Archive for category Genocide
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.
On this night 75 years ago, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish.
As I only knew Norman Geras – Norm – through his blog, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to him on my own. He was one of the writers who inspired me to use this form to write about whatever mattered to me, and he was kind enough to invite me to complete one of his profiles.
I cannot speak of his life, except as revealed through the many entries on Normblog, and now through the obituaries that have started to appear. A life of conviction and passion, of family and friendship, of music and books and film, of cricket… His very last entry was a list not of books that you must or should read, but of ‘books you might enjoy’ – no browbeating or pressure, just the suggestions of a friend, who wants to share their pleasure with other people.
He also used his blog for a series called Figures from a Dark Time. This was a response to those who argue that we all go on too much about the Holocaust, that it’s all been said often enough. Each entry was composed of testimonies of individuals who were engulfed by that darkness, some who survived, many who did not, and some too who risked everything to help those who needed it. He wrote ‘contre l’oubli’, restoring to some few of those individuals their names and their stories.
atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale
- Norman Geras: 1943-2013 (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- In praise of Norman Geras (1943-2013) (nickcohen.net)
- Norman Geras, 1943-2013 (outsidethebeltway.com)
- RIP Norman Geras (samirchopra.com)
- Bye bye Norm (harrietdevine.typepad.com)
- Pioneering blogger Norman Geras dies of prostate cancer aged 70 (theguardian.com)
- Norman Geras: Rest in peace, comrade (blogs.spectator.co.uk)
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport. In November 1938, after Kristallnacht demonstrated clearly to any doubters that Jews in Germany and Austria were in real danger, Parliament agreed to allow unaccompanied children to enter the country, under certain conditions, and with financial support from refugee organisations. An appeal was put out for foster parents here, and in Germany and Austria a network of organisers worked to identify priority cases, and to get the necessary paperwork. The children could bring with them only a small suitcase, in which many parents placed photographs or other keepsakes along with more prosaic items. Between December 1938 and May 1940, 10,000 unaccompanied children, mainly Jewish, arrived in Britain. As the danger spread, Czech and Polish children were helped too. They went by train to the Netherlands, and then crossed the Channel by ferry before taking another train to Liverpool Street station where most were met by their foster families.
The last group of children left Germany on 1 September 1939. A party left Prague on 3 September 1939 but was sent back. The last boat transport left the Netherlands on 14 May 1940, the day the Dutch army surrendered to Germany.
Of the children who joined the transports, some were later reunited with their families, many others discovered after the war that their parents and other close family had been killed. As were many of the children left behind, after the borders closed.
I wanted to tell a Kindertransport story this Refugee Week, and so I asked Pauline Levis about her father’s experiences.
When 11-year-old Arthur Levi travelled to England with his older sister Inge in 1939, his strongest impressions of the journey were of the warm welcome when they crossed the Dutch border, and the train was boarded by people with flowers and gifts, and of the barrel of biscuits provided on the boat. They were in the unusual situation amongst other children on the Kindertransport, that their father had already arrived here. (He was later interned on the Isle of Man, and then joined the army, where he changed his name from Levi to Levis, for safety should he be captured by the Germans.) Their mother was to follow, six weeks later, the last of the family to make it out of Cologne, and went into domestic service. Both parents lived into their 90s. Members of the wider family were not so fortunate – Arthur’s aunt was deported from France and an uncle from Belgium. His grandfather was long thought to have been killed but it was later discovered that he had in fact died of natural causes in the Jewish old people’s home in Cologne.
Arthur and his sister were fortunate in so many ways. They got out in time. They found a safe place, unlike those who fled to territories later occupied by the Nazis. His immediate family escaped too, and so whilst he lived in a series of hostels for refugee children and foster homes, he did have family, and links with his past, beyond the small collection of photographs he brought with him.
He always felt lucky, and grateful, and his love for his adopted country was such that after six years living in Australia in the 70s, he felt the need to come back where he belonged. When he was given the chance to participate in the Spielberg Foundation’s Visual History Archive, his daughter Pauline had to work to persuade him that his story was worth telling – he was reluctant because he saw that so many others had lost so much more.
Arthur’s family was from Cologne, where they had lived for hundreds of years. His father was a travelling salesman, much of the family had been cattle dealers. Life before the Nazis was not idyllic – his parents’ marriage was turbulent and home life was tense and difficult. Under the Nazis there were some close calls – the Gestapo came for his father just around the time of Kristallnacht, but he’d already left, with the help of his non-Jewish employer. And the old people’s home where his grandfather lived, where many Jewish families had taken refuge in the cellar, was raided, and men and boys over 14 taken away. Arthur had to attend a Jewish school (his own background was secular), where the foreign-born children were targeted first – he remembered the Gestapo arriving, with a list of the Polish children, who were taken away and never seen again. Of Kristallnacht itself he remembered the mix of excitement and fear.
Arthur met Edna Gordon, herself the daughter of Lithuanian Jews who’d come to the UK at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he was 21, and they were very happily married for fifty years. He had a successful career as a dental technician, working for many years in the hospital service.
He died in 2000, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, 9 November.
The stories Arthur shared with his daughter Pauline shaped her passion for justice, for example in her campaign against the deportation of young Iranian artist Behnam and his family, who were facing imprisonment and torture if they returned, which achieved over 11,0o0 signatures on a petition and ultimately saw the family being granted indefinite leave to remain.
His sister’s son and grandson, along with Pauline, are to take part in commemorations leading up to the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport later this year. I’m immensely grateful to Pauline for sharing her father’s story.
For all mothers in anguish
Pushing out their babies
In a small basket
To let the river cradle them
And kind hands find
And nurture them
In a hostile world:
Our constant gratitude.
As in this last century
The crowded trains
Taking us away from home
Became our baby baskets
Rattling to foreign parts
Our exodus from death.
(Kindertransport, Before and After: Elegy and Celebration. Sixty Poems 1980–2007 by Lotte Kramer).
- Kindertransport: ‘To my dying day, I will be grateful to this country’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- The unsung British hero with his own Schindler’s List (telegraph.co.uk)
I’m not a train person in general. Not in the sense that I have any feeling for the ‘romance of steam’ or the beauty of the engines. I’m the wrong gender to feel any urge to catalogue their numbers, or to build model railways in my attic or garden. Trains, like cars, and planes and buses are just ways of getting where you want to go.
In general. But in the context of the stories I’ve been posting and reading and thinking about during Refugee Week, trains have a powerful, poignant, terrible significance. I’ve stolen my title from Steve Reich, whose composition of that name explored the journeys that he had made and that he might have made during the war years, using recorded speech from Holocaust survivors, amongst others.
The railway station is a heterotopic space, holding together both the actual location and the destinations with which it connects. And so Liverpool Street Station for W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz connected him with his own past, as the small boy who had arrived from Prague with the Kindertransport, and with the station on which he’d said goodbye to his mother, clutching a small suitcase and a rucksack with food in it. Indirectly it connected him with the station at which his mother was herded onto a cattle truck and taken off to Terezin.
His name recalls the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, where Francois Mauriac describes children being dragged from their mothers and pushed onto the trains, one sombre morning.
Not long after, on another continent, trains crammed with refugees from India to Pakistan, or from Pakistan to India, after Partition, were ambushed and their passengers massacred. The dramatisation of those events in The Jewel in the Crown still haunts me.
Perhaps because on another continent, twenty years later, a train commissioned by an expat who worked for the Nigerian railways to take Igbo refugees south, was ambushed, and its passengers massacred. Among them were the people who my father had found hiding in an abandoned house opposite our own, in Zaria, and taken to the army compound in the back of his car, covered with blankets, hoping they would find safety. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her wonderful novel Half of a Yellow Sun, describes the arrival of another train full of refugees that did reach safety, but traumatised, mentally and physically.
I think sometimes of a children’s book by Susan Cooper, who can conjure up a terrifying sense of evil, enough to chill adult bones – it’s part of her The Dark is Rising series, but I can’t recall which – in which the rhythms of the train say ‘into the dark, into the dark, into the dark…’ Hard to get that out of one’s head, once it’s been introduced. And I think of it every time I read the accounts of those trains crossing Europe, heading East, to ‘work camps’, to Pitchipoi, into the dark.
And perhaps most hauntingly, of ‘le train fantome’. In the summer of 1944, as the Allies were advancing across Europe, with Paris liberated, the convoys were still rolling.
But not all of the trains took their passengers into the dark. This photograph captures an extraordinary moment. The 743rd tank battalion encountered a group of civilians, skeletally thin, terrified. They had been en route to another camp, but abandoned by their SS guards – at this moment they understood that they were free.
And at railway stations in England, in 1939, and so many years since, the trains have brought people into hope and life and freedom. They brought with them not just the belongings that they had managed to salvage and to hold on to on the journey but the places they had lived, and the lives they had to abandon, and the memories that would shape them.
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish
(W G Sebald, Poemtrees, in Across the Land and the Water)
- The Haunting Persistence of Memory: W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” (rosslangager.com)
- Disused train station to host Holocaust museum (praguepost.com)
If there is a place on earth that seems to sum up the grim chaotic reality of the refugee crisis it’s Goma. Chiwetel Ejiofor described it recently in The Observer:
“I was in Goma,” he recalls, “which is an extraordinary place to be. We crossed the border from Rwanda and were almost immediately in the midst of these camps, thousands of displaced people. People had been there for years in some cases. They had got caught up in the fallout from the Rwandan genocide, which became their own war, and all that time the eyes of the world have looked away.” He talks about some of the people he met in a place that “was as close as I have ever seen to despair… a woman who when the rebels had come in and killed three of her children in front of her had grabbed the fourth and fled and ended up here. And what did she dream of? You know, a sewing machine so she could start to rebuild her life…” And he talks too of the other unpalatable side of that conflict, the fact that it is fuelled to a large degree by the world’s need for Congo’s mineral wealth, particularly coltan, the rare ore that is a key component of all our computers and mobile phones. (Observer, 16 June 2013)
When Paul Kagame’s army took control of Rwanda and ended the genocide in 1994, over a million Hutus fearing reprisals (just because they were Hutu, or because they had taken an active part in the massacres) headed over the border into DRC and Goma – just 1 km from Gisenyi in Rwanda – was where they ended up.
The camps quickly became caught up in ongoing violence between Hutu and Tutsi (who fled the 1994 genocide itself, or previous pogroms) from Rwanda and neighbouring countries, and over 10,000 Hutu militia and former troops effectively controlled the camps, including food distribution and information (eg about possibilities of safe return). The confusion was such that humanitarian organisations found themselves feeding and supporting genocidaires – as Ben Barber says, ‘For Americans and Europeans who saw the televised images in 1994 of the smoky plain in Goma covered with 500,000 starving Rwandans – men and women wrapping the bodies of their children and their elderly in straw mats to hurl them into mass graves – a refusal to help would have seemed inhuman.’ (Barber, 1997, p. 13). Add to that the collective guilt that we had all stood by whilst 800,000 were massacred, and it is no wonder that an outside world which had barely grasped what had happened in those few weeks after 6 April 1994 should have assumed that the refugees now so visibly suffering in Goma were people we should help.
Nearly twenty years on, Goma is still a focus for refugees, for military activity, for human misery.
Refugee camps are amongst Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’ – ‘transit points and temporary abodes … under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shanty towns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity’ (Augé, p. 78). They are also ‘hors-lieux’, ‘outside of the places and outside of the time of a common, ordinary predictable world’ (Agier, p. 323), sites of segregation, where ‘life has to redefine itself within wholly unprecedented and unknown contexts’.
This redefinition can be emancipating – Twa refugees who had fled Rwanda during the genocide were able for the first time in Goma to win official recognition, having been previously amongst the poorest and most marginalised community in Rwanda, scorned by both the large ethnic groups (Godding, cited in Agier, p. 335). So this place, ‘predicated on collective suffering and interpersonal conflicts’, can provide an innovating framework.
A refugee camp should be a neutral place of sanctuary – but it can also become a training camp for a routed army, suffer internal control by exile groups, and its inhabitants can become the shields and targets of local military operations. It can also of course be a focus for disease – around 40-45,000 refugees died of cholera or dysentery during the month following their arrival in Goma in July 1994.
The refugee camp is a liminal space. Like a border or no-man’s land, it is a place through which people pass, but not a place where they should live. It is a between-space – between the place from which the refugees fled and the place of safety which they hope to reach (which may, of course, be the place from which they fled, if conditions and circumstances have changed). The camp’s inhabitants are uncitizens, marginalised and separated both from their former home and from the country in which the camp sits. It’s a waiting zone where nothing can be fully brought to fruition, a place of quarantine. Is it purgatory – a place of temporary suffering, though without the promise of paradise to come? Or limbo – the first circle of Dante’s Hell?
There are many Gomas out there.
UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report covers displacement that occurred during 2012 based on data from governments, NGO partners, and the UN refugee agency itself. The report shows that as of the end of 2012, more than 45.2 million people were in situations of displacement compared to 42.5 million at the end of 2011. This includes 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum seekers, and 28.8 million people forced to flee within the borders of their own countries. The report does not include the rise in those forced from their homes in Syria during the current year. War remains the dominant cause. A full 55 percent of all refugees listed in UNHCR’s report come from just five war-affected countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. The report also charts major new displacement from Mali, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and from Sudan into South Sudan and Ethiopia. “These truly are alarming numbers. They reflect individual suffering on a huge scale and they reflect the difficulties of the international community in preventing conflicts and promoting timely solutions for them,” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and head of UNHCR. The report highlights worrisome trends, including the rate at which people are being forced into situations of displacement. During 2012 some 7.6 million people became newly displaced, 1.1 million as refugees and 6.5 million as internally displaced people. This translates to a new refugee or internally displaced person every 4.1 seconds. (http://www.unhcr.org/51c071816.html)
Michel Agier, Between War and City: Towards an Urban Anthropology of Refugee Camps, Ethnography, 3 (2002), 317-41
Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995)
Ben Barber, Feeding Refugees, or War? The Dilemma of Humanitarian Aid, Foreign Affairs, July/August 1997
Alain Deztexhe, The Third Genocide, Foreign Policy, 97 (winter, 1994-5), pp 3-17
Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (Portobello Books, 2009)
Barry Levy & Victor Sidel, War & Public Health (Oxford UP, 1997)
Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed (Zed Books, 2009)
Kate Nash, Between Citizenship and Human Rights, Sociology, 43, 6 (Dec. 2009), pp. 1067-87
… and so were an astonishing number of the other great physicists of the first half of the twentieth century.
These famous photographs are from the 1927 and 1933 Solvay Physics Conferences, and given the dates, it is interesting to ponder what became of those gathered there, not in terms of their scientific contribution (about which I am not qualified to speak) but how they fared as Europe was engulfed in barbarism.
P. Debye, M. Knudsen, W.L. Bragg, H.A. Kramers, P.A.M. Dirac, A.H. Compton, L. de Broglie, M. Born, N. Bohr;
I. Langmuir, M. Planck, M. Skłodowska-Curie, H.A. Lorentz, A. Einstein, P. Langevin, Ch.-E. Guye, C.T.R. Wilson, O.W. Richardson
Erwin Schrodinger left Germany in 1933 to work, in the UK, but took up a post in Austria. In 1939, after the Anschluss, Schrödinger was dismissed from the University and fled to Italy. Wolfgang Pauli fled to the United States in 1940. Leon Brillouin resigned from his post in France after the Occupation, and went to the United States. Peter Debye left Germany in early 1940, and became a professor at Cornell. Max Born was suspended from his post in 1933 – he emigrated to Britain, where he took a job at St John’s College, Cambridge.
Niels Bohr gave refugees from Nazism temporary jobs at the Institute, provided them with financial support, arranged for them to be awarded fellowships or found them places at various institutions around the world. Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and in 1943, fearing arrest, he fled to Sweden, where he persuaded the King to make public Sweden’s willingness to provide asylum, helping to effect the rescue of many Danish Jews.
Albert Einstein was visiting the US when Hitler came to power in 1933 and did not go back to Germany. He spoke at the inaugural public meeting of the Academic Assistance Committee (later CARA).
The seventh Conference, in 1933: Seated (left to right): Erwin Schrödinger, Irène Joliot, Niels Henrik David Bohr, Abram Ioffe, Marie Curie, Paul Langevin, Owen Willans Richardson, Lord Ernest Rutherford, Théophile de Donder, Maurice de Broglie, Louis de Broglie, Lise Meitner, James Chadwick. Standing (left to right): Émile Henriot, Francis Perrin, Frédéric Joliot, Werner Heisenberg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, E. Stahel, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, Paul Dirac, Peter Joseph William Debye, Nevill Francis Mott, Blas Cabrera, George Gamow, Walther Bothe, Patrick Blackett, M.S. Rosenblum, Jacques Errera, Ed. Bauer, Wolfgang Pauli, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, M. Cosyns, E. Herzen, John Douglas Cockcroft, Charles Drummond Ellis, Rudolf Peierls, Auguste Piccard, Ernest O. Lawrence, Léon Rosenfeld.
Max Cosyns, from Belgium, joined the Resistance and was imprisoned in Dachau. Enrico Fermi left Italy in 1938 to escape Mussolini’s racial laws that affected his Jewish wife, and emigrated to the United States. Rudolf Peierls
was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge when Hitler came
to power – he was granted leave to remain in Britain, and worked in Manchester
under a fund set up for refugees.
Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jew, escaped to the Netherlands, with help from Dutch physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker. She was forced to travel under cover to the Dutch border, where Coster persuaded German immigration officers that she had permission to travel to the Netherlands. She later said that she left Germany forever with 10 marks in her purse. From the Netherlands she went on to Stockholm, and worked with Niels Bohr.
George Gamow worked at a number of Soviet establishments before deciding to flee Russia because of increased oppression. In 1933 he was suddenly granted permission to attend the Solvay Conference. He attended, with his wife, and arranged to extend their stay. Over the next year, Gamow obtained temporary work at the Curie Institute, University of London and University of Michigan.
In addition -
Ugo Fano left Italy for the US in 1939 because of anti-Semitism. Liviu Librescu was born in 1930 to a Romanian Jewish family, and was deported first to a labour camp and then a ghetto in Focsani. Walter Kohn came to England with the Kindertransport after the annexation of Austria. Both of his parents were killed in the Holocaust. Svein Rosseland fled Norway after the German occupation and went to the US. Otto Stern resigned his post at the University of Hamburg in 1933 and became Professor of Physics at the Carnegie Institute. Guido Beck studied physics in Vienna. Jewish born, he travelled in the 1930s to avoid persecution in Germany, but was imprisoned in France in 1937 at the start of the war – in 1941 he fled to Portugal and then in 1943 to Argentina. Felix Bloch left Germany immediately after Hitler came to power, and emigrated to work at Stanford University. James Franck left his post in Germany and continued his research in the United States. Otto Robert Frisch left Vienna for London to work at Birkbeck College. Hilde Levi fled Denmark when the round-ups of Jews began, moving to Sweden, where she worked at the Wenner-Gren Institute for Experimental Biology in Stockholm. Edward Teller left Göttingen in 1933 through the aid of the International Rescue Committee, worked in the UK and then in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, before being invited to the United States in 1935. Arthur von Hippel left Germany in 1933, mainly because his wife was Jewish, but due also to his political stance against the new regime – he was able to secure a position in Turkey, then spent a year in Denmark before moving to the US to work at MIT. Viki Weisskopf was born in Vienna, and worked with Bohr at his institute in Copenhagen – Bohr then helped him find a position in the US.
It’s Holocaust Memorial Day. I’m thinking about how we can build bridges between past and present, by telling individual stories, by giving back to the people who were swallowed up in that terror their names, their faces, their uniqueness.
Frieda Linder-Kornweitz, from Vienna, died aged 31 with her daughter Karin (aged 7) at Auschwitz, December 1943 (http://jewishtraces.org/plus-quun-nom-dans-une-liste-frieda-linder-kornweitz/)
Sulamite-Solange Ast, age 18, died with her younger brother Marc and their mother, at Auschwitz in 1943. Their father survived.
Sometimes we just have a name, sometimes a photograph and fragments of a life. And sometimes from the darkness a voice emerges that is so vivid that as you read you hear it, you hear the urgency, the passion, the despair and you want to reach out. Helene Berr’s is such a voice.
Her diary describes her life in Paris between 1942 and 1944. It wasn’t published till 2008, but since then it has become an essential document of the Holocaust and specifically of the Occupation of France. After the Liberation, her fiance and surviving family members circulated the manuscript amongst themselves, but eventually it was offered to the Shoah Memorial, published to great acclaim, and since then has been translated into 26 languages. It’s inspired an exhibition at the Shoah Memorial , which uses Helene’s story and her words to illuminate some of the darkest corners of those dark years.
Hélène has been called the French Anne Frank, but whilst both kept journals which have become key documents of the Holocaust, and both died in the last weeks before Liberation, they’re very different. Others have noted the parallels between the publication of her journal, and the discovery of the manuscript of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise.
However, these comparisons don’t do justice to the remarkable and unique qualities of this diary. Hélène lived in the heart of Occupied Paris, walked its streets wearing the yellow star, worked with Jewish orphans, played music, fell in love. And she wrote this poignant, vivid and impassioned account of the events she witnessed, ‘pour ne pas les oublier, parce qu’il ne faut pas oublier’, setting herself the task of recording everything, giving the unfolding tragedy its full weight, showing it raw, naked, without distortion.
16 April 1942
S said ‘The Germans are going to win the war’. I said ‘No!’. But I didn’t know what else to say. I was conscious of my cowardice – the cowardice of not standing up in front of him for what I believed – so I shook myself – I exclaimed ‘But what will become of us if the Germans win?’. He shrugged: ‘Bah! Nothing will change ‘. I knew what he would say. ‘There will always be the sun and the water’. I was all the more irritated because deep down, at that moment, I felt the supreme pointlessness of all these arguments, in the face of beauty. And yet I knew that I was falling under a malign spell. … I forced myself to say: ‘but they won’t let everyone enjoy the light and the water’. Happily, this phrase saved me. I don’t want to be a coward.
8 June 1942
My God, I had no idea it would be so hard. I was so brave all day. I held my head high, and looked people straight in the face, when they averted their eyes. But it’s hard. …. This morning I went out with Mother. Two kids in the street pointed at us, saying ‘Hey, have you seen? Jews’. But otherwise things seemed normal. … A young couple were waiting, I saw the woman point me out to her companion. I heard her say. ‘It’s heartbreaking’. On the bus there was a woman, probably a domestic servant, who had already smiled at me before getting on board, and who turned serveral times to smile; a smart gentleman stared at me: I couldn’t interpret the stare, but I looked back proudly.
18 July 1942
I felt guilty, that there was something I hadn’t seen, this reality. This woman, her sister who has four children has been taken. The evening of the round-up, she hid, but unluckily went back up to the concierge just as they came to find her. Mme Bieder is like a hunted animal. She’s not afraid for herself. but she’s terrified that they’ll take her children from her. …. At Montmartre, there were so many arrests that the streets were blocked. The faubourg Saint Denis is almost deserted. They’re separating mothers from their children. I’m recording the facts hastily, so as not to forget, because we musn’t forget.
31 January 1944
I used to quote, not long ago, a phrase from a Russian play: ‘We shall rest, Uncle Vanya, we shall rest’. It meant the sleep of the tomb. But more and more I say to myself that only the dead escape this persecution; when I hear of the death of a Jew now, I think, ‘they’re out of the reach of the Germans’. Isn’t that horrible? We hardly weep for the dead any more.
15 February 1944
Why then does the German soldier who I pass in the street not attack or bother me? Why does he often hold the train door for me, or say ‘Excuse me’ if he blocks my way? Why? Becuase people don’t know – or rather they don’t think any more, they’re just about whatever they’ve been ordered to do right now. But they don’t even see the incomprehensible illogic of holding the door open for me, when tomorrow they may send me to be deported, and yet I will be the same unique person. … Also no doubt they don’t know everything – one atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They don’t know all of the horrible details of the persecutions, because there’s only a small group of torturers, and of Gestapo who are implicated in it. Would they feel it, if they knew? Would they feel the suffering of these people dragged from their homes, these women separated from their flesh and blood? They’re too brutalised for that. And then they don’t think – I always come back to that – I believe it’s the source of evil and the thing on which this regime bases its power. Annihilate personal thoughts, the reaction of the individual conscience, that’s the first step to Nazism’.
Cultured and intelligent, a student at the Sorbonne until the anti-semitic laws prevented her from continuing her studies, 21 year old Hélène begins her journal in 1942 with an account of her visit to the home of poet Paul Valéry, who’s signed a copy of a book for her. She is ‘overwhelmed with joy’. At this stage, the war is, in a sense, just background noise. Even so, even this early on, she senses a chasm opening up between her life, and that of her non-Jewish friends. Little by little she is overwhelmed as she grasps the reality of what is happening around her, and the last words of her journal are a quotation from Macbeth ‘Horror! Horror! Horror!’
Hélène constantly questions herself. Should she try to get away, or stay in Paris? She asks herself why, knowing what her fate is likely to be, she’s done nothing to avoid it. She understands that the danger is increasing: ‘There aren’t many Jews left in Paris, and it’s the Germans who are arresting people now [rather than the French police], so there is less chance of escaping, because we won’t be warned.’ She believes, nonetheless, that to flee would be a defection, an act of bad faith.
In January 1944, Hélène writes ‘Will I make it to the end?’. After several months of moving around each day and staying with different friends, she and her parents went home, for just one night. That’s where they were arrested, on 8 March.
They were taken to the Drancy transit camp, and then deported, on Convoy 70 to Auschwitz, where Antoinette Berr was gassed on 30 April, and Raymond Berr was murdered in September. Hélène survived for more than a year. She was moved to Bergen-Belsen in November, where she was killed, just five days before the camp was liberated.
She so nearly did make it to the end.
- Berr, Hélène, Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Tallandier, 2008)
- Bracher, Nathan, ‘Des Considérations inactuelles au cœur de l’Occupation: Le Cogito à rebours d’Hélène Berr’, Modern & Contemporary France, 18, 1 (2010), 17-32
- Bracher, Nathan, ‘Éthique et esthétique dans le Journal d’Hélène Berr’, L’Esprit Créateur, 50, 4 (2010), 150–63
- Jaillant, Lise, ‘A Masterpiece Ripped from Oblivion: Rediscovered Manuscripts and the Memory of the Holocaust in Contemporary France’, Clio, 39, 3 (2010), 359-79
- Kelly, Debra, ‘From Cultural Amnesia to “Anamnesia”’, Synthesis, 2 (2010), 48-61
- Sinder, Henri, ‘Lights and Shades of Jewish Life in France, 1940-2’, Jewish Social Studies, 5 (1943), 367
- Classe de 1° ES2, Lycée Pierre Bourdieu-Fronton, ‘Helene Berr, une jeune étoile dans le Paris de l’Occupation’, 2008-9
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.
This wasn’t the first round-up of Jews in occupied Paris, but it was the largest yet, and a turning point, both in the persecution and in the resistance to it. It shattered the illusion that in France, the land of liberty, equality and fraternity, nothing too terrible could happen, even under Occupation – an illusion which had led many to register themselves voluntarily, thus providing the information required for the round-up. It showed the extent of collaboration, with the round-up being executed by French police, not by the Germans. And it shattered the myth that the deportations were intended to provide workers for the Reich, when young children, the elderly, the sick, pregnant women, were taken, as their neighbours watched.
François Mauriac wrote in his clandestine publication Le Cahier noir: ‘Entire races are condemned to perish. At what other moment in history have the prisons been so full of innocents? At what other era have children been dragged from their mothers, crammed into cattle trucks, as I saw one sombre morning at Austerlitz station?’. People saw, and some were moved to active resistance by what they saw.
It is 70 years since this event. Do we still need to tell this story?
In 2010 two new films came out which focused on the Vel d’Hiv round up, and the responses (if one sets aside those which focused on the merits or demerits of the films themselves) were polarised. Some critics felt that they were fulfilling an indispensible ‘devoir de mémoire’, particularly in drawing attention to the responsibility (only publicly acknowledged in the 1990s) of the French authorities , whilst audience members spoke of being shocked and overwhelmed. On the other hand, some felt it was counterproductive – that the constant telling and re-telling actually creates ‘une certaine lassitude’, that if the younger generations see ‘remembering’ as a chore, the temptation to forget will become ever stronger.
There’s plenty of evidence that, however much people may have heard about these events, they are still fairly hazy about the detail. When Andreas Whittam Smith wrote a piece for the Independent about how the film The Round-Up was bringing to light hidden events, a letter appeared in the paper arguing that:
- The events concerned were never denied
- Those responsible were executed after the war
- Of the 300,000 French nationals registered as Jews, 80% survived
- Not all the deported children died in the camps, some came back but spoke little of their sufferings
In reality, whilst the fact of the event was not denied, the responsibility of French officials was (a nano-second clip of a gendarme’s cap in Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard had to be cut before the film was released).
Of those most particularly responsible for the round-up, only Pierre Laval was executed - Louis Darquier de Pellepoix escaped to Spain and died free and utterly unrepentant, and Rene Bousquet was acquitted immediately after the war, and assassinated in 1993, just before he was due to stand trial.
France did, it is true, lose only 20% of its Jewish population – if one counts only Jews with French nationality. They managed this by offering up non-naturalised Jews, aiming to meet their deportation quotas by filling the convoys with foreigners for as long as possible. To make up the promised numbers, the Vichy leadership persuaded the Germans that children should be taken along with their parents, even though most of them had been born in France and were therefore French citizens. And on the day, the official exemptions eg for women in late pregnancy or with new babies were ignored. This deal with the devil did, arguably, save the lives of many naturalised French citizens who were Jews – some were not arrested until much later so giving them slightly better odds of survival, and others had time to find a way of escaping or living under cover. But non-French Jews clearly didn’t count. They were expendable.
And did all the deported children die in the camps? Of those deported after this round-up, yes, all of them. The only survivors were those children who managed to escape either from the velodrome or from the transit camps. And of the 11,400 children deported in total from France, 200 did come back. 200.
So, as I’ve said elsewhere, we must remember, in order to preserve the truth, in order to give back to the victims their names, their voices, their stories.
Pamphlet distributed by the Mouvement national contre le racisme, September 1942.
French mothers and fathers, young people, teachers, educators! When you kiss your child goodnight in bed before their happy sleep, in the morning when you catch their first smile on waking, think of those hellish trains where, crammed in like a herd of beasts on the way to the abbatoir, 2000 little Jewish children, alone, abandoned to their mortal anguish, crying with terror and thirst. Is there anywhere in the world, in all modern history, anything more atrocious, more inhuman, more barbaric than the torture of innocent children? These children, just like yours, have mothers and fathers ready to protect them. But they are dragged from them without pity, with bestial savagery. .. These horrors happen amongst us, on our sweet French earth, with the complicity of the French government collaborating with those who starve us, who loot our treasures, who hold our prisoners, who murder the patriots fighting for a free and happy France….
French Youth! Schoolchildren! Students! When you go back to school, you will find in your classes thousands of empty places. They are those of your Jewish friends, brought up as you are in the love of France. Know that the Pétain-Laval government has handed them over to certain death. Is this the new order? Is this the National Revolution? …
Protest to the authorities! Shelter, protect, hide Jewish children and their families! Do not let them be handed over to Hitler’s killers! Save the honour of France!
From Hélène Berr’s journal:
15 July – Something is about to happen, something which will be a tragedy, perhaps the tragedy. M Simon came here this evening to warn us that there was talk of a round-up of 20,000 people the day after tomorrow.
18 July – I thought on Thursday that life would stop. But it continues. … [Mme Bieder's] sister who has 4 children, has been taken. The evening of the round-up she hid, but unfortunately came back down to the concierge just at the moment they came to look for her … They are separating mothers from their children. I am noting the facts, hastily, so as not to forget, because we must not forget.
16 July 1995, Jacques Chirac:
These black hours will stain our history for ever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was assisted by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations… France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.
During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria. Many more fled to escape the massacres. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.
As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping. I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time. I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could. But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity. I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success. I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel. I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.
As Rob Nixon said, in the New York Times, ‘“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states. When an acquaintance of Olanna’s turns up at a refugee camp, she notices that “he was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.” It’s a measure of Adichie’s mastery of small things — and of the mess the world is in — that we see that man arrive, in country after country, again and again and again.’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s literary role model is often said to be Chinua Achebe, who himself was caught up in these events. His writing having brought him to the attention of the military who suspected him of having foreknowledge of the coup, he had to send his pregnant wife and children on a squalid boat through a series of unseen creeks to the Igbo stronghold of Port Harcourt. During the civil war which followed, his family had to move repeatedly to escape the fighting, returning to their destroyed home only after the war was over. His poem, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’, reflects those experiences:
No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then -
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2009)
Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005)
Rob Nixon, ‘A Biafran Story’, New York Times, 1 October 2006
World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012
di·lem·ma \ : a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.
Every minute eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.
If conflict threatened your family, what would you do? Stay and risk your lives? Or try to flee, and risk kidnap, rape or torture?
For many refugees the choice is between the horrific or something worse.
World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.
When I was 9 years old, my family lived in Zaria, in Northern Nigeria. It was 1966, and a series of coups d’etat were hiking up tensions between the north and south, tensions which in May and September of that year resulted in mobs seeking out and killing on the streets, in the schools and hospitals and churches, anyone recognised as being of Igbo origin. I don’t know how many died. Probably no one does. Because of the civil war that followed, the pogroms in the north have received little attention – though Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her stunning novel Half of a Yellow Sun portrayed these events incredibly powerfully. I was a child, and my parents protected me and my younger siblings from the horror of what was happening. But even as a child I heard and saw enough – even when the adult conversations stopped abruptly in my presence – to be haunted by what I’d half overheard, seen out of the corner of my eye. I’ve needed to try to understand what happened, not just in Northern Nigeria in 1966, but whenever an attempt is made to wipe a group of people from the face of the earth.
We’re told that we must remember the past in order not to relive it. It’s a lot more complicated than that of course. In order not to relive it we’d have to understand it. Memories aren’t necessarily trustworthy – after the Liberation, Michel Butor has spoken of how his parent’s generation said of the years of occupation, 1939-1945 was a nightmare, but it’s over, so we’ll forget all of that and pick up where we left off. His generation of writers has been preoccupied with memory, and how we revisit, rework and reshape as we try to master the past. The simple imperative to remember would seem to have done us little good in the generations since Auschwitz. It didn’t stop, or even slow down, the slaughter in Rwanda, the massacres in Srebenica, decades of pogroms in Nigeria, the devastation in Darfur, the killings in Cambodia. But remember we must. The important thing is that we remember right, and we remember well.
I’m reminded, oddly perhaps in this context, of a song from South Pacific: ‘You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.’ Frances McDormand’s character in Mississippi Burning echoes these words very closely: ‘Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation is what’s said in the Bible… At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.’ And so we need to teach the opposite, for the sake of the future.
And for the sake of the past. The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives. First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity. For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice. Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability. As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed. This load may also scream.
And so, for the sake of the past, we need to give back to the victims of genocide what we can – their names, their stories, their voices. Serge Klarsfeld reconstructed the convoy lists from the French internment camps and gave the people once herded onto cattle trucks a name, an address, sometimes a photograph, a letter. The photographs of the children – see them if you can bear it, and I think one has to bear it – in their best clothes or on summer holidays, looking solemn or smiling for the camera, tell you everything, in a way, about genocide. Sheffield’s wonderful Ensemble 360 performed music last spring by composers who were imprisoned at Terezin - music created in the midst of a nightmare, by composers who had barely begun to achieve their potential before they were silenced.
Hélène Berr is one of the people I will be thinking of on Holocaust Memorial Day. 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.
Hélène Berr, Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2008)
Les 11400 enfants Juifs deportés de france (Mairie de Paris, 2007)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Harper, 2007)