The cells were originally intended for one person. Equipped with two straw mattresses, the prisoners slept on their sides in order to try fit. They slept chest to back and had to turn over at the same time. The two mattresses could accommodate five prisoners but there was no room for the sixth. (After their liberation and return to Brussels, Charlotte’s sister, Lonnie, gave Elise and Charlotte her queen size bed. But after a couple of hours they had to go sleep on the floor because the bed was too soft. That lasted quite a while.)
Joke, Nel, and Jet were all on the same floor with Charlotte and Elise. There was communication among them. The toilet was a triangular container in the corner of the cell. Each day each cell was allowed to empty its container and went downstairs to empty it, then took it back up again. Ten to twelve cells emptied their toilets at the same time. This was when they could exchange a few words.
“We were also allowed to take walks more often than in Cottbus, at a location inside the prison walls.” They were allowed to shower once a month, more often than during their entire previous prison experience, which was once every three months. They had two little bags, one with ‘M’ for Mushka [for Elise] and one with ‘L’ for Lottie. The bags were embroidered and made for us.”
29. Prison Work
The prisoners were allowed to make things for themselves. The main substances they had to work with were feathers, corn husks, and leaves. They made soles for espadrilles. [Charlotte walks away from the interviewer and gets something. She shows him a modern espadrille.] “We made rope soles and sewed them together and with soft material made caps and straps to make shoes. The clogs they had been given had cut their instep, causing sores all over their feet. Charlotte also weaved materials [unclear as to what materials] together to make herself a vest. We used feathers to stuff in our mattresses to make them soft. “We never got any toilet paper, so we used feathers and leaves, which were softer than corn leaves. There was an Austrian girl, married to a Frenchman, who was very artistic. She made absolutely gorgeous dolls out of corn husks. She turned wide leaves around and cut them to a certain size to make a skirt and she clothed them [the prisoners] with other leaves that she cut to various sizes to make scarves, bodices, and other things. She was very inventive and artistic. However, the prison authorities confiscated them.” Some Catholics made rosaries from very soft corn leaves.
“Every Sunday the guards came and gave us some wool, sand [?], needles, and scissors to mend our clothes. That is how we got some of our needles. On some of our walks we sometimes found a broken needle and instead of giving back a good needle, we gave back the broken needle. Or we just said we had lost the needle. We did the same thing with thread.” [The interviewer hands back to Charlotte something she had made, apparently something to attach to clothing.] There is a reference to a doll’s booties. The prisoners had been given handkerchiefs of various colors “and we pulled threads from them to make little patches [?] and we wove them together.” Different cells got different materials, [a source of trade?]. “Or we used materials left over from Cottbus.”
“When you are completely deprived of everything, your inventiveness, your artistic ability begins to soar. You can make all sorts of things out of practically nothing. It is a pity we have so many things these days. It would help if we were deprived a little bit.”
First some German prisoners were liberated. They were not criminals. They may have been slightly political, or may have been religious, or they may have finished their terms of imprisonment.
“The prison was on several levels. After being liberated, some of the women couldn’t get away and came back. They shouted up [to us in our cells] that they had seen black troops, so the French Senegalese [or American?] troops were here. They said the Russian troops were near. One by one they came back and gave the news of what they knew. Then we heard one cannon that fired one shot each day at noon, like a church clock.
Pointing at a copy of an embroidery that she made at Waldheim, “you can see the cannon, the cannon balls, and the date in April when we heard the cannon. The irony is that later when I met some of the Americans and they said, ‘we shelled this place,’ and we said, ‘what, one about noon?’” [Charlotte’s embroidery is in the collection of the Mighty 8th AF Museum.] By May 3 her mother has been added to the ebroidery. Most of the embroideries were made for Elise’s birthday [May 3, 1888] and smuggled into her cell. Elise said “if we are not liberated today (May 3), we will be liberated on the 6th of May.” Charlotte said that “And the people who were in her cell will vouch for the truth of that. Where she got that notion I don’t know.” By then Elise had gotten much better; she had recovered a lot.
“Indeed, the 6th of May came and we heard a lot of things going on in the corridor of the prison, shouting and screaming. And then we heard someone running up the stairs to our second floor where we were saying in French, ‘You will be free, you will be free, just wait.’ And then some heavier steps. My cell was the last to be opened. They had gone from one to another. All I saw was a uniformed sleeve, hand, and key. Then I saw a huge mass of women. The poor man was [inaudible] and opened our cells before they completely engulfed him. He was a Russian.”
The Russians had a different policy from the Americans. They just opened the cells and let everyone go. That was the first time she saw her mother and could be together with her again. It was May 6. The criminals in the prison immediately went to Russia because they realized the western forces would probably just put them back in prison.
“Our first concern for the four of us—Joke, Jet, Nel, and Elise—was to drag mattresses into our cells to make [inaudible]. Because where were we going to go? We made ourselves a cozy home. We put three mattresses together to sleep on and we bent mattresses to make cozy chairs for sitting. We got covers wherever we could. All of the criminals left. We heard that in the cellars there was food, so our next concern was to get some. I still remember going down the stairs. I saw one other prisoner. [Break in film of the interview.] We went to the men’s prison and found that all had been liberated.” She went down the street, saw a big man in a different type of uniform. She said, “You’re a Yank!” He said, “I sure am ma’m.” Right after that we came to two or three others and kissed and hugged. “He [the American?] asked who they were and we said, ‘political prisoners.’” “Then we went on to the men’s prison two or three streets away.” Charlotte was looking for Ernest, for her brother, Dick, and the others for their husbands, sons, etc. The men had been liberated, too, and they were all over the place trying to organize themselves and looking for others. “I finally found a young Dutchman and we chatted.” Charlotte told him who she was and suggested he come back with her, which he did. “When Dutch people meet they talk about family and where they are from and they go on to find that they are related. He turned out to be the son of some far away cousin. He knew quite a few of the family. He came back with us.”
31. Search for Food
“The next day a big American truck started to give out food and we tried to organize food distribution. My mother went with Joke, Jet, and Nel and I went with somebody else.”
“Before the war I had started a few Russian lessons, so I knew a few Russian sentences. One of them was ‘I would like a smoke.’ A huge car with a chauffeur’s seat pulled up containing two Russian Mongolians. I said, in Russian, ‘I would like to smoke!” The two Russian soldiers were so pleased that someone spoke Russian that they gave Charlotte and the others Wehrmacht cigars, cigarettes, and chocolates. “We could hardly stagger under them and brought them back with us. Jet, who was quite a smoker was as happy as a clam with the cigarettes.”
“We hadn’t had a mirror to look at ourselves. My mother had lost 40 kilos, which is over 80 lbs. She had been a fairly heavy person and was very, very thin. I had probably lost weight but I was swollen with hunger edema. I could put my finger in my leg and poke a hole in it that remained for a long time. Once I had gotten rid of all the water in me, I had definitely lost a lot of weight.”
“My mother hadn’t seen herself (in a mirror). We asked a Russian for food. He took them to a house, led them upstairs, her mother first, Joke, Nel, etc. afterwards. He threw open a door and her mother saw in front of her a huge mirror. She was so struck by her appearance that she did no look around. The other women called to her, ‘Come back, come back.’ Finally, she became aware of the bed in the room with two Russian soldiers busy with three or four German girls. My mother said, ‘Oh!’, and left with Joke and Nel who immediately had seen what was going on. We didn’t get anything to eat!”
“We mainly got food from the Americans.” Charlotte didn’t know of any food provided by the Russians. “We spent the rest of the day getting organized and discussing what they were going to do.”
Joke and Jet had found another Dutch woman, Fafa, who, unlike them, had not been condemned to death. Fafa was practically paralyzed with arthritis.
32. Arranging for Evacuation, Travel by Army Truck
“I was mainly concerned with my mother. We tried to get information on what was going to happen to us. After three days, an American soldier told us that trucks would be coming to transport them, just when he wasn’t sure, and we would be evacuated. But the trucks proved to be all open. We discussed what to do with Fafa. Traveling by truck would not be good for her because she would be bounced around. We found a kind of wheelbarrow, equipped it with a mattress and blankets we had found, and laid her in it. All that is written in Jet Roosenberg’s book, The Walls Came Tumbling Down and serialized in The New Yorker.”
“My mother and I went with the trucks, all driven by black drivers. I spoke with the driver of our truck and asked him in English if her mother, who was not well, could sit in the cab with him. He said, ‘yes’, and timidly asked if I would like to ride in it as well. I said, ‘Yes!”
“It was May, gorgeous weather, around the 8th, 9th, or 10th, but probably the 9th. We went through Tubingen. We didn’t even know our destination. It was a gorgeous day. All the fruit trees were in bloom. The sense of freedom! After the bleakness and misery. With all the excitement we hadn’t slept much and I fell asleep on the driver’s shoulder. Mother tried to tug me away but the driver said, ‘It’s OK ma’m.’’’
“We stopped at [inaudible] and the driver climbed out of the truck and got out k-rations, a tin of scrambled eggs, and such and gave them to all of us along with chocolate bars. On we went, arriving at Eisenach where there was a Russian DP camp where we stayed a day or two. A couple of us went to look for food. The Russian commander provided food for some but not our group. Someone went to the commander, explained where they were from, and he nodded, ‘OK’, that they could get in the food line. But we still needed food. Some of us went to search for potatoes in the fields. Others found spinach. A goose escaped but a chicken did not. Some of the farm gals among us killed it, plucked its feathers, and gutted it. We had chicken, potatoes, and spinach cooked in a [inaudible] over a fire. But with the size of our group, it wasn’t much per person.”
“In the evening we were near a hill. We heard singing of Russian folk songs, including Kalinka (a traditional Russian folk song). There were a lot of Russian guys and gals who came over the hill as the sun was setting. It was incredibly beautiful.”
“We stayed there about three days, getting some food from the Russians and some from elsewhere. Then the trucks were back. We went to another camp where they gave us big tins of [inaudible] and hard tack. Some of the women got the tins open and drank the oil in which the contents had been packed. After having had no fat, they became violently sick.”
33. Train to Brussels
“We were taken to a train and, after a trip of two or three days, shuttled to Brussels. At the Brussels train station, people knew a train of political prisoners was coming and they brought everything they could spare, including white bread and chocolate, an odd type of menu. Some brought wonderful fresh fruit.”
34. Brussels Train Station, News of Family
“After getting off the train, we were standing on the platform. A very dapper young Dutch officer came and asked for my mother, Elise Chabot. He was Guido Zembsch Schreve [see his book, Pierre Laland. Special Agent: The Wartime Memoirs of Guido Zembsch-Schreve]. What we didn’t know then was that my sister, Lonnie, had returned and that my brother had escaped and was back as well. Guido came up to my mother and said he had been sent by my sister. One of the first questions my mother asked was if there was any news of my brother, Dick. Guido said, ‘Yes!’ Mother sighed with relief and then fainted. She had been very worried about him. I asked about ‘Chou’ [Ernest van Moorleghem and two or three others but he had no further information.”
35. Family Reunion
“My sister was still in the same apartment on the floor above them but their own apartment had been given up. Lonnie’s family had taken all their furniture out so that the apartment would be free to rent again. We had a reunion that night with Lonnie, Dick, and Lonnie’s little girl. We spent several weeks recuperating in Lonnie’s apartment. Lonnie gave them her bed but when she came to wake them the next morning, she found them on the floor. [They had been unable to adjust to the softness of the bed.]”
“One of the first things after our return was to have a doctor check us. In my case there was some medication called for and a special diet because of my edema. In my mother’s case, she was advised to go softly on food to build herself up. Otherwise we were fairly healthy. My sister, too.”
Lonnie’s husband had been in Eisenach, Germany, at the same time they were. “Our first Russian camp may have been in Jena, Germany, with Eisenach the second.”
“Guido Zembsch-Schreve had met my sister on her trip back after being released. He, too, had been a prisoner. In fact, Karst Smit, with whom we had worked, knew Guido. They had gotten together [after escaping from their SS guards while being marched west].”
“We all more or less found each other. At the little police station near where we lived, they had pictures of the people who were missing and, among others, there was that of “Chou” [Ernest van Moorleghem]. A person’s picture was taken down if he or she returned. Then I got a call from Alphonse Escrinier [leader of the Service EVA escape line] who said, ‘By the way, did you know that Ernest was executed?’ [Charlotte is overcome by emotion.] And that was it.” [Before being arrested, Ernest van Moorleghem gave love letters he had written to Charlotte, but had been unable to deliver to her, to Karst Smit, the head of the Dutch escape line, for safe-keeping. Karst hid them under a floorboard in his barracks. After the Liberation, Karst felt that Charlotte would be emotionally unable to handle reading them and so he waited a year before giving them to her.]
“And then came the time to recover physically and psychologically.”
36. Hidden Papers in Their Apartment
Their old apartment was for rent so they asked if they could look for something in it. There was a narrow toilet off the hallway with a little window quite high up at the back of a deep recessed ledge. Elise asked Charlotte to stand on the toilet and reach up onto the ledge. “And I did and I found a whole sheaf of Resistance papers.” When Elise realized that Charlotte had not come home, she had taken everything compromising and thrown them up there. In spite of the German police being there for three to five weeks, going through everything, “practically taking the floor up,” they had never found anything. Even other people had been there but never cleaned. The papers had been there for 1 ½ years.
37. Communicating in Prison
Charlotte described communicating with other prisoners: “There were big pipes for hot water that went from one end of the cell block to another. Although they were in the wall, sometimes some of the cement had come off. You could rap on the metal and that would go through the walls but then it was a sound that everyone would hear. Sometimes you only wanted one person to hear. Sometimes you could communicate by putting your mouth where the pipe entered the wall and the person on the other side could put her ear to the wall.” Recently Charlotte read of the same practice being used at Alcatraz.
38. After the War
Charlotte stayed in Brussels. “But things went bad, wrong with me. My mother took me to a psychiatrist. I had learned to drive a car and concentrated on that, and drove extremely well. My mother felt safest with me. But the psychiatrist said that I should never drive a car. My mother said, ‘but she does that [so] well!”
39. Quaker College, England
There was a Quaker woman friend of Elise who suggested that she send Charlotte to [inaudible], a Quaker college in England and let her try that. “But anything having to do with religion I resisted, especially after what happened to Ernest. I did not want to have anything to do with it. I didn’t like being there at all. It was a catastrophe! But I finally agreed. It was like going into a trance. I went there for three terms, each term being for three months, so, for nine months. At first I was unable to to talk about my experiences but my Quaker professor encouraged me to. Finally, I spoke to the whole college, some 100 men and women, all ages. Then it just flowed out and went on for 1 ½ hours.”
40. Rheumatoid Arthritis
Charlotte then decided to go into nursing. She had always had a feeling for medical things. She first went home, then applied for and was accepted at a teaching hospital in Cambridge where she began her PTS (preliminary training school). With her was a Norwegian gal a year or two younger. “We were just 17-28.” About three or four weeks into their studies and she was getting along fine. All of a sudden, she couldn’t get into her shoes any more. She put on her fleece-lined boots. Then her knee started swelling up and her pants were very tight over the knees. Her hands wouldn’t work any more and she had pains in her jaw and in the seams [?] of my cranium and in her hips. “I was in agony and couldn’t sleep at night. I had acute poly[inaudible] rheumatoid arthritis [possibly polymyalgia rheumatica], from top to bottom. I came to a point where I couldn’t eat any more; I could only drink. I could hardly walk at all. They said, ‘Sorry, but you can’t go on with your nursing studies because, even if you get better now, if you are in contact with an infectious patient, you may get infected. It is too dangerous for you.’ So I had to give up (my studies). To go from here (pointing to a place in the room) to there (pointing) took me a half hour. I returned to Brussels. Another setback.”
“Thank goodness, in Brussels was the utmost authority on rheumatoid arthritis who, while he was still treating me, became president for life of the Rheumatoid Arthritis Association (or whatever its name). Neeshon (sp?) was his name. One of the very first things he said to me was (first) [inaudible], (second) drink a glass of red wine once a day, if possible Bourgogne, a very strong brand, and (third) come every two days for a liver injection (which was not very nice) and I can start you on ACTH (apparently adrenocorticotropic hormone) and cortisone. It all worked, taking about a month. He gave me about 28 injections.”
41. Rest at Monaco
“Then my mother took me to the south of France (this was the end of January, beginning of February) for the warm climate. We went to Monaco and stayed there for a month. But the doctor had told me ‘no sunbathing.’ So I would be lying on the floor of the hotel room with the warm air flowing over me, but no sun. Then there was a second set of injections. But then I developed a reaction to it, itchy skin, whatever. So we had to stop that (the injections?). But it went on working. But I had to take something for the itching.”
“We stayed in Monaco for four or five weeks, including all of February and returned to Brussels in March [1950?].” Charlotte then went to work for a Dutchman, next for a Norwegian by the name of Orly. He was very idealistic. He was in the government and developed a scheme to start a world unity, more than just a Common Market.” Charlotte worked for him for a while.
42. Charlotte’s Father
“My father, Georg Ambach, was director of the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung, through most of the war. In late 1944 the paper was abolished. Hitler didn’t want anything of it because it was too outspoken and not [inaudible]. Most of the people who worked for it were rehired by the Franfurter Algemeiner, which had the same type of letterhead and typeface but was less outspoken. So my father got his retirement. He had a very nice pension. But after the war, with the reform of the currency, 100 marks became 10 marks [inaudible]. In order to [avoid?] the inflation that occurred after the First World War. So all of a sudden he had less. 1000 marks became 10 marks and prices were edging up. He had traveled widely and spoke quite a few languages, so he became a travel guide. He went to Italy, Spain, France, and England. He enjoyed it.”
43. Frankfurt Housekeeper
“When we were still living in Frankfurt, we had a housekeeper, not a maid, by the name of Lani (Mami?), who did all sorts of things for the household. She left to take a better paying job but we kept in touch. She found herself an apartment with two small bedrooms, a large entrance hall, which became a dining/sitting room, and a little kitchen. When things went bad for my father financially, she said to him, ‘I have to have someone in the bedroom, so why don’t you rent the room from me. Otherwise, I will have to have someone in there that the government will put there.’ I am not sure if that arrangement became more than a friendship, but never mind, he was divorced. I visited them there several times and she was a very nice woman. I liked her very much; we all did.”
“I stayed in contact with my father after the war. He was very interested to know what had happened to us. And we were very interested to know what had happened to him and her brother, Werner (by her father’s first marriage), who went into the German Army. We took up communication right away.
44. Loss of Citizenship, Issued Nansen Passport
“When I was condemned to death, the German authorities took away my German citizenship. I didn’t have a passport so they [Belgian authorities?] issued me a Nansen passport, named after a Norwegian, useful because so many people lost their nationalities for political reasons, or something like that. Nansen was with the League of Nations. So many people had to be able to tranvel, they needed some kind of ID. The Nansen passport did not give them any right to (citizenship) of any country but, rather to world citizenship. This was something adopted after the First World War and in the meantime some countries had adopted something similar. That is what I was issued, not a passport that gave me the right to any country, but that gave me the right to travel. It took about two years to get that.”
“I didn’t want to go back to Germany. Oh! The days and hours I spent in embassies and legations waiting for a visa and having to go back again and again. ‘Provide this paper and that paper and come back again and wait to hear from us.’ Traveling for me at that time was very, very difficult. That is until the Belgian government presented me on a silver platter Belgian nationality for the services I had rendered. That was around 1950 or 1951.”
[The interviewer shows her something she had shown him.] “After the war we who had been condemned to death met as a group again and again, exchanged stories, and got to know each other. We wanted to have an emblem for a pin on representing us and selected one that included the Belgian flag, [inaudible], Nacht und Nomen, the serial number each of us was assigned, and prison bars.” They got the pins around 1945 to 1947.
45. Charlotte’s Brothers
Two of her brothers had been in the U.S. Army. Someone John worked for in the U.S. came to Europe to learn what had become of Charlotte and her mother. “She found my mother and me. The Americans had been in touch with us. We had to be debriefed on everything that had happened. My mother gave the debriefing officer what she thought was John’s address in Montana and he sent a telegram there to say that the two of us had safely returned. John got the telegram on Monday that they were OK and had returned. On the following day he received one from Escrinier (?) that they had been condemned to death and had been transported to Germany. If the telegrams had been reversed, John would have been in a frenzy, but he heard the good news first and the bad news afterward. Then he immediately asked for leave to come visit us, which he was given.”
“Emile, my brother-in-law, also returned. He had been in a camp in Belgium. He was liberated in 1944 when Belgium was liberated. He had gone back to the Belgian Army and asked for leave to go to the camps in Germany to try to find his wife, Lonnie. He would do his work and at the same time look for his wife.”
“I didn’t travel at first because I didn’t have a passport. My father and I communicated, talking on the telephone. Then I read that my brother, Werner Ambach, had been shot by a sniper and the bullet grazed his brain. They thought he was dead and took everything, even his pants, off him, so he had no ID. They didn’t know who he was. For six months he was in a coma but came out of it. However, he had forgotten everything, couldn’t speak, couldn’t walk, and had to learn everything over again. He finally remembered who he was. He is still alive and is a retirement home and has a darling little apartment. His health is deteriorating. He is now [in 1997] 82.
Three of Charlotte’s four brothers are still living. Only the oldest has died.
“It took quite a long time to go to Germany. I was not ready to go there.”
“Johnny, Lonnie, and Emile immigrated to Canada. Dick immigrated to America but he had to go back to Germany. My mother and I went back to Germany for the first time in 1950.”
46. Emigration to Canada and the U.S.
“I was entirely alone in Europe except for Gary (her nephew), who went to school there. I looked after him. Then we were supposed to go to America. I had my Belgian passport. They wanted to know if I had been [inaudible]. I had been to America in the winter of 1950 for six months. I had a visa. And now I had come back. In 1951 I finally got my visa. I was questioned by emigration officials about my family. I explained that all I wanted to do was take my nephew to his father who was in the U.S. He was too small to travel alone on a liner. I finally got my visa and went to Montana with Gary, then to Canada, and came back.”
“I started to work for OKA (?). It was a nice group. We thought much the same. I favored world citizenship. Why divide up the world into countries?
“Then my mother decided to live in Canada. Lonnie had gone to live there and saw potential there. My grandfather at one time had bought a huge tract of land in Denmark where he built his own big manor house, hoping that his children would live there (there were other houses there). He would be a gentleman farmer. My mother was at the time a widow with three little boys and my grandfather’s idea was that Elise would come and live there.”
“Elise thought that Lonnie and Emile, who had bought a farm in Canada, could buy some more land. And Dick, who was a mechanic, could buy some more as well and could repair all the mechanical things. John could come as well. But times were changing too rapidly for this sort of feudal arrangement.”
“In any case, Mother went to live in Canada but the Canadian winters were too much for her, so she returned to Europe. Meanwhile I was alone in Brussels. So I decided to go back to Holland. I had two nice rooms in a big house where my aunt also lived. It was outside The Hague near Scheveningen. This was in 1952 or 1953. I remained there until I moved to Geneva in 1962. In the meantime I bought an apartment in The Hague with a garden in front and another in back and my mother had returned to Brussels. She did not want to return to Holland because the taxes were too high and I didn’t want to go to Brussels, unless it was to visit. I would become melancholy and depressed and there was a person I wanted to avoid.”
47. Volunteering for the Red Cross
While in Holland Charlotte worked for the Red Cross in an unpaid position. She worked full-time, including Saturday mornings and sometimes Sundays visiting patients. “I sometimes worked seven days a week voluntarily. It was very rewarding, especially when I was with the patients. I had a bent for medical things.”
48. Move to Arizona
“Then I moved to Geneva in 1962 and after that to the U.S. to a beautiful home in Green Valley, AZ.” She also went to Denmark to work for Orly for five months, staying with a family who were friends of his. She translated all types of documents for him. That‘s where she learned some Danish. That work was renumberated. I did a lot of things haphazardly.”
Charlotte was born on the 4th of July. When she immigrated to the U.S., the immigration official was so obnoxious, Charlotte said she had to come to the U.S. “Look at my birth date!”
Postwar Photo of the Family of Elise Chabot
- Charlotte’s brothers are marked with an asterisk
- Back Row: John*, Dick*, son of Dick, Fred*, and Emile Frisque (husband of Lonnie).
- Middle Row: Julia (wife of John), Charlotte (“Lottie”) Ambach, Elise Chabot (known as “Mushka”), Madelon ( Charlotte’s sister”Lonnie”) Frisque, and Fred’s wife, Milou.
- Front row: Karen (daughter of John and Julia), Mike (son of Lonnie and Emile), David (son of John and Julia), and Muriel (daughter of Lonnie and Emile).
49. Charlotte’s Decorations
In a subsequent scene, Charlotte points out to her interviewer her Medal of Freedom, in a frame in her hallway, the Kings [Cross?], a Dutch medal, several Belgian medals. The camera takes a close up view of each medal, one by one, but with no further commentary. There is also a view of her citations, one by one, in the hall. Lastly there are views of her front room, dining area, knickknacks on the furniture, and her pool.
Links to Further Information on Charlotte Ambach
- List of airmen helped by Charlotte Ambach: https://airforceescape.org/charlotte-ambach-interview/airmen-helped-by-charlotte-ambach/
- Decorations received by Charlotte Ambach: https://airforceescape.org/charlotte-ambach-interview/decorations-received-by-charlotte-ambach/
- Embroideries and Handicrafts Made by Political Prisoners Awaiting Execution: https://airforceescape.org/charlotte-ambach-interview/embroideries-and-handicrafts-made-by-prisoners-awaiting-execution/
- Interview of Charlotte Ambach by Bruce Bolinger, April and August, 2002: https://wwii-netherlands-escape-lines.com/interviews/interview-with-charlotte-ambach/
- News clippings about Charlotte Ambach in English and Dutch. Click on the following pdf file to view them: Articles in English and Dutch about Charlotte Ambach.
- Indictment and Order to Arrest Ernest van Moorleghem, Elise Chabot, and Charlotte Ambach. Click on the following pdf file: Ambach – trial of Van Moorleghem, Ambach, Chabot.
- Military Court Verdict, Criminal Case Against Willem Schmidt, Johannes Oudemans, Jan de Konink, Theodorus Vogels, Jeanne Willems, Petrus van Geel, Edouard Coster, Madelon Frisque, and Emile Frisque. Click on the following pdf file: Ambach – trial record .