Archive for category French 20th century history
W G Sebald’s novels tend to begin with someone setting out on a journey. His protagonists are almost always in transit, and if they do settle somewhere it is not likely to be long-term. There are always exceptions, of course, and Max Ferber (The Emigrants) is the exception in relation to the latter trait – once he finds himself in Manchester he feels he cannot, must not leave. But Jacques Austerlitz is the archetypal Sebaldian wanderer.
We (via the narrator, who both is and is not Sebald) meet Austerlitz first in Antwerp, then in Liege, Brussels and Zeebrugge, before finding out that he is based in London. At this stage his restless quests are related to his academic interests in architecture, particularly public architecture, as he explores railway stations, prisons and fortresses, courtrooms and museums. After a two year hiatus in their relationship, the narrator and Austerlitz encounter one another again, in London, in a railway station bar. Only now do we begin to find out about his early life. Until his teenage years he had believed himself to be Dafydd Elias, growing up in Bala in Wales. Only after the death of his foster mother and the mental breakdown of his foster father does he discover that his name is Jacques Austerlitz, but he knows nothing more. The name itself signals a kind of multiple identity – a French first name and a Czech place name (which, as a surname, was shared with Fred Astaire and which, because of the Napoleonic era battle which took place there, is also the name of one of Paris’s major railway stations).
Austerlitz finds himself obsessively walking the streets of London in the early hours, and is drawn back repeatedly to Liverpool Street Station where he has a kind of vision of himself as a small child, meeting for the first time the foster parents who had been assigned to him. He feels ‘something rending’ within himself and is in a state of mental torment until he hears, by chance, a radio broadcast about the Kindertransport. This begins to trigger memories of his childhood journey, and when he hears the name of the ship, ‘SS Prague’, he determines to go to that city and find out about where it began.
Austerlitz’s quest is now to find out who his parents were, and what happened to them. He discovers, or believes he has discovered, his mother’s fate. She was deported to Terezin, from whence she was taken, we understand, ‘east’. Whilst there are uncertainties about this narrative, there are far more surrounding his father, who had left for France before the deportations from Prague began.
And so to Paris. Alongside my mission to photograph all of the memorial plaques relating to WWII that we passed as we walked its streets, I wanted to find, if I could, some of the locations described in Sebald’s novel. Sebald sometimes describes real places with absolute precision, sometimes alters or relocates them. Of course, whilst major public buildings were easy to find, I was unsure whether, given that the narrator and protagonist are both fictional constructs, the specific addresses provided would be as straightforward. But they were all there, even the bistro on boulevard Auguste Blanqui.
I received a postcard from Austerlitz giving me his new address (6 rue des cinq Diamants), in the thirteenth arrondissement. (p. 354)
I met Austerlitz, as agreed, on the day after my arrival, in the Le Havane bistro bar on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui, not far from the Glaciere Metro station. (p. 355)
The rue Barrault is said to be the last known address of Maximilian Aychenwald. Austerlitz speculates about whether his father had been caught up in one of the round-ups of Jews:
I kept wondering whether he had been interned in the half-built housing estate out at Drancy after the first police raid in Paris in August 1941, or not until July of the following year, when a whole army of French gendarmes took thirteen thousand of their Jewish fellow citizens from their homes, in what was called the grande rafle, during which over a hundred of their victims jumped out of the windows in desperation or found some other way of committing suicide. I sometimes thought I saw the window-less police cars racing through a city frozen with terror, the crowd of detainees camping out in the open in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, and the trains on which they were soon transported from Drancy and Bobigny; I pictured their journey through the Greater German Reich, I saw my father still in his good suit and his black velour hat, calm and upright among all the frightened people. (pp. 358-359)
During an earlier period in Paris, before the search for his father began, Austerlitz had had another episode of nervous collapse, and had been admitted to the Salpêtrière Hospital.
I did not return to my senses until I was in the Salpêtrière, to which I had been taken and where I was now lying in one of the men’s wards … somewhere in that gigantic complex of buildings where the borders between hospital and penitentiary have always been blurred, and which seems to have grown and spread of its own volition over the centuries until it now forms a universe of its own between the Jardin des Plantes and the Gare d’Austerlitz. (pp. 375-376)
This is the hospital at which, in the late 19th century, Charcot developed his diagnosis of ‘hysterical epilepsy’, and the phenomenon of the ‘fugueur‘ was first identified and researched. Austerlitz can remember nothing about himself or his history, but someone finds the address of his friend Marie de Verneuil and contacts her at 7 place des Vosges.
When I met Austerlitz again for morning coffee on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui, … he told me that the previous day he had heard, from one of the staff at the records centre in the rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, that Maximilian Aychenwald had been interned during the latter part of 1942 in the camp at Gurs, a place in the Pyrennean foothills … Curiously enough, said Austerlitz, a few hours after our last meeting, when he had come back from the Bibliothèque Nationale and changed trains at the Gare d’Austerlitz, he had felt a premonition that he was coming closer to his father. As I might know, he said, part of the railway network had been paralysed by a strike last Wednesday, and in the unusual silence which, as a consequence, had descended on the Gare d’Austerlitz, an idea came to him of his father’s leaving Paris from this station … I imagined, said Austerlitz, that I saw him leaning out of the window … After that I wandered round the deserted station half dazed, through the labyrinthine underpasses, over foot-bridges, up flights of steps on one side and down on the other. That station, said Austerlitz, has always seemed to me the most mysterious of all the railway terminals of Paris. … I was particularly fascinated by the way the Metro trains coming from the Bastille, having crossed the Seine, roll over the iron viaduct into the station’s upper storey, quite as if the façade were swallowing them up. And I also remember that I felt an uneasiness induced by the hall behind this façade, filled with a feeble light and almost entirely empty, where on a platform roughly assembled out of beams and boards, there stood a scaffolding reminiscent of a gallows … an impression forced itself upon me of being on the scene of some unexpiated crime. (pp. 404-407)
The records centre in the rue Geoffrey l’Asnier is now the Mémorial de la Shoah. Amongst the many records kept here, there is a room full of boxes of index cards, relating to the various internment camps and those who were imprisoned there.
I don’t know, said Austerlitz, what all this means, and so I am going to continue looking for my father, and for Marie de Verneuil as well. (p. 408)
We will never know the outcome, although it seems most likely that his parents’ journeys ended in the same, terrible place, a place with which Austerlitz’s name has resonated, whether we have been conscious of it or not, from the beginning. As James Wood points out:
And throughout the novel, present but never spoken, never written – it is the best act of Sebald’s withholding – is the other historical name that shadows the name Austerlitz, the name that begins and ends with the same letters, the name which we sometimes misread Austerlitz as, the place that Agata Austerlitz was almost certainly ‘sent east’ to in 1944, and the place that Maximilian Aychenwald was almost certainly sent to in 1942 from the French camp in Gurs: Auschwitz.
(James Wood, ‘Sent East’, London Review of Books, 6 October 2011)
Austerlitz himself will continue to wander, and it seems that his travels are not merely in space, but also in time. The small Czech boy separated from his parents, the troubled Welsh schoolboy, the London academic, and the driven man travelling through some of the most haunted places in Europe – all are one. Always in transit, in temporary or liminal spaces, descending into the underworld/labyrinth to keep the appointment he has made with his own past.
He had quite often found himself in the grip of dangerous and entirely incomprehensible currents of emotion in the Parisian railway stations, which, he said, he regarded as places marked by both blissful happiness and profound misfortune. (p. 45)
I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them. (p.144)
I felt, … said Austerlitz, as if my father were still in Paris and just waiting, so to speak, for a good opportunity to reveal himself. Such ideas infallibly come to me in places which have more of the past about them then the present. For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find out way to them at last. … And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak? (pp. 359-360)
First time I went to Paris, I started noticing the plaques. I expected them to be the equivalent of our blue plaques, famous bloke (or occasionally woman) was born/lived/died/did something famous here. Instead they were, as often as not, recording the fact that someone whose name is not otherwise known fell here, during the Liberation of the city from its Nazi occupiers. Or that someone whose name is not otherwise known lived here until they were deported by the French police and handed over to the Nazi occupiers, because they were Jewish. I became mildly obsessed. Without a camera phone at that time (it was that long ago) and having gone out unarmed with notebooks, I searched when we got home for information and found an amazing website which aimed to record all such plaques, with a photograph and a brief note about the person or event commemorated. Sadly, that has disappeared now.
So when we went back, I set myself the task of photographing every WWII related plaque that we passed on our travels, and finding out what I could about the background. What follows is an account of what we found – it captures only so very few of the commemorative markers, only those which happened to be on the routes we chose for our walks, those which we spotted, unobscured by scaffolding or parked vans, those which I could get close enough to photograph.
But even so, they tell a rich and fascinating story.
Ecole élémentaire Récollets, 19 passage des Récollets
The plaque is generic, one of many installed in the early 2000s at schools some of whose pupils had been deported during the Occupation. It makes specific reference to the number of schoolchildren deported from the 10th arrondissement, but nothing about this school in particular. These plaques represent the sea change that took place following President Jacques Chirac’s public recognition in 1995 of France’s responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation in World War II. The photograph was taken on the day that Marine le Pen made a press statement denying that responsibility. More of that anon.
Starting at the rue de Sevres, in search of the childhood residence of Michel Butor, we found instead the plaque commemorating Marc Bloch, noted French historian.
Bloch joined the Resistance in 1942, was captured in Lyon by Vichy police in 1944 and turned over to the Gestapo. He was tortured and interrogated by Klaus Barbie. Ten days after D Day, he was taken with around 28 Resistance prisoners to a meadow near Saint Didier de Formans, where they were executed by firing squad.
62 blvd St Michel
Pierre Bounin was a member of one of the independent cavalry brigades, known as Spahi (from the Turkish word for horseman), which saw active service in France in 1940 and one of which subsequently joined forces with the Free French. This mechanised regiment served in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and was part of the French forces that liberated Paris in August 1944. This area saw intense fighting to liberate the city, and Bounin is just one of the combattants commemorated.
At 60 blvd St Michel, 24 year old Jean Montvallier-Boulogne was killed, on the same day as Bounin. The wall behind his plaque is pitted with bullet holes from the bombardment of the city in 1918, and from the fighting in 1944.
On rue St Jacques, another generic school plaque:
On to the Pont des Arts:
Jacques Lecompte-Boinet was a Compagnon de la Liberation Fondateur and headed the movement Ceux de la Resistance. The Pont des Arts was the location for clandestine meetings with comrades who, like him, risked torture and death. Here Vercors passed on to him publications from the Editions de minuit, intended for General de Gaulle.
Lecompte-Boinet initially joined the Mouvement de Liberation Nationale, which became Combat. Subsequently he set up Ceux de la Résistance with Pierre Arrighi. He was involved in the first meeting of the Conseil national de la Résistance (CNR), 27 May 1943, then left for London in October, from where he travelled to Algiers, returning to France in February 1944. He had a distinguished diplomatic career after the war, and died in November 1974.
Just round the corner is the plaque commemorating Vercors himself – real name Jean Bruller – who wrote Le Silence de la mer, one of the key texts of the literary resistance. It was written in 1941 and published secretly in 1942, the first publication of the Editions de minuit, which Bruller co-founded. Their publications were distributed via clandestine networks, hand to hand. Along with Vercors, they published works by Francois Mauriac, Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon, and after the war established a reputation for publishing new writers such as Michel Butor.
Further along the banks of the Seine, the role of the former Gare d’Orsay (now the Musée d’Orsay), as a reception point for those who had escaped or been liberated from concentration camps and forced labour camps is commemorated.
The other major reception point was the Hotel Lutetia, which had been the HQ of the Abwehr during the Occupation, and here the photographs of those who had been deported were displayed, as family members waited in hope of finding those they had lost, and returning deportees waited in hope of finding that someone was looking for them. The survivors of the death camps took longer to come home, often requiring months of medical treatment before they were fit to travel. Their reception was traumatic, for them and for those waiting for them.
Another railway station, this time the Gare d’Austerlitz.
This was not a place of welcome but a place of despatch. From here, cattle trucks took men, women and children rounded up in Paris to the internment camps of Pithiviers and Beane-la-Rolande, from where most of them were subsequently transported to Auschwitz.
Francois Mauriac, in his clandestine Editions de minuit publication under the pseudonym Forez, Le Cahier noir (1943), wrote of what his wife saw here:
At what other moment in history have the gates of the prison camps closed on so many innocents, at what other epoque have children been dragged away from their mothers and crammed into cattle trucks, as witnessed one sombre morning at the Gare d’Austerlitz?
We were here not only for this bit of history, but for the links to W G Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, the topic of a separate blog.
On the avenue des Gobelins, the deportations from the 13th arrondissement following the Vel d’Hiv round-ups are specifically commemorated. This is quite clear – the round-ups were carried out by ‘la police de l’état francais’. When the Armistice was signed, and Marshall Pétain took on the role of head of state, the vast majority of the French, however much they mourned the defeat, accepted that this was now France. Private citizens and public institutions treated it as such, with at least initially only a small number refusing to accept the authority of the Vichy regime and throwing in their lot with de Gaulle and/or the nascent Resistance. When it came to anti-semitic legislation, Vichy was ahead of its new masters, and as far as the round-ups of Jews are concerned, whilst the Nazis are responsible for the ultimate destination, Auschwitz, those arrested on 16 July 1942 saw only French police until they were on the way to extermination. French police drew up the lists, French police organised the buses and blocked the ends of the streets where their targets lived. French police hammered on the doors in the early hours, and forced the residents to pack swiftly and abandon their homes and most of what they owned. French police transported single adults straight to the internment camps, and families to the stadium, the Velodrome d’hiver. French police guarded them there until they in turn were transferred to the internment camps, and guarded them there too, separating men from women and parents from children until the trucks took them away.
So, inevitably, to Marine le Pen. Her entirely cynical denial of French responsibility is shameful. Le Monde‘s editorial is a perfectly balanced and crystal clear response:
In affirming on Sunday 9 April … that ‘France was not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv’, Marine le Pen has crossed a line: that of the national consensus on the reading of some of the most painful episodes in the history of France, the deportation of French Jews under the German occupation. …
In declaring, at the 1995 commemoration of the event, that ‘France, on that day, did something irreparable’, Jacques Chirac, then President of the Republic, marked a definitive new reading of the deportation of the Jews. The moment had come to recognise clearly the responsiblity of the collaborationist French state … First ministers Lionel Jospin and Jean Pierre Raffarin confirmed his judgement. President Sarkozy judged that there was ‘nothing to retract and nothing to add to this fine statement’. Later, President Francois Hollande, in turn, denounced ‘a crime commited in France for France’.
In rejecting this consensus, Marine le Pen claims to be following in the footsteps of General de Gaulle. On Sunday, to justify her statement, she referred to a ruling from August 1944, published in Algiers by de Gaulle’s provisional government and intended to remove all legality from the Vichy regime. But we are no longer in 1944, nor even in 1981, and Marine le Pen is not Charles de Gaulle, whose heritage was embodied far better by Chirac than by her. We are in 2017. Nearly 3/4 of a century has passed since the Liberation, at least three generations, tens of thousands of pages of history have been written, debated, analysed and taught. The ‘national story’ which [le Pen] wants to promote is anachronistic and sickening. It is based not on a refusal to repent, but on a refusal to recognise an indispensable truth about the nation’s history. Incidentally, Mme le Pen jeopardises (but that’s her problem) years of trying to de-demonise her party, which led her to exclude her own father, unfortunately famous as the man who called the gas chambers a ‘detail’.
Marine le Pen affirmed that ‘France is mentally abused’ by those who teach this critical view. No, Mme le Pen, what abuses France is a version of history which leads it back to the denial of the post-war period. In 1995, Jacques Chirac called for ‘vigilance’. The FN candidate shows that he was right.
At 137 blvd de l’Hopital, previous inhabitants are commemorated; ten of whom (ranging in age from 9 months to 58) were deported and murdered because they were Jews, and another who was shot as a resistant in 1944:
3rd arrondissement. We’re now in Le Marais.
Two more school plaques, commemorating over 500 children from the 3rd, many of whom attended the Lycée Victor Hugo or the Ecole de filles de la rue de Sévigné (now the Atelier des Beaux-arts).
On the rue Perrée, two plaques commemorate members of the union of merchants of the Carreau du Temple who died for France.
After visiting the Musée de l’Ordre de la Liberation, housed within the Musée de l’Armée, which tells the story of occupation, deportation, resistance and finally liberation, we paid our respects at avenue Elysée Reclus, near the Eiffel Tower, home of Hélène Berr. I’ve written often about Hélène, whose journal, not published until 2008, is one of the most powerful documents of the Occupation.
In my 2012 Holocaust Memorial Day blog, I wrote this:
She was 20 when Paris was occupied, from a thoroughly assimilated French Jewish family, a student at the Sorbonne. She was 21 when she started the journal in which, at first, the war and the Nazi persecution are almost background noise. She was almost 23 when she was arrested, a few months before Paris was liberated, and then deported to Auschwitz on one of the convoys from Drancy. It was her 23rd birthday when she was moved from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen. She was 24 when she died, in Bergen Belsen, 5 days before the camp was liberated. Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was finally published in 2008 and when I read it I loved her, and I grieved for the fate I already knew would be hers. Another voice that wasn’t quite silenced, after all.
Near the Champ de Mars, on avenue de la Bourdonnais, the place where the ‘national insurrection’ of 19-25 August 1944 was planned.
Jean Alexandre Melchior de Vogüé (Vaillant), Alfred Antoine Malleret (Joinville), Raymond Massiet (Dufresne). All three survived the war.
We began at the Mémorial de la Shoah. I had braced myself for this, knowing the terrible history that would be illustrated there. Nonetheless, seeing the Wall of Names, I felt the air being sucked from my lungs, realising that I was seeing in that moment only a fragment, only some of the names from only one of the years.
Further in, another sharp intake of breath, another moment where the experience of seeing what I knew I was going to see, the photographs of some of the children deported to extermination camps, overwhelmed me.
The Memorial is a powerful experience. It cannot but move you. And in order that one does not give in to despair about humanity, one leaves the Memorial for the Allée des Justes, and another list of names, this time of those who have been recognised for their actions during those dark years, actions which jeopardised their own lives in order to help Jewish friends, colleagues, neighbours and total strangers.
At 23 rue des Ecouffes, in the heart of the Jewish quarter, a family memorial.
This family could be a symbol of the French Resistance. Jewish and Communist, they paid a heavy price.
Rosalie Engros was arrested in August 1942, and deported a month later, to Auschwitz. She was 51. Isaac Engros was murdered at Auschwitz in February 1944, aged 54. They had three sons. Marcel, arrested on 6 May 1942 and shot at Mont Valerien, aged 25. Lucien, arrested and tortured in May 1942, shot 22 August 1942, aged 22, along with a dozen other resistants. Andre, part of the FTP-MOI group of young Jewish resistants, arrested July 1943, tortured and shot 1 October 1943 at Mont-Valerien, aged 16.
Another school plaque, this time for the Lycée Turgot, on the rue de Turbigo.
On to the rue Meslay, where Yves Toudic is commemorated. He was shot by the Brigade Speciale, a French police unit specialising in tracking down “internal enemies” (i.e. resistants), dissidents, escaped prisoners, Jews and those evading the STO. They worked in direct collaboration with the German civil, secret and military police.
Toudic was 43 when he was killed. Son of a labourer, he was a militant communist and resistant. From September 1940 he was in charge of the Comités populaires du Batiment for the Paris region, and continued in that role until he was shot by the Brigade Speciale, at the time of the 14 July demonstration in the place de la République, which he helped to organise.
Rue René Boulanger. Another young resistant shot down during the battles to liberate the city. I can find nothing about Jean Sulpice, partly because he has a contemporary namesake, a chef. He was 25 when he died.
On the facade of the Bourse du travail, 3 rue du Château-d’Eau, a plaque commemorates the recapturing of the building by ‘the workers of Paris’.
I missed so many. And there is so much more I want to know about those whose names appear here, for posterity. There’s not only the history of the occupation engraved on the walls of Paris, but the history of how it was understood and interpreted and communicated. From the stone plaques marking the spots where resisters fell, installed soon after the liberation, to the much more recent black marble plaques acknowledging how Jewish children disappeared from Paris schools, as they and their families were rounded up and deported.
Paris has of course a rich history outside of those four dark and terrible years. We saw some of it, beautiful buildings and great art. But it seems ever more pertinent to explore what happened in one of the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan and cultured cities of Europe when an occupying power tapped into and found a rich spring of anti-semitism and more generalised xenophobia, and found willing, even enthusiastic partners in their great project to wipe out the Jewish race. Most of those who participated did not know (at least, not for sure) what would be the fate of those they helped to deport. It seems, though, that they didn’t actually care – once the Jews were no longer France’s problem, they had no interest in what would happen to them. We dwell on this not to bad-mouth the French – this happened not only in France but across Europe, and it can happen anywhere, if the right conditions prevail.
We must remember, we must understand, and we must be vigilant.
The journey that we most associate with the Holocaust is the one that ends at those gates.
Our imagination cannot go beyond that point, no matter how many accounts we read from those who survived. Our imagination baulks at the journey to the gates, not just at its ending – the cattle trucks from all corners of occupied Europe filled with people who not so long before had lives, loves, professions and occupations, and had all of those things gradually stripped from them till all that was left was a name on a list.
But for many of those individuals, the Holocaust journey began long before the cattle truck to Auschwitz. The Plus qu’un nom dans une liste project has put together many stories of individuals and families deported from France, and I’ve selected just a couple, to show what happened to them once their homes were no longer safe for them.
The Taussig family left Vienna in June 1939, having obtained a ‘Reisepass’, and left Reich territory the same month via the frontier post of Arnoldstein in Carinthia, where nowadays the three borders of Austria, Italy and Slovenia meet. Rudolf and his wife Leonie, both 56, and their son Hans, 29, crossed into Italy through the Friuli province.
Italy had stopped allowing foreign Jews into its territory by this time, and the authorities probably escorted the family to the Italian Riviera. On 9 July the Taussigs arrived at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Cote d’Azur. The gendarmes had been alerted by phone that a group of refugees were waiting on the beach for the people to whom they’d paid money for safe passage, and arrested them and took them to Menton.
Those arrested that night were:
- Léonie Taussig, born 29/3/1885 in Vienna; daughter of Joseph Bondy and Bertha Donath
- Rudolf Taussig, born 26/5/1883 in Chrudim, Czechoslovakia, son of Adolf Taussig and Louisette Teveles
- Hans Taussig, born 28/6/1910 in Vienna, son of Rudolf and Léonie
- James Landau, born 21/08/1895 in Breslau, son of Wilhem and Henriette Kehlmann
- Bruno Kulka, born 30/12/1894 in Prerou (Moravia), son of Jean and Emma Herzka.
On 11 July Rudolf and family were transferred to Lyon, where he and Hans were interned. Rudolf was freed in January 1940, and Hans on 21 February. On 23 April 1940 Rudolf obtained a refugee worker permit for work as a metallurgist which was extended till 15 July 1941. However, the tribunal in Nice judged them in their absence for having entered France illegally, and condemned them to a month in prison and a fine of 100 francs. Rudolf and Hans served their sentence at the prison St Paul de Lyon and were freed in September 1941. They requested emigration to the USA, where their daughter Alice had already settled – she and her husband had managed to leave France for Portugal, where they got a visa in Lisbon in March 1940.
The Taussig family were arrested during the round-ups in the southern zone in the summer of 1942, interned at Drancy and all three deported to Auschwitz in September 1942 on convoy 27.
The Taussigs’ journey – Vienna to Arnoldstein to Friuli to Roquebrune Cap Martin to Menton to Lyon to Drancy to Auschwitz
Gisela Spira fled Berlin early in 1939 with her mother and elder sister Toni. The three women arrived in Brussels on 31 January, where father Herzel and brother Siegmund were already waiting for them. The youngest brother, Felix, had already been placed by the Comité d’Assistance at the house of the curate of Wezembeek, east of Brussels.
After May 1940, round-ups of German and Austrians in Belgium as enemy aliens prompted the Spira family to go into exile again, and they crossed clandestinely into France. They were interned there almost immediately, at Bram, in the Aude. They were freed on 30 June, and found somewhere to live in Salleles d’Aude, where Gisela met Bertold Linder, ten years older than her, who she married in January 1942.
On 26 August 1942, the Spira family was arrested, apart from Siegmund and Gisela who had moved to Lamalou les Bains, and then to St Martin Vésubie, near the Italian border. Herzel, Rosa, Toni and Felix were deported on Convoy 31 to Auschwitz where they were murdered.
On 25 December 1942, Gisela gave birth to a son, Roland.
Hundreds of Jewish refugees had been forced to settle in St Martin by the Italian administration. Many tried to cross the mountains, hoping to meet up with the Allied army. In August/September 1943, a new danger appeared, as the Wehrmacht occupied the old Italian zone, and on the 10th, the Gestapo arrived in Nice.
At St Martin, the local refugee organisations told families to pack their suitcases as quickly as possible, and to follow the retreating Italian army. Siegmund, Frieda and Roland, and around 1,200 men, women and children then tried to escape across the Alps, a biblical exodus which took place between 9 and 13 September. 328 people were intercepted and escorted to the Borgo San Dalmazzo camp in Italy, under the guard of Italian soldiers until the SS arrived. Two months later, on 21 November, the camp was evacuated, and its inhabitants transported to Nice, where they were interrogated by the Gestapo.
Gisela, her son, brother and husband were deported from Nice to Drancy. On 7 December 1943, they left Drancy on Convoy 64. On 12 December, 13 days after Roland’s first birthday, on disembarking from the cattle trucks, Gisela and her son were gassed at Auschwitz.
Siegmund alone survived. His journey continued from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated. He settled in the USA.
Gisela’s journey – Berlin to Brussels to Bram to Salleles d’Aude to Lamalou les Bains to Saint Martin Vesubie to Borgo San Dalmazzo to Nice to Drancy to Auschwitz
What’s striking is not just how those journeys ended – it’s that process of seeking safety, finding it illusory, moving on in the hopes that the next place will be different. Taking their old lives with them as they went from one apparent haven to the next. In any of the convoys from Drancy there would be those who had sought refuge in France from persecution over the previous half-century from all over Europe, and those whose families had lived in France for generations. There would be workers and bosses, Communists and conservatives, believers and non-believers. Some of their journeys were long and convoluted, like those outlined above, with many apparent reprieves along the way until that final denial of their right to live. Others had been rounded up on French streets where they had spent all their lives, and like Helene Berr, made only a short journey from Paris to Drancy before the terrible journey from Drancy to annihilation.
Those who destroyed them saw them as one thing only. That’s the nature of genocide, nothing matters except that one defining characteristic – you are a Jew, a Tutsi, and therefore you have to die. That’s why we have to make them, wherever we can, more than a name on a list. Gisela Spira, Rudolf Taussig, Helene Berr, deserve their own stories, so that we glimpse the people they were, the people they might have been.
And if we can enter imaginatively into their journeys, can we not also think of them when we hear of those in our own time who are driven from their homes by war and persecution, seeking safety where they can and often finding further perils instead?
It was sheer coincidence that in the week that Nelson Mandela died, and having been musing on integrity and courage, I read Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy. No obvious connection, one might think, between the death of a South African leader and a historical novel set in France at the end of the last century. Wrong.
An Officer and a Spy is the story of Georges Picquart, one of the key players in the fight to win the freedom of Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason, and who suffered humiliation, disgrace and imprisonment himself along the way. The fascinating thing about this story, and where it differs most profoundly from that of Mandela, is that whereas Mandela, as a young black man in apartheid South Africa, was aware every hour of every day of the injustice that he confronted, Picquart was an establishment man, an army man, who trusted the chain of command and was trusted by it. But he reached a point when he said, ‘that is not right’, and from that point on, he did not stop, even when it appeared he might lose everything.
Picquart did not start by believing in the innocence of Dreyfus. He had no predisposition to see conspiracy, or prejudice, at work. He became uneasy, as he discovered tiny details which didn’t quite fit with the established version of events, but his crusade began when he realised not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but that the establishment knew this, and had no intention of doing anything about it, but would allow him to continue to suffer on Devil’s Island, whilst the real guilty party (also known to the powers that be) retained his freedom, his army post, his salary.
Picquart wasn’t motivated either by personal fondness for Dreyfus (he knew him, and didn’t like him particularly), nor out of lifelong principled opposition to the anti-semitism which allowed Dreyfus to be made a scapegoat and his guilt to be so easily believed (he shared the low-level anti-semitic assumptions of his era and his class, assuming that Jews put loyalty to their own kind above loyalty to the country they lived in). His heroism lies precisely in those facts. Once he suspected that an injustice had been done he had to know, and once he knew, he had to act. He was demoted, sent abroad to high risk postings, kept under surveillance, his mail opened and his family and friends investigated. He was himself accused and imprisoned, only vindicated when Dreyfus himself was freed. He never faltered.
I won’t reprise the story of the Dreyfus affair here, because (a) it’s complicated and (b) you’ll have far more fun reading the account in Robert Harris’s novel.
My own interest in it resides partly in its place in French history and culture. Two of my favourite writers played a part in the story – Emile Zola of course produced the famous article ‘J’accuse’, in defence of Dreyfus, and was convicted of libel and removed from the Legion d’Honneur as a result.
And reading Proust made me aware for the first time how one’s take on Dreyfus’s innocence or guilt defined one, and divided society – dreyfusard or anti-dreyfusard, pretty much all of his characters are self-declared as one or the other. As Boyd Tonkin wrote recently in The Independent:
In many ways, the Dreyfus Affair lends In Search of Lost Time its moral spine. For Proust the Dreyfusard, who organised a petition in support of the tormented prisoner on Devil’s Island and avidly attended the 1898 trial of Émile Zola for criminal libel after he published his famous denunciation “J’Accuse”, attitudes to Dreyfus not only split the social milieu he depicts down the middle. They test and define the mettle of his main characters. To the Proust scholar Malcolm Bowie, the case gave Proust his “great experimental laboratory”. It runs like a live wire through those seven volumes.
It clearly also is a fascinating episode in the history of prejudice and anti-semitism. The case played its part in the founding of Zionism as a political force, as Theodor Herzl said:
“if France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated”
Herzl was proved right in the case of France, as only 36 years after Dreyfus was finally pardoned, and 7 years after his death, Jews were being rounded up on the streets of Paris, herded into transit camps and then into cattle trucks before being deported to Auschwitz. Then, as there had been during the Dreyfus affair, there were people who were driven by hatred, people who colluded in injustice out of fear or complacency but also, throughout that dark time, people like Picquart, who were unable to be passive in the face of such injustice and evil, and who risked everything to stand against it.
Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy (Hutchinson, 2013)
- dreyfus still an affair (3quarksdaily.com)
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.
Frieda Linder-Kornweitz, from Vienna, died aged 31 with her daughter Karin (aged 7) at Auschwitz, December 1943 (http://jewishtraces.org/plus-quun-nom-dans-une-liste-frieda-linder-kornweitz/)
Sulamite-Solange Ast, age 18, died with her younger brother Marc and their mother, at Auschwitz in 1943. Their father survived.
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 serveral 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 musn’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? Becuase 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
17 October. A demonstration is scheduled in the heart of the city, against a curfew recently imposed on certain sections of the population. There are about 30,000 demonstrators, men, women and children, many in their Sunday best, a signal of their peaceful intentions. But the reception, as they emerge from the stations and move towards their meeting place, is anything but peaceful. The police are ready for them, their instructions to pay back one blow with ten, with the assurance that whatever happens, they have the backing of their superiors. Of the 30,000, 11,000 are arrested. Some of these are herded into buses and taken to a nearby sports stadium, where they are interrogated and beaten up. Some are beaten and thrown into the river, or hung from trees and lampposts. Probably – and we’ll never know for sure – 200 of the demonstrators are killed.
This happened in Paris, in 1961, to Algerians and others of North African origin, in the context of the Algerian War and terrorist activity by the FLN. That it isn’t widely known about – was barely spoken of at all until the 1990s – is the result of one of the most successful cover-ups of our time.
It’s not that there were no accounts of these events at the time – the arrest, beating and murder of so many could hardly go unnoticed in the centre of Paris. But in France itself, there was rigorous state censorship – films and photographs were seized and destroyed, and journalists found their reports buried or edited to match the official line that it was a riot that was firmly dealt with by the police. This was echoed by most of the international press, who at best suggested that perhaps the police response was a tad firmer than absolutely necessary. Amongst the Algerian community, fear of reprisals largely ensured that, even as people desperately tried to find out what had happened to family members who never came home after the demonstration, their experiences were not made public.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote about the massacre in her autobiography, drawing on her friend Claude Lanzmann’s first-hand account:
The cops were waiting for the Algerians at the exits to the Metro … [Lanzmann] saw with his own eyes how they kicked them in the teeth and smashed their skulls. Bodies were found hanging from the trees on the Bois du Boulogne and others, disfigured and mutilated, in the Seine. … Afterwards, I heard the … bare-faced lies: two dead, when we already know of more than 50.
That there is now a plaque on the Pont St Michel, and films and TV documentaries about that night in October 1961, is due mainly to the fact that the person in charge of the Paris police force at the time was one Maurice Papon, who in the 1980s came under scrutiny not for his treatment of Algerian demonstrators twenty years earlier, but for his complicity in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux almost twenty years before that. During the course of his somewhat belated trial, the connection with the massacre was brought to light.
Didier Daeninckx’s noir policier Meurtres pour la Mémoire linked the massacre with the deportations (without naming Papon) in 1984, but interestingly was not the first fictional treatment of the massacre. Black American writer William Gardner Smith wrote The Stone Face in 1963, and Kristin Ross, in her study of the afterlife of May 68, writes that:
It is a mark of the success surrounding the official blackout of information about October 17 that Smith’s novel, written by a foreigner in France and published in the United States (it could not be published in France), would stand as one of the few representations of the event available all the way up until the early 1990s – until the moment, that is, when a generation of young Beurs, as the children of North African immigrants call themselves, had reached an age at which they could begin to demand information about their parents’ fate. Professional or academic historians have lagged well behind amateurs in the attempt to discover what occurred on October 17; investigative journalists, militants, and fiction writers like Smith, or the much more widely read detective novelist, Didier Daeninckx, kept a trace of the event alive during the thirty years when it had entered a “black hole” of memory.
For many, Michael Hanecke’s film Caché (Hidden) was the first introduction to the 17 October massacre. There’s only a brief mention of it but nonetheless it sits at the heart of the film, a film about memory and the burying of memory. It led me to try to find out whether – as seemed improbable at first – such a thing could have happened and left so little trace.
There are so many aspects of this story that fascinate. The connection between collaboration in the deportation of Jews during the Occupation and the violent repression of dissent by French citizens of north African origin even extends to the fact that an earlier crack-down on Algerian demonstrators by Papon had involved the use of the Vel’d’Hiv as a detention centre. And the fact that an event witnessed by so many could be so effectively hidden from view reflects the way in which the history of collaboration during the Occupation had to be dragged painfully into the light over decades.
There’s also the contrast with the public response to the brutal suppression of a demonstration in February 1962 organised by the Communist Party – the eight who were killed became the symbols of state violence during the Algerian War. One might have thought that this would have brought the October massacre back into public consciousness, but it seems to have had the opposite effect – it was simply eclipsed. Le Monde even reported the suppression of the Charonne demonstration as the most violent state action since 1934. Why? The only plausible explanation is the fact that the October demonstrators, unlike those who were killed and beaten a few months later, were overwhelmingly Algerian or North African.
Of course, the notion of an official cover-up is terribly pertinent today as we await prosecutions, 23 years after the event, in relation to Hillsborough. In both cases, what happened was both known and not known. Known because these things happened in public places, because there were eye-witnesses, photographs, films, newspaper articles. Not known because, in the case of the 17 October massacre those accounts were suppressed by the machinery of the state, and in the case of Hillsborough because no matter how often the truth was published and asserted it barely seemed to dent the falsehoods that had been disseminated at the time so vigorously by the police and others.
It took forty years for the victims of the 17 October massacre to be commemorated officially. We don’t know how many of them there were. We don’t know all of their names, or exactly what happened to most of them. But the events of that night in 1961 are no longer hidden.
- Simone de Beauvoir, La Force des Choses (Gallimard, 1963)
- Didier Daeninckx, Meurtres pour mémoire (Gallimard, 1984)
- Jean-Luc Einaudi, La Bataille de Paris: 17 octobre 1961 (Editions du Seuil, 1991)
- Jean-Luc Einaudi,’17 octobre 1961: un crime toujours pas condamné’ L’Humanité, 13/10/01
- Richard J Golsan (ed), The Papon Affair: Memory & Justice on Trial (Routledge, 2000)
- Daniel A. Gordon, ‘World Reactions to the 1961 Paris Pogrom’, University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History, I (2000)
- Jim House, Neil MacMaster, Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (Oxford UP, 2006)
- Jacques Panijel, ‘Le 17 octobre 1961 – un crime d’état’, L’Humanité, 24/10/97
- Kristin Ross, May ’68 And Its Afterlives (University of Chicago Press, 2002)