Posts Tagged Occupied Paris
Every year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops, we honour those murdered in the Holocaust. But not just The Holocaust. It takes nothing from the unique place that event holds in our history to honour too those murdered in genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Armenia. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust does this – and it draws upon the testimonies of survivors of some of the more recent genocides to bring home to us that the pious utterance ‘never again’ has been little more than a pious utterance.
If in my own writing about genocide I focus on the Holocaust, there are a number of reasons for that. Firstly, my areas of research relate to the Shoah, most particularly in France. Secondly, because of where and when the Holocaust took place, because of its long build-up and its duration, we have vast volumes of testimony, not only from survivors (and from those who did not survive but left behind diaries nonetheless) but from perpetrators and bystanders. We have diaries and letters, but also memos and legal documents and reports and photographs and films. There is thus a vast archive of material on which we can draw in our ongoing attempts to understand what happened, how and why, far more than in any of the other genocides of the last century.
If it takes nothing from the Shoah to talk also about these other genocides, it takes nothing from those other genocides to talk about the Shoah.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is, ‘Torn from Home’.
This reminded me of an early blog post, published on 16 July 2012, the 70th anniversary of the massive round-up of Parisian Jews, which heralded the start of mass deportations to Auschwitz.
Thursday 16 July. At 4 in the morning, it is still very dark. The streets are deserted, the doors and windows closed. But on this early Thursday morning, police cars are converging on pre-arranged spots, carrying officers and civilian assistants. They consult their instructions, block the streets. Each small team has a list of names and addresses. Alongside the police vehicles, buses are parked along the pavements, awaiting their passengers. At the appointed moment, the teams go in. They knock. ‘Police – open up!’.
The occupants are escorted to the buses, and taken on to one of two destinations – single adults to transit camps, including a half-built housing estate on the edge of the city, recently cleared of many of its occupants to make room for this influx, and families to a nearby sports stadium. At the latter, no food or water is provided. It’s mid-July, and once the building is sealed, the heat rapidly becomes oppressive. The few working toilets don’t work for long. The people in the stadium are afraid, and some in despair throw themselves from the balconies to the floor below. A few manage to use the general chaos to slip out, provided that the police at the entry are either sufficiently distracted, or willing to be suddenly inattentive. A few manage to get themselves transferred to hospital (this may prove to be only a temporary respite). Once space in the transit camp has been cleared again, the families in the stadium are transported there. Until the trains take them, too, to their final destination.
Thursday 16 July 1942, Paris. The Vel’ d’Hiv round up, named after the sports stadium used to house the Jews who were dragged from their homes that morning and in the hours that followed. Drancy camp, next stop en route to Auschwitz. 13,152 were arrested, of whom 5802 were women, and 4051 children. Some of the adults – less than 3% – made it home after the Liberation, to search fruitlessly for news of their children at the Hotel Lutétia. None of the children came home.
It wasn’t the first round-up, but it was the first to seize women, children, babies, the elderly, the sick. It gave the lie to the official explanation, that the Jews who were being interned were heading to labour camps in the east. And the sight of it, for some witnesses at least, and for some of those who escaped the net this time, was a catalyst that led to resistance.
Torn from home.
But the process had started well before that July morning. The process had begun with rhetoric, feeding on the anti-semitism that was so strongly present in French politics. The Dreyfus affair which had divided the country had been concluded (with the full exoneration and restoration of military honours to Captain Dreyfus) less than forty years earlier. (Dreyfus himself died in 1936, and members of his family fled to the Unoccupied zone from Paris when the Occupation began. His granddaughter, Madeleine Levy, was a member of the Resistance, who was arrested in 1943 and murdered in Auschwitz. ) The anti-Dreyfusard contingent had continued to be active in nationalist and often explicitly anti-semitic politics and the Occupation gave them their opportunity. (Indeed, Charles Maurras of Action Francaise called his conviction in 1945 for acts of collaboration ‘the revenge of Dreyfus’.) From the very beginning of the Occupation, anti-Jewish sentiment was nurtured, rewarded and disseminated.
Exhibitions were held using stereotypical images of Jews, and portraying a narrative of covert networks of Jews controlling the financial sector and influencing political decision making. (In our own time there has been a resurgence of this narrative, purveyed by both the far right and by the left, invoking, for example, George Soros and the Rothschild dynasty.) This kind of propaganda was not new to the French. The anti-Dreyfus press used such caricatures and stereotypes to attack both Dreyfus personally, and by extension all Jews.
The stereotypes and canards perpetuated in the caricatures drew from both the antiquated ideas of Jewish usury and greed, but also modern ideas of conspiracy, as well as industry domination and control, which had been made popular by the publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Those ideas rose in prominence through the publication of caricatures showcasing Jews attempting to disguise themselves as non-Jews, Jews being portrayed as world dominators, and manipulators of finance and politics.
The Nazi message was in itself therefore not radical or shocking. And to a nation reeling after a sudden and unequivocal defeat, the handy provision of a scapegoat was, to some at least, very welcome. The propaganda went hand in hand with the implementation of a range of measures designed to say to all Jews, whether French citizens or immigrants, that they were not at home. It was all done incrementally – Jewish businesses had to declare themselves with posters in the windows, Jews had to register at the police station, Jews could only travel in the last carriage on the Metro, Jews could only shop between certain hours of the day, Jews could not go to the cinema or the swimming baths, Jewish businesses had to be owned by an Aryan, Jews were barred from an extensive list of professions, Jews could not attend University, Jews had to wear a yellow star sewn securely on to their coats… Every step led closer to the transit camp, the cattle truck, the death camp, but by stealth.
Louise Doughty’s novel of the Roma Holocaust, Fires in the Dark, describes this process – and how it reaches its conclusion – vividly:
How strange a thing it is, he thought, the way you comfort yourself when it comes to loss. You turn away from it, show it your back, face and embrace what you still have. When we had to sell our gold I thought, ah well, we can always buy more gold, as long as we have the wagon and the horses and can still travel, then we will be fine. Then they stopped us travelling and burnt our wagon and I thought, well, we still have one horse and we can build a cart, and we have a roof over our heads. Then we had to flee our roof and I thought, we still have good clothes and boots, so many people don’t have boots any more. Then they took the bundles from us as we stood in line on Registration Day and I thought, well, we have the clothes we stand up in. When we got here, they took those. They even took the hair from my head. I thought, at least we are together in the same camp. So many people have been separated from their families. Now my family are kept from me, even though they are a few metres away . … It is just me, just my body and my soul and that is all that I have. … (Fires in the Dark, pp. 311-312)
The Jews of France – many of them, at least – accommodated themselves stage by stage with the restrictions that were placed upon their freedoms. Until the round-up, the transit camp, the cattle truck, the death camp. Because each new restriction was designed to say to them, whether they were French for generations or new arrivals, you are not at home, can never be at home here.
The round-ups went on, right to the bitter end. As Allied troops were fighting their way through France after D-Day, Jews were still being arrested, herded into cattle trucks and deported to their deaths. Helene Berr and her parents, French for generations, were arrested in March 1944. The 1942 round-ups had targeted ‘foreign’ Jews, but by this time such distinctions were irrelevant. The Berrs were clearly being watched – they’d moved from place to place for months, staying with friends but never for very long, and went home just for one night. The knock on the door came the following morning.
And for those few who survived, the idea of ‘coming home’ was never really going to be possible. When they arrived at the gare de l’Est, they were often unrecognisable even to their closest friends and family. They were broken, physically and mentally. They were changed, utterly.
The deportees, these living shadows, these walking skeletons, with that distant, lost look in their hollow eyes, their air of being from a different world, when one saw them appear, one dared not offer flowers.
(Levy & Tilly, p. 229)
They returned to find that they were alone, that everyone they cared about had perished. They returned to the place where neighbours and colleagues had watched them be rounded up, or beaten up, or had denounced or betrayed them, and where their apartments and belongings had long since been appropriated either by the occupying forces, or by those neighbours and colleagues. And often they were faced with the indifference, lack of understanding or even hostility of those around them.
I began this piece by explaining why, on Holocaust Memorial Day each year, I often focus on this particular bit of history, on what happened in France during the years of Nazi Occupation. There’s another reason.
Anti-semitic rhetoric, racist language, xenophobia, are all more prevalent today than for a long time. No one is suggesting that we are on the road to Auschwitz, but if we let ourselves become immunised to the shock of this language and of overtly hostile behaviour to perceived ‘foreigners’ we risk being numb to worse things. As we leave the community of Europe behind that risk is too great to ignore. As the hard right targets Muslims and Eastern Europeans, and invokes George Soros as a hate figure, whilst the left invokes the Rothschilds and a worldwide Zionist conspiracy, we have to speak out.
Britain is home to people from all over the world. It always has been. It must continue to be. We must never contemplate with equanimity the idea that anyone whose home is here might fear a knock on the door, might be interned indefinitely awaiting deportation, might be sent back to somewhere where their life is at risk because of their politics, their religion, their sexuality. We must never contemplate with equanimity our colleagues and neighbours being told to ‘go home’, that they’re not welcome any more. We must never contemplate with equanimity the casual slurs; the stereotyping of people of a particular nationality or religion; the language of ‘queue jumpers’, of ‘citizens of nowhere’, of ‘swarms’; the repetition of lazy untruths, whether about the largesse handed out to refugees or about the truth of the Holocaust.
The Jews of France registered without much protest when required to do so. They did not believe, could not believe, that anything too terrible could happen to them in the land of ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’, a land that for some had been home for generations, and for others that had offered a haven when persecution drove them from another country. They could not see where this path was leading. We know.
Helene Berr – Journal (trans. David Bellos, Quercus, 2008)
Louise Doughty – Fires in the Dark (Harper, 2005)
Claude Levy & Paul Tillard – La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (Tallandier, 2010)
Renee Poznanski – Jews in France during World War II (Brandeis Univ. Press, 2001)
These are the books that have made the most impression upon me, that have made me want to read everything by that author, tweet madly about how wonderful they are and press copies upon everyone I know, during 2017. Many, but not all, appeared during 2016/17.
Earlier this year I undertook a challenge, to read 60 books in 60 days. Reader, I nailed it. I also blogged extensively about the books I read and I don’t intend to duplicate those reviews here, though I will list the books that make my ‘best of’ list which were part of that project. Quite a few, actually.
One of the first books I read in 2017 was Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. I commented at the time that this was likely to end up being one of my books of the year, and nothing has displaced it. He made me feel incredibly un-well-read, but without making me feel stupid, rather, inspired to go away and read the stuff he was talking about. It’s truly wide-ranging – people he loathes as well as people he admires, acerbically funny, which is not always easy to pull off whilst being erudite, and it’s a book that I will go back to again and again for enlightenment, for brilliantly pithy comments, and for the impetus to read stuff that I haven’t yet braved.
As always, I found myself reading around various aspects of World War II.
Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes: how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s (2016) is a fascinating account, featuring collaborators and resisters and everyone in between, drawing on some sources that I was familiar with but many more that I wasn’t, and weaving them all into a rich tapestry which shows how life in Occupied Paris was both normal and entirely abnormal at the same time, depending on who and where you were. I thought often of Michel Butor’s comment, speaking of his own adolescence in the city, that it felt as though nothing was happening but that the nothing was bloody.
Lara Feigel’s The Bitter Taste of Victory: in the ruins of the Reich (2016) again draws upon contemporary sources (with particular, but not exclusive, emphasis on some of the women writers, reporters and artists – Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Lee Miller, Erika Mann) to paint a vivid picture of the devastation of Berlin and other German cities after the end of the War, and during the Nuremberg trials. I followed this up with Rebecca West’s near-contemporary first-hand account, A Train of Powder (1955). Philippe Sands’ East West Street (2016) covered this period too, but from the perspective of those who were developing the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity which were so crucial to the judgments at Nuremberg and to our response to such crimes in the decades that followed. What makes his account particularly powerful is that he weaves his own family history into that of the architects of the legislation. He makes the connection with his grandfather’s home in Lemberg (aka Lwów or L’viv) which was also where Lauterpacht and Lemberg, the two Jewish lawyers who were so instrumental in giving us the legal framework, grew up and were educated – and who are Sands’ own antecedents too, in his life as an international human rights lawyer. Adding to this coincidence, I found myself reading in quick succession two other family histories, that of Eva Hoffman, born in Cracow at the end of the war but whose parents survived the war in the Ukraine, near Lwów (aka L’viv or Lemberg), emigrating post-war from Poland to Vancouver (Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language), and then that of Lisa Appignanesi (Losing the Dead: A Family Memoir), an account of how her parents passed for Aryan in occupied Poland before relocating to Quebec.
Still in WWII but behind the Eastern Front, Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history, The Unwomanly Face of War (2017) lets us hear the voices of the women who fought in the Red Army. Rather than the stereotypes perpetuated by Soviet propaganda or the opposing Western propaganda, we meet real women who did extraordinary things, who confronted not only opposing armies but prejudice from their comrades in arms and commanding officers, and from their families at home. And personal conflicts too – these often very young women fell in love, and mourned the loss of their femininity, and feared whether they would find husbands when the fighting was done. Alexievich’s book first came out in 1985 but has been expanded to bring in more recent interviews, and material from earlier interviews which could not be published previously.
And another remarkable and compelling history from David Olusoga – Black & British: a forgotten history (2016). Alongside bits of history that I was familiar with there’s so much that was new, and ran counter to assumptions that I might have previously made. It also brought back some very early childhood memories, of visits to the forts on the Ghanaian coast, places where slaves were held before they were loaded into the ships to cross the Atlantic.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Robert Webb’s How not to be a Boy, clearly a response to Caitlin Moran’s wonderful How to be a Woman/How to Build a Girl. It is extremely funny, and – as with Moran’s books – often very moving as well.
Other outstanding non-fiction titles which were part of my 60 books challenge: Aminatta Forna – The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (2003); Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012); David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017).
When it comes to fiction I resent categorisations by genre, which always somehow end up marking some things as ‘literature’ and others as ‘crime’ or whatever. However, given the sheer number of crime/thriller/detective novels that I read, it makes sense to group them together.
New discoveries this year include Ben Aaronovitch’s somewhat bonkers urban fantasy detective novel, Rivers of London (2011). This is the start of a series, which I have yet to follow up.
I came across Helen Cadbury’s Sean Denton police procedurals, To Catch a Rabbit (2013) and Bones in the Nest (2015) set in South Yorkshire, gritty and gripping. I’d only just read them when I heard that she’d died, an awful loss. There’s one more Sean Denton novel just out, which I haven’t read yet.
I’ve been binging on various series featuring women detectives and as a result I’ve run out of several of my current favourites: Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan (Let the Dead Speak, 2017), Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw (latest one is Persons Unknown, 2017), Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome (Quieter than Killing, 2017), and Valentina Giambanco’s Alice Madison (Sweet after Death, 2017). They all feature central women characters who are complicated and interesting, tight plotting, intriguing peripheral characters, and an overall plot arc which, whilst it doesn’t prevent each novel from being freestanding, gives a depth to the series if you read them consecutively.
Fortunately, whilst I wait for Casey, Steiner, Giambanco and Hilary to come up with new titles (no pressure, but do hurry up!), I’ve got lots to read by Elly Griffiths, whose The Crossing Places (2009) and The Janus Stone (2010) features not a woman cop but a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.
Noah Hawley was new to me as a novelist, but I’d loved his writing for three TV series of Fargo, full of wit and heart and surprises. His 2016 novel, Before the Fall lived up to the expectations that Fargo had raised. It’s a thriller, about truth and lies, fame and reality.
And a writer new to me but channelling (very convincingly) one of my all-time favourite detective novelists, Dorothy L Sayers. Four new Lord Peter Wimsey stories from Jill Paton Walsh, a delightful chance to reacquaint myself with Peter and Harriet and Bunter and (oh joy!) the Dowager Duchess, and to see them in the context of world events and radical changes in society. (Thrones, Dominations (1998)/A Presumption of Death (2002)/The Attenbury Emeralds (2010)/The Late Scholar (2013))
And some fantastic 2017 titles which were part of my 60 books challenge: Sam Bourne – To Kill the President, Jo Furniss – All the Little Children, Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze , Jane Harper – The Dry .
Another terribly sad loss this year was that of Helen Dunmore. I’ve read most of her work over the years, this year alone I read three (The Lie (2014)/Exposure (2016)/The Betrayal (2010)). I’m grateful for all the pleasure her books have given me, and that there are a few more for me to look forward to reading, including her final novel, Birdcage Walk.
This was the year I finally finished a ten-year project – to read all of Proust. In French. Le Temps retrouvé bit the dust in April, and I blogged about it here.
Prompted by my University of Sheffield Book Group, I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015).
I suspect I’m not the only person with a deep fondness for To Kill a Mockingbird, and a tendency to idolise Atticus Finch, who’d kind of been putting this off, having read some of the reviews (and the controversy about whether Lee genuinely wanted this to be published and/or had the capacity to make that decision). I’m glad I did read it, but it’s complicated, and I will be pondering more about this separately, because reading it sent me off on so many different trains of thought.
And finally, after reading another alt. US history (Philip Roth’s The Plot against America) I got round to Sinclair Lewis’s account of a demagogue, ‘vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic’, who wins the Democratic presidential nomination and then the Presidency. He wins support despite the vulgarity and the lies and the lack of content in his speeches by addressing the people as if ‘he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.’ And he attacks the Press in very familiar terms:
I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away . . . plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good.
It is impossible to read It Can’t Happen Here (1935) without seeing the current incumbent of the White House in the place of Buzz Windrip. In the run-up to his election, the Guardian analysed the similarities, and the Washington Post compared Trump not only to Windrip but to Philip Roth’s Charles Lindbergh. We are forewarned.
As part of the 60 books challenge, I read more from long-term favourite writers Stevie Davies (Awakening, 2013), Patrick Gale (The Whole Day Through, 2009), Rose Tremain (The Gustav Sonata, 2016) and Livi Michael (Succession, 2014). I’ve already followed up Livi Michael’s excellent Wars of the Roses historical novel with the rest of the trilogy (Rebellion, and Accession). I finally read The Handmaid’s Tale and The Garden of the Finzi Continis. I discovered new writers: Sarah Moss, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Per Petterson, and Andrew Michael Hurley, amongst others.
This represents only a fraction of what I’ve read in 2017. The 60 books are fully documented, and outside of that project I’ve tried to keep a note as I go along, but I know I’ve forgotten some things (maybe justly, maybe not). And of course this list represents the best of what I’ve read, the stuff that, as I said earlier, I’ve been evangelical about getting other people to read, and have followed up or plan to follow up with more by the same writer. I have a policy of not mentioning the books I’ve read (completed or abandoned) which I’ve found tedious, or badly written, or just profoundly mediocre (although if I found something I was reading to be pernicious, dangerous, defamatory or whatever, I reserve the right to make a noise about that). Generally, though, let other pens dwell on clunky dialogue, cardboard characters and so forth – the world is full of books that give pleasure and enlightenment, that inform and move and delight, and I’d rather talk about them.
Meantime, my ‘to read’ pile never seems to diminish, no matter how much and how fast I read. Priorities include finishing Anthony Beevor’s magisterial The Battle for Spain, which I put to one side during my 60 books challenge, and have not yet resumed, and others which I have still to acquire, Coulson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir, I am, I am, I am (as well as any of her novels I haven’t read yet), and lots more Ali Smith. Right, better get back to the books…
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)