Archive for category Second World War
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)
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.
There’s a ruined church in Liverpool city centre; only the husk of the building remains, lacking roof and windows, bombed and burnt out on the night of 6 May 1941 during the Luftwaffe’s May Blitz on Merseyside. Last night I joined crowds outside St Luke’s church to see a sound and light show – Out of the Darkness – transform St Luke’s Church to mark the 75th anniversary of the May Blitz.
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What makes someone give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn? Giving a damn when it’s not their job, or when it’s a stranger who needs help rather than a friend or a neighbour, someone to whom they owe nothing?
The website of Yad Vashem includes the names and many stories of those who have been designated ‘Righteous amongst the Nations’.
These are people who sheltered Jews or helped them to escape during the Holocaust, often taking huge risks themselves to do so.
Most rescuers started off as bystanders. In many cases this happened when they were confronted with the deportation or the killing of the Jews. Some had stood by in the early stages of persecution … but there was a point when they decided to act, a boundary they were not willing to cross.
Importantly, these are the people we know about. We know what they did because the people they helped to save told their stories. But there were many, many more whose stories have not been told. Many of those who survived the Holocaust have never talked about what they experienced, and those who were children at the time may not have known who did what, who took what risks to keep them safe. The rescuers themselves have often been silent about what they did – in parts of Eastern Europe it was hardly wise to make a noise about it after the war, and others were too modest to promote themselves as heroes. It is also worth noting that some of those who chose not to stand by were themselves murdered, and some had to endure the knowledge of the fate that befell those who they had tried to save – in either case it is likely that their acts are and will remain unknown.
Nicholas Winton did not, as is sometimes reported, keep entirely silent about his work in organising transports of children out of Czechoslovakia, but he certainly wasn’t well-known for it, and it took a television programme in 1988 to bring it to worldwide attention. He is not recorded amongst the Righteous – but only because he himself was of partly Jewish ancestry. He was scrupulous in recognising that the achievement was not his alone, and his reticence may also have in part been prompted by the painful knowledge that many more children could have been saved, had the US and other nations been willing to take more of them in.
As the number of survivors dwindles year on year, we may never know how many more of the Righteous there were.
In Poland, the epicentre of the Holocaust, over 6,500 people are recorded on Yad Vashem’s database. This is the largest number for any of the countries listed – all the more remarkable since in Poland alone the act of saving or trying to save a Jew was punishable by death for the rescuer and their family.
Stefan Szablewski may have been one of the unknown Righteous. His grandson, Marek, has spent the last few years trying to piece together a remarkable story of life in Warsaw, of survival and resistance. This has been a significant challenge:
I realised that not only did I have a unique tale to tell, but that as an only child I was the sole keeper. My knowledge, however, was incomplete. I needed to find the missing parts of the jigsaw puzzle to verify the facts that I had, and to learn more about the bigger picture. All I had to go on were my memories of conversations, several boxes of documents, a handful of photographs and medals, a bookshelf of books about Poland, a few contacts, and three precious tapes recorded for me by my father, which told some, but not all, of the story.
What these fragments show is that Stefan’s third wife, Anna, was Jewish and that she and her daughter were kept safe during the occupation of Warsaw, living under a false identity. In addition, there are records which state that ‘he organised safe houses or accommodation for people who were hiding along with the fabrication of identity papers, and also hid resistance literature and medical supplies.’ But there’s no hard evidence – just handwritten testimonies, and the recollections of Witold, Stefan’s son. Witold himself went into the Ghetto before its destruction, smuggling messages to the Jewish Council, and did what he could to help his stepmother’s family. Both the necessary habit of secrecy about such activities, and the level of destruction in Warsaw make it very difficult to find out more, or to know with certainty what happened. The efforts of a second or third generation now are to gather the fragments that do exist, and build as much of a story as possible. However incomplete, however many question marks remain, these stories are vital and compelling, and a reminder that the worst of times can bring out the best in people as well as the worst.
In Rwanda, the speed and intensity of the genocide meant that the kind of acts commemorated at Yad Vashem are even less likely to be recorded, and the narratives may be disputed. We have the account of Carl Wilkens, the only American who stayed in Rwanda, against all advice, and did what he could to protect the lives of Tutsi friends, and by talking his way through roadblocks and negotiating with senior army figures (people who were heavily implicated or actively involved in orchestrating the genocide) to get supplies through and then to arrange the safety of the children in an orphanage.
Of course, the story of Rwanda is the story of a world of bystanders, and those who did stay, and did what they could, are haunted, tormented by the lives they couldn’t save and the knowledge that had the US and other nations responded to the warnings and the increasingly desperate pleas from those who were witnessing the slaughter, so many more lives could have been saved. Whilst the targets of the killing were clearly Tutsi and Hutus suspected of helping them, the murder of Belgian peacekeepers early in the genocide meant that Wilkens and others could not be certain that they would be safe, and as the militia at the roadblocks were frequently drunk and out of control, there is no doubt that they took huge risks. Hutu Rwandans who hid friends, neighbours and colleagues rather than joining in the killing, or handing them over to the mobs, were however taking much greater risks, and if discovered they were certainly killed.
The ending of the film Shooting Dogs has always bothered me. The film shows a young Briton who was evacuated on a UN transport, leaving around 2,000 Tutsi in the compound of the Ecole Technique Officiel in Kigali, surrounded by Interahamwe militia, almost all of whom were killed as soon as the UN trucks left. In the final scenes, he is asked by a survivor why he left and he says that he left because he was afraid to die. This is disingenuous (and not challenged by the film) – everyone in that compound was afraid to die. He left because he could. Wilkens’ fellow Americans, and the majority of the Europeans in Rwanda when the genocide began, left because they could. They had a choice, and – for reasons that any of us can understand – they chose to take the escape route offered to them. Reading these stories, most of us will ask ourselves, would I have left when I could? Would I have stayed and tried to help? If I’d lived in Occupied Paris, or Warsaw, would I have kept my head down, or tried to help?
If you were a gendarme, or a civil servant, or even a Wehrmacht officer, you could do your job, as defined by the occupying forces, and compile lists of Jews to be rounded up, or round them up and transport them to transit camps, and then on to cattle trucks, or carry out the murders yourself. Or you could use that position to get a warning out about an impending round-up, or produce false papers to enable Jews to escape, or take direct action to get people to safety.
It came down, as it always does, to individuals, to their ability to empathise, to see not the vilified ‘Other’ but someone like themselves, and to their sense of what is fair and right. Fear can overwhelm both, but somehow, wherever and whenever the forces of hatred are unleashed, there will be some who will refuse to stand by.
Think of Lassana Bathily, a Malian Muslim who worked in the kosher supermarket in Paris which was attacked after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He took some of the customers to the cold store to hide, whilst the killers shot and killed Jewish customers in the shop.
Think of Salah Farah. When al-Shabab attacked the bus he was travelling on in Mandera in Kenya, the attackers tried to separate Muslims and Christians. Passengers were offered safety if they identified themselves as Muslim. The response from many was to ask the attackers to kill all of them or leave all of them alone. Muslim women on the bus gave Christian women scarves to use as hijabs. Farah was one of those who refused the offer of safety, and he was shot. He died in hospital almost a month after the attack.
There are always some who refuse to stand by.
As I get older, I haven’t moved to the right, politically, not a millimetre. I haven’t reneged on the feminism that I embraced in my early twenties, or the anti-racism that I learned from my parents as a young child. I’m as idealistic as I ever was, despite all that I know, have seen, have learned in over half a century. But I’m less likely than ever to subscribe to any hard-line view on anything. I don’t reject all -isms – I have no hesitation in declaring myself as a feminist and as a humanist, but both (to me) are pretty broad churches (if you’ll pardon the expression).
One reason for this is empathy. I suspect that the more empathetic one is, the harder it is to sign up wholeheartedly to any ideology, because sooner or later one finds oneself looking into the eyes of another human being, signed up just as wholeheartedly to a different ideology, but yet with whom one feels affinity.
That isn’t to say that all values are relative and that ‘everyone’s entitled to their own opinion’ or any such vacuous non-thought. Just that all moral and political questions, every issue that rears its head and demands that one take a view and take a stand, must be viewed through that lens, the one that allows you to feel what the people on the other side might be feeling. You might not shift an inch, you might be confirmed in your own convictions but they will be tempered and informed by that insight.
In Caitlin Moran’s marvellous and deliriously rude novel How to Build a Girl, her protagonist says:’Perhaps I haven’t yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.’
Just be kind.
I know, I know. Far too simple. But as a starting point, as a touchstone, it’s actually pretty radical.
Everything I’ve learned in my working life has suggested to me that departments, organisations of whatever kind, run better for a bit of kindness. A recognition that all of us, whether we’re the cleaner or the VC, are breakable, and that for all of us the world is difficult. That if people aren’t achieving what we expect them to, a bit of kindness, a bit of empathy, may unlock the reasons and enable us to see a way to help them. It’s not always going to work, and sometimes what the person needs and what the organisation needs is not reconcilable. But I absolutely believe – and this is based on thirty years experience of managing people, fifteen years of dealing with harassment cases, and nearly forty of being managed myself – that we have nothing to lose by being kind.
I’ve seen, and have been on the receiving end of, styles of management that pride themselves on being tough, that hide behind procedures rather than engage with people, that imagine that tacking the mantra ‘we recognise that this is a difficult time for you and that you may wish to ring this helpline…’ on to a message is sufficient to fulfil a duty of care. And I know how counter-productive these approaches are. They destroy trust, they batter confidence, they damage health.
Beyond the world of work, I see the viciousness of some of the current internecine struggles within the feminist movement, and I despair, because so much energy seems to be being expended on being unkind, on attributing the worst motives to the other side, and – or so it seems to me, from the sidelines – doing anything other than look into the eyes of another human being and recognising that they, like you, are breakable, and just being kind.
Of course I’m not daft enough to imagine that this approach will end the horror in Gaza, or in Iraq. It’s too late for kindness alone. But in the worst places, the most appalling situations, in the face of real evil, kindness can still do something powerful. In occupied France, the citizens of Le Chambon sur Lignon took it upon themselves, inspired by their pastor Andre Trocmé, to provide a hiding place for refugees, most of them Jews.
There does not seem to have been any coordinated discussion of whether or how they would do this. It seems to have developed organically – as people arrived, initially more or less at random, and then increasingly as word spread that this was a place where they might be safe, the community found space for them, worked out systems for alerting everyone to impending raids, trained up forgers and guides to prepare false IDs and to escort people over the border to Switzerland. Around 3,500 people were saved. A drop in the ocean, obviously, but there were others – in Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, the inhabitants resolved that every household would hide one Jewish family or at least one Jew.
Even where the rescue of Jews was supported by governments and/or organised resistance movements, or inspired by an influential and charismatic leader within a community, it was hugely dependent on individual acts of kindness, on individuals choosing to help people rather than to obey orders or save their own skins. When there was no such structured support, individual acts of kindness were all that kept many people alive. Ronald Rosbottom’s recent account of occupied Paris says – rightly – that there is no record of individual police officers protesting or refusing to cooperate with the Vichy government’s plans to arrest and deport Jews. However, given that the police had detailed records, knew where all the Jews were, and had planned the raid meticulously, how is it that the total arrested and deported was so far below target? How is it that resistance groups were able to circulate flyers around the city warning of the impending raid? That can only have been because individual police officers decided to do what they could, discreetly, and pass on what they knew, and even as the round-up progressed, to create opportunities for people to hide or escape. What made them take this risk? Their actions don’t amount to much in the scheme of things, when compared with other acts of heroism, they’re compromised and limited in their effects, but it seems to me that they are examples of people trying, in an impossible situation, to be kind, In Yolande Mukagasana’s compelling account of surviving the Rwandan genocide, it’s striking how some people that she might have expected would help her turned her away, and others, who had no particular reason to help, did what they could, from choosing not to see or recognise her, choosing not to alert the interahamwe, to hiding and feeding her, whilst the killing went on all around them.
What made the difference? I find myself far more interested in what makes people do the right thing, what prompts those acts of generosity and kindness in situations where such things are dangerous, rather than what makes people do evil. We know that hatred is infectious, that it can be taught, that when it is fed insidiously into the language and images that we absorb without even realising, it can begin to seem normal. But generosity and kindness can be taught too, and can be just as catching.
Just as the people who go along with evil are not monsters, those who won’t aren’t saints. Some of them have religious faith, others don’t. Some have strong political beliefs, others don’t. Whilst those things may provide motivation, and may provide a rationale for doing the decent thing, I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation, as this behaviour crosses all such divides, just as evil does. They may have a more strongly developed sense of fairness, that instinct that makes one feel ‘that is not right’. They may be more empathetic and find it impossible not to feel what it would be like to be hunted, threatened, vilified. But these are not purely innate qualities – we start off identifying unfairness when it is unfair to us, and as we mature we learn to extrapolate that to others, if we’re encouraged to do so. And empathy can be nourished, if it’s seen as something valuable, something powerful.
We need to nurture those qualities. We need people who give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, who care about other people because they are people, whichever side they’re on. And we need idealism, because that opens us up to the possibilities of hope, and joy, and people being the best they can be. To go back to Caitlin Moran, ‘when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. … Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow – like insect armour. This armour will protect your heart, from disappointment – but it leaves you almost unable to walk. You cannot dance, in this armour.’ And you can’t love either.
When we empathise, we can’t be deliberately cruel, because it hurts us to hurt someone else. That may not in itself be morality, but it teaches us morality. We know that harsh words cause other people pain because we feel that pain. We may cause pain in anger, but we regret it, it haunts us if we have done so. That doesn’t mean we’re always nice, that doesn’t mean we can’t have hard conversations with people, and tell them things that we know will hurt them, but the way we do that will be informed by our understanding of what it will feel like to be them, hearing this.
I’ve quoted this before, from Joss Whedon’s Angel:
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
So it’s not daft, soft, or naive. It’s vital, it’s difficult and it can be dangerous.
Just be kind.
Peter Grose – The Greatest Escape: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives from the Nazis (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2014)
Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl (Harper, 2014)
Yolande Mukagasana – N’aie pas peur de savoir (Robert Laffont, 1999)
Ronald Rosbottom – When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation (Little, Brown & Co, 2014)
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?