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The return of a soul to a torturer

The story of Maïti Girtanner, the woman who embraced her torturer

The horror of Maïti Girtanner’s story takes place from 1939 to 1945, years which consisted of the annihilation of mankind and breaking civil resistance.  “Where violence is done to man”, writes Primo Levi in I sommersi e i salvati ( The Buried and the Saved ), “it’s also done to language.”

The negation of the meaning of words was in fact a central part of the Nazi’s agenda as a way of destroying the human being; their aim was:  destruction of language, its significance, and the destruction of man made in the image and likeness of God.  In the midst of words which had been reduced to nothing, the strength of young Maïti Girtanner pushed her to proclaim them with significance.  The Word of God had become incarnate in her since her infancy.  It was this Word that she proclaimed to her friends in the autumn of 1943 when she was arrested by the Gestapo and death seemed to be imminent.  She emphasized that life is stronger than death.  And it was this same Word that inspired her when in 1984 she encountered her persecutor who showed up at her doorstep after forty years.  The ex-Nazi, suffering with a terminal illness, had been told by doctors that he had six months to live and wanted to speak to Maïti about death.

In 1940 Maïti was 18 years old and had a whole career before her.  She was an extraordinary pianist.  Born into a family of musicians, she had given her first concert at the age of nine:  “I knew from a young age that my path had been marked out for me, I was meant to be a pianist, music was my life” ( Même les bourreaux ont une âme , Paris, cld Ėditions, 2006, p. 29).  Growing up in a Catholic family an emphasis was always put on the necessary respect for all peoples.  Her family had many friends, many of whom were also German.  But even when Nazi Germany became the enemy to be destroyed, she didn’t miss a beat:  the point was to resist the invader, not to hate the Germans.  “My Christian Faith invited me to look at each person, not through the eyes of men, but through God’s eyes.” (p. 37)  This open-mindedness was characteristic of Maïti’s entire life and stayed with her even in the days of hell.

Maïti didn’t have a choice whether or not to participate in the Resistance against the Germans. Rather, the circumstances forced her to stay strong in the face of evil.  The arrival of the Germans on 22 June 1940 in the village of Bones, near Poitiers, caused a division into two parts marked out by the town’s bridge.  On one part of the bridge was a free zone, while the other part was German occupied.  The family home where Maïti spent her summers was located on the edge of the dividing line which had been fixed just after the truce.  The home happened to be in a strategic position since the garden was next to the bridge.  It was the last house before the free zone and the only point of possible crossing over the Vienne river, and the Germans wanted it.  Maïti’s first act of resistance was to mark her territory with words:  “No, I’m Swiss, you may not enter here” (p. 60).  She spoke proper German and used her Swiss nationality in order to demonstrate neutrality.

Language was her strength.  It was a means to create an equal relationship with the Germans, and a way for the Germans to communicate with the locals.  It permitted her to gain ground quickly, and make skillful negotiations with the Germans.  The impassable boundary line which had been marked out in just hours demanded quick solutions.  In a very evident way Maïti’s actions corresponded to her words.  She was forced to make passable that which the Germans had made impassable by focusing on the most urgent needs of the town as their interpreter.  Her young age guaranteed her innocence and her fluent German guaranteed her trustworthiness.  Gradually Maïti began acting as a messenger for the Resistance, carrying messages, money and important documents.  In the summer of 1941 two French officials contacted her asking her to cross the line, and with the assistance of a boat she brought hundreds of people to the free zone, among them many Jewish children.

Maïti went to Paris in February 1943 when the dividing line was officially suppressed.  There she became the instructor for two children of the Beaumont family, but her activities in the lines of the Resistance had not yet ended.  One activity consisted of working in the hidden lives of Jewish music teachers who were forbidden to teach because of the Vichy laws.  Another was providing false documents to those who needed them, while still another was helping start up the French Liberation Army.  Through the Conservatory of Paris network Maïti decided to use her already well-known musical talent.  After being invited to play in front of some German officials at the Hotel Majestic, she in turn asked for the liberation of several of her musician friends.  In the Spring she found out about the creation of the National Council of Resistance and continued to work tirelessly throughout the entire city of Paris.

It is in the light of the Passion in St. Mark’s Gospel that Maïti reads the events which plunged her life towards a sort of death.  After the unexpected arrest in October of 1943 she was condemned to a detention center for members of the Resistance arrested at Hendaye.  There she was horribly mutilated by a young German doctor that she calls by the name Leo.  He damaged her central nerves killing her fingers and thus killing the musician in her.  She would never again be able to play.

The rest of her life (she is now ninety years old) has been an unceasing suffering because of the mutilations she endured.  While her tortured body has been forced to surrender, making it practically impossible for her to communicate any physical experience, her mind attempts to find a fundamental way which allows her to speak about her experience.  Maïti has found this way through Scripture. The Word of God is a guarantor of experience and a symbolic way of restoring truth.  With Scripture she has found the strength to communicate the reality she suffered, namely the annihilation of man by man.

We catch a glimpse of Maïti’s life in Christ’s Passion. Her life testifies, verse by verse, to the participation in her own flesh about that which saves man from man:  “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his Body the Church” (Colossians 1, 24).  The experience of forgiveness is wholeheartedly a part of this participation, “From the beginning I wanted to forgive him, I prayed for him, I carried him with me” (p. 201).  When Leo went to visit her in 1984, he was seeking her forgiveness, “instead of greeting each other by shaking hands, I took his arms and held him.  In that moment he asked me for forgiveness”.

Maïti knew with certainty that she had truly forgiven him.  She had prayed for years to be able to forgive him.  She knows now that both of them speak the same living language, the language of God.

Maïti tells her story in Même les bourreaux ont une âme (Paris, cld Éditions, 2006).




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 21, 2020