Posts Tagged Austerlitz
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)
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.
(adapted from a paper given at ‘There & Back Again’, a postgraduate conference at the University of Nottingham, organised by the Landscape, Space, Place Research Group. The title is taken from Iain Hacking’s fascinating study of the fugueur phenomenon)
The idea of wandering, of travelling without constraints, without a humdrum practical purpose, is perennially appealing to most of us, even if, for most of us, the drawbacks come to mind pretty speedily if we start to entertain the notion. Some do it anyway – seize the moment when the obstacles are not insuperable – but generally it’s something to enjoy vicariously, or to indulge in short bursts, taking time out of a holiday schedule to just have a stroll around foreign streets.
Throughout myth and literature there are many wanderers who cross seas, continents and centuries. For some it’s a pastime, a means of avoiding commitments or encumbrance:
I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around
I’m never in one place, I roam from town to town
And when I find myself fallin’ for some girl
I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world (Dion, The Wanderer, 1961)
Everyday in the week I’m in a different city
If I stay too long people try to pull me down
Hendrix suggests that the prejudices of the cities in which he finds himself push him to leave, as well as, like Dion, that if he does sometimes feel his heart ‘kinda gettin’ hot’ for some woman, he moves on before he gets caught. For some, wandering is a subversive practice (not using the city streets in the prescribed way), for others it’s a compulsion, even a curse.
The flâneur is one of those archetypal wanderers. This classic definition is by Baudelaire, writing in 1863 in his ‘Le Peintre de la vie moderne’.
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.
He is a perfect stroller, a passionate spectator, an erudite wanderer. He walks the streets, probably alone, with no map or itinerary, with the confidence that comes from being male, well-educated and wealthy. His milieu is the city, and quintessentially Paris. One might think that the boulevards and arcades of Haussmann’s Paris lent themselves to strolling so much better than the labyrinthine streets of the old city, but it was that old city that defined the flâneur, allowing (in Edmund White’s words) ‘a passive surrender to the aleatory flux of the innumerable and surprising streets’.
The flâneur is a prototype detective, his apparent indolence masking intense watchfulness. This recalls Edgar Allen Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (which was translated by Baudelaire), in which a man recovering from illness sits in a London coffee shop, watching the passers-by, and engaging in Holmesian deductions about their occupation and character. His attention is drawn by an old man who he is unable to read, and he feels compelled by insatiable curiosity to follow him, for a night and a day, as the man moves unceasingly through the city: he is the man of the crowd – not only hiding within it, but unable to exist outside it.
Walter Benjamin in his 1935 study of Baudelaire suggests that Baudelaire identifies the old man as a flâneur. This must be a misreading on Benjamin’s part, since the old man is as manic as the flâneur is composed. The flâneur may ‘set up house’ in the heart of the crowd, becoming part of ‘the ebb and flow of movement’, but he remains separate, above the mass. He is, like Baudelaire and Benjamin, at the same time engaged with and alienated by the city.
Poe’s story does give us a flâneur, however, in the person of the narrator, who can and does choose to abandon his pursuit, stepping aside to resume his life, and a different kind of wanderer, in the person of the man of the crowd. Steven Fink argues persuasively that the man of the crowd is the mythological figure of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander endlessly as punishment for a terrible crime. (He has a number of counterparts, including, amongst others, Cain, the Flying Dutchman, and the Ancient Mariner.) Certainly this description by Benjamin’s contemporary, Siegfried Krakauer, is remarkably close to Poe’s description of the old man:
‘there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of bloodthirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense – of supreme despair … How wild a history … is written within that bosom!’. (Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’)
Imagine [his face] to be many faces, each reflecting one of the periods which he traversed and all of them combining into ever new patterns as he restlessly and vainly tries on his wanderings to reconstruct out of the times that shaped him the one time he is doomed to incarnate. It is a terrible face, ‘assembled from the many faces of the dead’. (Siegfried Krakauer – History, the Last Things Before the Last (OUP, 1969))
If the man of the crowd is no flâneur, he does bear a stronger resemblance to the fugueur, a lesser-known (and shorter-lived) phenomenon which emerged in the 1880s. Bordeaux medical student Philippe Tissié and neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris documented a number of cases of men undertaking strange and unexpected trips, in states of obscured consciousness. They were subject to hallucinations, and often dominated by ideas of persecution. Their conduct during the episode appeared normal, but they were unconscious of what they were doing, and had no memory of it afterwards – in a state of dissociative fugue. A fugue state is defined as involving selective memory loss, the inability to recall specific – perhaps traumatic – events. This may be accompanied by wandering and travelling, in an attempt to recover memory/identity, or perhaps in a flight from it – the etymological paradox of flight/pursuit.
The fugueur is quite distinct from the flâneur whose journeying is deliberately aimless and random, an end in itself. His itinerary may defy linear logic but nonetheless is purposeful, even if that purpose can be discovered only retrospectively. The flâneur, in his fine clothes, walked the streets as if he owned them because, wealthy and well-educated, he could. The fugueur, in his state of obscured consciousness, was likely to be mistaken, instead, for a vagrant. Albert Dadas, ‘patient zero’ in the mini-epidemic of ‘mad travelling’, was repeatedly arrested for vagabondage. The fugueurs were generally of more modest means than the flâneurs – tradesmen, craftsmen or clerks – and their travels took them much further afield. If someone spoke of a city or a country Albert was seized by the need to go there, and did so, often then finding himself in difficulties due to lack of funds.
One of Charcot’s patients was a young Hungarian Jew named Klein, who was ‘constantly driven by an irresistible need to change his surroundings, to travel, without being able to settle down anywhere’. This particular patient prompted a link with the then prevailing view that Jews were more prone than other races to various forms of neurasthenia and that this particular manifestation was ‘in the character of their race’. Thus the Wandering Jew was, according to Henri Meige’s thesis, ‘only a sort of prototype of neurotic Israelites journeying throughout the world’. Even at the time it was pointed out, fairly acerbically, that if the Jews had a tendency to move from place to place, this was in generally externally rather than internally driven, as persecution and prejudice made it necessary to leave one home in search of another.
Charcot’s diagnosis, and his use of the term ‘hystero-epilepsy’ in particular, fell out of favour, largely due to the failure to identify a common cause that would account for a collection of rather disparate individual cases. In the twentieth century the two types of wanderer seem often to merge, as trauma and exile create a more melancholy and more driven wanderer. One can trace a line from Baudelaire’s flâneur to the Surrealists, via Walter Benjamin’s description of flânerie as a dream state in which ‘The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker [: it] conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history’, to Guy Debord’s dérive as subversive practice, and on to today’s psychogeographers. Rather than being a disaffected and detached observer, the flâneur in the late 20th and 21st century may be in flight from memory, from identity, at home nowhere, an exile who feels no connection, or only a highly problematic one, to homeland or origins.
Michel Butor’s 1956 novel, L’Emploi du temps is set in a northern English industrial city, called Bleston but clearly inspired by Manchester, where Butor had worked a few years earlier. It takes the form of a diary kept by his protagonist, Jacques Revel, in the city for a one-year placement. We know nothing of Revel’s life before his arrival in Bleston, or of what he will do after he leaves. He speaks of his year there as a prison sentence – he is unable to leave the city during that period, and compelled to leave it on a specific date. He is certainly not at home in Bleston, but he seems entirely rootless, without any connection elsewhere. In his restless wanderings through the streets, he seems to be searching – mostly fruitlessly – for lodgings, for someone whose name he does not know who he met on an earlier walk, for the elusive countryside. But ultimately his quest is to master the city by walking its streets, grasping the reality which seems to be changing around him as he walks – it is a phantasmagorical city, whose heavily polluted atmosphere creates a narcotic dream-like state, distorting his perceptions and leaving him disorientated.
Butor’s novel had a significant influence on W G Sebald, who came to Manchester about 15 years later. Sebald read L’Emploi du temps when he first arrived, and it inspired a poem, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, as well as having a wider impact on his work.
In Sebald’s novels, the narrator (who may or may not be, to some extent, Sebald) invariably begins by describing a journey. He is precise about when, and where, although the layering of timeframes and locations means that we can lose these certainties as the narrative progresses, but frequently the ‘why’ is obscure, not just to the reader but to the narrator himself. The narrator and the various protagonists are rarely, if ever, ‘at home’. They are often in transit or in provisional, interim spaces such as waiting rooms, railway stations, and transport cafes. Their journeys often induce episodes of near paralysis, physical or mental, and they end inconclusively, often with a sense that the quest will continue after the final page.
But if the Sebaldian narrator is a contemporary example of the melancholy flâneur, Jacques Austerlitz connects us directly with the fugueur, and with wandering as a response to trauma and loss. As a child, Austerlitz arrived in England on the Kindertransport, where his foster parents gave him a new life, and a new name, telling him nothing of his past, or the fate of his parents, until, as a sixth former, he learns that he is not Dafydd Elias.
For many years he avoids any topic or image which might shed light on or raise questions about his origins. But, increasingly isolated, and with his life ‘clouded by unrelieved despair’, tormented by insomnia, he undertakes nocturnal wanderings through London, alone, outwards into the suburbs, and then back at dawn with the commuters into the city. These excursions begin to trigger hallucinations, visions from the past, for example, the impression that ‘the noises of the city were dying down around me and the traffic was flowing silently down the street, or as if someone had plucked me by the sleeve. And I would hear people behind my back speaking in a foreign tongue …’. He is irresistibly drawn to Liverpool Street Station, a place full of ghosts, built as it is on the remains of Bedlam hospital, and, in the disused Ladies’ Waiting Room, encounters the ghosts of his foster parents and the small boy he once was.
Thus his obsessive wanderings appear to have had a sub-conscious purpose, taking him back to the point of rupture between one life and another. He embarks upon a new phase of wandering, driven by the need to find his home and his parents. Overhearing a radio documentary about the Kindertransport, and the reference to a ship named The Prague, like Albert Dadas, the original fugueur: ‘the mere mention of the city’s name in the present context was enough to convince me that I would have to go there’.
Austerlitz’s quest remains incomplete at the end of the novel. In the course of his wanderings he has, he believes, discovered his former home in Prague and traced his mother to Teresienstadt and his father to the Gurs concentration camp in France in 1942. Beyond that he knows only that his mother ‘was sent east’ in 1944. He does not know where, when, or even whether they died.
His quest, and his confrontation with the losses that defined his life, leads to ‘several fainting fits … temporary but complete loss of memory, a condition described in psychiatric textbooks … as hysterical epilepsy’. He is taken, significantly, to the Salpêtrière, where Charcot established this diagnosis almost a century earlier. This diagnosis would only be included in psychiatric textbooks as a historical footnote – an example of Sebald’s dense or layered time – we know precisely where we are, but the ‘when’ is not so straightforward.
Thus we’ve come full circle. And I want to make another tentative, perhaps fanciful connection. Sebald invites us to make all sorts of links with the name Austerlitz – the battle, the Parisian railway station, even Fred Astaire. And there’s always the echo of another name, the likely final destination of both of his parents, unspoken here except in a reference to the Auschowitz Springs near Marienbad. One more then – Ahasuerus, the name often given to the mythological Wandering Jew.
Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur – ‘être hors de chez soi, et pourtant se sentir partout chez soi (away from home and yet at home everywhere)’ has echoed through the twentieth century and into our own, accumulating more and more melancholy baggage. That this phrase has darker undertones than Baudelaire will have intended is brought home by a speech made by Hitler in 1933, in which he described the Jewish people, the ‘small, rootless international clique’, as ‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere’.
In our time then, rather than someone at ease wherever he finds himself, we are likely to think of the refugee and the exile, adapting without putting down roots, unable to return but unable fully to belong, always sub-consciously ready to move on or even keeping a bag permanently packed, just in case. For the original flâneur this characteristic was an affectation, a chosen detachment and rootlessness. For the fugueur, driven by trauma or crisis of identity, it is a curse, to have to wander, and never to find answers, or find home.
Anderson, George K, The Legend of the Wandering Jew (Hanover/London: Brown UP, 1991)
Benjamin, Walter, ed. Michael W Jennings, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2006)
Brunel, Pierre (ed), translated by Wendy Allatson et al, Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes (NY/London: Routledge, 1996)
Coverley, Merlin, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006)
Fink, Steven, ‘Who is Poe’s Man of the Crowd?’, Poe Studies, 44, 2011 (17-38)
Gilloch, Graeme, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cam.: Polity, 1996)
Goldstein, Jan, ‘The Wandering Jew and the Problem of Psychiatric Anti-Semitism in Fin-de-Siècle France’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20, 4(October 1985), 521-52
Hacking, Ian, ‘Automatisme Ambulatoire: Fugue, Hysteria and Gender at the Turn of the Century’, Modernism/Modernity, 32 (1996), 31-43
__, ‘Les Alienés voyageurs: How Fugue Became a Medical Entity, History of Psychiatry, 7, 3 (September 1996), 425-49
__, Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses (Free Association Books, 1998)
Kuo, Michelle and Albert Wu, ‘Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W G Sebald and the Alienated Cosmopolitan’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 February 2013
Lauster, Martina, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Myth of the Flâneur’, Modern Language Review, 102, 1 (January 2007), 139-56
McDonough, Tom, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22
Micale, Mark S, In the Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology and the Cultural Arts in Europe and American, 1880-1940 (Stanford UP, 2004)
Seal, Bobby, ‘Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur’, Psychogeographic Review, 14 November 2013
White, Edmund, The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (Bloomsbury, 2008)
W G Sebald describes, in his extraordinary novel Austerlitz, a recording of a film made at the Terezin concentration camp, as part of the effort to present it as a humane and civilised place to visitors from the Red Cross (overcrowding in the camp was reduced before the visit by wholesale deportations to Auschwitz, and once the visitors had left, remaining inmates were summarily despatched too).
In Austerlitz’s search for a glimpse of his mother, who had been interned there before her death, he slows the film down to give him a greater chance of spotting her fleeting image. This creates many strange effects, the inmates now move wearily, not quite touching the ground, blurring and dissolving. But:
‘Strangest of all, however, said Austerlitz, was the transformation of sounds in this slow motion version. In a brief sequence at the very beginning, … the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the soundtrack … had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisienne and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended’. (Austerlitz, pp. 348-9)
The deception that the film sought to achieve is exposed.
The association between Terezin and music has another dimension, however. A remarkable number of inmates were Czech composers, musicians and conductors, and this, combined with the Nazi attempt to make the camp appear to be a model community with a rich cultural life, gave opportunities for music to be created and performed here. There is no easy comfort in this fact, when one knows that most of those who played, composed and conducted died here, or at Auschwitz, and that the moments of escape into this other world were few, and may in some ways have made the contrast with the brutality and barbarism of the regime even harder to bear.
The music of Terezin, however, now reaches new audiences through performance and recordings. Each time we hear the voices of those the Nazis sought to silence, that is a small victory.
Czech conductor Rafael Schachter – transported to Terezin in 1941, organised a performance of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and finally of Verdi’s Requiem, performed for the last time just a few weeks before his transfer to Auschwitz in October 1944
Jazz musician and arranger Fritz Weiss – arrived in Terezin in 1941, set up a dixieland band called the Ghetto Swingers. Fritz was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, with his father, and was killed there on his 25th birthday.
Viktor Ullmann – Silesian/Austrian composer, pupil of Schoenberg, was transported to Terezin in 1942. He composed many works there, all but thirteen of which have been lost, before being transported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was killed.
Gideon Klein – Czech pianist and composer, who like Ullmann composed many works in the camp as well as performing regularly in recitals. Just after completing his final string trio, he was sent to Auschwitz and from there to Furstengrube, where he died during the liquidation of the camp.
Pavel Haas – Czech composer, exponent of Janacek’s school of composition, who used elements of folk and jazz in his work. He was transferred to Auschwitz after the propaganda film was completed, and was murdered there.
Hans Krasa wrote the children’s opera Brundibar in 1938, and it was first performed in the Jewish orphanage in Prague. After Krasa and many of his cast were sent to Terezin, he reconstructed the score from memory, and the opera was performed there regularly, culminating in a performance for the propaganda film. Krasa and his performers were sent to Auschwitz as soon as the filming was finished, and were gassed there.
Not all of the musicians of Terezin were killed. Alice Herz-Sommer survived, along with her son. Now 110, Alice sees life as miraculous and beautiful, she has chosen hope over hate.
“The world is wonderful, it’s full of beauty and full of miracles. Our brain, the memory, how does it work? Not to speak of art and music … It is a miracle.”
Yesterday, on a quest to explore Sebald’s links with Alain Resnais’ L’Année derniere à Marienbad (for another blog), I noticed in Austerlitz the name Marie de Verneuil. She is the friend with whom Austerlitz has been in correspondence since his time in Paris, and who invites him to accompany her on a visit to Bohemia, to do some research on the spas of Europe (thus Marienbad). It would not have struck me the last time I read Austerlitz, but Marie de Verneuil is the heroine of Balzac’s first non-pseudonymous novel, Les Chouans, a historical romance based on the counter-revolutionary rebellions in Brittany.
Marie is a spy, in the employment of the revolutionary national government, whose mission is to identify and entrap the young leader of the rebels, the Marquis de Montauran. They fall in love, and the vicissitudes of their doomed romance mirror the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the opposing armies as towns change hands over and over again. This is not the Balzac of the great Comedie Humaine novels. Heavily influenced by both Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, its interest primarily lies in the way in which Balzac personifies and mythologises the landscape of Brittany as disorientating and treacherous, savage and primitive, and the way in which despite fairly obvious Republicans sympathies he enlists our emotional sympathies with Marie and the Marquis and their cause, as doomed as their romance.
But what does all of this have to do with Sebald? Balzac has an important role in Austerlitz: ‘the fifty-five small volumes of the Comedie humaine bound in carmine red’, in one of which, Le Colonel Chabert, Vera finds two small photographs, possibly placed there by Agata just before the Germans marched in. And Austerlitz, seeking respite from his frustrating and obstructed searches in the Bibliothèque Nationale, begins reading Balzac, starting with Le Colonel Chabert.
Chabert is a ghostly figure, left for dead on the battlefields of Eylau, recorded as dead in the histories of those wars, and now returned, ‘risen from the dead, so to speak’, to reclaim his identity, his inheritance, his wife. Chabert introduces himself as ‘Colonel Chabert, who died at Ehlau’, and tells of the pit of corpses in which he had been thrown after the battle and from which he clawed and tore his way out. For Austerlitz the book ‘reinforced the suspicion … that the border between life and death is less impermeable than we commonly think’.
When I first read Chabert, I thought of the deportees returning home from the camps, appearing on the streets where they had once lived but now as ghosts, revenants, shocking and uncomfortable presences amongst the living and, as revenants so often are, goads to their consciences (think of Banquo, or Jacob Marley).
Chabert, whose memories are shadowy and often confused, still hears at night the groans and sighs of the wounded and dying, just as the deportees, returned to life, brought with them the nightmare that they had escaped. And the dubious welcome he received was shared by some who found their apartments now occupied by neighbours – who sometimes justified their continued occupation on the grounds that the sole survivor of a deported family would not now need all that space.
But what of Marie de Verneuil? Pure coincidence? The only reference I can find which acknowledges the source of the name simply says that Les Chouans is never mentioned by Sebald. So did Sebald recall the name from his reading of Balzac without it having any particular significance to him? That seems improbable. Every name, every place, every reference in Sebald carries the weight of so many connections that I cannot believe this carries none. And yet it’s hard to see the link.
Maybe if I return to Marienbad, I might find something there.