The following is an excerpt from Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation, a book about an 18th-century slave, Rosalie, and her amazing descendants.
The coronation of George VI as king of England provided the ostensible motive for the Associated Negro Press to send the journalist Fay M. Jackson from Los Angeles to London in January 1937. Reports of the upcoming ceremony in Westminster Abbey might be expected to find eager readers among the papers that subscribed to the wire service, including the New York Amsterdam News and the Atlanta Daily World. An outspoken reporter with years of experience in California, Fay Jackson was also an activist and a woman of color, known for her earlier lobbying in favor of federal legislation against lynching. Her mandate in London included the reporting of "material of particular interest to American Negro readers." Indeed, the coronation itself could be said to have such a dimension, for George VI would govern an empire whose subjects included what Jackson characterized as 400 million "black people — essentially of the same race as the Republican-governed American Negro."
On the music scene in London, swing and jazz were much appreciated, and Jackson's familiarity with American actors and musicians seems to have provided her with an entrée, beginning with the tenor Ivan Harold Browning, formerly of the Harmony Kings. Jackson reported back that "American Negro newspapers" were much sought after by London-based activists and entertainers: "Weekly sessions are held in the home of [the] Harold Brownings where the American and British race folk gather to 'run' the Defender or the Courier or one of the many papers that popular couple receive."
London in the spring of 1937 was a center of political debate and discussion among men and women of color from Britain, its colonies, and the United States. In the weeks prior to the coronation Jackson filed stories on a mass meeting of the League of Colored Peoples to protest Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, alongside reports on Paul Robeson's filming of King Solomon's Mines in London and Africa. She also paid close attention to the issue of the "color bar," reporting that there would be no racial discrimination in the hiring of waiters in London restaurants during the coronation, but that only two "chieftains" of color would be invited to the ceremony itself.
On April 9, 1937, the question of color momentarily attracted the attention of a mass-circulation London newspaper as well. Under the headline "Fled to Wed Secretly in England," the Daily Mail reported an interview with the twenty-one-year-old "tiny, cultured daughter of a prosperous cigar merchant of Antwerp." Mademoiselle Marie-José Tinchant explained the situation: "I am of honorable family, but I am not a white girl, so his parents are trying to stop our marriage." She went on: "My mother is white, my grandmother is white, but I have colour, and Andre's parents will not hear of our match." Her own family, she reported, had consented to the marriage: "I am a woman of honour, and I am proud of my father and my family."
Events had unfolded with all the drama of a Hollywood movie — one that would be of particular interest to Jackson's readers. The parents of Marie-José's fiancé André V. had apparently taken steps to block the marriage in Belgium, so the couple made plans to marry secretly in London, where Marie-José had an aunt, an uncle, and some cousins. To establish residency, André traveled to London in late March and lodged at the Chelsea Royal Hospital, where Marie-José's uncle was a physician. Marie-José followed in early April, taking a room at the Premier Hotel in Russell Square. When the couple went to the register's office to obtain a marriage license, however, they were told that André's father's solicitor had been making inquiries with an eye to stopping the marriage. Suspense was thus established: Would or would not André and Marie-José be permitted to wed on Saturday, April 10?
That Marie-José Tinchant would give an interview to the Daily Mail on the day before her scheduled "secret" marriage suggests considerable public-relations savvy. She was able to frame the initial discussion of her prospective father-in-law's opposition, and to guarantee that his legal maneuver — the filing of a "caveat" at the registrar's office to impede the ceremony — would be made embarrassingly public. By insisting that André's parents' opposition to the wedding was based on racial prejudice, and by appealing to English public sentiment in terms of the freedom to marry, Marie-José might make it more difficult for the caveat to be sustained.
Another newspaper, the Daily Express, further set the stage with an article that appeared on the morning of April 10: "Wedding-Day Bid to Stop a Marriage." Alongside a full-length portrait of the handsome couple, a story breathlessly told the paper's readers that "a few minutes before a wedding is due to take place at Chelsea Register Office this morning an attempt will be made to stop the ceremony by the bridegroom's father." The article suggested the reasons that André's father would proffer for objecting to the wedding: "M. André [V.] is due to do military service. He has not yet completed his law studies."
André himself also provided an interview, and gave the story a different twist, attributing his parents' objection to religious differences. Marie-José's father, Pierre Tinchant, seemed to prefer that interpretation as well. On the matter of Marie-José's family background, the report quoted Pierre as saying, "I am Mexican. My wife is American." (Pierre was a naturalized Belgian citizen, born in Mexico; his wife was a Belgian from Liège. Presumably "American" actually referred not to Pierre's wife but to his mother, Stéphanie Gonzales, born in New Orleans.) Marie-José's father insisted that André's parents "object to the marriage because we are all Roman Catholics, but the wedding will take place."
With this buildup established, Marie-José and André proceeded to the office of the register in Chelsea on April 10. As Fay Jackson recounted the story for the Associated Negro Press, "Marie, a happy girl, awoke in a London hotel in Chelsea … and dressed herself for her wedding … a few hours later she was weeping at the register's office because her marriage to the man she loved had been banned. Order to stop the wedding had been entered at the court house." In this account, Marie-José, crying bitterly, proceeded to the register-general to appeal the refusal of a license, and then returned two hours later, "still weeping." Jackson's article framed the story in terms her American readers would recognize: "Behind these dramatic circumstances in what might otherwise have been a beautiful romance lies the tragedy of mixed blood and race prejudice." In the spring following the Ethiopian invasion and of Mussolini's ban on actors of color on the Italian stage, the marital drama of Marie-José and André evoked an image of American-style racism replicated in Europe.
In the days that followed the tearful scene at the register's office in Chelsea, the couple gained ground. Although André's father had apparently obtained assistance from the Belgian consul in entering his caveat at the register-general's office at Somerset House, the request for a ban on the marriage did not hold up under challenge. The register-general ruled that the couple had complied with the English marriage regulations, and that there was no reason why the marriage should not be performed.
Marie and André rescheduled the wedding, which took place on Tuesday, April 13. Both sets of parents had by then returned to Belgium. Two solicitors were nonetheless present at the ceremony, one representing the bridegroom, and one representing the bridegroom's father. For all the romantic drama and publicity concerning their struggle, it was not an auspicious way to begin a marriage. André's father still threatened to take "legal advice in Belgium to get his son's marriage annulled there," though nothing much seems to have come of this.
The couple returned to Belgium, where André reported for military service but was quickly discharged. As his parents had presumably feared, he did not finish his legal studies and did not have a job. Marie-José gave birth to a daughter, Liliane, in 1938, and to a son, Michel, in 1939. In May 1939 the young couple moved in with André's parents in Brussels.
They were living in this perhaps uncomfortable family environment when the war in Europe began. Several Tinchant brothers and cousins joined the Belgian army; Marie-José's twin brother, José Pierre, was called into active service in August 1939. Marie-José and André's marriage seems to have run into difficulty by this point, and at the beginning of 1940 she left the home of her in-laws and returned with the children to her parents' house at 22 rue St. Joseph, in Antwerp.
Marie-José's father, Pierre Tinchant, had occupied one corner of the Creole niche that his own father, Joseph Tinchant — who did business under the name Don José Tinchant y Gonzales — had established within the world of prosperous francophone families in the city. With the beginning of war, however, Pierre Tinchant and his exuberant brother Vincent now faced the impending collapse of their cigar business. Trade was disrupted, and the company factories fell idle. In April 1940 Marie-José's father Pierre died, leaving his widow and four children: Marie-José, José Pierre, their sister Liliane, and their younger brother Pedro.
On May 10, 1940, the German invasion of Belgium began. Within eighteen days, the Belgian army had been overrun, and Marie-José's brother José Pierre Tinchant became a prisoner of war, sent to Stalag XB-Sandbostel, near Bremen, in Germany. Marie-José's estranged husband André apparently fled to France. France, however, offered no secure refuge, and also crumbled under the German assault. André returned to Belgium.
The country now came under German occupation, bringing a long period of fear, division, and penury. The Tinchant household at 22 rue St. Joseph, in which Marie-José lived, became something of a hotbed of patriotic sentiments: her younger brother Pedro Tinchant would eventually join the armed Resistance, as did her sister Liliane's husband, Jean Rul. In January 1941, however, Marie-José left this house in Antwerp and moved with her two children into an apartment in Brussels at 29 rue du Damier. According to her brother José Pierre, at this point she was beginning to work with the Resistance.
Marie-José was a young, educated member of a bourgeois francophone family whose kin had served in the Belgian army in the Great War and in 1939. Both her own and her parents' weddings had taken place in London, and she had long-standing ties to and family in Britain. Her profile fits well with that of other Belgian recruits to the intelligence networks of the Resistance, and it seems likely that intelligence was indeed the sector of the movement in which she worked. At some point she adopted the nom de guerre of Anita.
The precise Resistance activities of Marie-José Tinchant, however, are nearly impossible to reconstruct, though later files on her contain an unconfirmed reference to the Réseau Zéro, a noted intelligence network. Marie-José seems by all accounts to have been an exceptionally determined young woman, adored by her father, respected by her twin brother, and prepared to take on the world. Her boldness in her interviews with the press at the time of her marriage suggests a consciousness of her own ancestry that added a new note to her family's carefully constructed story of Mexican identity. The "colour" to which she referred in London brought her closer to the "Negro" identity invoked by the journalist Fay Jackson, and to the Jamaican or Barbadian migrants who might come to mind when her father was first described in the London press as a tobacco merchant from "the West Indies." In addition to the nationalist and anti-fascist sentiments that motivated many Belgian recruits to the Resistance, Marie-José had additional reasons to find Nazi ideology repugnant.
In early 1941 Marie-José's brother José Pierre — who spoke Flemish, German, and English in addition to his native French — managed to persuade his German captors that he was in fact Flemish. As part of a larger strategy of rapprochement with the Belgian region of Flanders, the Germans had decided to treat Flemish prisoners of war as privileged vis-à-vis their francophone Belgian counterparts. The Flemish identification attributed to José Pierre thus conferred the right to be repatriated to Belgium along with other prisoners of war in the same category. He was dropped off at the train station in Antwerp at 5:00 a.m. on January 26, 1941.
As he later recalled it, José Pierre made his way home and found his wife, who had been struggling in his absence and relying on her parents to help raise their daughter Michèle. Unemployed and unwelcome at his in-laws', José Pierre seems to have been uncertain where to turn next. He soon learned that Marie-José had moved to Brussels. Unable to reconcile with his wife, José Pierre followed his sister to the capital. Having been released from a German prison camp under false pretenses, he was presumably discreet about his precise identity once in the city. By his own account, he too now became involved with the Resistance.
During the first year of the occupation, the German police received many unsolicited letters from Belgians who saw fit to denounce their neighbors for imagined subversive activity. It was perhaps not a propitious moment for Marie-José Tinchant to be living as a single mother in an apartment in central Brussels, presumably with furtive visits from her brother and others. Marie-José left the apartment at Rue du Damier after just five months and was next registered as living at 12 rue du Théâtre, about half a mile farther out, just beyond the city's ring of boulevards. This corner of the Quartier du Nord was lively and full of small stores, but its buildings had been slated for destruction for at least a decade, and the neighborhood had been losing population. After the German invasion, however, refugees from the countryside sought accommodation in its many empty apartments, seeking safety in numbers. Marie-José now did the same; perhaps it was not a bad place to find allies and avoid attention.
Then, on November 30, 1941, the ax fell. Marie-José Tinchant was arrested by what her brother referred to as the Gestapo. (The precise administrative term in Belgium for the overarching unit of which the Gestapo was a part was the Sipo, short for Sicherheitspolizei, or security police.) Surviving records confirm that Marie-José was first held in the St. Gilles prison in Brussels, and then, on December 10, transferred to Antwerp.
José Pierre, believing the police to be on his trail as well, escaped occupied Belgium through France to Barcelona and then Lisbon. After presenting himself to a sympathetic consul, he declared his intention to reenlist with the Belgian forces in exile. The consul advanced him some money to enable him to reach Gibraltar, and take a boat for Britain. Pierre José subsequently trained in England as a member of the Special Air Service and would be parachuted into the Ardennes in September 1944.
In 1940-1941, mindful of experiences in World War I, the occupying Germans were somewhat reluctant to hold Belgian women as prisoners, for fear of creating martyrs. At some point after December 10, 1941, the police apparently released Marie-José, perhaps for lack of proof. She and the children were subsequently entered into the civil registry as residing at 27 rue Frère Orban, in Brussels. An inquiry after the war, however, turned up no recollection of her among the neighbors at Rue Frère Orban. It may be that the registration had been done by a complaisant local official, and that she was living clandestinely elsewhere. As of December 1942 there was no further trace of Marie-José in the civil registers anywhere in Brussels. Her children seem to have been cared for by her sister Liliane and by their paternal grandparents. She had presumably gone fully into hiding.
In Marie-José's absence, her husband André V. filed for divorce, alleging improper personal behavior on her part; he made no mention of politics. He listed her residence as Rue Damier in Brussels, although she had long since left that address. On June 8, 1943, the court granted a divorce to André V., ending his marriage to Marie-José Tinchant, "whereabouts unknown," hence receiving no formal notice of the proceedings.
Seven months later, on January 18, 1944, Marie-José was arrested a second time, apparently on orders of the Sipo. When she was registered at St. Gilles prison in Brussels on January 19, the prison officials confiscated the fifty francs that she had on her, and she signed the register acknowledging the amount taken. Presumably unaware of the divorce decree, she signed with her married name.
The German security police in Belgium subsequently destroyed many of their records, and it is impossible to know what charges they may have intended to bring against Marie-José. Next to her name on a later document is the ambiguous notation "IV 3," which appears to be a reference to a department within the Sipo that took charge of her case. The view of several of her descendants is that she was suspected of involvement in the gathering and/or the transmission of intelligence (renseignements) to be sent to the Allies. After the war, her husband apparently suggested that she had worked with the network called the Réseau Zéro.
It is at least possible that Marie-José's arrest was instead an arbitrary, collateral result of one or another German wave of repression. By January 1944 the Nazis were increasingly fearful of an Allied invasion of the Continent, and arrests in Belgium had become more sweeping. If a suspect whom they sought was not at home, they were increasingly likely to take a father, a son, or a sister instead. The memoir of one prisoner interned at St. Gilles in these months conveys a sense of the widespread arrests made for all kinds of noncompliance, indiscretion, criminality, or just bad luck. But subsequent events would show that Marie-José Tinchant was a prisoner whom the Germans themselves categorized as "political." They were, moreover, quite apprehensive about the consequences of keeping detainees like her in Brussels in the face of a probable Allied advance toward Belgium.
On June 6, 1944, the anticipated Allied invasion began on the beaches of Normandy. For some days the Germans believed that this might be a diversion, and that the full invasion could come through the Pas-de-Calais. If the Allies were able rapidly to gain control of Brussels, the political prisoners held at St. Gilles might be freed to join them. To prevent this, the Germans ordered virtually all the male political prisoners from St. Gilles transported to Buchenwald, and the female political prisoners to Ravensbrück. On page 55 of the transport list compiled at St. Gilles on June 15, 1944, on orders of the Sipo, Marie-José Tinchant is listed under her married name as one of the Belgian women to be "transported to the Reich."
The convoy, including 308 women designated as Belgian, Polish, French, Dutch, Italian, Rumanian, English, and "Volksdeutsche," arrived at Ravensbrück on June 19. Marie-José was entered in the camp lists and given the registration number 42,791. Like the other women in this convoy of evacuees from Brussels, she was listed as polit., arrested for political reasons, rather than asozial (for those deemed to be antisocial elements, to be excluded from society) or Rassenschande (those implicated in the crime of "racial defilement" or "race mixing"). Whatever the initial circumstances of Marie-José's arrest, the German police in Belgium considered her to be a political prisoner, as did the administration of the Ravensbrück camp.
Ravensbrück represented one small piece of the massive Nazi project to employ enslaved labor to replace the thousands of workers conscripted into the military effort, and to set the stage for what Hitler imagined would be a productive new empire built on the subjugation and partial or total extermination of inferior peoples. The term "slavery" here is neither rhetorical nor metaphorical. These were men, women, and children held under intense physical control and deprivation, forced to labor until their physical condition or one or another twist of Nazi ideology caused them to be moved into the category of those who were less than slaves, and hence on to their deaths. The terminology of slavery was employed by the Nazis themselves. Heinrich Himmler argued in 1942 that "if we do not fill our camps with slaves — in this room I mean to say things very firmly and very clearly — with worker slaves, who will build our cities, our villages, our farms without regard to any losses," then there would not be enough resources to settle "real Germanic people" in the lands acquired to the east.
Those who were subjected to this treatment also recognized it as slavery. Germaine Tillion, a precise and disciplined ethnographer who had been active in the French Resistance, was deported to Ravensbrück in October 1943. Tillion survived, and wrote several detailed studies of the camp. She employed the term "slaves" to describe the inmates who labored in order to create carefully calculated profits for the "Ravensbrück enterprise" in which Himmler himself was a primary investor. Tillion's colleague Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, who also had been interned at Ravensbrück, testified at the postwar Nuremberg trials of major war criminals, and described the process by which representatives of the industrialists using inmate labor inspected the bodies of those whom the camp rented out: "It felt like a slave market. They felt muscles, looked for signs of good health, and then made their choices. Then each woman passed undressed in front of the doctor, who decided whether or not she was able to go to work in the factories."
Some of the prisoners were put to work directly within the camp, either in subsistence activities or in a private manufacturing enterprise located inside the walls. With food costs deducted from the revenue at the clothing factory, starvation was a constant menace. Survivors remembered that the pace of work was brutal in each of the twelve-hour shifts, with a piece of bread provided only after the daily quota of 200 jackets or pants was reached. The bread was later eliminated; beatings on the shop floor by the male and female SS supervisors continued. Other prisoners were rented out to Siemens electrical works and to additional nearby factories.
Back in Brussels and Antwerp, Marie-José's family had no way of knowing what had become of her after her deportation. As soon as Brussels and Antwerp were liberated by the Allies in the autumn of 1944, one of her siblings — almost certainly Liliane, who had been caring for Marie-José's daughter — directed an inquiry to the Red Cross. She explained that her sister had been arrested and that the family had no news of her, and hoped for a response. But the Red Cross had nothing to report.
Excerpted from Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey In The Age of Emancipation by Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hébrard, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2012 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.