Memory Work

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 hol1outside 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). seymour

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.



Day 1: From the Marais to Belleville, the Duty of Remembrance – Sunday 6 March 2016

Talia Sainclair

On our first real day in Paris, it’s hard to say what the group was collectively feeling. Half of us had never been to Paris before, including myself, and so for us absolutely everything was new. We started the day by meeting our lovely guide, Flora, in front of Notre-Dame, and she proceeded to give us a walking tour of the historically Jewish neighborhood in Paris, the Marais (from a word meaning ‘swamp’), which was heavily targeted by Vichy officials during the war. It was difficult to imagine what it might have been like in the 1920s and 1930s, as in recent years it has transformed into a chic shopping district where everyone dresses nicely and there are designer stores on every block. It’s interesting how memory sites can be distorted and how that alters our link to the past.

Flora talked about the history of anti-Semitism in Paris, which has been alive and well pretty much since the French Jewish community came into existence.Sculptures on the exterior of Notre-Dame contrasting the triumphant Church and the debased Synagogue (above) were reminders that anti-Semitism flourished in the heart of Christian Europe. Jews were expelled from the city several times over the years, and today the community is dwindling due to a significant portion of the Parisian (and French in general) Jewish community deciding to emigrate in recent years. Flora explained how France has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel and the United States. However, some Jews are leaving France in response to a resurgence in anti-Semitism – a theme that would become central to our learning experience throughout the week. We had already seen multiple armed military guards outside oa synagogue, holding AK47s and wearing bullet-proof vests. As we learned, this has become customary in front of all synagogues and mosques since the terrorist attacks in November and the earlier Charlie Hebdo/Hypercacher attacks of January 2015. There were even armed guards in front of Notre-Dame when we were there who were investigating a suspicious unattended bag in front of the church. This all begs the question: how far could France have evolved since WWII if these measures are necessary in contemporary society? We later learned there are not only multiple guards outside each synagogue, but there are also more guards on the inside in case all those outside are killed in an attack. The same goes for mosques.
I talked with Flora, a native Parisian, about her perception on islamophobia in France, which she remarked as being very bad and on the rise along with anti-Semitism and disturbingly, increasingly popular among the younger generations. I find it very curious and extremely alarming that such a large portion of the youth vote in France’s last election went to the most extreme party, le Front National, which is often compared the Tea Party in the United States. My perception is that while ignorance and racism run rampant in the United States across all demographics, it generally seems that these traits are stronger in the older population than in the younger generation,s which are becoming more and more accepting. So why is it different in France?
These questions, and many, many more arose throughout our day as we grappled with the connection between past and present, history and future. Are we any better now? Have we learned from our mistakes? It seems not, but I think that’s all the more reason to trudge forward in our journey of attempted understanding. Is it in vain that we try to remember when there are so many obstacles to learning in our way? Is it in vain that we try to remember when no matter how much we may know and be told, there is still so much more that we will never know and will never be told? Is it in vain that we try to remember when our emotional understanding could never be achieved on any level even close to that of the Shoah’s reality, even if our cognitive understanding was there?
It is these questions that swirled in the back of our minds when we met several child survivors of the Shoah in the afternoon. As it was only the second day of our trip, this was our first experience meeting with survivors, and I think the encounter set the tone for an incredible week of learning. I was feeling tremendously lucky just to be in these people’s presence, let alone to be able to hear their stories and trace their memories as we walked. The single most determining factor for me wanting to go on this trip, which I’m sure rings true for others, is the realization that we are at a critical point in history where there are not very many survivors left, and soon it will not be possible to have experiences like these. So walking through the streets of Paris with these inspirational people was an experience I do not take for granted, and reflect upon quite fondly and as a highlight of our trip. That human connection is so powerful that it’s hard for me to imagine what transmission of memory will be like when we no longer have direct access to these exchanges. Sure, video testimony is also important and will serve a vital role in years to come, but there is nothing quite like looking in the eyes of a Shoah survivor while they so graciously share their story.

In 1943, Rachel, one of the women who was with us to tell her story as she felt it her duty, was 8 years old. Her parents had already been deported and she was living with her grandparents and younger sister. By an incredible stroke of luck, she managed to escape deportation twice, and very narrowly. It was the mere chance of these incidents that reminded us how life during this time depended on very little. When a police officer kicked Rachel and her sister out of the station after being rounded up, she remarks that her life “depended on those three words,” that he uttered when dismissing them (“get the hell out” in French). People were saved and condemned by the smallest things. But in times of war, no gesture is too small to be the difference between life and death. When we stood in front of the police station where Rachel had been rounded up and she was asked how being there made her feel, she defiantly and resiliently asserted, “I am strong!” with conviction and power behind her words, but tears in her eyes.

It was incredibly inspiring and meaningful to hear two of the women explain how important it was for them to tell their stories to young people. There is so much to lose if we lose this knowledge and these stories and I feel like in this way it is my duty to remember what I have been told and what I have learned, and to preserve that memory through my own. I will never forget Rachel’s story, or the juxtaposition of extreme pain and intense strength in her eyes as she told it. Her voice broke, her chin quivered, and her eyes watered several times throughout, but she never let a tear fall even as those around her crumbled under the agony of her words. I struggled to remember what I was cognitively like at eight years old, and how I would have responded to losing my parents at that age all while living in constant fear of persecution. There are no answers, and we could never know unless we went through the same things. But since that is impossible, the least we can do is try to remember as best we know how, even if it is in vain.

The biggest lesson I learned on this day was how strong a connection there is between the past and present, even if we don’t always see it. But if we look closely, it is always there. Rachel talked about how when Hitler came to power, and especially before, no one took his prejudices seriously and everybody laughed at him. We all know how this story ends. Prejudicial remarks in any form are not a joke. They do real damage. Looking at current politics, some scary things are happening. We cannot change the past and can never bring back those whose lives were stolen during the Shoah, but we can honor them by being vigilant in fighting all forms of racism- now, tomorrow, and forever. In honor of Rachel, and all those who never had a chance to tell their stories, I choose to carry the lessons I have learned with me forward, and adapt and apply them to current situations. We can’t do better on yesterday, but we can be better tomorrow.

Day 2: Trials and Testimonies (part I) – Monday 7 March

Mackenzie Moon

Under the Vichy regime, approximately 76,000 Jews were deported—11,400 of whom were children. Today, only a fraction of those who survived deportation under German occupation remain. Meeting a handful of these 76,000 people during our time in Paris, the only ones left to bear witness to the genocidal catastrophe that we know as the Holocaust, was an experience that is difficult to put into words.

At the Mémorial de la Shoah, we had the privilege of meeting survivor Bertrand Herz. At first glance, 86-year-old Bertrand Herz looked like he could be my grandfather. He bears no external signs that mark him as a survivor of a German concentration camp and of the infamous “death marches”, a massive movement of prisoners across Germany as part of the Nazis’ last attempt at escape from impending Allied takeover. Born to a non-practicing Jewish family, Bertrand was nevertheless arrested and sent on one of the last cattle wagon convoys to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Northern Germany. He described the horrendous and dehumanizing conditions at the camp, from which his father would never return. Before being rescued by the American army, Bertrand lived to experience the death marches, during which he walked fifteen hours a day. For almost two decades, Bertrand couldn’t talk about what he lived through. Even today, he admits to lingering anger, maintaining that he “never forgave a single person and never will.”

Although Bertrand was arrested by the Gestapo, many other Jewish families were apprehended by the French police or by the gendarmerie. In our discussions with Philippe Boukara, a historian and outreach coordinator at the Mémorial, he emphasized the importance of Holocaust education in French schools and at the museum itself, which features a devastating wall of photos of children of all ages deported from France to their deaths. As we learned from Philippe, the museum also hosts a mandatory training program for new French police officers. During their training, the officers are instructed to “disobey any orders that are contrary to human rights” — an order that presents an interesting paradigm of obedience and disobedience within a bureaucracy that has an ugly stain in its history.

In our experiences with Bertrand Herz and other survivors throughout the week, we saw many examples of varied reactions of French non-Jews to Jewish persecution under the Nazi regime. Some rose to the moral challenge, risking everything, even their lives, to help even just one person in need. Yet others shut the door, turning a blind eye to the persecution of their neighbors in order to focus on their own problems.

I couldn’t help but reflect on how I would have responded if I had lived through this time in history: would I have responded in the same way that Bertrand’s non-Jewish friends did, wearing a star bravely in the face of danger to encourage a friend? At a time when immigration is on the forefront of many national agendas, these historical and ethical questions are becoming increasingly important to our daily lives. Our time in Paris with survivors like Bertrand Herz has highlighted the perils of indifference in the face of ethical dilemmas. As renowned writer and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel aptly puts it, “Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil” (interview with Alvin P. Sanoff, “One Must Not Forget,” U.S. News & World Report 27 Oct. 1986). These firsthand accounts also highlight the necessity of taking up the duty of remembrance by sharing these experiences, fulfilling survivor Esther Senot’s final charge to us: “Tell my story, because I will no longer be able to do so.”

Day 2: Trials and Testimonies (Part II) – Monday 7 March

Caroline Silla

How does one stay courageous in the face of danger? How does one stay dignified? These questions, along with so many others, loomed in my mind Monday, March 7th, as I explored the curated corridors of the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris.

The museum is nestled in the heart of Le Marais, a historically Jewish neighborhood that was massively targeted by French and German police during the Holocaust, or the Shoah as I will refer to it. This somber museum deeply engages the viewer, taking them on a historical journey through the occupation of France and the country’s brutal history of internment and deportation.

The museum does its best to restore dignity and humanity to all of those deported from France through the Wall of Names. This memorial, a gravestone of sorts, organizes the names of deported Jews living in France according to the year of their deportation. Stones and candles line the marble columns as tributes to the deceased.

As Serge Klarsfeld, a French historian and activist who has devoted his life to memory work pertaining to victims of the Shoah, states, “It is six million, but it is one plus one plus one.” Often, it’s easy to group the victims into a giant mass, but seeing the individual names of each person, each life that was lost, truly puts into perspective this devastating tragedy.

Earlier in the day, we had the incredible opportunity to hear the testimony of Bertrand Herz, a survivor of Buchenwald, and after some free time to explore the museum, we met with Frida Wattenberg, a Jewish Resistance fighter during the Occupation. Frida, who comes from a Jewish background, shatters the misconception that Jews were passive in the destruction of their people and culture. Her heroic tale of resistance begins in a crowded basement at age fifteen.
A native Parisian, Frida was sent to school in Poitiers, France to escape the constant bombings that besieged Paris. After a few peaceful weeks, the Italians bombed Poitiers, and Frida found herself in an underground shelter, awaiting the end of the blitz. Huddled among children, women and old war veterans, it was here that Frida heard Charles de Gaulle’s iconic call to join the resistance.


Upon her return to school, Frida got involved with grassroots student groups to raise awareness about the resistance. She and her friends did everything they could, from distributing pamphlets in people’s pockets to improvising signs to hang up in the school lobby. But Frida felt she was called to do more than just spread news. She was called to act.
She began working at children’s homes disguised as a Swiss nurse, her jet black hair and non-stereotypical features disguising her Jewish identity and helping her blend in as an aid worker. At first a caretaker, Frida soon got involved in smuggling children across the border into Switzerland, where they would be safe.

Frida led countless trips to the Swiss border, saving the lives of every child she guided. Eventually, she bought busses to move children around to safe-zones in France. Amazing still, after the war, she worked at a restaurant where she offered her services to relocate and settle returned Jews.

Fourteen members of Frida’s family were murdered during the Shoah, along with two of her closest friends and fellow resistance workers, Mila Racine and Marianne Cohn. These brave women also acted as child rescuers during the Shoah, but they paid the price for their resistance work with their lives.

What amazes me about Frida’s story is how selflessly she worked. Countless times she risked her life getting to the Swiss border to drop off children, and each time she herself could have crossed the border into safety. As a Jew herself, Frida’s life was as endangered as the very children she saved. Time after time however, she returned to guide more people towards freedom and safety.

Frida’s tale of defiance, perseverance and strength is strongly relevant today. In a world where discrimination runs rampant, people are killed because of their religious or national affiliation, and nationalist movements are gaining momentum in world politics, Frida reminds us that one person can make a difference.

If you save a life, you save a world. Through her work as a resistant, Frida saved many worlds, and she inspires us to step up and save our own.

Day 3: Meeting with Esther Senot, and visit to Mont Valérien – Tuesday 8 March

Clare Belmonte

There aren’t many pictures from the first half of the day, but the memory of the stories told that morning will last with me, and all of us, for the rest of our lives. We went to the “Union des Déportés d’Auschwitz” (Union of Deportees from Auschwitz), to speak with Esther Senot. Esther is a survivor of Birkenau extermination camp, and defied the overwhelming odds of surviving. This Union was created after those deported returned in 1945, as a place where there was a common understanding of the atrocities that they had been through. During the trial of Klaus Barbie in 1987, Elie Wiesel stated this sentiment very eloquently, “That is the problem: No one who has not experienced the event will ever be able to understand it.”


Esther had a notably calm air about her as she told her story, pausing only throughout the most difficult personal struggles. Her family decided it had to leave Poland because there was an economic crisis, and rising in anti-Semitism in the 1920s. Many they knew had already moved to Paris when she and her family came. They lived a fairly normal life, without problems of discrimination or anti-Semitism, until 1934. For many, many immigrant families, it was easy to be relaxed and to feel like things were finally turning around – they were in France now, which at the time was relatively accepting of Jews. Unfortunately, a perfect storm was on the horizon.

Esther said that she and her family did not know that there was a war going on initially. I think this is important to keep in mind to contrast the times that we live in. The internet did not exist; people didn’t know things like they do now. This is very important to remember when thinking about peoples’ actions throughout the war. After Marshal Pétain came to power as head of the French State with its capital at Vichy, there was a shift in the atmosphere. At 12 years old, Esther was not allowed to play anymore, she had to carry her papers marked “juif”, she was only allowed on the last cars of the metro, she had a curfew (and not from her parents, as they had to obey the same one).


From this point forward her life became very hard, her family started to be torn apart by the government. It started when her brothers were arrested by the French police, and sent to interment camps in France. On 16 July, 1942 – date of the infamous Rafle, or Roundup, of the Vel d’hiv – Esther’s mother father and brother were all taken, only she and her sister had escaped. She wasn’t with her sister though, she was alone. Esther describes her own strength, bravery, and perseverance in the most amazingly humble way. Yes, she is alone. Yes, she did just watch the rest of her family get arrested. Yes, she cannot find her sister. But how do you look for someone when you know they are hiding, and you yourself are trying to hide?

Esther spent a few months living with one of her escaped brothers (in Pau), and several more between orphanages. She had to switch orphanages often in order to have a place to stay, but eventually she was arrested. Ironically, she was imprisoned for a short time in a cell near the cell in which Marie-Antoinette was held during the French Revolution. Esther was sent to Drancy in August 1943, and deported to Auschwitz that September. Her time in Drancy was infinitely shorter than that of those sent there earlier in the war.

She was on the 59th convoy sent to extermination camps, the second sent that day. Each convoy held a minimum of 1000 people, a quota reached by adding children from a children’s home nearby, and taking elders from a retirement home. There were about 60 people in each cattle car, 1 pail to use as a toilet, 1 pail for drinking water. She describes both babies and elderly people dying throughout the three days in the cattle car, in the dark. They arrived somewhere in Poland, greeted by German bludgeons and vicious jumping dogs. This was the first time that many of those on the convoy saw German uniforms. They lined up one by one, and were passively commanded “à droite, à gauche, à droite, à gauche,” (right, left, right, left). This separated them into 106 women and 220 men. They were then marched to Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

Esther remembers the horrible the smells on her arrival. I can see from the way she has drawn up her face, she remembers. They finally arrived at the barracks, and were allowed to shower – yes, a real shower. She along with the other prisoners had to learn their numbers very quickly in Polish and German – if they didn’t respond with their number during roll call they were beaten.

Esther was 1 out of 106 women from her convoy that went into Birkenau. Esther was one of two from the 106 women that left. For Penn State perspective, that’s like 100 Thomas (a lecture classroom) that holds 726 students, reduced to thirteen people.

When Esther was done sharing her story with us, a man joined us to answer questions that we had for both of them. I did not know it at the time, but this man was Raphaël Esrael, the President of the Union des Déportés d’Auschwitz, and also a survivor of Auschwitz. Raphaël was arrested for forging false identity papers.

The feeling of sitting in a room with this woman and man who have faced hell is immensely humbling.  Both have lived through daily degradation that I try not to imagine. But what an immense honor to be sitting with them, talking to them, asking them questions! The story of their experiences can be recorded – whether on video, audio, or on paper. The opportunity to have human interaction and contact with them, though, is not going to last very much longer. They are both in their late 80s. They are both SO full of life. They are both so humble and find it so necessary to share their stories.


Day 4: Père Lachaise, The Panthéon, and the Professor – Wednesday 9 March 2016

Aubrey Reeher

The fourth day of our excursion dawned gloomy and rainy, creating an atmosphere that was fitting for our first destination of the day, the cemetery of Père Lachaise. The cemetery was originally intended to be located outside of the city of Paris itself, but with the expansion of the city over the course of time, it now sits comfortably within the city limits, a grand monument for Parisian memory in the midst of bustling everyday life. The cemetery is filled with some celebrities, including French painter Eugene Delacriox, American author Gertrude Stein, Irish author Oscar Wilde, French singer Edith Piaf, and the family crypt of Baron Haussmann, the man who redesigned Paris in the 19th century.

An overview of the sprawling Père Lachaise cemetery

An overview of the sprawling Père Lachaise cemetery

Aside from the cemetery’s obvious purpose of being a final resting place for departed loved ones, the cemetery also acts as a monument for those who have no burial place. In the far corner of the cemetery, near one of the walls that separates the living from the dead, was the real purpose of our visit to Père Lachaise. Monument after monument in this corner of the cemetery honors not the famous individuals who made Paris their home that tourists often flock to, but the numerous “ordinary”  individuals who were deported from France during the Second World War to concentration camps in other parts of Europe.  Perhaps it was fitting that the rain had been falling steadily throughout much of our trek through the cemetery so that by the time we reached these somber memorials we were chilled to the core from the rain that had seeped its way into our coats and shoes, thus accurately reflecting the change in tone as we shifted from seemingly everyday tourists walking through the cemetery, spotting the eternal resting places of famous people, to witnesses and memory workers.

A plaque on the cemetery wall honors the children deported from France, one of many such plaques we saw throughout the city.

A plaque on the cemetery wall honors the children deported from France, one of many such plaques we saw throughout the city.

The differences between the rest of the cemetery and the part that honors the victims of the Shoah was marked. On a basic level, the grave markers in the rest of the cemetery and the monuments to the victims of the Shoah were noticeably different. For one, each traditional mausoleum or headstone was inscribed with the name of the individual or family buried there. The victims of the Shoah were represented not typically by individual name, but by the name of the concentration camp (or camps) in which they lived and died, and in some cases, survived. As we had seen at the Memorial de la Shoah a few days before, the deportees are honored individually by name on several walls, but not at the cemetery on those monuments erected in their memory.


Monument for the memory of those interned at Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III.

Monument for the memory of those interned at Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III.

Another key difference between the rest of the cemetery and the Shoah monuments are the nature of the statues. One the traditional cemetery side, there are religious icons such as angels or crosses, or other representations of the individual’s life and accomplishments. These adornments comfort the cemetery visitors  as they look at them, exuding the feeling that these people are peacefully at rest now.  A literal example of this feeling, the grave marker for Colette, the famous 19th and 20th century French author, looked like a welcoming bed, inviting notions of peace and tranquility. The statues of the concentration camp memorials, however, depicted anything but peace. While each individual camp had its own monument, the one thing that several of them had in common were the skeletal figures featured prominently. With these monuments, there will be no denying what the deportees went through to survive in the camps, if they were even given that chance to live. There is no comforting the cemetery visitor, for that is not their intended purpose. Their primary purpose seemed to be that of witnessing, commissioned by the ones that came back for the ones who never would, and not for the benefit  of comforting the visitors of Père Lachaise. In fact, these monuments did the opposite. The gaunt, emaciated figures leapt out at us as we passed. The footsteps of the nameless and faceless deportees beckon us to follow them through the gates to Bergen-Belsen camp. There were rows and rows of these monuments, all representing the different camps or Resistance movements. Here the Resistance and the Jewish deportees are memorialised side by side. In this cemetery, acting as a great leveler of humanity, competing memories seem to fade as the harsh reality of their often shared fates become crystal clear.

French author Colette's bed-like grave marker.

French author Colette’s bed-like grave marker.

The monument to the internees of Buchenwald-Dora. According to our guide, the three statues are symbolic of the dead, the weak, and the strong workers who will ultimately survive.

The monument to the internees of Buchenwald-Dora. According to our guide, the three statues are symbolic of the dead, the weak, and the strong workers who will ultimately survive.












After our rainy exploration of Père Lachaise, we headed to the Panthéon, which was unfortunately closed due to unforeseen events, despite the wonderful sunshine. Originally intended to be a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, during the French Revolution the Panthéon became a shrine to national heroes, the crypt where France honors the crowning jewels of its society. Among the scientists, artists, and politicians buried or honored here are four members of the French Resistance, two women and two men who fought against the Occupation of the Nazis. French President Francois Hollande nominated these four individuals to be buried here, representing four ideals the Resistance stood for: liberty, equality, fraternity, and the Republic. These four national heroes are not the only ones of their kind buried or commemorated in the  Panthéon. They are in the company of Jean Moulin, the head of the Resistance in Lyon who was captured, interrogated, and killed by Klaus Barbie, the head of the Gestapo, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and those distinguished with the honor of Righteous Among the Nations. Although we didn’t get to go inside, I think it would have been interesting to compare the representation of the Resistance in the Panthéon with their monument at Mont-Valérien, which we had visited the previous day.

The Panthéon

The Panthéon

Rounding out our day was lunch in a bistro near the Jardin du Luxembourg with Pierre Birnbaum, a historian and professor who is an expert on the history of  Jews in France. Born during the war to immigrants to France who settled in the 1930s, he had unique insights for our group. His historical expertise was invaluable in helping to contextualise the Shoah for the group, establishing differences between “types” of Jews and positing explanations for why certain Jews were able to protect themselves while others were not. He also helped to put into perspective why France was unique in the fact that ¾ of Jews in France survived the war, especially compared with places like Poland. After a morning filled with memories of death and destruction in the cemetery, Birnbaum’s focus on the background of Jews in France and the advantages for a select group of Jews to avoid deportation was a new and refreshing insight.

Overall, despite the rainy start to our day, our group learned a lot about history, memory, and monuments from two very interesting experts, Pierre Birnbaum and our tour guide for the morning’s tour of Père Lachaise and the Panthéon, Flora Goldenberg, before wandering off and exploring more of Paris, giving our minds time to reflect on what we had learned that day and rejuvenating us for the next day’s main activity, visiting the concentration camp outside of Paris, Drancy.


Day 5: Visit to the Memorial de la Shoah in Drancy – Thursday 10 March 2016

Anjelyque Easley

About thirty minutes northeast of Paris lies the city of Drancy. Here, 63,000 mostly Jewish people, including about 10.000 children, were held in an internment camp to later be deported to extermination camps in sixty-four rail transports between March 27 1942 and August 17, 1944. Although other internment camps existed in France during World War II, Drancy became the principal one for several reasons: from the perspective of the Nazi and Vichy authorities,  it was conveniently located next to Paris; many French gendarmes lived in its direct vicinity; and two nearby train stations connected to the eastern train network facilitated deportation.
Therefore, whether one was arrested in Bordeaux, Paris or Marseille, Drancy was in most cases the ‘antechamber’ to Auschwitz. It is therefore the primary site of the Shoah in France. Further, the camp serves as a reminder and symbol of the collaboration between Nazi Germany and the Vichy authorities, which both enabled the round-ups and other forms of persecution and provided most of the material help in the form of train cars, buses, gendarmes etc.

On August 17, 1944.  Alois Brunner and his staff abandoned the camp and managed to take with them 51 internees to Buchenwald. The remaining 1386 internees were left to themselves and the Swedish Consul, Raoul Nordling, took care of all the liberation procedures (release certificates, a little money is also distributed) along with the Red Cross. By Aug. 20 1944 the camp was totally empty. Control of the camp was divided up into three parts: a Nazi commander controlling the French administration (Préfecture de police de la Seine and gendarmes), and a Jewish commander. From July 1944, Alois Brunner limited the gendarmes’ role by posting them outside the camp only. This meant that the inside of the camp would be exclusively controlled by the SS. However, food and basic material needs kept on being provided by the Prefecture.

In the 1930s a U-shaped building — an early example of modernist public housing — lost funding and was never fully completed; the building and its lot was virtually abandoned. In June 1940, the U-shaped arrangement of buildings was spotted by the German Army. Located in the Occupied Zone near Paris, it was a logistically convenient site for a concentration camp, and the U shape facilitated surveillance. In July 1940 the first people to be interned in the camp were French and British war prisoners. In May 1941 the first of several round-ups began leading to August 20th 1941, when 4232 foreign Jewish men were taken to Drancy. During that time, there were hotels on the street facing the camp. Families of internees would sometimes pay a high fee in order to go up to the 3rd floor, which offered a good view on the camp courtyard and its eastern part. The amount of time spent at the window was limited, as many wives and internees’ families came every day. Things changed after the Vel d’Hiv roundup, which took place on July 16 and 17 1942, as women and children were targeted as well, and brought to Drancy. As this was happening, many bystanders watched as Drancy internees were pushed into cattle cars, This happened at the Le Bourget train station, near the camp in Drancy.

After the war ended, the city decided to finish construction of the site and in 1948 residents began to move in. The monument, explaining what happened in Drancy,was inaugurated in 1976. The cattle car was moved to the entrance to the former internment camp to symbolize that the place was a transit camp. To give a scale, the cattle car at most is supposed to hold eight horses or forty men (military during war). However, during the transit from Drancy to Auschwitz there were at least eighty to a hundred people packed in it, the largest convoy being in July 1944, comprised of many children. The sculpture seen today was created by Shelomo Selinger (b. 1928) , a Jewish deportee, in 1942. In May 1945 he was left for dead in a pile surrounded by corpses. A Russian doctor found him and helped nurse him back to life. But during this time, he got amnesia and lost some of his memory. So in a way, for him to create his sculptures helps bring the dead back so that they should not be forgotten. The design of the central sculpture is influenced by the various ages of people who were interned there, from male to female, young and old, depicting ten people, the number of a minyan. It is sculpted using granite, and symbolizes an eternal  flame. There are words from the Torah written in red in Hebrew, French and Yiddish. The monument’s purpose is to depict what has happened in Drancy, and to admonish: “Do not forget, gather here.”

A new Shoah memorial museum opened in 2012 across the street from the former internment camp. The museum details the persecutions of the Jewish people in France and displays personal belongings such as cards, letters, etched metal canteens, and graffiti of those who were interned in Drancy before they were deported to Auschwitz. The museum also offers a chance to watch videos of survivors’ testimonies and see images of the site dating from the Second World War period.

Drancy was one of the epicenters of the Holocaust in France, and one of its principle memory sites as well. I believe that Drancy should be visited. Seeing pictures of this site does not give you the real experience of going there. To walk along the same corridors that frame the building as the former internees gives you a sense of being in their shoes. No amount of pictures taken can help you understand the experience of the people who lived there temporarily. I feel as if this memory site — which has now reverted into a low-income residential complex — offers conflicting memories to those who live there today: it was once a camp and those who live there now, somewhat eerily, now call it home.

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Day 6: Looking Forward: Marcelline, the Klarsfelds, and Bidding Adieu – Friday 11 March 2016

Melissa Quinnan

We may never understand the passage of time, but we do know that it moves diligently forward. On March 11 we found ourselves experiencing the last day in Paris, and I think many of our meetings and studies of the past reflected that bitterness of ending and our bracing for the fast approaching future. And so we progressed in the day from past to future, meeting in the morning with Marceline Loridan-Ivens, a survivor of Birkenau extermination camp, before meeting with the activists Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, before concluding over dinner (crepes!!). Our dinner guest was Stéphane Golderg-Cojot, whose father, Michel Cojot, attempted to avenge his own father’s murder at Auschwitz by an (ultimately unsuccessful) plan to assassinate Klaus Barbie, the former Gestapo chief in Lyon. In 1976, Michel Cojot found himself on the Air France jet hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda; in life or death circumstances, he served as a translator between the passengers and hijackers, ultimately negotiating the release of many of the hostages.


Our meeting with Marceline Loridan-Ivens in her apartment was an inspirational encounter that abruptly turned our focus from recounting the Shoah to its relevance to the  present and future. If I expected Marceline, a feisty and spirited little lady of 88, to begin a long narrative of her time in Auschwitz like the other survivors, she had other plans. She simply wasn’t prepared to talk about it, and told us if we wanted to know her story we could read her memoir. Instead she expressed her frustration at the resurgence (although she says it’s not the same as during the Second World War) of antisemitism and the limitation of civil liberties. She hoped the new generation would learn a lesson from preceding ones, but wasn’t sure if the world wouldn’t end in violence, and reflected on how after the Shoah people didn’t want to or perhaps couldn’t listen. To her, there is “no exorcism possible” for such personal trauma, and seems to instead believe firmly in human resilience and spirit rather than God. She embodied the importance of fighting for freedom and the strength of human spirit. She struck me as someone who is impossibly brave, and I was impressed that she told us how to regard the present and refused to dredge up the memories she didn’t want to relive. I liked her a lot.

The meeting with the Klarsfelds was another that didn’t go quite as expected. They are living history themselves, as people who brought Klaus Barbie and others to justice. “Guerillas for memory,” as a recent film has dubbed them, they have been integral to documenting the history of the Shoah and to giving names to its victims. And yet they did not dwell on their successes or the history they were so dedicated to: in fact they were very matter of fact and businesslike, dutifully continuing their activism and documentation. They are just people doing their job. And their job was exactly what they did when compiling the massive French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial or protesting outside the apartments of known Nazis. They agreed that there are concerning reflections of war sentiments today but maintained that we can’t know the future. They warned about nationalistic politics worldwide and stressed the importance of getting involved in what you believe in. Politically, though, I was surprised to find them rather moderate, and I would describe them more as efficient than passionate. They were happy to educate, though, and were very modest considering their fame. It’s amazing how much they continue to do, fighting for education and traveling to the Middle East with the Aladdin Project, which aims to “build bridges of knowledge between Jews and Muslims,” according to its website. I think they embodied how important it is to keep busy and do what you can for the world in your own role without getting too invested in making it all make sense. We are all just people. And there is no predetermined fate. All we can do is our best, and the Klarsfelds prove that our best is far from insignificant.


Our last dinner was a final upbeat discussion over crêpes with Stéphane Cojot-Goldberg, a photographer and son of a deportee who wanted to but ultimately didn’t kill Klaus Barbie. He set our eyes firmly on the future as we ended our trip, encouraging us to keep up with news and caring about causes that mean something to us. Ignorance and indifference must be fought with knowledge and empathy. We pondered human psychology with mention of Milgram’s experiment and how it is easier to support violence if one can shrug off personal responsibility. Overall the discussion reminded me of the importance of staying informed and caring about others as a citizen of this Earth. I had to duck out early, but it was a wonderful conclusion to a very interesting and meaningful week.

Over the course of the week we talked a lot about the vital importance of memory, the acknowledgement of the past, and what we can do to ensure that remembering is not in vain. We faced the human and physical manifestations of memory and history, heard the pain, the warnings, touched the photos, the graves. Contrary to some perhaps, by Friday I confess I found myself desensitized to the past and ready to look forward. There are just so many dead, and little evidence that things are different now, so by the end I found myself observing and accepting and sometimes reluctant to talk about it anymore. While we may be powerless to change the past or human nature, however, I also learned that there is nobility in learning from the past and taking responsibility for it even as we let it rest. The activism of the Klarsfelds, and their continued work, is evidence for that. I choose to move on, educated and active rather than ignorant and passive, having accepted the horrors of the past and the reality of the darkness of this world, with respect for the people who came before and readiness for whatever the future will bring.



Final Thoughts – From Generation to Generation

Elizabeth Tuttle

We met Jacques Klajnberg and four other survivors who belong to an association which strives to maintain the memory of the Holocaust and the devastation it wrought on their community: working-class Belleville in the 20th arrondissement. Narrating as we toured the quartier, the survivors instilled life into the memory sites we visited. For example, Rachel Jedinak led us to the depot where, at eight years old, she and her family awaited deportation during the 1942 round-up of Parisian Jews, escaping, in the end, with her sister through a vent. The interaction was personal, painful, and full of inspiration. For me, hope came in the form of Mr. Klajnberg with whom I had a long discussion as we walked the streets of Belleville. He explained that the neighborhood where he, Rachel, and their friends spent their lives had witnessed not only the persecution of Jews during World War II but also the “last stand” of the Communard revolutionaries before their massacre by the French army in 1871.


Jacques implied that Belleville’s history was punctuated with atrocities but that its inhabitants had an equally long tradition of resisting oppression, no matter what form it took. This was certainly the case for Jacques who after hiding in a storage unit to escape arrest and deportation by the Nazis became a member of the armed Jewish Resistance at age fifteen, telling his father he had found “under-the-table” work at a bakery to account for his time. However, Jacques’s activism began at age eleven when he worked with neighbors, collecting milk for distribution to Spanish children during the 1936-1939 civil war. After World War II, Jacques joined movements protesting the violent conflicts in Indochina and Algeria. He remembers that time: “We took to streets, that’s just what we did”, as if fighting Nazis at age fifteen or tirelessly protesting war-time violence came as naturally to him as reading the paper. Since retiring over twenty years ago, Jacques pursues his activism through the transmission of memory, sharing his experiences in the Holocaust with French school children. At eighty-eight, Jacques tells his story weekly, determined not only to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and its victims but also to rouse French youth to fight injustice around them. He is a living example.

Something about this man moved me. I don’t know if it was his unassuming manner, his story, or the candid way in which he told it. He beamed when he told me how, during liberation, he rode down his village’s main street on an American tank, holding a shot gun. His eyes shone when he described his non-Jewish neighbors’ indifference at his father’s arrest, something he will never forget and can never forgive. As our conversation veered toward the present, I asked Jacques what he thought defined a “by-stander”, a theme we have been grappling with throughout the semester. Jacques simply answered that those who lived through the war had choices and shared his hopes that we should never have to face such impossible decisions or live through such terrifying and uncertain times. However, he added that though circumstances have changed, we continue to make choices every day. Do we recognize and fight injustice, even in our own small way? Do we assist neighbors, expecting nothing in return? Or do we prefer the comfort of ignorance to the challenges that activism presents? Jacques inspired me to confront my own answers to these questions.


Melancholy colored our exchange of goodbyes and bisous with Rachel, Jacques, and the other survivors in Belleville. We savored that afternoon and the personal contact fostered by the informal setting (Clare even persuaded survivor Georgette to take a “selfie”) because we all knew this meeting could likely be our last. As survivors near the end of their lives, such encounters are increasingly rare and therefore precious. During our meeting with tireless activists, the Klarsfelds, Serge agreed that the Holocaust will soon fade from living memory and slip into the realm of History. What will remain to testify to the pain of the victims? To the brutality of the Nazis and their collaborators? To the courage of those who resisted? We have the power to collectively shape the answers to these questions but first, we must carry out the memory work that will ensure that the victims, that the survivors we met this week, are honored. My commitment begins now, on this trip, with this experience for I know that long after Jacques Klajnberg is no longer able, I will continue to tell his story.