Willa Z. Silverman
“We go slowly along […], looking for what?” This line from Jean Cayrol’s screenplay for Alain Resnais’ classic 1955 cinematographic contemplation of the Holocaust, Night and Fog, was surely on the minds of the seven Penn State students, accompanied by a graduate student teaching intern and myself, who spent a week in Paris, in March 2016, to augment and intensify the work of our semester-long residential course on “France and the Holocaust in Film and Literature” (FR/JST 197A). As Night and Fog opens, a dispassionate camera pans slowly over “[a] peaceful landscape, an ordinary field […],” before stopping and recoiling at an intrusion in the serene countryside: the barbed wire fence marking the former site of Auschwitz extermination camp. Like Resnais’ inquiring camera eye, we too panned the contemporary landscape of Paris and its close suburbs as we crossed paths with busy Parisians on their way to work or strolling with their dogs, or tourists snapping photos of the Eiffel Tower. Occasionally, we too would recoil at a jarring element in the landscape (“the only sign – but you have to know,” writes Cayrol of the traces of desperate fingernail scratches left in the ceiling of the crematoria by those about to be exterminated). The signs we saw may be more visible now, but remain no less discordant when contrasted with the vibrant cityscape. They include plaques outside Parisian public schools that detail the number of school-age Jewish children — “innocent victims of Nazi barbarism” — deported from each neighborhood, “with the complicity of the Vichy government.” As we saw, larger placards placed in some public parks thanks to the efforts of dedicated individuals often with a direct connection to the Shoah bear the names of other children – those younger than school age. Our recording gaze was no less startled by the presence of heavily-armed soldiers outside nearly every Jewish site we visited, a troubling invitation to consider the resurgence of violent anti-Semitism in France – its causes, manifestations, and murderous consequences. Beckoned by these sites of both memory and recent history, we chose not to pass by but to respond to the exhortation engraved on Shelomo Selinger’s powerful monument in Drancy: “Passerby, reflect and do not forget!” (“Passant, recueille et n’oublie pas!”).
What does “not forgetting” the Shoah (‘catastrophe’) — to use the term that is preferred in France — ‘look like’ in 2016? What forms will transmission take when the last survivors pass, during our lifetime? When we no longer have the privilege of meeting– as we did in Paris — four of the approximately 160 concentration camp survivors remaining in France, a thin sliver of the 76.000 deported from that country in seventy-nine convoys between March 1942 and August 1944? (Indeed, two of the survivors another group had met with in 2010, on a previous iteration of this study tour, are no longer with us). When this living, human connection to the history of the Shoah has transmuted into memory? Indeed, “is it in vain,” in the end, again to quote Night and Fog, “that we, in our turn, try to remember?”
Might memory be in vain when the acts recalled occurred over seventy years ago? When the memory of survivors fails, calcifies into set narratives, or succumbs to self-censure as a way to cope with lingering trauma? Or when the survivors may have wished to speak of their experiences, but could find no one to listen to them, often driving a permanent wedge between them and family members who had escaped deportation? Writes the acclaimed eighty-eight year old filmmaker, and Birkenau survivor, Marceline Loridan-Ivens, whose words about the ‘vital force’ that has somehow sustained her touched us deeply when we met her: “No one wanted my memories” (But You Did Not Come Back: A Memoir, tr. Sandra Smith, [New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015], p. 34). A second Birkenau survivor we met confirmed this. Esther Senot remembers that family members and friends were too consumed with the privations they had endured during the war – food shortages, for example – to listen to her recount her own suffering. “We were the forgotten ones of history,” she concluded, her pain palpable.
Might memory be in vain when, despite good intentions, we confront own inability to even attempt to represent to ourselves — with the help of learning, imagination or empathy — what Cayrol, in Night and Fog, deems “another planet?” What language should we use? “No description, no picture,” writes Cayrol, “can restore their true dimension.” The inadequacy of the very terminology to identify Holocaust survivors, for instance, was made clear for us by the choice of a term belonging to the lexicon of the First World War, and then incorporated into the earliest French memorials to the victims of the Shoah: martyrs.
Is remembering in vain given a muddied historical record concerning France’s experience of the Shoah, now largely and amply rectified, thankfully, by historians in both France and the United States, including Robert Paxton and Michael Marrus, Annette Wieviorka, and others in their wake? The massive second volume of Serge Klarsfeld’s French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial, which he showed us when we visited him, adds photos of 3.000 children to the 2.500 contained in the first volume of this collective gravestone, and provides irrefutable, immensely moving evidence of the Vichy regime’s complicity in the deportation of 11.000 children from France. But for many years, deep in the denial phase of what the historian Henry Rousso terms “the Vichy syndrome,” such dispassionate research seemed a highly fraught enterprise. Writing about the effacement of the memory of the Shoah in the wake of the Liberation — and evoking the competition between the memories of Resistance fighters and Jews, deported in nearly equally larger numbers during the war — Marceline Loridan-Ivens underscores “the postwar wave of amnesia and anti-Semitism that made everyone believe in a heroic France that clashed brutally with every one of my memories” (p. 33). This “heroic France” is imposingly on display at the Mont-Valérien memorial, a type of ‘mecca,’ as we saw, to the memory of Resistance fighters (some Jewish) summarily executed there by the Nazis. Dominated by a massive Cross of Lorraine, symbol of the Gaullist Resistance, the site also encompasses a clearing where Resistance fighters faced a firing squad, but not before leaving final letters to loved ones that are profoundly moving. What to make, though, of the large marker in the clearing, which as our guide noted significantly inflates the number of Resistants killed there but has never been amended, due to the will of the families? When history falters, does memory as well?
Is it in vain that we labor to remember, finally, in the face of apathy, ignorance and indifference — or worse? The driver on our public bus to the site of the former Drancy concentration camp had never heard of the poorly-marked memorial (I was later told that the town of Drancy is awaiting approval of funds to install directional markers), and we found it only thanks to a museum guard who happened to be riding the bus with us. Nearly everyone with whom we met — survivors, academics, tour guides — referenced the recent horror associated with the brutal murders of Jews, and others, in Paris and Toulouse, and the flight of 15.000 of France’s 500.000 Jews in the past two years. Certainly, the State is no longer the perpetrator of anti-Jewish crimes, and nearly all our informants cited President Jacques Chirac’s historic 1995 speech assuming responsibility for “the irreparable” in the name of France as a watershed moment in the French history and memory of the Shoah. Yet anti-Semitism in France still draws on some of the same sources as during the Vichy era — and some different ones. In recent years, it has been triangulated, in part, through the conflict in the Middle East, and conflated with anti-Zionism. In the face of violent denial and murderous silencing — Ilan Halimi’s 2006 murder was mentioned several times, as was Mohammed Merah’s 2012 killing spree in Toulouse, not to mention the murders of four hostages at a Hypercacher supermarket in 2015 — can memory escape annihilation, too? This question seems to be on the historian and jurist Serge Klarsfeld’s mind – as always — as he awaits a visa to travel to Iran to face down Holocaust deniers, an extraordinary action for an eighty-year old yet one in keeping with a life’s work, completed together with his wife, Beate, of writing/righting history, preserving memory, and pursuing justice.
Our entire week in Paris was a wager, of course, on the belief that remembering the Shoah, the template for modern genocides — and the dehumanizing, exclusionary discourse and practices that helped set this genocide in motion — is not in vain. We refuse to remain “deaf to the endless cry” (Cayrol, Night and Fog). Through discussion both with astute, committed guides and within our group at the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, the Mémorial de la Shoah, and the Père-Lachaise cemetery deportation monuments in Paris; in Drancy; and at Mont-Valérien, we considered monuments as examples of what the historian Pierre Nora terms lieux de mémoire — material, functional and symbolic signs (and shapers) of the complex, evolving relationship between history and memory. Over lunch with the historian Pierre Birnbaum, himself the son of Jewish immigrants who settled in France in the 1930s, we were reminded to maintain a comparative perspective on the history of the Shoah: why did 3/4 of Jews in France survive the Shoah, for example, whereas the the vast majority of Polish and Hungarian Jews did not? In our meeting with Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, we focused in part on activism and engagement in the service of vigilance. Queried about her advice for aspiring activists by one of the students who is deeply committed to relief work in Rwanda, Beate Klarsfeld (who had just returned from Burundi) replied, no-nonsense and to the point: “Find out what causes are important locally, where you live, and get involved.”
Most enduring for us as an “everlasting remembrance” will likely be our meetings with survivors of the Shoah, including both extermination and concentration camp survivors, and hidden children. (Coincidentally, during our week in Paris, my former father-in-law, a ninety-year-old veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who for decades kept silent about the horrors he had seen in the Ardennes, traveled to Texas to receive a medal from his regiment for the courage he showed as an eighteen-year-old, part of a generation caught in the maelstrom).
We spent an unforgettable Sunday afternoon walking — some of us arm in arm — with a group of survivors in Belleville. One of them, Rachel Jedinak, had grown up in that working-class neighborhood and narrowly escaped deportation (her mother did not). As we stopped at various sites (the police headquarters where she was held, the round-up center from which she escaped), Rachel shared her story, often with great difficulty, memory and place colliding. Our walk ended with smiling group photos, warm hugs, exchange of addresses, and lingering conversation on a beautiful plateau in Belleville, with a panoramic view of Paris at twilight. We all feel grateful for this day. As one student remarked, it’s the human, deeply affective quality of transmission (I think of Marceline Loridan-Iven’s infectious laugh, something between a giggle and a cackle) that will soon be lost. And then what? I saw sadness and courage and urgency and humanity in the eyes of these French men and women who reminded us that they were nearing the end of their lives. One of them sighed, and said: “We had really hoped to leave you a better world than the one we tried to bring about through our struggles to survive. And we’re so sorry that we have not been able to do so.”
“Is it in vain that we, in our turn, try to remember?” It’s our turn.