Archive for category Genocide
This is an edited version of a talk given at the 2019 Conference, Violent Spaces, of the Landscape, Space & Place group from the University of Nottingham.
Few late twentieth-century writers are held in such regard as W G Sebald. His work has inspired not only glowing reviews and a host of journal articles, edited volumes and monographs – but also responses by visual artists and filmmakers. There are certain themes that are most often associated with his work – time, loss, trauma, memory… These themes inevitably link to one particular aspect of his work – his writing about the Holocaust.
W G Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944, in the last months of the war. His father had served in the Wehrmacht, but after he returned home, having spent a couple of years as a prisoner of war, the things that he had seen, and done, were never spoken of. And when Sebald as a teenager was shown documentary footage of the camps (probably the liberation of Belsen) no context or commentary was provided. It was, in a way, what we’d now call a box-ticking exercise. Because, of course, the teachers were part of the context. Sebald, like many of his contemporaries, was unable to accept this collusive silence, and his increasing alienation from his homeland led to him working first in Switzerland and then moving to the UK, where he spent the rest of his life, teaching at UEA until his death in a car accident in 2001.
The Holocaust, indeed, became a presence in his poetry and his prose writing. It seems never to be very far away, invoked maybe by the name of a place, innocent in itself, but carrying the weight of history. In many of his works, it is addressed obliquely, but the figure of the refugee appears in several of his books. Max Ferber, one of the four protagonists of The Emigrants, left his home in Munich (capital of Bavaria) in 1939, following Kristallnacht, his father having obtained a visa for him by bribing the English consul. We are introduced to Ferber via the narrator, who does not ask about his history, why or how he left Germany, until their second meeting, at which point Ferber tells how letters from his parents ceased, and he subsequently discovers that they were deported from Munich to Riga, where they were murdered. In Sebald’s final work, Austerlitz, the Holocaust becomes text, not subtext, foreground rather than context.
Sebald’s (fictional) protagonist, Jacques Austerlitz, is an architectural historian, with a particular interest in what he calls ‘our mightiest projects’ – fortifications, railway architecture, what they used to call lunatic asylums, prisons and law courts.
He’s also fascinated by the idea of networks, such as ‘the entire railway system’. From the outset, whilst Austerlitz himself does not make any connection between these edifices and the event that shaped his life, we are given foreshadowing of that event. He says of railway stations, for example, that he can never quite shake off thoughts of the agonies of leave-taking – and we’ll see the significance of that later. He refers to ‘the marks of pain which, as he said he well knew, trace countless fine lines through history’.
We meet the narrator first in a carceral space – Antwerp’s zoo. After his first conversation with Austerlitz, he is moved to visit Breendonk, one of the fortresses that Austerlitz had mentioned.
But it is not the history of how such places were designed, the flawed theories of defence against enemy incursion, that confront him there, but the much more recent past, Breendonk’s conversion into a concentration camp in the Nazi era – a transit camp for deportation to Auschwitz, and a place of torture.
- Originally built for the Belgian army 1906-13 to protect Antwerp – ‘it proved completely useless for the defence of the city and the country’
- Covered by a five-metre thick layer of soil for defense against bombings, a water-filled moat and measured 656 by 984 feet (200 by 300 m)
- Requisitioned by the Germans as a prison camp for political dissidents, captured resistance members and Jews
- Infamous for prisoners’ poor living conditions and for the use of torture. Most prisoners later transferred to larger concentration camps in Eastern Europe
- 3,590 prisoners known to have been imprisoned at Breendonk, 303 died or were executed within the fort itself and as many as 1,741 died subsequently in other camps before the end of the war
Sebald brings in a human witness here, Austrian writer Jean Amery, who was interned and tortured at Breendonk before deportation to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. He survived, changed his name from the obviously Germanic Hans Meyer, but committed suicide in 1978.
Our narrator finds Breendonk to be a place of horror. The darkness inside is literal, but also metaphysical, and it becomes heavier as he penetrates further into the building. He begins to experience visual disturbances – black striations quivering before his eyes – and nausea, but explains that ‘it was not that I guessed at the kind of third-degree interrogations which were being conducted here around the time I was born’, since he had not at that point read Amery’s account. Sebald is telling us that the narrator’s reaction to Breendonk is not, therefore, personal, not related in any way to his own experiences or even to things he had read, but intrinsic to the place, as if its use, or abuse, has changed its very nature, violence become part of its fabric.
Breendonk is the first of the trio of Holocaust sites around which the text is structured. It’s built to a star shape, a six-pointed star. This was a favoured design both for fortresses, designed to keep invaders out, and for prisons, designed to keep wrongdoers in.
According to Austerlitz this is a fundamentally wrong-headed design for a fortress, the idea that ‘you could make a city as secure as anything in the world can ever be.’ The largest fortifications will attract the enemy’s greatest numbers, and draw attention to their weakest points – not only that, but battles are not decided by armies impregnably entrenched in their fortresses, but by forces on the move. Despite plenty of evidence (such as the disastrous Siege of Antwerp in 1832), the responses tended to be to build the same structures but stronger and bigger, and with inevitably similar results.
As the design for a prison, the star shape makes more sense. It does not conform to the original layout of the panopticon, but it does allow for one central point of oversight and monitoring, with radial arms that separate the inmates into manageable groups. The widespread use of existing fortresses as places of imprisonment for enemies of the Reich was primarily opportunistic, of course, but the ease of this transformation illustrates Austerlitz’s arguments quite well.
Sebald had previously been struck by his encounter with Manchester’s Strangeways prison, which has the same shape, ‘an overwhelming panoptic structure whose walls are as high as Jericho’s’, and which happens to be situated in the one-time Jewish quarter. The coincidence of the hexagram star is implicit in the above. But it becomes entirely explicit when we look at the second of Sebald’s sites, Terezin.
- Some 70 km north of Prague
- Citadel, or small fortress, and a walled town, known as the main fortress – never tested under siege
- The small fortress became the Prague Gestapo police prison in 1940, the main fortress became the Ghetto in 1941
- Initial transport of Czech Jews, German and Austrian Jews in 1942, Dutch and Danish in 1943, various nationalities in the last months of the war as other camps were closed
- c. 141k Jews, inc. 15k children, held in the Ghetto 1941-1945. 33k died there (disease/malnutrition), 88k deported to Auschwitz, 23k survivors
This lies at the heart of his narrative. Austerlitz, as we discover gradually through the narrator’s irregular meetings with him, came to Britain on the Kindertransport from Prague in 1939, when he was not yet five years old. He was met at Liverpool Street Station by a couple, a minister and his wife from Wales, who fostered him, giving him a new name, and telling him nothing of his history. A teacher tells him his real name when he is in his teens, but rather than this prompting a search for his origins, Austerlitz turns away from his own past and consciously avoids any sources of information which might bring him too close to it. Thus, when he talks to the narrator about Breendonk, it is its history in the first, rather than the second war that he mentions.
Much later, after a strange encounter with his childhood self in the Ladies Waiting Room at Liverpool Street Station, by chance he hears a radio programme about the Kindertransport, and has a kind of epiphany, which prompts him to go to Prague and search for his family. He discovers that his father fled Prague for France, just ahead of the Nazi invasion, and that his mother, left alone there after the train had taken her child to safety, was deported to Terezin from where she was ‘sent east’, presumably to Auschwitz and presumably to her death.
Terezin shares many characteristics with other Nazi concentration camps. But there are elements of its history that mark it out. It was not a labour camp – it was presented as a ‘retirement settlement’ for elderly and prominent Jews, and its role was propaganda rather than economic, discouraging resistance to deportation with promises of comfort, and encouraging wealthier Jews to bring their valuables (of which, naturally, they were relieved on arrival). It was not a death camp – though the terrible conditions led to around 33,000 deaths from malnutrition and disease – but was a way station to Auschwitz. The particular make-up of the population of Terezin led to a rich cultural life, with music in particular playing a leading part.
However, the most notable feature of Terezin was that it was a ‘Potemkin village’, a place whose real purpose could be easily disguised. Indeed it was disguised in 1944, ready for a Red Cross visit, where it was presented as an ideal Jewish settlement. Overcrowding was addressed by the simple expedient of deportation, particularly of the less photogenic inhabitants, the old, sick and disabled. The place was cleaned up, shop fronts erected, and cultural and sporting activities organised for the prisoners. A film was made, which shows football matches and concerts, smiley, healthy looking people. The Red Cross appear not to have realised that they were being duped. Once they had left, of course, deportations were resumed.
W G Sebald, Austerlitz, pp. 266-68; H G Adler, Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community
‘I felt that the most striking aspect of the place was its emptiness, said Austerlitz […] the sense of abandonment in this fortified town, laid out like Campanella’s ideal sun state to a strictly geometrical grid, was extraordinarily oppressive, yet more so was the forbidding aspect of the silent facades.[…] What I found most uncanny of all, however, were the gates and doorways of Terezin, all of the, as I thought I sensed, obstructing access to a darkness never yet penetrated’
Austerlitz visits Terezin, having learned of his mother’s imprisonment there. He has been told that it is an ordinary town now, but he finds it strikingly empty, its streets deserted, its windows silent and blank. In its museum, he is confronted by the history he has been avoiding for so long – he studies the maps of the German Reich, in particular the railway lines running through them, that facilitated forced labour, deportations and genocide. The ground plan of the star-shaped fortifications is ‘the model of a world made by reason and regulated in all conceivable respects’, a fortress that has never been besieged, a quiet garrison for two or three regiments and some 2,000 civilians. But it seems to Austerlitz that, far from having returning to this civilised and reasonable state, the town is now filled with the people who had been shut in to the ghetto, as if ‘they had never been taken away after all, but were still living crammed into those buildings and basements and attics, as if they were incessantly going up and down the stairs, looking out of the windows, moving in vast numbers through the streets and alleys and even, a silent assembly, filling the entire space occupied by the air’.
Our human witness to Terezin is H G Adler, who, like Austerlitz, was born in Prague. He was sent initially to a labour camp in 1941, then to Terezin with his family in 1942. In 1944, he, his wife and her mother were deported to Auschwitz, where both women were murdered on arrival. Adler also lost his own parents and many other members of his family. From Auschwitz, he was deported to two successive sub-camps of Buchenwald before liberation. His research post-war focused on the archives of Terezin and formed the basis of his major work, Theresienstadt 1941-1945, which Sebald quotes and refers to extensively and which is still the most detailed account of any single concentration camp.
There’s one more fortress to consider. Kaunas, in Lithuania.
- 12 forts built in 19th century to defend against German armies
- All surrendered in 1914 and some fell into disuse
- Russians occupied in 1939 and used them as prisons
- 1941-45 German occupation: 7th fort used as concentration camp – 4k Jews killed there. 9th fort was execution and burial site for Jews from Kaunas and for other Jews shipped there during the Holocaust
- Abraham Tory reports in his ghetto diary that ‘single and mass arrests as well as “actions” in the ghetto almost always ended with a death march to the Ninth Fort, which in a way completed the ghetto area and became an integral part of it‘
We have no first-hand human witness here. Instead, we have Dan Jacobson, a South African writer whose book Heshel’s Kingdom describes his attempts to piece together a family narrative fragmented by history, the fate of whose members was determined by one event, the sudden death of Heshel Melamed in 1919, which freed his widow, children and grandchildren to emigrate from Lithuania to South Africa. Jacobson’s quest is to discover what happened to the other branches of the family, those who were left behind.
W G Sebald, Austerlitz, pp. 414-15, Dan Jacobson, Heshel’s Kingdom, pp. 159-62
Jacobson tells us that the Russians built a ring of twelve fortresses […] in the late nineteenth-century, which then in 1914, despite the elevated positions on which they had been constructed, and for all the great number of their cannon, the thickness of the walls and their labyrinthine corridors, proved entirely useless. […] In 1941 they fell into German hands, including the notorious Fort IX where Wehrmacht command posts were set up and where more than thirty thousand people were killed over the next three years.[…] Transports from the west kept ]coming to Kaunas until May 1944,[…] as the last messages from those locked in the dungeons of the fortress bear witness. One of them, writes Jacobson, scratched the words “Nous sommes neuf cents Francais” on the cold limestone wall of the bunker.
Neither Austerlitz nor the narrator visits Kaunas. But Austerlitz gives to the narrator, before he sets off to continue his own quest for answers, a copy of Jacobson’s book. Sebald’s narrative leaves us at the end of Jacobson’s Chapter 15, in an underground corridor where, behind glass, are preserved the ‘wall scratchings’ – literal marks of pain – of French Jewish prisoners brought here – after the war had effectively been lost. These include Max Stern, Paris, 18.5.44 – Sebald’s first name, and his date of birth; the fictional Austerlitz’s father’s first name, and last known location. What happened to these people, what happened to Jacobson’s family, cannot be known. Were they deported to an extermination camp – perhaps more likely, given the history of Kaunas, were they were killed right there?
Auschwitz is, of course, the fourth location that is implicit in the above.
It is both the archetype – we invoke this name above all others to stand for the Nazi machinery of mass murder – and the specific journey’s end for so many. Sebald doesn’t take us there though – it is present, always, but unseen and its name unspoken. We hear it only as an echo – in the name of our protagonist, in the mention of the Auschowitz springs which he visits at Marienbad. We don’t go there because we don’t need to – the phrase ‘sent east’ is already heavy with meaning.
Sebald gives us not only these closed places of death and terror but their apparent opposite – the transitory, liminal space of the railway station. Austerlitz’s fascination with the railway network was always tinged with a sense of loss, anguish even. In this, he reminds us of Max Ferber from Sebald’s The Emigrants who finds railway stations and railway journeys to be torture and who as a result, never leaves Manchester. And perhaps Sebald also was thinking of the passage in Elie Wiesel’s autobiography, concerning ‘those nocturnal trains that crossed the devastated continent’:
Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea
Their shadow haunts my writing. They symbolise solitude, distress, and the relentless march of Jewish multitudes towards agony and death. I freeze every time I hear a train whistle.
Towards the end of the narrative, at the Parisian railway station with which he shares a name, Austerlitz feels that he is ‘on the scene of some unexpiated crime’. Indeed, the Gare d’Austerlitz was the station from which Jews rounded up in the city were crammed into cattle trucks and transported to the transit camps near Paris – from where they were later crammed again into cattle trucks for transport to Auschwitz. And of course, one of the most often used images of Auschwitz itself is of the railway tracks.
Austerlitz pieces together his mother’s journey, after her partner and then her son leave.
She is ordered to report to the Prague Exhibition Centre with her belongings. She and her fellow deportees go to Holesovice station and from there by train to Bauschowitz station, from where they must walk to Terezin. From Terezin, at some unknown date, another train takes her to Auschwitz.
His father’s journey is more speculative. Austerlitz knows that Max flew from Prague to Paris. After that, his mother had various addresses for him in Paris, but no communications. Austerlitz wonders whether he was rounded up in 1941, in the first wave of arrests of foreign Jews, or in the much bigger round-up in July 1942, the Vel d’Hiv, the first round-up to take not only men capable of work but women, children, the sick, the elderly. Austerlitz also learns that Max may have been at one time at the Gurs camp in southwestern France, originally set up for Spanish refugees after Franco’s victory, but appropriated by the Nazis for Jews and members of the resistance. Did he die there, of disease or malnutrition? If not, was he deported from Gurs to Drancy and from there to Auschwitz? Or was he taken from the streets of Paris via the Gare d’Austerlitz to Pithiviers or Beaune-la-Rolande, and from there to Auschwitz? We take our leave of Austerlitz as he prepares to continue the search for evidence.
Sebald does recount another train journey. One which ended on the threshold not of death but of the hope of a new life. Austerlitz as a child travels from Prague’s Wilsonova station with the Kindertransport, a series of initiatives undertaken between Kristallnacht and the outbreak of war to get children, mainly Jewish, out of Nazi Europe – around 10,000 were thereby saved during that brief window of possibility. Jacques travels through Czechoslovakia and Germany, to the Hook of Holland, from where he takes the ferry to Harwich and another train to Liverpool Street Station. This is no fairy tale – for the fictional Jacques as for so many of the children, their assimilation and acceptance of their new home (a new language, new customs, often a new name, and a new religion) and their new family’s understanding of them, were problematic. And all of them faced traumatic absences, losses that they couldn’t grieve, and questions they couldn’t answer. Most never saw their parents again.
Austerlitz’s new life, the one that started on the platform at Liverpool Street Station, would never be free of those marks of pain. His academic quest to make sense of the family likeness between ‘monumental’ buildings, places that impose and imprison, and of the railway network that links them, has been superseded by the unrecognised need that had originally driven it. To find his family, to know everything he can know about their lives and their deaths, to inscribe those human stories, his human story, on the bricks and stones of the fortresses, prisons and railway stations that witnessed them.
(Austerlitz, p. 183)
‘I often wondered whether the pain and suffering accumulated on this site over the centuries had ever really ebbed away, or whether they might not still, as I sometimes thought when I felt a cold breath of air on my forehead, be sensed’
W G Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten (Fischer, 1992), English translation, The Emigrants, published 1996
__, Nach der Natur (Fischer, 1995), English translation, After Nature, published 2002
__, Austerlitz (Fischer, 2001), English translation published 2001
H G Adler, Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community (Cambridge UP, 2017)
Jean Amery, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities (Indiana UP, 1980)
Dan Jacobson, Heshel’s Kingdom: A Family, a People, a Divided Fate (Hamish Hamilton, 1998)
Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea (Schocken Books, 1994)
Every year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops, we honour those murdered in the Holocaust. But not just The Holocaust. It takes nothing from the unique place that event holds in our history to honour too those murdered in genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Armenia. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust does this – and it draws upon the testimonies of survivors of some of the more recent genocides to bring home to us that the pious utterance ‘never again’ has been little more than a pious utterance.
If in my own writing about genocide I focus on the Holocaust, there are a number of reasons for that. Firstly, my areas of research relate to the Shoah, most particularly in France. Secondly, because of where and when the Holocaust took place, because of its long build-up and its duration, we have vast volumes of testimony, not only from survivors (and from those who did not survive but left behind diaries nonetheless) but from perpetrators and bystanders. We have diaries and letters, but also memos and legal documents and reports and photographs and films. There is thus a vast archive of material on which we can draw in our ongoing attempts to understand what happened, how and why, far more than in any of the other genocides of the last century.
If it takes nothing from the Shoah to talk also about these other genocides, it takes nothing from those other genocides to talk about the Shoah.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is, ‘Torn from Home’.
This reminded me of an early blog post, published on 16 July 2012, the 70th anniversary of the massive round-up of Parisian Jews, which heralded the start of mass deportations to Auschwitz.
Thursday 16 July. At 4 in the morning, it is still very dark. The streets are deserted, the doors and windows closed. But on this early Thursday morning, police cars are converging on pre-arranged spots, carrying officers and civilian assistants. They consult their instructions, block the streets. Each small team has a list of names and addresses. Alongside the police vehicles, buses are parked along the pavements, awaiting their passengers. At the appointed moment, the teams go in. They knock. ‘Police – open up!’.
The occupants are escorted to the buses, and taken on to one of two destinations – single adults to transit camps, including a half-built housing estate on the edge of the city, recently cleared of many of its occupants to make room for this influx, and families to a nearby sports stadium. At the latter, no food or water is provided. It’s mid-July, and once the building is sealed, the heat rapidly becomes oppressive. The few working toilets don’t work for long. The people in the stadium are afraid, and some in despair throw themselves from the balconies to the floor below. A few manage to use the general chaos to slip out, provided that the police at the entry are either sufficiently distracted, or willing to be suddenly inattentive. A few manage to get themselves transferred to hospital (this may prove to be only a temporary respite). Once space in the transit camp has been cleared again, the families in the stadium are transported there. Until the trains take them, too, to their final destination.
Thursday 16 July 1942, Paris. The Vel’ d’Hiv round up, named after the sports stadium used to house the Jews who were dragged from their homes that morning and in the hours that followed. Drancy camp, next stop en route to Auschwitz. 13,152 were arrested, of whom 5802 were women, and 4051 children. Some of the adults – less than 3% – made it home after the Liberation, to search fruitlessly for news of their children at the Hotel Lutétia. None of the children came home.
It wasn’t the first round-up, but it was the first to seize women, children, babies, the elderly, the sick. It gave the lie to the official explanation, that the Jews who were being interned were heading to labour camps in the east. And the sight of it, for some witnesses at least, and for some of those who escaped the net this time, was a catalyst that led to resistance.
Torn from home.
But the process had started well before that July morning. The process had begun with rhetoric, feeding on the anti-semitism that was so strongly present in French politics. The Dreyfus affair which had divided the country had been concluded (with the full exoneration and restoration of military honours to Captain Dreyfus) less than forty years earlier. (Dreyfus himself died in 1936, and members of his family fled to the Unoccupied zone from Paris when the Occupation began. His granddaughter, Madeleine Levy, was a member of the Resistance, who was arrested in 1943 and murdered in Auschwitz. ) The anti-Dreyfusard contingent had continued to be active in nationalist and often explicitly anti-semitic politics and the Occupation gave them their opportunity. (Indeed, Charles Maurras of Action Francaise called his conviction in 1945 for acts of collaboration ‘the revenge of Dreyfus’.) From the very beginning of the Occupation, anti-Jewish sentiment was nurtured, rewarded and disseminated.
Exhibitions were held using stereotypical images of Jews, and portraying a narrative of covert networks of Jews controlling the financial sector and influencing political decision making. (In our own time there has been a resurgence of this narrative, purveyed by both the far right and by the left, invoking, for example, George Soros and the Rothschild dynasty.) This kind of propaganda was not new to the French. The anti-Dreyfus press used such caricatures and stereotypes to attack both Dreyfus personally, and by extension all Jews.
The stereotypes and canards perpetuated in the caricatures drew from both the antiquated ideas of Jewish usury and greed, but also modern ideas of conspiracy, as well as industry domination and control, which had been made popular by the publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Those ideas rose in prominence through the publication of caricatures showcasing Jews attempting to disguise themselves as non-Jews, Jews being portrayed as world dominators, and manipulators of finance and politics.
The Nazi message was in itself therefore not radical or shocking. And to a nation reeling after a sudden and unequivocal defeat, the handy provision of a scapegoat was, to some at least, very welcome. The propaganda went hand in hand with the implementation of a range of measures designed to say to all Jews, whether French citizens or immigrants, that they were not at home. It was all done incrementally – Jewish businesses had to declare themselves with posters in the windows, Jews had to register at the police station, Jews could only travel in the last carriage on the Metro, Jews could only shop between certain hours of the day, Jews could not go to the cinema or the swimming baths, Jewish businesses had to be owned by an Aryan, Jews were barred from an extensive list of professions, Jews could not attend University, Jews had to wear a yellow star sewn securely on to their coats… Every step led closer to the transit camp, the cattle truck, the death camp, but by stealth.
Louise Doughty’s novel of the Roma Holocaust, Fires in the Dark, describes this process – and how it reaches its conclusion – vividly:
How strange a thing it is, he thought, the way you comfort yourself when it comes to loss. You turn away from it, show it your back, face and embrace what you still have. When we had to sell our gold I thought, ah well, we can always buy more gold, as long as we have the wagon and the horses and can still travel, then we will be fine. Then they stopped us travelling and burnt our wagon and I thought, well, we still have one horse and we can build a cart, and we have a roof over our heads. Then we had to flee our roof and I thought, we still have good clothes and boots, so many people don’t have boots any more. Then they took the bundles from us as we stood in line on Registration Day and I thought, well, we have the clothes we stand up in. When we got here, they took those. They even took the hair from my head. I thought, at least we are together in the same camp. So many people have been separated from their families. Now my family are kept from me, even though they are a few metres away . … It is just me, just my body and my soul and that is all that I have. … (Fires in the Dark, pp. 311-312)
The Jews of France – many of them, at least – accommodated themselves stage by stage with the restrictions that were placed upon their freedoms. Until the round-up, the transit camp, the cattle truck, the death camp. Because each new restriction was designed to say to them, whether they were French for generations or new arrivals, you are not at home, can never be at home here.
The round-ups went on, right to the bitter end. As Allied troops were fighting their way through France after D-Day, Jews were still being arrested, herded into cattle trucks and deported to their deaths. Helene Berr and her parents, French for generations, were arrested in March 1944. The 1942 round-ups had targeted ‘foreign’ Jews, but by this time such distinctions were irrelevant. The Berrs were clearly being watched – they’d moved from place to place for months, staying with friends but never for very long, and went home just for one night. The knock on the door came the following morning.
And for those few who survived, the idea of ‘coming home’ was never really going to be possible. When they arrived at the gare de l’Est, they were often unrecognisable even to their closest friends and family. They were broken, physically and mentally. They were changed, utterly.
The deportees, these living shadows, these walking skeletons, with that distant, lost look in their hollow eyes, their air of being from a different world, when one saw them appear, one dared not offer flowers.
(Levy & Tilly, p. 229)
They returned to find that they were alone, that everyone they cared about had perished. They returned to the place where neighbours and colleagues had watched them be rounded up, or beaten up, or had denounced or betrayed them, and where their apartments and belongings had long since been appropriated either by the occupying forces, or by those neighbours and colleagues. And often they were faced with the indifference, lack of understanding or even hostility of those around them.
I began this piece by explaining why, on Holocaust Memorial Day each year, I often focus on this particular bit of history, on what happened in France during the years of Nazi Occupation. There’s another reason.
Anti-semitic rhetoric, racist language, xenophobia, are all more prevalent today than for a long time. No one is suggesting that we are on the road to Auschwitz, but if we let ourselves become immunised to the shock of this language and of overtly hostile behaviour to perceived ‘foreigners’ we risk being numb to worse things. As we leave the community of Europe behind that risk is too great to ignore. As the hard right targets Muslims and Eastern Europeans, and invokes George Soros as a hate figure, whilst the left invokes the Rothschilds and a worldwide Zionist conspiracy, we have to speak out.
Britain is home to people from all over the world. It always has been. It must continue to be. We must never contemplate with equanimity the idea that anyone whose home is here might fear a knock on the door, might be interned indefinitely awaiting deportation, might be sent back to somewhere where their life is at risk because of their politics, their religion, their sexuality. We must never contemplate with equanimity our colleagues and neighbours being told to ‘go home’, that they’re not welcome any more. We must never contemplate with equanimity the casual slurs; the stereotyping of people of a particular nationality or religion; the language of ‘queue jumpers’, of ‘citizens of nowhere’, of ‘swarms’; the repetition of lazy untruths, whether about the largesse handed out to refugees or about the truth of the Holocaust.
The Jews of France registered without much protest when required to do so. They did not believe, could not believe, that anything too terrible could happen to them in the land of ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’, a land that for some had been home for generations, and for others that had offered a haven when persecution drove them from another country. They could not see where this path was leading. We know.
Helene Berr – Journal (trans. David Bellos, Quercus, 2008)
Louise Doughty – Fires in the Dark (Harper, 2005)
Claude Levy & Paul Tillard – La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (Tallandier, 2010)
Renee Poznanski – Jews in France during World War II (Brandeis Univ. Press, 2001)
In my first HMD blog, six years ago, I talked about how, in preparation for genocide, the power of words is used to dehumanise the intended victims:
The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives. First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity. For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice. Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability. As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed. This load may also scream.
That’s why we must call out such language when it is applied to refugees, immigrants, or any group of ‘others’, whenever we hear it and whoever is using it.
“How many Romanians are in? How many Polish are in?” she splutters in the midst of a diatribe about the NHS, over-crowded prisons and illegal immigration. “They are congregating like cockroaches into our major city centres, which are unable to deal with the crime that they bring.”
This quote featured in a 2007 interview with a well-known television writer. The interviewer, who herself was Polish, didn’t challenge her, partly, I suspect, through shock. Much more recently (in 2015) a notorious ‘newspaper’ columnist, speaking of the deaths of up to 700 migrants in a Mediterranean shipwreck, said:
“These migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb.”
This characterisation of people as less than human, as vermin, as a “virus” (as she did elsewhere in the article) irresistibly recalls the darkest events in history. It is eerily reminiscent of the Rwandan media of 1994, when the radio went from statements such as “You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches” to, shortly afterwards, instructions on how to do so, and what knives to use. (Zoe Williams, The Guardian)
Perhaps neither the TV writer nor the notorious columnist was familiar with the use of the term ‘cockroaches’ in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I don’t know. But surely anyone, however ill-informed, should baulk at describing other human beings in such terms?
It is no joke when people start talking like this. We are not “giving her what she wants” when we make manifest our disgust. It is not a free speech issue. I’m not saying gag her: I’m saying fight her. Articulate the fellowship, the human empathy, that makes these deaths important. Stop talking about how many children were among the dead, as though only children matter. Start talking about everybody’s life as cherishable, irrespective of anything they might produce.(Zoe Williams, The Guardian)
For the sake of the future, we have to oppose, vocally and vociferously, those who use the language of genocide whether through ignorance or with deliberation.
But it’s equally important, as Zoe Williams says, to articulate human empathy, to talk about the lives of others as cherishable. And that includes those who are lost to us, who were murdered because they were seen as less than human.
I have reservations about fictionalising the Holocaust, when there are so very many first-hand stories yet to be told, and when there are still – always – those who claim that the whole thing is a fiction. But then I recall the TV series Holocaust, broadcast in the late 1970s.
For all its faults – and it had many – and for all the opprobrium that it attracted, from critics and from Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel, it served a tremendously important function. For many viewers it was a shock – it was for me, and I thought I was well-informed – and in Germany especially so. Despite all of the efforts post-war to educate and inform, it was this fictionalised account, not the documentary footage of the liberation of the camps, that really made many people understand. They saw people like themselves, living lives not unlike theirs, and then they saw what was done to them. In the course of the Holocaust mini-series, the Weiss family experienced Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Theresienstadt, Babi Yar, Auschwitz and Sobibor. Wiesel argued that this was a mistake, that ‘the story of one child, the destiny of one victim, the reverberations of one outcry would be more effective’.
What then is the answer? How is one to tell a tale that cannot be—but must be—told? How is one to protect the memory of the victims? How are we to oppose the killers’ hopes and their accomplices’ endeavors to kill the dead for the second time? What will happen when the last survivor is gone? I don’t know. All I know is that the witness does not recognize himself in this film.
The Holocaust must be remembered. But not as a show
Clive James was more positive, although he acknowledged that no character existed except to make a point, or to illustrate a particular aspect of Holocaust history, and that (crucially) the script was clunky (‘the use of language was never better than adequate. As in all hack writing, the dialogue showed no sense of period. Prodigies of set-dressing were undone by a phrase’). However, he concluded:
There is no hope that the boundless horror of Nazi Germany can be transmitted entire to the generations that will succeed us. There is a limit to what we can absorb of other people’s experience. There is also a limit to how guilty we should feel about being unable to remember. Santayana was probably wrong when he said that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. Those who remember are condemned to relive it too. Besides, freedoms are not guaranteed by historians and philosophers, but by a broad consent among the common people about what constitutes decent behaviour. Decency means nothing if it is not vulgarised. Nor can the truth be passed on without being simplified. The most we can hope for is that it shall not be travestied. Holocaust avoided that.
If Wiesel is right, and it is both impossible and vital to tell these stories, it is a task to be undertaken with trepidation. There are so few survivors now, so few still here and able to give their own accounts. But the way we tell their stories must honour the witnesses, the living and those who did not survive. It must be truthful, not just in terms of getting the facts right (details matter, when those details are disputed by those who would wish to assign the Holocaust to the category of fiction or myth), but in terms of creating people who ‘ring true’, and enabling us to invest in their lives and in their fate.
In Louise Doughty’s devastating and powerful novel of the Roma Holocaust, Fires in the Dark, she draws us in to the world of the Coppersmith Roma in 1920s Bohemia, into their rich and complex culture, into the lives of one family, Josef and Anna, their new son Emil, and the kumpania to which they belong. We see even then the beginning of the assault upon their culture, with the introduction of laws that require them to be registered and fingerprinted and to inform the authorities of their routes and destinations. And if we know anything at all of European 20th century history, we know this will not be the end of it.
Much later, Josef, dying of a fever in a camp, reflects on the nature of loss:
How strange a thing it is, he thought, the way you comfort yourself when it comes to loss. You turn away from it, show it your back, face and embrace what you still have. When we had to sell our gold I thought, ah well, we can always buy more gold, as long as we have the wagon and the horses and can still travel, then we will be fine. Then they stopped us travelling and burnt our wagon and I thought, well, we still have one horse and we can build a cart, and we have a roof over our heads. Then we had to flee our roof and I thought, we still have good clothes and boots, so many people don’t have boots any more. Then they took the bundles from us as we stood in line on Registration Day and I thought, well, we have the clothes we stand up in. When we got here, they took those. They even took the hair from my head. I thought, at least we are together in the same camp. So many people have been separated from their families. Now my family are kept from me, even though they are a few metres away . … It is just me, just my body and my soul and that is all that I have. … If I cannot even move my limbs, let alone raise my body to relieve myself with dignity, then I cannot really call my body my own either. All I have left are my thoughts – and breath, each small breath that comes so shallow and strange into my lungs. (Fires in the Dark, pp. 311-312)
We do not need to share Josef’s (or Louise Doughty’s) Roma heritage to feel empathy, to recognise the humanity here. Within this one passage we follow and feel that inexorable progress from a bureaucratic attack on the Roma way of life (‘The implementation of Law 117 … to curb the nuisance caused by so-called Gypsies and other Travelling Persons and Vagabonds’) to the man alone and reduced to ‘the next small breath’.
There are many first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, from those who survived and from those who did not, but very few from its Roma victims. The destruction of whole communities, and with them of customs, and dialects, and names and histories, means that creative works of imagination are vital, to bring them back to life for us. And so what Louise Doughty does here is of profound value. Richard Rorty, in a passage which Doughty quotes at the beginning of her novel, talks about how human solidarity might be achieved:
It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, “They do not feel it as we would,” or “There must always be suffering, so why not let them suffer?” This process of coming to see other human beings as “one of us” rather than as “them” is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like. This is a task not for theory but for genres such as ethnography, the journalist’s report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel. (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge UP, 1989), p. xiv)
The power of words, used to increase sensitivity to others, to extend our sympathies, as George Eliot put it.
“Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne – The American Notebooks)
Words have immense power to hurt or to heal, to damn or to save. And when we say of a novel or a play that it’s ‘only a story’ we are forgetting that. Those that have the skill to create or recreate a world, to draw people in whom we can believe, to give those people words to move and engage us, their ‘stories’ can shake us from our facile assumptions and prejudices, and can arm us against those who want to make us hate ‘them’.
We need those words, now more than ever.
Reflect on the fact that this has happened:
These words I commend to you:
Inscribe them on your heart
(Primo Levi, If this is a Man)
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.
Every year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops, we honour those murdered in the Holocaust. But not just The Holocaust. It takes nothing from the unique place that event holds in our history to honour too those murdered in genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Armenia. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust does this – and it draws upon the testimonies of survivors of some of the more recent genocides to bring home to us that the pious utterance ‘never again’ has been little more than a pious utterance.
If in my own writing about genocide I focus on the Holocaust, there are a number of reasons for that. Firstly, my areas of research relate to the Shoah, most particularly in France. Secondly, because of where and when the Holocaust took place, because of its long build-up and its duration, we have vast volumes of testimony, not only from survivors (and from those who did not survive but left behind diaries nonetheless) but from perpretrators and bystanders. We have diaries and letters, but also memos and legal documents and reports and photographs and films. There is thus a vast archive of material on which we can draw in our ongoing attempts to understand what happened, how and why, far more than in any of the other genocides of the last century.
If it takes nothing from the Shoah to talk also about these other genocides, it takes nothing from those other genocides to talk about the Shoah.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is, ‘How can life go on?’.
These days we have a better understanding of how, long after a traumatic event is apparently concluded, it is present and ongoing in the person who suffered it. It’s become a cliché – the offer of a help line, the parachuting in of counselling services after a ‘major incident’. That doesn’t mean that the help is provided when and where it’s most needed, or that it is always effective.
The late Jill Saward, talking about how she was able to rebuild her life after rape, said that you have to ‘bury it dead’. But that in order to do so you have to talk it out, for as long as it takes. If you don’t, then it may be buried, but not buried dead.
Many of those returning from the liberated camps found that their accounts were not believed, or not listened to. Anne Sebba’s fascinating book, Les Parisiennes, has some shocking accounts of these reactions.
Ravensbruck returnee, Michele Agniel, recounted how since she could barely stand, she was given a permit to jump the queues for rationed food.
“But when I did, a man complained, so I said I had just come back from a concentration camp. He said, ‘Mais quand même, they know how to queue in concentration camps, don’t they?’”
Denise Dufournier was regularly told that ‘they had had a jolly tough time in [Paris]’ when she tried to speak about her experiences. Some found that family members were shocked, not by the brutality of the camps but by the fact that survivors had had to steal in order to stay alive, or that they were mainly concerned to know if their daughters had been raped, or were still marriageable.
Perhaps we should not be too quick to condemn those who failed to recognise the sufferings – past and continuing – of the deportees. After all, anyone who has been bereaved or suffered a purely personal trauma will find that some of those who they counted as friends are too paralysed by the fear of saying the wrong thing to say anything at all. And this was horror on a scale that few could easily imagine – the evidence was there, had been for years, but people baulked at believing it. They still do.
At the gare de l’Est in April and May 1945, many of the survivors arrived home. There were plenty of people to greet them, with flowers. But the gesture suddenly seemed inappropriate, even ridiculous.
The deportees, these living shadows, these walking skeletons, with that distant, lost look in their hollow eyes, their air of being from a different world, when one saw them appear, one dared not offer flowers. (Levy & Tilly, p. 229)
At the Hotel Lutétia, families waiting and hoping posted photographs and personal details, and deportees too gathered, hoping to find that someone was waiting for them. The photographs bore little resemblance to the people who returned, and some failed to recognise the people whose return they had awaited for so long. For many of the Jewish survivors, no one was waiting because no one was left.
There was a gulf between the survivors of the genocide and those who, with whatever privations, had escaped arrest, across which few even attempted to reach. By 1947, publishers no longer accepted manuscripts from the deportees, many of whom had been advised quite explicitly to desist from attempting to tell their stories. Not all tried, of course, some took refuge in silence for years, or decades, or for ever.
But those who spoke were not heard.
There were people who understood, people who had been there too. And so some of the deportees found solace in each other, and not only that but practical support with the painful process of resuming a life that could not simply be picked up again, as if it had just briefly been put to one side, as if you were the same person as you had been Before.
In France the Association Nationale des Anciennes Deportées et Internées de la Resistance brought together women who had been imprisoned for resistance activity. This focus meant that although Jewish women who had been active in the Resistance and arrested for these activities could join, those who had been arrested simply for being Jewish could not. There was thus a separate organisation, the Service Central des Deportés Israélites. They worked to help reunite returning deportees with family members, including with children who had been hidden with non-Jewish families, and in some cases were too young to have any sense of their original identity or to easily readjust to their real families.
The separation of the returnees according to the reason for their arrest takes some interpretation. Firstly, around half of those deported for resistance activities returned. Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, only 2,500 came home. The prominence given to the former group was therefore partly numerical. However, it was more complex than that. In the post-Liberation settling of scores, whereby collaborators of various types were exposed and punished (officially or unofficially, justly or unjustly), those who had been deported for resistance activities were unassailable. No one could question their patriotism or heroism. The Jews who returned were not part of this myth of ‘resistancialisme’, as Henry Rousso called it, because they could be said to have fallen into German hands as victims. Not only that, but their very survival raised questions of how, if the Nazi goal was to exterminate them, they had managed to return (mirroring in many cases their own questions, their own survivors’ guilt). And of course their accounts of their ordeals shone an unwelcome light on the anti-semitism which had been there before the Occupation, and was still there after it, the anti-semitism which had in many cases led to Jews being betrayed and denounced and which now poisoned the reaction to the returnees.
How could life go on, when the enormity of what they had faced, the physical and mental tortures, the sights and sounds that could not be unseen and unheard, was unacknowledged and buried, not dead, but deep? The survivors of genocide not only had to recover physically from the effects of starvation, exposure, brutal labour and torture, but also from the horror of knowing that they had been condemned to this not for any crime but because of their race. They had lost so many of the people they loved. Not only this, but those who returned home returned to the place where their neighbours and colleagues had watched them be rounded up, or beaten up, or had denounced or betrayed them, and where their apartments and belongings had long since been appropriated either by the occupying forces, or by those neighbours and colleagues. And often they were faced with the indifference, lack of understanding or even hostility of those around them.
The suicide rate amongst Holocaust survivors is reckoned to be almost three times that of the general population. Jean Améry (who had changed his name from Hanns Mayer after the war, to dissociate himself from German culture), only began writing about his experiences in the camps in 1964. He had been initially arrested for resistance activity, but was then ‘demoted’ from political prisoner to Jew, and was imprisoned at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen. In 1976 Améry published the book On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death. He took his own life by overdose of sleeping pills in 1978.
Whilst the official verdict on Primo Levi’s death as being a suicide has been disputed, that the effects of what had been done to him and what he had witnessed had continued to haunt and damage him is undisputed. Elie Wiesel said that “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later”.
When life does go on, how is the fact of what happened in the camps accommodated within everyday existence? The children and grandchildren of survivors have been part of this process too, often discovering only in adulthood, and little by little, what their parents or grandparents experienced. Eva Hoffman heard, as an adult, how her father’s sister had been betrayed by another Jew, who had hoped by that act to make themselves safe.
‘Let’s not talk about these things’, he says lowering his head, and I want to stop too, right now. All this time I’ve done my father the injustice of not knowing this story, and now I can hardly bear to hear it. This is no longer a frightening fairy tale, as it would have been in childhood. … Indecent not to say anything to my parents, indecent to say anything at all: pity is too small for this. … There’s no way to get this part of the story in proportion. It could overshadow everything else, put the light of the world right out. I need seven-league boots to travel from this to where I live. And yet, this is what I must do. A writer of my parents’ generation who was himself in a concentration camp once told me that the Holocaust is the standard by which we should judge the world. But I think that the paradoxical task of my generation, caught within this awful story, is to get adjusted to the ordinary world in which we actually live, to acknowledge the reality given to us. (Hoffman, pp. 252-3)
And Göran Rosenberg, both of whose parents had survived the camps, wrote A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, to tell their story, and that of the shadows they lived with in the years after.
It’s impossible to think you’ve all survived in order for the world to forget what it’s just been through and to go on as if nothing has happened. There must be some point to the fact that you’ve survived, since the main point of the event you’ve survived was that none of you were supposed to survive, that you were all supposed to be annihilated without a trace, without leaving even a splinter of bone behind, still less a name on a death list or a death certificate. So initially you all survive with the assurance that you are the traces that weren’t supposed to exist, and that this is your survival’s particular point. … Why me and not the others? Naturally it’s … an unbearable thought, which has to be pushed aside sooner or later if surviving is to turn into living. So I think it’s initially pushed aside by the assurance that you haven’t survived for yourselves only but for the others, too; that you’re the traces that must not be eradicated, and that you therefore owe a particular duty to the life you’ve been granted, against all the odds and beyond any notion of fairness, and that through this life you must justify the fact that you’re alive while the others are dead. (Rosenberg, pp. 278-9)
‘If surviving is to turn into living’ – that’s the heart of it. Not all managed that transformation.
But as the survivors of the Holocaust, those who spoke and those who remain silent, slip away from us, it becomes ever more urgent to hear, and tell, and re-tell their stories. They weren’t meant to be here, they weren’t meant to bear witness.
There are other survivors too. On Holocaust Memorial Day we do not only remember those who emerged from the darkness of the Nazi genocide, but those who against the odds still live to speak about what happened in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Srebenica, in Darfur.
They are ‘the traces that must not be eradicated’, for the sake of the dead, for the sake of the living, for the sake of their children and ours, for the sake of the generations to come.
Jean Amery – At the Mind’s Limits (1966)
Eva Hoffman – Lost in Translation (1989)
Claude Levy & Paul Tillard – La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (2010)
Göran Rosenberg – A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (2012)
Anne Sebba – Les Parisiennes (2016)
For Holocaust Memorial Day, reblogged from That’s How the Light Gets In
In the years of optimism we would read books and puzzle over why, in the heart of civilized Europe, people had happily abandoned democracy, believed fantastical lies, and stood by or enthusiastically joined in as those deemed to blame for the nation’s ills were murdered in their millions. In these dark days, and on this Holocaust Memorial Day, understanding is beginning to gnaw at our bones like an ague.
In times like these, the message of certain books I have read recently seems to illuminate a simple truth: that authoritarianism insinuates itself into peoples lives without drama, but with a kind of quotidinian ordinariness that slowly dispenses with facts.
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We may be preoccupied at present with the refugee crisis that has brought so many thousands across the Mediterranean and across Europe, displaced by war in Africa and the Middle East. But looking back over the decades, this is really nothing new.
In 1936, refugees were escaping from flooding in Shantung, in China, and were fed and housed by the provisional government in Tsinan.
In the USA, the Dust Bowl and resulting drought forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many migrated to California in the hope of finding better conditions. Meanwhile in Europe, the Spanish Civil War led many to flee, often heading across the border into France, which proved only a temporary haven, and in Germany Jews who had been subjected to anti-semitic legislation were taking whatever opportunities they could to leave before things got worse. CARA (under the name of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning) was working to find posts in British universities for academics thrown out of their posts at institutions in Germany.
1946 saw displacement on a massive scale, across most of Europe. Germans were forcibly expelled from the territories that had been occupied during the war and now fell under the Soviet remit.
Many citizens of Eastern European countries were desperately trying to stay in the West. And the survivors of the concentration camps were making their way to the homes they had once known, or waiting for the possibility of passage to Palestine, or the US.
In 1956 the brutal Soviet suppression of the uprising in Hungary led to around 200,000 people fleeing the country, initially to Austria and West Germany.
In 1966 Vietnamese were fleeing ahead of the Vietcong advance. The New York Times reported that nearly half of the 10,000 inhabitants of the An Lao valley had chosen to leave, pleading desperately with withdrawing US troops for help.
In 1976 in Lebanon the civil war created a wave of refugees, around 900,000, or about one-fifth of the population. On 12 August 1976, supported by Syria, Maronite forces managed to overwhelm the Palestinian and leftist militias defending the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut, and 1,000-1,500 civilians were massacred.
In 1986 the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka generated thousands of internally displaced people as well as refugees, mostly Tamils. Many fled to neighbouring India and western countries such as Canada, France, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
In 1996, the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide became increasingly unstable. Hutu militants in the camps were now well organised, and led attacks into Rwanda and eastern Zaire. In what became known as the First Congo War, around half a million people were herded by the militants into the border areas, and subsequently fled back into Rwanda, or further into Zaire. Tens of thousands were killed, or died of exposure or starvation.
Ten years ago, refugees came primarily from Sudan, DRC, Somalia and CAR, as they do currently. In addition, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia generated significant numbers of refugees following their civil wars, and the ongoing crisis in the Great Lakes area added Burundi and Rwanda to the list.
2016 – more than 1,200 people have died of starvation and illness at an aid camp in north-east Nigeria that houses people fleeing the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, according to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières.
It goes on, and it always will. There will always be wars, and rumours of wars. There will be, increasingly, natural disasters as a result of climate change. There will be persecution and oppression and terrorism. People will leave because they have to, because home is the mouth of a shark. And we will have to find better ways of helping them, we must be braver, more generous, more open. Today of all days that seems a forlorn hope. But we must hang on to it, nonetheless.
Migration Matters Festival
Friday 24th June
To Walk in Your Shoes, by Rachael Munro-Fawcett
The Scar Test, by Untold
“I came to England, scarred for life.”
Deaths by Rescue, by SYMAAG with Dr Simon Parker
Film & discussion on the refugee crisis.
Iftar with Open Kitchen
Food and conversation!