“It is my wish that future hand will write this lesson for all of humanity one day.”
Last night, I watched a haunting rendition of a real-life story, adapted from the diaries of a French Red Cross doctor, Madeleine Pauliac who assisted nuns in their secret pregnancies in Poland during World War II. I was so moved by their story that I decided to feature them on Philofem. If I don’t use my writing and platform to bring forgotten women stories into the light, then I am failing my sisters.
The movie was inspired by the original idea of her nephew Philippe Maynial, who was in possession of her diary notes.
Warsaw, December 1945: the war is finally over but the nightmare continues for a French doctor and a small convent of traumatized nuns.
Three panicked nuns rush through the door of the Red Cross medical camp in Warsaw, each holding a baby in her arms. The cold, wintry atmosphere rushed through my heart, something in me knew something was amiss about the scene.
“Help us please,” they asked in thickly accented French. A woman doctor guides them to the back of the train station that was turned into a clinic to avoid unwanted attention from military authorities.
At the onset of the extraordinary tale, a holy sister had come to the clinic asking for help. The only woman doctor present there was Dr. Madeleine Pauliac. Right away, she knows something is terribly wrong as she grabs her doctor case and is led to a hidden convent of approximately 40 nuns.
The night is falling on a cold, silent forest in Poland. In the middle of the bloody paths and dark skies, a lonely convent. A silent convent. A heavy secret hovers over the bells and the fortified refuge.
What Dr. Pauliac would find would be shocking and pale in comparison to the 200 plus rescue missions she led with the Blue Squadron, a unit of volunteer ambulance drivers with the Red Cross. Dr. Pauliac found a score of nuns gang-raped by Soviet troops in quick succession. Dr. Pauliac had been chosen by General de Gaulle to lead the French Mission of repatriation in Moscow. She later became the head of the Red Cross efforts for Poland and that’s when she came across the sadistic tragedy.
In 1945, instead of liberation, Soviet troops pillaged and raped women on their passage as the Nazis were retreating towards Germany.
The nuns had been been raped by the Germans at the beginning of the war and then the Soviets came back twice to pillage the convent. Some of the nuns had been raped 40 times. The Soviets were never felt their acts were reprehensible: they were authorized to commit such crimes by their military superior as a reward for the efforts they dispensed when they pushed the German forces back. Rape was some form of war retribution.
Pauliac is asked to keep it a secret by the Mother Superior, which she honors as she tends to a nun who needs to have an emergency c-section that night.
In a tiny cell, under the light of a single Kerosene lamp, with the Mother Superior praying the rosary and a crucifix above the scanty bed, Pauliac delivers a baby from a young nun via Caesarean. I couldn’t keep my eyes on the screen during the excruciating scene: epidurals didn’t exist back then.
“There were 25 of them, 15 were raped and killed by the Russians, the 10 survivors were raped, some 42 times, some 35 or 50 times each … None of this would be anything if five of them were not pregnant. They would come to ask my advice and to speak of abortion in veiled terms.”
The cloistered heartbreak reverberates against the minimal, chilled decor of the convent. A simple bench carries the cries of the sisters and the Russian steps that never left the holy alleys.
The Mother Superior had decided to keep the scandal a secret to protect the honor of her nuns. It was a double rape: body and religion. Some of the sisters fell into depression, believing that they were damned and bound to go to Hell for a sin that was never theirs.
Madeleine sent back 24 of the orphaned babies back to France where they would be placed in families. Most of the nuns disowned their newborns, considering them to be a mark and living proof of their shame.
The Nazis were gone and the Soviets didn’t feel responsible so there couldn’t be any legal proceedings. Madeleine went to the convent every night, tending to the nuns, caring for them, giving her time to that wounded community that took vows of chastity.
Her nephew, Philippe Meynial recounts from her history diary:
“Warsaw, a martyred city after 2 months of insurrection against the German occupant had been razed to the ground causing the death of 20,000 combatants and 180,000 civilians.
During this time, the Russian Army, present in Poland since January 1944 under Stalin’s orders, remained armed and waiting on the other bank of the Vistula River. The Red Army and its provisional administration followed to rule over the liberated territories.
It’s within this context that Madeleine Pauliac was named in April 1945 Chief Doctor of the French Hospital in Warsaw, which was in ruins. She was in charge of repatriation within the French Red Cross. She conducted this mission throughout Poland and parts of the Soviet Union. It’s in these circumstances that she discovered the horror in the maternity wards where the Russians had raped women who had just given birth as well as women in labor; individual rapes were legion and there were collective rapes perpetrated in convents. She gave medical care to these women. She helped them to heal their conscience and save their convent.”
In one scene, the Mother Superior is seen abandoning a newborn at an intersection underneath a monumental cross. She placed the child under the care of “divine providence.” Some of the nuns believed they were destined for Hell because of the broken vow of chastity.
Madeleine remained free and devoted to her calling and saving lives until sacrifice. In the last few months of her life, she was in a serious accident driving an ambulance and suffered a skull fracture. Nevertheless, she continued to operate on patients, night and day, recalled the descendant of a nurse who had worked with Mrs. Pauliac.
It would be a few months later that her life would come to a tragic end in February 1946. She died in an automobile accident while traveling in a French embassy vehicle on her way to work at a hospital in Warsaw. She was only 34.