Archive for January, 2013
It’s Holocaust Memorial Day. I’m thinking about how we can build bridges between past and present, by telling individual stories, by giving back to the people who were swallowed up in that terror their names, their faces, their uniqueness.
Sometimes we just have a name, sometimes a photograph and fragments of a life. And sometimes from the darkness a voice emerges that is so vivid that as you read you hear it, you hear the urgency, the passion, the despair and you want to reach out. Helene Berr’s is such a voice.
Her diary describes her life in Paris between 1942 and 1944. It wasn’t published till 2008, but since then it has become an essential document of the Holocaust and specifically of the Occupation of France. After the Liberation, her fiance and surviving family members circulated the manuscript amongst themselves, but eventually it was offered to the Shoah Memorial, published to great acclaim, and since then has been translated into 26 languages. It’s inspired an exhibition at the Shoah Memorial , which uses Helene’s story and her words to illuminate some of the darkest corners of those dark years.
Hélène has been called the French Anne Frank, but whilst both kept journals which have become key documents of the Holocaust, and both died in the last weeks before Liberation, they’re very different. Others have noted the parallels between the publication of her journal, and the discovery of the manuscript of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise.
However, these comparisons don’t do justice to the remarkable and unique qualities of this diary. Hélène lived in the heart of Occupied Paris, walked its streets wearing the yellow star, worked with Jewish orphans, played music, fell in love. And she wrote this poignant, vivid and impassioned account of the events she witnessed, ‘pour ne pas les oublier, parce qu’il ne faut pas oublier’, setting herself the task of recording everything, giving the unfolding tragedy its full weight, showing it raw, naked, without distortion.
16 April 1942
S said ‘The Germans are going to win the war’. I said ‘No!’. But I didn’t know what else to say. I was conscious of my cowardice – the cowardice of not standing up in front of him for what I believed – so I shook myself – I exclaimed ‘But what will become of us if the Germans win?’. He shrugged: ‘Bah! Nothing will change ‘. I knew what he would say. ‘There will always be the sun and the water’. I was all the more irritated because deep down, at that moment, I felt the supreme pointlessness of all these arguments, in the face of beauty. And yet I knew that I was falling under a malign spell. … I forced myself to say: ‘but they won’t let everyone enjoy the light and the water’. Happily, this phrase saved me. I don’t want to be a coward.
8 June 1942
My God, I had no idea it would be so hard. I was so brave all day. I held my head high, and looked people straight in the face, when they averted their eyes. But it’s hard. …. This morning I went out with Mother. Two kids in the street pointed at us, saying ‘Hey, have you seen? Jews’. But otherwise things seemed normal. … A young couple were waiting, I saw the woman point me out to her companion. I heard her say. ‘It’s heartbreaking’. On the bus there was a woman, probably a domestic servant, who had already smiled at me before getting on board, and who turned several times to smile; a smart gentleman stared at me: I couldn’t interpret the stare, but I looked back proudly.
18 July 1942
I felt guilty, that there was something I hadn’t seen, this reality. This woman, her sister who has four children has been taken. The evening of the round-up, she hid, but unluckily went back up to the concierge just as they came to find her. Mme Bieder is like a hunted animal. She’s not afraid for herself. but she’s terrified that they’ll take her children from her. …. At Montmartre, there were so many arrests that the streets were blocked. The faubourg Saint Denis is almost deserted. They’re separating mothers from their children. I’m recording the facts hastily, so as not to forget, because we mustn’t forget.
31 January 1944
I used to quote, not long ago, a phrase from a Russian play: ‘We shall rest, Uncle Vanya, we shall rest’. It meant the sleep of the tomb. But more and more I say to myself that only the dead escape this persecution; when I hear of the death of a Jew now, I think, ‘they’re out of the reach of the Germans’. Isn’t that horrible? We hardly weep for the dead any more.
15 February 1944
Why then does the German soldier who I pass in the street not attack or bother me? Why does he often hold the train door for me, or say ‘Excuse me’ if he blocks my way? Why? Because people don’t know – or rather they don’t think any more, they’re just about whatever they’ve been ordered to do right now. But they don’t even see the incomprehensible illogic of holding the door open for me, when tomorrow they may send me to be deported, and yet I will be the same unique person. … Also no doubt they don’t know everything – one atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They don’t know all of the horrible details of the persecutions, because there’s only a small group of torturers, and of Gestapo who are implicated in it. Would they feel it, if they knew? Would they feel the suffering of these people dragged from their homes, these women separated from their flesh and blood? They’re too brutalised for that. And then they don’t think – I always come back to that – I believe it’s the source of evil and the thing on which this regime bases its power. Annihilate personal thoughts, the reaction of the individual conscience, that’s the first step to Nazism’.
Cultured and intelligent, a student at the Sorbonne until the anti-semitic laws prevented her from continuing her studies, 21 year old Hélène begins her journal in 1942 with an account of her visit to the home of poet Paul Valéry, who’s signed a copy of a book for her. She is ‘overwhelmed with joy’. At this stage, the war is, in a sense, just background noise. Even so, even this early on, she senses a chasm opening up between her life, and that of her non-Jewish friends. Little by little she is overwhelmed as she grasps the reality of what is happening around her, and the last words of her journal are a quotation from Macbeth ‘Horror! Horror! Horror!’
Hélène constantly questions herself. Should she try to get away, or stay in Paris? She asks herself why, knowing what her fate is likely to be, she’s done nothing to avoid it. She understands that the danger is increasing: ‘There aren’t many Jews left in Paris, and it’s the Germans who are arresting people now [rather than the French police], so there is less chance of escaping, because we won’t be warned.’ She believes, nonetheless, that to flee would be a defection, an act of bad faith.
In January 1944, Hélène writes ‘Will I make it to the end?’. After several months of moving around each day and staying with different friends, she and her parents went home, for just one night. That’s where they were arrested, on 8 March.
They were taken to the Drancy transit camp, and then deported, on Convoy 70 to Auschwitz, where Antoinette Berr was gassed on 30 April, and Raymond Berr was murdered in September. Hélène survived for more than a year. She was moved to Bergen-Belsen in November, where she was killed, just five days before the camp was liberated.
She so nearly did make it to the end.
- Berr, Hélène, Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Tallandier, 2008)
- Bracher, Nathan, ‘Des Considérations inactuelles au cœur de l’Occupation: Le Cogito à rebours d’Hélène Berr’, Modern & Contemporary France, 18, 1 (2010), 17-32
- Bracher, Nathan, ‘Éthique et esthétique dans le Journal d’Hélène Berr’, L’Esprit Créateur, 50, 4 (2010), 150–63
- Jaillant, Lise, ‘A Masterpiece Ripped from Oblivion: Rediscovered Manuscripts and the Memory of the Holocaust in Contemporary France’, Clio, 39, 3 (2010), 359-79
- Kelly, Debra, ‘From Cultural Amnesia to “Anamnesia”’, Synthesis, 2 (2010), 48-61
- Sinder, Henri, ‘Lights and Shades of Jewish Life in France, 1940-2’, Jewish Social Studies, 5 (1943), 367
- Classe de 1° ES2, Lycée Pierre Bourdieu-Fronton, ‘Helene Berr, une jeune étoile dans le Paris de l’Occupation’, 2008-9
Yesterday, on a quest to explore Sebald’s links with Alain Resnais’ L’Année derniere à Marienbad (for another blog), I noticed in Austerlitz the name Marie de Verneuil. She is the friend with whom Austerlitz has been in correspondence since his time in Paris, and who invites him to accompany her on a visit to Bohemia, to do some research on the spas of Europe (thus Marienbad). It would not have struck me the last time I read Austerlitz, but Marie de Verneuil is the heroine of Balzac’s first non-pseudonymous novel, Les Chouans, a historical romance based on the counter-revolutionary rebellions in Brittany.
Marie is a spy, in the employment of the revolutionary national government, whose mission is to identify and entrap the young leader of the rebels, the Marquis de Montauran. They fall in love, and the vicissitudes of their doomed romance mirror the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the opposing armies as towns change hands over and over again. This is not the Balzac of the great Comedie Humaine novels. Heavily influenced by both Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, its interest primarily lies in the way in which Balzac personifies and mythologises the landscape of Brittany as disorientating and treacherous, savage and primitive, and the way in which despite fairly obvious Republicans sympathies he enlists our emotional sympathies with Marie and the Marquis and their cause, as doomed as their romance.
But what does all of this have to do with Sebald? Balzac has an important role in Austerlitz: ‘the fifty-five small volumes of the Comedie humaine bound in carmine red’, in one of which, Le Colonel Chabert, Vera finds two small photographs, possibly placed there by Agata just before the Germans marched in. And Austerlitz, seeking respite from his frustrating and obstructed searches in the Bibliothèque Nationale, begins reading Balzac, starting with Le Colonel Chabert.
Chabert is a ghostly figure, left for dead on the battlefields of Eylau, recorded as dead in the histories of those wars, and now returned, ‘risen from the dead, so to speak’, to reclaim his identity, his inheritance, his wife. Chabert introduces himself as ‘Colonel Chabert, who died at Ehlau’, and tells of the pit of corpses in which he had been thrown after the battle and from which he clawed and tore his way out. For Austerlitz the book ‘reinforced the suspicion … that the border between life and death is less impermeable than we commonly think’.
When I first read Chabert, I thought of the deportees returning home from the camps, appearing on the streets where they had once lived but now as ghosts, revenants, shocking and uncomfortable presences amongst the living and, as revenants so often are, goads to their consciences (think of Banquo, or Jacob Marley).
Chabert, whose memories are shadowy and often confused, still hears at night the groans and sighs of the wounded and dying, just as the deportees, returned to life, brought with them the nightmare that they had escaped. And the dubious welcome he received was shared by some who found their apartments now occupied by neighbours – who sometimes justified their continued occupation on the grounds that the sole survivor of a deported family would not now need all that space.
But what of Marie de Verneuil? Pure coincidence? The only reference I can find which acknowledges the source of the name simply says that Les Chouans is never mentioned by Sebald. So did Sebald recall the name from his reading of Balzac without it having any particular significance to him? That seems improbable. Every name, every place, every reference in Sebald carries the weight of so many connections that I cannot believe this carries none. And yet it’s hard to see the link.
Maybe if I return to Marienbad, I might find something there.
I’ve written previously about the relationship between Bleston and Manchester, and about the links between Butor and Sebald, and I’ve just been exploring the fascinating collection of essays on Sebald in Melilah, the Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies, alerted by Helen Finch’s recent blog about Sebald’s Manchester. It’s good to see the link with Butor explored a bit more, but I would have to take issue in some respects with Janet Wolff’s article, ‘Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile’, which I think fails to fully identify the deeper connections between the two writers.
I would agree that Passing Time is not about Manchester in a straightforward way but I think Wolff takes that too far when she says that ‘none of this is about an actual city’, and that Revel’s diatribes against Bleston are ‘the ravings of a neurasthenic, whose debilitated psychological state produces monsters in the environment’. (p. 52) This is not a new charge – reviewers have in the past diagnosed Revel with depression or schizophrenia. But I’d argue that rather than alerting us to an unreliable narrator, the mismatch reminds us that Bleston is not just Manchester, not just any particular city. It contains many cities, real and fantastical.
But it is based more upon Manchester in its physical reality than on any other city, and contrary to Wolff’s statement that ‘there are no physical descriptions at all (quite unlike the Manchester of ‘Max Ferber’)’, there are many descriptions of Manchester landmarks, as J B Howitt has shown (in his article ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, even though Butor takes and uses those features which are relevant to him, and changes or ignores those that are not.
What interests me most, however, is Wolff’s argument that the Manchester of The Emigrants fades into insignificance in relation to ‘another geographical, phantasmic and persistent presence’.
My studies of Butor are concerned precisely with identifying that presence in Passing Time. More anon.
- Janet Wolff, ‘Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile’, in Melilah, 2012 Supplement 2, Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald. (Guest editors: Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff)
- J B Howitt, ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, Nottm French Studies, 12 (1973), 74-85
More on Butor from Les Lignes du Monde
La démarche de Michel Butor est une démarche d’appréhension et de description du monde. Il veut dépasser son statut d’occidental, il rêve d’interculturalité et de transculturalité. M. Butor pratique une écriture qui voit le monde et notre rapport au monde se transformer. Cette écriture devient une réflexion sur la condition humaine des années 1950 – 2000 alors que le monde devient de plus en plus accessible. Il recherche des formules pour rendre compte de cette condition mondialisée de l’homme et expérimente des formes littéraires en rapport avec son expérience du monde, du territoire, des autres cultures, et par rapport à un temps qui est celui de la mondialisation et de l’interactivité. Cela ne se limite pas à une forme d’écriture mais engendre aussi des signatures typographiques et des essais graphiques pour rendre sensible des lieux et des rapports entre les lieux. M. Butor est engagé dans une condition contemporaine d’écrivain…
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More about Butor from Nathanael Gobenceaux at Les Lignes du Monde.
LES GRANDS TRAITS DU PROJET « BUTORIEN » de retranscription du monde. Comme le dit M. Spencer, le projet de Michel Butor est de « transformer la façon dont nous voyons et racontons le monde ». Par ailleurs, Michel Butor entretient une relation particulière avec la planète, relation qu’il imaginerait volontiers holistique : « […] tous les textes de Butor procèdent de la même passion méthodiquement assumée : celle de devenir son propre contemporain ou, ce qui revient au même, citoyen du monde à part entière. » Michel Butor se sent concerné par le Monde et par sa diversité, c’est ce qui le fait aller voir les Aborigènes d’Australie ou les Indiens d’Amérique du Nord pour les rencontrer et raconter une certaine relation qu’ils entretiennent avec la Terre, pour étudier la façon dont les lieux antipodiques peuvent être mis en relation : « De là chez Butor une défense et illustration passionnée…
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