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The French Promise - Fiona McIntosh

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At the end of the Second World War, Luc and Lisette Ravens have somehow survived their time as a French resistance fighter and a British spy. Haunted by the horrors they have seen, instead of going home to Provence, they cast their fate to the winds and set sail for Australia, hoping to rebuild their lives planting lavender fields in a land that's full of promise.

But the past cannot be evaded so simply. When a Swiss law student learns a confronting truth that connects his family with the Ravens on the other side of the world, he finds himself holding the key to his own future, and to Luc's troubled past.

Luc must return to France to fulfil the promises by which he has been bound - to his beloved Lisette, to his family, and to the one man responsible for ripping so much from his life. Luc must lay to rest the ghosts of years gone by so that they all might live and love again.

From the southern English coast to the rugged farmland of northern Tasmania and the vibrant streets of postwar Paris, The French Promise is an exhilarating story of courage, passion and peril by a phenomenal Australian storyteller.

About the Author

Fiona McIntosh is the author of twenty-five novels, including The Lavender Keeper and Fields of Gold.

REVIEW SNAPSHOT®

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The French Promise
 
4.6

(based on 7 reviews)

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  • 5 Stars

     

    (4)

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    (3)

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100%

of respondents would recommend this to a friend.

Pros

  • Engaging characters (6)
  • Well written (6)
  • Page-turner (4)
  • Deserves multiple readings (3)
  • Easy to read (3)

Cons

    Best Uses

    • Gift (6)
    • Older readers (5)
      • Reviewer Profile:
      • Bookworm (4)

    Reviewed by 7 customers

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    5.0

    Loved IT - I want a Luc in my life!

    By jojo

    from mackay

    About Me Bookworm

    Verified Buyer

    Pros

    • Easy To Read
    • Engaging characters
    • Page-Turner
    • Well Written
    • Yum

    Cons

      Best Uses

      • A great read
      • Gift
      • Holiday Story
      • Older Readers
      • Quiet Girl Time Read
      • Travel Reading
      • Younger Readers

      Comments about The French Promise:

      Loved it!
      Love the charactersHappy, Sad, Thought provoking just so well written
      Loved it

      Comment on this review

       
      4.0

      The French Promise

      By Guanohack

      from Sydney

      About Me Bookworm

      Verified Buyer

      Pros

      • Engaging characters
      • Page-Turner
      • Well Written

      Cons

        Best Uses

          Comments about The French Promise:

          Now need to read the authors first book

          Comment on this review

           
          4.0

          Book Was given as a gift

          By Pepsi

          from Launceston (Tas) Australia

          About Me Casual Reader

          Verified Buyer

          Pros

            Cons

              Best Uses

              • Gift
              • Older Readers
              • Reference

              Comments about The French Promise:

              This books was for a gift so have not personally read As a Tasmanian was interested in the background of the book

              Comment on this review

               
              5.0

              The French Promise

              By VJ

              from Canberra

              About Me Everyday Reader

              Verified Buyer

              Pros

              • Deserves Multiple Readings
              • Easy To Read
              • Engaging characters
              • Fast Paced Intriguing
              • Well Written

              Cons

                Best Uses

                • Anyone Of Mature Age
                • Gift

                Comments about The French Promise:

                The story was fast paced and the characters believable. This book will keep you engrossed until the last page.

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                4.0

                Gripping novel!!

                By subee

                from Tasmania

                About Me Bookworm

                Verified Buyer

                Pros

                • Easy To Read
                • Engaging characters
                • Page-Turner
                • Well Written

                Cons

                  Best Uses

                  • Gift
                  • Older Readers
                  • Travel Reading

                  Comments about The French Promise:

                  This novel transports us from Paris to Tasmania. I couldn't put it down. Great descriptions and intreging story. Just when you think you know the ending she throws in another character that enhances the book----A great read!!!

                  Comment on this review

                   
                  5.0

                  I would buy this product again

                  By meggy

                  from qld.

                  About Me Everyday Reader

                  Verified Buyer

                  Pros

                  • Deserves Multiple Readings
                  • Engaging characters
                  • Informative
                  • Page-Turner
                  • Well Written

                  Cons

                    Best Uses

                    • Gift
                    • Older Readers

                    Comments about The French Promise:

                    Service price all very good

                    Comment on this review

                    (1 of 1 customers found this review helpful)

                     
                    5.0

                    Superb

                    By Shelleyrae

                    from NSW

                    About Me Bookworm

                    Pros

                    • Deserves Multiple Readings
                    • Engaging characters
                    • Well Written

                    Cons

                      Best Uses

                      • Gift
                      • Older Readers

                      Comments about The French Promise:

                      The Lavender Keeper, set primarily in France during World War 2, introduced Luc Bonet, a lavender farmer who joined the Resistance after his family was dragged away by German collaborators and their farm in Provence was seized, and Lisette Forestier who was recruited by the London Home Office, tasked to infiltrate the Reich and aid the downfall of Hitler's regime.
                      The French Promise continues their story as they rebuild their lives after the war has ended. Luc, haunted by all he has lost, is struggling with his new life in England. Though he loves Lisette, and their son, Harry, he is unable to lay the ghosts of his past to rest. Lisette, increasingly concerned about her husband, believes they need a fresh start and the family sets sail for Tasmania where Luc can return to Lavender farming. Luc's grief recedes as they establishes themselves in Australia, adding a daughter, Jennifer, to their family but when tragedy strikes Luc is overwhelmed by despair until a letter from the son of a war time friend provides him with the opportunity to finally fulfill his sworn promise to avenge those he loved.
                      The French Promise is a captivating saga of love, loss, and the triumph of the human spirit, providing closure for Luc and Lisette's story. Fiona McIntosh is an extraordinary storyteller

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                      Prologue

                      May 1943

                      Arbeit Macht Frei, the sign read. Work Sets You Free, indeed, Rachel thought cynically. Oh, how it mocked them. They were so compliant, so eager to stay alive, to earn the freedom that the slogan promised but never delivered.

                      Rachel played her violin so absently these days that the music barely registered on her consciousness; they were the notes of pieces she used to hear in her heart but now they were just notes . . . noise. 'Make it jolly!' the Nazi guards ordered. 'Give us a waltz,' they jeered.

                      The camp orchestra was a transient group, which had a collectively low expectation of playing together for long and so only had a handful of tunes. They rotated their brief repertoire monotonously, unconsciously, although the guards liked the marches best of all; the staccato rhythms made it so much easier when counting prisoners.

                      There were occasions – brief flashes of white-hot defiance – when it occurred to Rachel to snub her captors; to show that spark of rebelliousness that her father had once suggested was her strength. But the anger cooled as quickly as it was stoked. There was so little to gain – other than a momentary private joy, perhaps. Besides, reprisals were often foisted on others, and Rachel knew where even the mildest rebels were taken: marched to a scornful pretend court that didn't believe in fundamental objectivity. Emotionless, clean-shaven men with their shiny pink faces and close-cropped hair would barely go through the motions of listening and serving justice. Whoever the prisoner was – man or woman – they found themselves facing this mock court already accepting that they were going to be taken to the back of Block 11, undressed, stood against the 'wall of death' and shot. It didn't matter if their indiscretion was as minor as not understanding barked orders given in German; execution was usually the sentence and their wooden camp clogs would still be vaguely warm when the next prisoner grabbed them.

                      Like all the others there, Rachel had lost the memory of what it felt like to laugh and certainly how to hope, but she continued to play in the camp orchestra because to feel her fingers on the strings of her violin reminded her that a happier past had existed, even though inside she now felt dead. Reduced to this subhuman status where life was cheap and so easily squandered, she nevertheless clung greedily to it as instinctively as an animal might. But they were all so meek. She despised that part of herself most of all. She had become entirely cowed; shrinking from her jailers' barked orders, their ready rifle butts and their cruel sneers. At what point had humanity so shifted, she wondered, that one person could gladly make a stranger – who had done them no wrong – suffer so terribly? Rachel didn't know why she kept trying to make sense of it. Each day was a study in survival; the will to see another sunrise was their currency.

                      The orchestra moved monotonously into the famous Baroque piece from the second Air by Bach. She'd helped to arrange this version to suit their numbers and abilities. It was her violin that carried the Air and perhaps it was the measured pace, so sorrowful and stirring, that plucked at her emotions. As Rachel drifted away, hearing none of the squeaks, coughs, or errors; no longer seeing uniforms or guns, or ragged, skeletal prisoners – a sob erupted deep in her chest as she recalled in achingly bright clarity their day of arrival at the prison camp known as Auschwitz–Birkenau. The music was the perfect accompaniment as she helplessly relived her nightmare

                      The Bonet family survived Drancy camp, north of Paris, after being bullied onto a train from their home in Provence. Their number was reduced to five after her brother Luc had remained hidden and her grandmother had succumbed to her injuries from a French policeman's fists. Her father assured her they would remain, held in Paris, until everything could be sorted out.

                      'I'll buy our way to freedom,' he assured his four precious women, though Rachel knew her father too well. His sad eyes, averted while he comforted, told her he didn't believe the lie in his own words.

                      Even forewarned, Rachel was unprepared for the German resolve to clear all Jews out of Western Europe, and before long her family found themselves shoved, like the animals who occupied it before them, into a cattle car. Once the door had slammed on their rude prison, the carriage hadn't moved for two days.

                      'Stop your yelling,' a passing guard warned. 'The other cargo trains take precedence over human refuse,' he sneered, banging on the side of the cattle car. They heard other guards sniggering with him.

                      The slow, sorrowful music ascended and Rachel was instantly there again, watching her father count their fellow prisoners, while elder sister Sarah held their mother close. It seemed Golda had lost the ability to speak.

                      Jacob turned. 'I count one hundred and twenty-seven souls with us,' he murmured, disgusted.

                      'I'm thirsty, Rachel,' her youngest sister, Gitel, moaned from her arms.

                      'I know, darling,' she said, eyeing her father. 'We'll work out everyone having a sip of water from the bucket soon, I promise. Just be patient.' She could barely breathe. It was the last hurrah of summer and there was no ventilation in the carriage, save a tiny high window that their family was not close enough to. Perhaps they'd have to work out a rotation system for a chance to breathe the fresh air as well.

                      Shouts and whistles could be heard on the third day but it came too late for fourteen of their fellow travellers, mainly the very old and the very young. It was Jacob, suddenly accepted by all as their natural spokesperson, who had reasoned with one of the youngest guards to let the dead be removed before the journey began. The guard permitted this but then the families of the dead had to be soothed as they watched their beloved relatives being dragged carelessly to the platform. Two parents who refused to leave their dead child behind were also pulled from the stifling car, the mother weeping hysterically.

                      'Don't worry,' the guard said. 'We'll put them on another train,' he assured Jacob.

                      Moments later, after another shrill whistle and the train of human cargo finally lurched into movement, Rachel could swear she heard two distant gunshots.

                      Even though they'd lost fourteen souls, they were still forced to travel standing up and Rachel soon lost track of day or night. Whoever was closest to the tiny slit of a window would report on the hour of the day as best they could from the position of the sun. She no longer cared, anyway. Their hours were no longer measured by routine habits – there was no food and no sanitation, save a single bucket that had overflowed within the first two days. Now, their only option to relieve themselves was directly onto the boards below their feet, already swilling with waste and piled with another eleven corpses. There would be plenty more dead before this journey's end.

                      'It explains the caustic lime,' she mentioned into the fetid air surrounding her family. Jacob, who did his best to marshal everyone's spirits, nodded grimly but didn't reply.

                      Golda continued to stare, glassy and unfocused, despite her teenage daughter's pleadings. It was for Gitel that they must all stay strong, Jacob urged. So Rachel and Sarah had set aside their private fears, their hunger and fatigue, and sang to Gitel, held her close, told her stories. Rachel had wondered time and again about Luc during that forsaken journey and how he had escaped capture. She and Sarah had agreed that he must have still been up in the lavender fields on the high ridge above Saignon when the French police came for their family. Perhaps he saw what had happened? Maybe he would come for them?

                      Her father shooshed her repeatedly. 'Do not mention his name; his very existence.' He refused to elaborate, except for 'I promise you, child, there is good reason for this demand,' although he would not explain why. Rachel's respect for her father and love for Luc meant she bore no ill will for the fact that he was presumably free. The notion that he might avenge their suffering nourished her during moments of deepest despair when she wished they could all just fall asleep where they stood and never wake to whatever awaited them. Not for a moment did Rachel believe they were on their way to resettlement camps in Poland; that a fresh start beckoned with honest work and a new land to build homes, but she kept her conclusions to herself. Hope was all that was keeping most of her companions going. Not her, though. Defiance kept Rachel strong; anger at her life being dismantled, her bright future shrouded, her family wrecked and despairing.

                      Every breath I take defies them, she told herself like a mantra as their eastward journey brought them into increasingly cooler climes until it was near enough freezing at night. Then, even the thinnest warmth of their huddled bodies was a balm.

                      When they finally came to a lurching, screeching halt that flung the survivors forwards, trampling the dead and squashing each other before being thrown backwards, Rachel presumed it was an autumn afternoon, despite having lost all sense of time. Her body was already so cold that not even the icy drizzle of a desperately bleak morning could make Rachel feel worse than she already did as she stumbled out of the carriage and turned to help her elders.

                      How many days has it been since Paris? She couldn't remember.

                      A vicious wind cut into any exposed flesh like a blade, howling its laughter while it tore at their ragged clothes and hair. But it was their hunger that made them collectively unresponsive to anything but the harsh sound of men's shouted orders that greeted them.

                      She saw clubs in the guards' hands but mercifully these were not required. Everyone wanted to cooperate, to make the transition into their new life that had been promised as easy as possible. At Jacob's soft urgings she kept her head bowed and remained compliant despite her desire to scream back at the man barking in guttural German, not far from her mother's slack face.

                      'Don't draw attention to yourself,' Jacob murmured, as she and Sarah helped carry their mother onto the railway siding they'd been dumped onto. Rachel grabbed Gitel's hand again; she looked terrified with her lips pale and eyes now dark hollows.

                      Rachel read Auschwitz–Birkenau as the name on the sign of the platform but the railway line ended at a red-brick building, which on one side had a tower and beneath that an arch into which the tracks led but stopped abruptly. 'The end of the line,' she murmured to herself.

                      Men of the Wehrmacht stalked the platform and shouted at them to form a ragged line-up on what they called the Judenrampe: 'Raus! Schnell! Aussteigen!' Meanwhile the more fancily dressed SS men in their shiny, sinister black wrangled snarling dogs on leashes and slapped whips at their thighs.

                      Rachel reckoned that roughly ninety others had survived the journey in their cattle car and they were now joined by other 'untouchables', spilling like decomposing rubbish onto the platform from what she'd learned that Germans called sonderzüge: special trains. The putrid smell of unwashed, soiled bodies became overwhelming and the collective fear was palpable.

                      For a moment, while she swayed unsteadily, trying to regain her balance after the motion of the journey, she could swear she saw a wraith moving amongst them, pointing its hideous, long finger at people, choosing them for imminent death.

                      'Leave your belongings for fumigation. They will be returned to you shortly,' was being yelled repeatedly in bad French as well as German. 'Make sure your names are on your suitcases, if you want your belongings returned.'

                      Where they found the energy she didn't know, but Rachel joined the scramble to pile the few remaining Bonet belongings neatly. Gitel began to cry and like her, Rachel felt as though they were being stripped of their last connection to France. Even so, she sensed the great trust that her fellow Jews handed over to their keepers. They all still desperately wanted to believe that while France and all things familiar had been left behind, they were being taken to a new life, where work and accommodation would return them some dignity . . . and from the ruins of their previous lives, the few items they'd brought with them might help form their new existence.

                      They fell into line, Jacob and Sarah flanking their mother, whose feet shuffled pitifully out of memory rather than purpose, Rachel was sure. She continued to nurse Gitel through the process.

                      'Not long now, Gitel. We'll get you off to sleep soon.'

                      She watched with growing alarm, though, as the men were immediately split from the women and children. Fresh terror began to snake through the two gender lines as fast as venom through blood. Even Golda stirred from her stupor as her fingers were wrenched savagely from her husband's and she began to scream for Jacob. Rachel cut a look at the older man she loved, whose moist, urging eyes pleaded with his two eldest to keep their mother and his youngest girl, just fourteen, safe.

                      She watched him hush and soothe his wife from a distance, blowing her gentle kisses, even as a guard pushed at him with the barrel of a gun. If not for his pleas, Rachel might have rushed that guard, pounded him with useless fists. The emotional trauma was the same for all the families, but in this moment of despair Rachel only had time for hers. From somewhere Jacob found a reassuring smile for his girls, blowing them each a kiss, urging them to stay strong. While Sarah had pulled their mother into her arms, it was Rachel's job to calm her baby sister, but the youngster was beyond comfort. With a telltale puddle where Gitel stood and her fragile body trembling uncontrollably, the terrible thought shot through her mind that she wished Gitel and both her parents would die then and there and not have to face whatever traumas were surely still to come.

                      Be careful what you wish for was the response that rode in hard on her notion. It was said in the cackling voice of a witch she once played in a school production.

                      With her gaze on her father and the line of men to their left, she realised now that Death was indeed amongst them. He was no wraith; instead horribly real, and he took the shape of an SS doctor, who with the careless boredom of a man in a repetitive job, made rapid assessments of each prisoner. Rachel realised he was the devil, come to grant her wish.

                      She watched in dread as the elderly, the young, mothers with babies and infants, the infirm and invalids were pointed into a new line. Her father had already been placed in this queue but as they drew level with the man in his white coat, he barely acknowledged her mother as his finger flicked in her direction and she was pulled away from Sarah. Gitel was noticed next, the careless finger flicked again – decision made – and her baby sister was ripped from her grip. Rachel felt Gitel's fingertips leaving hers, although the child was too terrified to fully comprehend separation. Sarah wept and Rachel, too shocked to speak, reached for her eldest sister's hand instead and watched with a rising nausea that before Gitel could pull her mother to reach Jacob standing further up the line, he was being led away.

                      Rachel's gaze followed him and as he looked back, he stared directly at her, nodding once. She could never forget the haunted look in his expression, as though apologising for all of this pain. Her mother had not understood, wasn't hearing or listening, when she'd been pointed in the same direction. Men had pushed her. She'd screamed from instinctive fear and so had Gitel when a dog had leapt at her, snarling; they'd both appeared frozen. Another woman, elderly and looking like someone from the land, with large square hands and a face of granite, had reached for the pair of Bonet women and glanced at the elder girls. 'I'll keep them with me,' she'd called before being shoved back in line. The line did not wait for Sarah and Rachel but had begun its slow shuffle, following the same pathway that their father had trudged moments earlier.

                      Finally, it was Rachel's turn to stand before the doctor, with his hair cut and combed so precisely, it looked as though he parted it each morning with a ruler.

                      'Name?'

                      'Rachel Bonet.'

                      'Birthplace.'

                      'Saignon, Provence.'

                      'Closest town?' He was still to look up at her but she realised he didn't need to; she'd already been selected by him but she didn't know why or for what.

                      'Apt,' she said, only just keeping her patience. 'Where are they going?' she demanded.

                      The doctor raised his head, regarding her with a wintry blue gaze and thinly pursed lips, before pointing her towards a different queue. 'For disinfecting,' he replied. 'You all stink!' he added, his tone as glacial as his stare.

                      She ignored his wrinkled nose and disgusted tone. 'Then why aren't we being sent with them? My sister here has contracted lice,' she tried, speaking more politely than she thought possible. 'You are a doctor, aren't you?'

                      'I am Doctor Josef Mengele.' He'd shifted into French. 'I'm new here, like you,' he said, waving her on and beckoning to Sarah behind her. 'But don't worry, you'll be next,' he'd thrown over his shoulder. 'And your sister's hair won't matter, I promise.'

                      Another guard pointed with his gun barrel. 'You'll all be reunited,' he said scornfully in German, which she understood.

                      'But I don't understand why they —'

                      The guard growled and Sarah gave a hissing sound. 'Hush! You'll make it worse.'

                      Rachel watched the retreating backs of the longer queue and sensed the lie long before she'd ever learned the truth. Even the strains of bright music being played on the Judenrampe by fellow Jews in a small orchestra and dressed in what had appeared to be prison motley were a mocking parody. Just looking at their vacant expressions revealed enough. She returned her attention to those she loved and watched the stooped shape of her mother, her bright headscarf easy to pick out, as she hobbled next to the elderly woman. Gitel held her mother's hand but Rachel could tell her little sister was sobbing. Her heart lurched painfully for them but she was helpless and Sarah held her so tightly now there was nothing she could do.

                      Guards motioned her line forward and they were not led in the same direction as the rest of the family for the promised disinfecting showers. Rachel looked back at their belongings that suddenly no longer mattered and yet they'd all guarded so jealously on the journey there. She watched with detachment as the various suitcases and bags were being gathered up by other prisoners, dully focused on her own small holdall that held two precious books that she would gladly swap now in order to have a final hug and kiss with her parents. Was it goodbye? She was sure she would not see them again but the pain was so acute it stopped her being able to talk, to think clearly, to even feel anger any more.

                      After she and Sarah were herded into a nearby building everything she had left was stripped away, including the tiny gold cross and chain she wore. She quickly understood the doctor's sly smile and the quip about her sister's lice-ridden hair as she watched it cut away in a careless rasping hack with huge scissors before Sarah's head was then shorn. The blade the man used on Rachel was blunt and it left two cuts so she emerged with blood running from the top of her head, behind each ear. Made bald and standing naked, however, was not the final indignity, nor was the foul-smelling powder they rubbed beneath her arms and onto her newly scraped scalp to delouse her.

                      No, the final dehumanising insult was the careless, ugly tattoo made on her left forearm that had made Rachel realise she was no longer considered a person worthy of even a name. She was no longer Rachel Bonet of Saignon, lately of Paris; brilliant violinist, sister, daughter. She was now a six-figured number that began with one and ended with seven. Sarah's ended in eight.

                      She could see the tattoo now as she held the violin beneath her chin and played. Eight months had passed and Rachel assumed that her parents and dear little Gitel had been killed. They hadn't even wasted the ink of the tattoo on the less useful members of her family. Rumours abounded in the Birkenau camp for women that behind their buildings were secret killing rooms. Wily prisoners had pointed to chimneys that belched cloying, sweet smoke constantly and warned that people were being killed in large numbers and their bodies burned. Although she was still waiting for her promised shower, random selections continued for 'showers'. . . but the prisoners chosen for theirs never reappeared.

                      'They gas us, then burn us in communal ovens,' one woman had said, tapping her nose and laughing in a hideous cackle to show her bleeding gums and few teeth. Her name was Ruth and she'd been there for nearly sixteen months. Most people barely lived beyond a few months. It was a shock to realise both herself and Sarah had survived this long, but Sarah was a good worker and Rachel had her music.

                      Others ridiculed Ruth, claiming she was long lost to the 'camp madness' that took many in its maw, but Rachel believed her. She knew Ruth was well connected to the hierarchy within the camp. Ruth gave her body frequently and willingly to the kapos – mainly Polish men – who held positions of authority as functionaries of the Nazi hierarchy. In this way Ruth enjoyed access to information as well as a thin veil of protection that the majority were denied. Ruth had no reason to lie.

                      As they played another Bach piece, Rachel looked around her and decided that the Nazis had done everything possible to reduce their will and turn them into moving corpses that only cared about the next heel of bread and fighting each other to get to the ablutions block. Once a day only were they permitted access to the latrines, which were nothing more than concrete drop holes side by side where prisoners would rub thighs, buttocks, backs and shoulders with others. According to Ruth it was worse for the men, but she didn't elaborate. And they were only given twenty seconds each; some cruel female guards would amuse themselves by timing them, counting aloud if they knew someone had diarrhoea or constipation from the dysentery, typhoid and other nasty diseases that were rampant.

                      In truth, all that mattered to Rachel each day was seeing Sarah return. Each morning her elder sister would be sent off in the numbing weather, with nothing between her and the snow or frost, rain or sleet, but a coarse cotton prison dress and a thin scarf. With her fellow wretched prisoners Sarah would walk the 6 kilometres to Farben Pharmaceutical to labour for eleven hours before retracing the journey for a single daily bowl of thinnest vegetable broth and perhaps some bread. She would leave in the morning with her body nourished only by 'coffee' made from bitter acorns . . . if she was lucky. Sarah, though determined to survive, had begun to sicken this week. It didn't matter from what; there was no point in looking for answers . . . or cures.

                      Auschwitz was a waiting room of death, for if the Germans themselves didn't kill you for the smallest indiscretion, then the malnutrition, disease, hypothermia, overwork or plain heartbreak would. One officer liked to use clearly ailing prisoners for target practice and they'd be taken into the woods and told to wander. He would pick them off, usually complaining that his sights were off if he wounded before he killed. Rollcall was the worst, though. After a brutal awakening at daybreak and their crude acorn gruel breakfast, the whole of Birkenau's inmates might spend hours standing to attention in the frigid air of a bone-chilling Polish morning being counted off. Many died where they stood in that period, waiting to be counted. Anyone who couldn't stand was removed and put out of their misery. Anyone who was late was shot as an example to all. Sometimes whole barracks were punished with vicious beatings because of one person's momentary tardiness.

                      Bodies of the newly dead were piled like litter to the side of one building in open view of them all. A cart would come mid-morning and pull each emaciated, partly frozen corpse aboard. Eyes of the dead that no one had bothered to close stared sightlessly in all directions.

                      Rachel shivered at the recollection, glad to be dragged from the bubble of memories as she noticed the workers returning. The nearby guard waved his hands at the orchestra to shift from the chamber music into a rousing march. There were nearly sixty of them in this curious, gypsy-like ensemble and yet the music was surprisingly accomplished. They had more than twenty-five professional musicians in their midst. Rachel didn't think that one of their cellists would survive the next few days, though, but she couldn't worry about Marie. She only had enough room in her deadened heart for Sarah. Rachel craned her neck to catch sight of her sister but the raggle-taggle queue of workers seemed to be moving slower than usual. Instead she caught the guard staring at her and immediately intensified her concentration to appear enthusiastic about her playing. She knew he was looking at her for other reasons. He was young, hated his posting here and had seen something in her during the first week of his arrival when she and a few other musicians had been asked to play at a welcome meal for new recruits. The 'ensemble' had been permitted to wash themselves properly with a small scoop of gritty soap paste; to rinse their mouths and do their best to look presentable despite bald heads, hollow cheeks and near skeletal frames. But Albert had noticed her that day when she'd played a brief solo; he was clearly a romantic, moved by the music, desperate not to be here amongst such horror and desolation.

                      These days he regularly looked out for her, casting shy smiles, and she knew he was the one who left small gifts: extra bread, a small knob of real soap, even a scarf once. She had given the scarf to Sarah. And she was sure it had been Albert who had mentioned her to the camp commander when it turned out that Commander Höss was looking for a music teacher. His family lived at the villa next door to the main complex – five children were growing up in the garden adjacent to where thousands of people were being murdered around the clock.

                      It had been a horrible surprise for Rachel to be singled out as the perfect candidate. So now previous duties – save playing for the Germans at their functions, or for the camp, when required – were dropped in favour of teaching the two eldest Höss children their violin and piano, and helping the younger ones to learn to read music. This new role required her to clean herself daily and that meant a brief shower in an outhouse before she stepped into the alien, terrifying world of the commander's household. Here privilege assaulted her – fine furnishings, regularly laundered linens, fresh fruit, the children's exquisite clothes, pretty flowers . . . But it was the attack on her senses that upset her most of all. Her life at Birkenau had become so colourless, so stripped of any smells but those of faeces, vomit, sweat, death, burning flesh, suppurating sores, rancid breath and decay, that she had lost the recognition of what real life – or rather 'happy life' – smelled like. When one of her young charges, Hans-Rudolf, handed her an apricot, she had wept at its blushing ripeness and returned it, but not before she'd inhaled its scent, her lips dangerously close to its velvet promise. It transported her to Saignon in Provence and its orchard groves of stone fruit that had spread for acres around their village.

                      To eat the apricot would be more damaging than to resist it . . . Rachel could imagine what its taste would do for her yearning, how it might break her resolve to survive, how it would curdle in her belly at the thought that she was enjoying too many privileges.

                      'No, thank you, Hans-Rudolf. You keep it,' she'd said quietly, putting it back into his hands.

                      'I cannot,' he'd said casually. 'Not now. Mama says we mustn't touch anything a prisoner touches,' he'd added in his childlike innocence.

                      'But what about the piano? I touch that,' she'd countered.

                      'The piano is wiped down with stuff from a bottle,' he'd said matter-of-factly, opening his book of music. She'd had to look away for fear of weeping.

                      Rachel's baldness had frightened the younger ones and apparently disgusted the eldest, Ingebrigitt, so she'd been permitted to grow her hair. Ingebrigitt had also demanded her mother provide their piano teacher with a scarf to hide Rachel's ugly head, and the silken, plain red square she was given, after so long without anything of her own, might as well have been an Hermès scarf. Even so, she wanted to refuse it but daren't. Ingebrigitt had wrapped it around Rachel's head.

                      'There,' she said, impressed. 'Now I can look at you without feeling uncomfortable.'

                      Heidetraut, the youngest, also found Rachel's skeletal appearance daunting and didn't want to sit next to her at the piano. Her mother saw to it that Rachel was given an extra slice of bread – without sawdust – and some cheese daily before lessons, which she insisted Rachel eat in front of her. It had taken many days to acclimatise her belly to the cheese and real bread. Her scarce, monotonous diet of mostly hot water and potato skins meant her system was shocked by the arrival of richer food to digest. The commander's wife, Hedwig, insisted a soft job be found at 'Canada' for Rachel when she was not teaching her children. Canada was so-called because it was the 'place of plenty' at Auschwitz, where all the stores were kept and where the black market flourished. Anything from a pair of boots to a new shawl could be had for a price. The madwoman Ruth had learned early how to use the most popular female currency to acquire items but Rachel preferred to go without.

                      But now, suddenly, she had privilege. And it sickened her, particularly how easily she had embraced the warmth of the fire in the music room, the soft piano stool to sit on, the sip of fresh water in a real glass left for her . . . and, above all, the food. Then there was the scarf, of course, which Frau Höss sought permission for her to wear all the time.

                      'It makes it easier for Rachel to be found, my dear,' she'd said to her husband one day when he'd frowned at Rachel's privileged appearance.

                      Rachel gained some weight, could now feel hair sprouting, had clean skin and scrubbed nails. She smelled better and her eyes were clearer, according to Albert, who stole conversations with her at Canada when she sorted possessions from the suitcases of the new arrivals off the trains.

                      The children were superior in attitude but not deliberately unkind; Frau Höss was remote with her but that was to be expected. Hedwig had a softer side and clearly loved her children. Rachel could tell that the deluded woman had little, if any, idea of the horror going on outside her walls. She'd once overheard Hedwig describing the villa, surrounded by gardens, high walls and green fields stretching beyond, as a 'paradise'.

                      Even so, Rachel's life had taken a slight turn for the better and she sometimes caught herself daydreaming that she might find Sarah a role in the household too.

                      But the arrival of a new, keen member of the Gestapo changed everything. He'd been sharing a welcome lunch with Commander Höss and his wife at the villa while Rachel had been guiding the children through a complex duet. Hedwig interrupted their practice without warning. Rachel was all smiles.

                      A short man in a smart dove-grey uniform entered between the German couple.

                      'Darlings, this is Kriminaldirektor von Schleigel. He remarked on the pleasant music he could hear and has requested to watch you play.'

                      Rachel shrank back to the wall while the children stood and welcomed their visitor obediently.

                      'Good afternoon, fine Klaus and pretty Ingebrigitt,' he'd replied, but his small eyes seared a gaze towards Rachel. 'Good grief, Commander, do you allow the parasites into your private rooms?'

                      Höss was lighting a cigarette and paused before he replied casually, 'She is the children's music teacher. We're keeping their lives as normal as possible. We take what we can in the wilderness of Poland.'

                      'What is your name?' von Schleigel addressed Rachel directly.

                      Rachel glanced at Frau Höss.'Go ahead,' Hedwig permitted.

                      'Rachel, Herr von Schleigel,' she answered, looking down.

                      'All right, darlings, now play that piece you have been practising for us,' Hedwig said, her tone bright. She directed their guest towards a comfy armchair.

                      Von Schleigel accepted a cigarette and the lighter from his host, and as he lit up Rachel could feel his hatred as his gaze coolly assessed her. She didn't once raise her eyes from the keyboard, instead tapping gently against the burnished walnut of the piano to count in her charges.

                      The children managed to get through the piece with confidence. At its conclusion they both stood and bowed to the clapping trio in the audience.

                      'Charming, charming indeed,' von Schleigel said, stubbing out his cigarette so he could clap properly. 'How accomplished you both are.'

                      'Rachel has made a difference,' Ingebrigitt ventured and Rachel held her breath, wishing the child had not mentioned her again.

                      'Is that so?' the Gestapo man asked. 'Tell me, what is your full name?'

                      Rachel had kept her eyes downcast and it was only when the room fell silent that she realised the question had been directed at her. She looked up, the breath catching in her throat now. Hedwig nodded permission. Swallowing her fear she answered him, shocked that he'd be bothered. 'Rachel Bonet, Herr von Schleigel.' She hadn't uttered her family name in a year.

                      He looked immediately surprised. 'Bonet, you say?' Von Schleigel looked around at the adults.

                      Frau Höss shrugged.

                      'Is something wrong?' her husband asked.

                      'No, no,' von Schleigel tittered. 'It's just amusing that the last case I worked on involved hunting down a troublesome Jew Resister called Bonet.'

                      Rachel fixed her gaze on her wooden clogs and gripped her fingers.

                      'How curious,' she heard Hedwig remark, but in a tone lacking all interest. 'Shall we take tea in the garden, Rudolf?' she said over her shoulder as she swung around to the children. 'Thank you, darlings. You were splendid.' Rachel heard the swish of Hedwig's dress as she stood. 'Come, Horst. Let's not waste the welcome spring sun,' she said. 'And I should like to show you our garden. It is very pretty at this time of year. We should take a photo as well, don't you think, my dear?' she said to her husband.

                      'As you wish,' he'd remarked, entirely disinterested.

                      Rachel didn't need to look at von Schleigel to know he still watched her.

                      'Where are you from?' he said, in French now.

                      'The south, sir,' she murmured.

                      'Where in the south, girl?' he whipped.

                      'Provence. The Luberon.'

                      He laughed and she didn't believe she'd ever heard a more cruel sound.

                      'The Bonets of Saignon?'

                      She couldn't help herself. Her eyes flashed up to see his vicious, pig-eyed stare that was full of loathing and yet laced with hunger. Her faltering look was her admission.

                      'Tell me, your brother is Luc Bonet, the lavender farmer?'

                      Her throat was so dry that she couldn't speak even if she wanted to. How could this stranger know them? How could he be naming her family? She began to shake.

                      'Your trembling is enough, Jew. Commander, perhaps this afternoon we could visit the records office,' he said, seemingly no longer intrigued by her.

                      'Of course,' she'd heard Höss reply.



                      It was three days later and Rachel had not been called back to the house. She knew everything had suddenly changed because of von Schleigel. She'd not spotted him since, though. He'd been like a ghost; he'd breezed into her life, terrified her, and then disappeared.

                      Rachel now strained to catch a glimpse of Sarah coming home from work. The workers had staggered past and almost all of them were within the compound but she could not pick out her sister. The last of the stragglers lurched in and the gates were closed. A snarling yell went up. There was nothing unusual about the sound of orders in German but she recognised it as the most fearful of all.

                      Selection.

                      It happened randomly, most often at morning rollcall. Those too weak to be considered useful any longer were packed off in trucks. The hierarchy liked to call sudden selection raids, as a warning against complacency. Did the Germans really believe that any one of them took their life as a given? Rachel had long ago realised that the only defiance possible in this hell was to keep living. By living, the Jews, the gypsies, the political prisoners, the homosexuals or anyone else who challenged Hitler's warped sense of perfection defied their persecutors simply by breathing. Every rollcall, every new trainload, every person who recovered from their previous night's weaknesses, all who ignored their hunger or fought back their sense of helplessness, effectively laughed in the face of the Nazi regime.

                      That's why they had to keep breathing, had to continue rising each day to face the hell that was Auschwitz–Birkenau.

                      A flash of grey uniform caught Rachel's attention. Her grip tightened around her violin. He was back. It was him. Kriminaldirektor von Schleigel was moving towards them with his odd small-strided walk and she knew in her heart she would not see out this day.

                      Her first and surprising thought was that she'd wished now she'd eaten the apricot, or taken food from the Höss household, stolen from Canada, or asked Albert for more privileges. But even as she thought it, she knew it lowered herself to where these criminals wanted them.

                      Rachel watched von Schleigel move towards her. Beneath his heartless gaze workers were picked out as being too scrawny, too weak, too useless for tomorrow's shift. They were loaded onto a waiting truck. Each person selected knew the horrible silence was their death knell and still they walked meekly to await help into the back of the lorry from those who were already aboard.

                      Von Schleigel had said nothing but pointed at each victim. After thirty were selected, the officer in charge told the remaining women to make their way with their guards to their camp, and for the men to go to their accommodations, which were little more than sheds and former stables. Rachel was safe for another day.

                      But a finger was raised, a calm voice interrupted the murmurs, and she met his eyes, not at all surprised.

                      'Rachel Bonet,' von Schleigel called out, and then turned to the officer. 'Add this woman to the list,' he said, pointing at her.

                      She had no choice. There were gasps amongst the orchestra. Rachel barely looked at the musicians or their sad glances of farewell. She nodded, resigned, and handed her instrument to her neighbour.

                      'Tell the next person it has been loved,' was all she said, and then walked with her head held high – now sporting a dark, defiant thatch – to the waiting vehicle.

                      Von Schleigel approached her and spoke softly in French. 'Bonsoir, Rachel. I thought you'd rather like to join your sister. Sarah is waiting for you.'

                      She felt the spittle gathering in her mouth. But she resisted the short triumph it might deliver, preferring instead to see Sarah one more time rather than take a bullet here. Instead, she looked deep into his small, washed-out blue eyes, and uttered for his hearing only: 'Always look over your shoulder. One day Luc Bonet will find you and slit your throat before he guts you like the wild pigs he killed in the forests.' It was a lie but she'd never felt more satisfaction in her life than she did at that moment to see the amusement in von Schleigel's eyes falter at the threat.

                      'Take them away,' he spat, his monocle twisting awkwardly in his eye socket as he blinked, embarrassed.

                      The journey took just minutes. She never did find Sarah at its end and regretted that von Schleigel enjoyed the final cold laugh at her expense, uniting her through death with a sister already murdered. Von Schleigel had probably had Sarah taken away earlier that day. It's why he'd wanted to be shown the records – he'd hunted down the last of the Bonets.

                      Not being able to hug or to hold the hand of her sister and face this final dark hurdle together was more painful to Rachel than the knowledge that she was about to die. Death was her release and not uttering a farewell of love to gentle Sarah was indeed cruel, so she cast a prayer to her brother, wherever he was and if he still lived, that he find Horst von Schleigel and, in the name of his murdered sisters, kill him.

                      Rachel knew she had but moments now as she undressed with all the other women, ignoring the shouted orders, laying out her prison garb neatly with her red scarf on top. She had no jewellery and she'd given away her violin. She had nothing more to give but her life and von Schleigel was demanding just that price. She wondered absently about his connection to Luc, remembered how Luc's name had rattled the Gestapo man. Good. So she'd put the fear into at least one German before she joined her parents, grandmother and sisters.

                      'I'm Agnes. What's your name?' asked a nervous young woman, breaking into her thoughts. She was barely out of her teens.

                      She hoped her attempt at a smile gave comfort for she needed none of it for herself. Rachel wanted to die angry, not soothed or cowed. 'I'm Rachel. When did you arrive?' Agnes looked healthier than most, although she was still very thin.

                      'Yesterday. My parents were separated from each other and from me. I haven't yet seen them again. I have chronic asthma . . . without my mother I just don't know how —' Her voice warbled, gathering in high intensity.

                      'Don't worry,' Rachel cut across her words, certain that Agnes would not have to care about her ailment soon enough.

                      'Where are we going?' Agnes asked of a passing guard.

                      The kapo smiled and Rachel saw no mirth. 'You're going for a shower,' he said, glancing up at the ironic sign on a pillar next to them, one of so many mocking words of encouragement around the camp. In German it stated, 'Clean is good.'

                      Rachel put her arm around Agnes. One more kindness was still within her. She would be brave enough for both of them.

                      'Raus!' came the guttural voice, urging them out of the changing rooms, herding the women towards a new door, and another sign: Desinfizierte Wäsche.

                      'It's the disinfecting room, Agnes,' she translated. 'They like to delouse us regularly,' she lied.

                      Agnes stepped into the bare, cold, grey concrete room alongside Rachel and the many dozens of other women in front and behind them, their skins touching, her body shaking with chill and fear.

                      Rachel hugged her closer. 'It will be over soon,' she whispered. 'And then we will be free.'

                      ISBN: 9781921518713
                      ISBN-10: 1921518715
                      Audience: General
                      Format: Paperback
                      Language: English
                      Number Of Pages: 464
                      Published: 20th March 2013
                      Dimensions (cm): 23.7 x 15.8  x 3.9
                      Weight (kg): 0.56