Archive for category Second World War
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
Not an English phrase, as it turns out, but American. Who'd have thought it? Nonetheless, as Ian Hislop's recent series showed, it came to sum up a kind of Britishness - stoicism in the face of adversity, keeping calm and carrying on. Hislop's series, inevitably, raised as many questions as it answered - it would be interesting to analyse further how the notion of the stiff upper lip varied according to class, for example, or the different forms it took between the sexes, or whether it is British, or English.
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.
On 25/6 September 1940 a man took his own life in a hotel in Portbou, Catalonia. He was 48 years old. He was a writer, an intellectual, whose work, cut terribly short as it was, is still hugely influential. He was Jewish, and had crossed the border from France, having escaped Paris ahead of the German army. He’d just heard that all transit visas had been cancelled, and that he and his fellow-travellers would be forced to return to France.
The UNHCR’s campaign for World Refugee Day focused on the ‘choice’ faced by refugees – to stay or to go, either one fraught with danger. Walter Benjamin – and many others – took a third option. He had contemplated suicide before, seeing Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He’d recently been interned in France as a stateless person, and knew already that the Gestapo had instructions to arrest him.
His choice is made bitter by our knowledge that his travelling companion, Arthur Koestler, took morphine tablets too, but survived and escaped, and that the embargo on visas was lifted a few weeks later. As Hannah Arendt says in her introduction to Illuminations, ‘only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible’ (p. 18).
It’s also bitter because, if the scope of his influence on the humanities is so great on the basis of the work he published in his short lifetime, it could have been so much more had he lived. In the words of his friend Gershom Scholem, his ‘genius united the insight of the Metaphysician, the interpretative power of the Critic, and the erudition of the Scholar’. (Reflections, vii). Anyone interested in the city, in maps and labyrinths, in Baudelaire, Kafka or Proust, in text and translation, history and memory, will encounter Benjamin.
Walter Benjamin stands, in this context, for our loss, the loss of those who didn’t escape, and particularly those – notable and anonymous – who chose this third way. On the memorial to Benjamin in Portbou these words are inscribed: IT IS MORE ARDUOUS TO HONOUR THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS THAN THAT OF THE RENOWNED. HISTORICAL CONSTRUCTION IS DEVOTED TO THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Hannah Arendt (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)
— Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Peter Demetz (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)
Extracts from You and the Refugee, published 1939:
‘There are some of the saddest scenes in the world from which we British people are forever spared, and of which the keenest imagination among us could hardly form an adequate picture. … In the darkness of night, or in the grey of dawn, desperate men and women, sometimes even dragging along a pitiful child, make a dash to get through that double line [of armed police] and risk the rifle shot. Some of them, like human tennis balls, are driven backwards and forwards, time after time, across the frontier.’ (p 231)
‘Hundreds of Jews are hiding in the German woods near the Dutch frontier. Whenever they try to cross into Holland they are forced back by the Dutch gendarmes, to be arrested by the German police’ (The Times, 19 November, 1938)
‘In England, when we are aroused in the early hours of the morning by a sharp rap on the door, we think only of the milkman. But the refugee who is safely in England still finds himself starting up in bed, his heart turning sick at such a sound’ (p. 233)
Norman Angell & Dorothy Frances Buxton, You and the Refugee: the morals and economics of the problem (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939)
We hope to leave Germany as soon as possible. Our case is being handled by the Jewish Refugee Committee in Manchester, England, our guarantor wrote to quicken the process. I was yesterday with the Gestapo and got instructions for immediate emigration, otherwise it would arise great difficulties for me. Our departure from Germany now being a matter of life and death, my next limit is May 21, by which time we must have left Germany otherwise I will certainly be arrested.
There’s a perception that we’ve been flooded with cinematic treatments of the Nazi Occupation of France in the decades since it ended. There have been a fair few, it’s true, but what’s interesting is the way in which those treatments have changed over the years.
At the Liberation, the notion of France as a nation of resisters was a vital part of de Gaulle’s strategy to unify a country perilously close to civil war. Of course, there was a purge – women who’d collaborated horizontally were publicly shamed, and there were trials, and some executions. But a surprisingly large number of those who were complicit in the implementation of Nazi race laws and in the deportations ended up in positions of responsibility in post-war France.
All of this has been talked about a great deal, it’s true, and one might think that it’s all been said, that everyone knows now who was complicit, and how and why, as well as who did resist. But fictional and cinematic treatments of the era have gone through different phases, each adding a layer of complexity and richness to our understanding.
The most recent films to contribute to this process have been two about the Vel d’Hiv round up (The Round up, and Sarah’s Key), and two focusing on particular clusters of resistance activity. I’ll come back to the Vel d’Hiv in a future blog.
What’s particularly striking about the two recent films about the French Resistance is that in these cases, the resistance was not, strictly speaking, French. Robert Guediguian’s Army of Crime starts with a roll call of names, each one followed by the words ‘mort pour la France’. The names are Armenian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Russian, some are difficult to pronounce, and the speaker stumbles for a moment, and goes on. We see them on their way to imprisonment, ‘trial’ and execution and then we go back to see how they became martyrs for a country to which they did not belong.
But the Army of Crime – so called after the Nazi poster which aimed to alienate the populace from the resisters by emphasising their criminal acts and their foreign origins – was made up of people who had very little to lose. From the start of the Occupation, as Jews, and/or Communists, many of them refugees from parts of Europe which had fallen earlier to the Nazis, or from other persecutions, they knew they were targets. Some of them joined the armed struggle due to some personal confrontation, others after their families were swept up in the round ups and deported. They fought and died for an idea of France, the France that they had seen as a refuge, even whilst that idea was being betrayed, as they were.
For the resisters in the new film, Free Men, it really wasn’t their war. As Moslems they risked being rounded up only if they were mistaken for Jews and could not prove otherwise, or if they were involved in communist workers groups. But the Paris Mosque was a place of refuge both for Moslems who were involved in the resistance, and for Jews. The scale of this activity is not known – estimates vary wildly – but it seems clear that the head of the mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, instigated and supported the production of false papers for Jews, and the use of the building itself as a hiding place, whilst maintaining outwardly amicable relations with the authorities.
It’s a story that’s even less known than that of Missak Manouchian’s Army of Crime. After all, the Nazis publicised the latter rather effectively with the poster – which far from having the effect they intended, became a focus for solidarity and protest. The clandestine publication Lettres Francaises reported in March 1944 how the ten images on the blood-red background attracted a silent crowd:
‘At length, and solemnly they saluted dead friends. In their eyes there was no morbid curiosity, just admiration, sympathy, as if they were our own. And in fact they were our own, because they were fighting alongside thousands of us for our country, because it is also the home of liberty. On one of the posters, over night, someone had written in capital letters a single word: Martyrs. That is the homage of Paris to those who’ve fought for freedom’
Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard wrote poems about L’Affiche Rouge, and there were earlier films, though one screenplay was rejected on the grounds that these foreigners gave the wrong image of the Resistance.
Free Men isn’t the only film to tell the story of the Moslem resistance – Mohamed Fekrane’s Ensemble came out this year too, though it hasn’t reached the UK yet.
Army of Crime had a very powerful resonance in the context of the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee rhetoric that is spewed out by sections of the press here and across Europe, as does the story of Moslems risking their lives to save Jewish lives. These young men from North Africa are the brothers of the Allied soldiers in Days of Glory, which told of their part in the liberation of France, and their betrayal after the war by the French government.
If Free Men had less emotional heft than Army of Crime, it’s not down to the story. It’s to do with the leading character. Manouchian and his group were from the start politically engaged, passionately committed to the struggle, with a sense of the wider European context – the Armenian genocide, the Spanish civil war. They’re articulate and charismatic. Younes at the start is a black marketeer, willing to spy (rather ineptly) on the activities at the Mosque in exchange for an official blind eye being turned to his business dealings. He’s nudged unwillingly into the resistance by his cousin, who’s already actively involved, and by his realisation of the danger faced by his friend Salim, a Jew passing as a Moslem. Little by little, he’s drawn in until he is risking his life for the cause. The problem is that as a focal point for the narrative he is somehow a bit blank, passive, lacking in real depth.
He reminded me, in fact, of Lucien – Lacombe, Lucien. Louis Malle’s ‘hero’ is an accidental collaborator – a combination of pure chance and his own naivety and vanity put him in a position where he can bring down local members of the Resistance which had rejected his bid for membership. He’s an ambivalent and ambiguous character, and his portrayal has been controversial, because Malle refused to resolve the ambiguities. When Lucien shoots a German soldier and escapes with his Jewish girlfriend, did he do so to save her from deportation, or because the German had taken something he regarded as his? If Younes had not been so powerfully drawn to Salim, would he have allowed himself to be drawn into the Resistance?
Lacombe Lucien is a powerful film because of this opacity, which prevents us from taking refuge in simplistic polarities. Malle’s film, which appeared in 1974, not long after Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, opened up the possibility of more complex narratives of the Occupation. In Free Men the really interesting characters – Salim, Leila and the Imam himself – are sketched in as we focus on Younes, who we barely know better at the end of the film than we did at the beginning.
Nonetheless, it’s a gripping film, a story that needs to be told. We’ve moved since the Liberation from the Gaullist myth of the inextinguishable flame, through the exposure of collaboration and complicity, towards a celebration of the real rich diversity of that struggle against barbarism.
G. Austin, Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction (Manchester U.P., 1996)
H. Frey, Louis Malle (Manchester U.P., 2004)
R. J. Golsan, Vichy’s Afterlife (Nebraska U.P., 2000)
N. Greene, Landscapes of Loss (Princeton U.P., 1999)
L. D. Hewitt, Remembering the Occupation in French Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
A. Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (Cambridge U.P., 1989)
P. Jankowski, ‘In Defense of Fiction: Resistance, Collaboration and Lacombe, Lucien’, Jnl of Modern History, 63, 3 (1991), 457-82
P. Kael, ‘Lacombe Lucien’, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/416-lacombe-lucien
S. Lindeperg, Les écrans de l’ombre (CNRS, 1997)
C. Nettelbeck, ‘Getting the Story Right: Narratives of World War II in Post-1968 France’ , Jnal of European Studies, 15 (1985), 77-116
C. Nettelbeck (ed), War and Identity: The French and the Second World War (Routledge, 1987)
A. Rayski, L’Affiche Rouge (Mairie de Paris, 2004)
H. Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (Harvard U.P., 1991)
- Free Men – review (guardian.co.uk)
- New film highlights remarkable story of Paris mosque director who saved hundreds of Jews from Nazis (timesofisrael.com)
‘Silence is not nothing. It is not the null set’. Music in performance exists between two silences – the expectant pause before the first notes and the instant before the applause. Music and silence are in dialogue, mutually dependent. Silence is inscribed in the music, like its breathing. To put it another way, sound echoes silence, puts into words or music what was implicit, and the two bear traces of each other.
In 4’33”, John Cage’s best known and possibly most important work, the composer developed a ‘fully positive concept of silence’ (Visscher, p. 259) which required openness to the integration of all possible sounds. For Cage, silence is temporal and spatial. It’s the place where sounds appear, ‘made up of all the sounds that exist in permanence (=life) and which surround us (=place).’ (Visscher, p. 262). Cage explained that ‘we call it silence when we don’t feel a direct connection with the intentions that produce the sounds’, i.e. the ambient sounds that are constantly present. 4’33” is a way of experimenting with one’s relation to the external world, silencing music in order to hear the world. For Cage, ‘it leads out of the world of art into the whole of life’. (Visscher, p. 264).
Cage’s piece invites us to hear all of these ambient sounds, and those that drift in from outside – sirens, wind and rain, traffic noise – or from the building – the air conditioning, the creak of floorboards – not as intrusions but as the work itself. It’s as difficult as any of the ‘difficult’ 20th century composers, and it bothers people. The commonest responses are either that it is a joke (yes, the way it challenges audience preconceptions is funny, but at heart it is serious, as Cage’s statements make clear) or that its acceptance in the musical canon (at least its avant-garde experimental subset) is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, that the piece is essentially empty of meaning but given spurious significance by critics.
And even if one disagrees, it is an unsettling work. Where we expect to hear a performer and (apart from the performer’s footsteps, the creak of the piano stool or lid, the turning of the pages) instead hear ourselves, our neighbours, the building we’re in, we are uneasy. We know that in a concert hall we are expected to be still, to minimise the rustling, shuffling, and throat clearing sounds that we perversely become desperate to make as soon as it’s taboo to do so. We suffer agonies of embarrassment if a coughing fit can’t be held back, our stomachs rumble, or we applaud at the wrong moment, and we turn judgemental glares on those whose mobile phones ring.
Silence is a weighty thing for an absence. It fills with everything that isn’t being said, all of the sounds that aren’t being heard. Recently researchers from the Australian National University have tuned very sensitive light detectors to listen to vacuum – a region of space that was once thought to be completely empty, dark, and silent until the discovery of modern quantum theory and have discovered that vacuum has virtual sub-atomic particles spontaneously appearing and disappearing, giving rise to omnipresent random noise.
If Cage’s concept of silence was positive, our experience of it, our associations with it, are often more problematic. Collective, imposed silence, for longer than a few heartbeats, tends to create physical, visceral tension and anxiety, rather than a tranquil meditative state. And as soon as one considers the notion of collective silence, one encounters other, more troubling associations.
Silence became one of the dominant metaphors for the Occupation, a blanket of silence over all kinds of enquiry, an emptiness that filled up with fear (Butor described the feeling that ‘nothing was happening, but that this nothing, at the same time, was bloody’). Silence here could betray or protect, could be resistance (as in Vercors’ Le Silence du Mer) or (active or passive) collaboration. And when liberation came, the imposed silence was replaced by a chosen silence, as a generation (because of guilt, or horror) chose to regard the Nazi era as a nightmare that could be put to one side as an aberration. Thus for Butor, silence is something to be fought against – he sees writing, words and music as resistance, every word or note a blow for life.
For Sebald too, silence carries a terrible weight of complicity and conspiracy. Schlant has described West German literature since the war as ‘a literature of absence and silence contoured by language’. Sebald’s fiction has been characterised as presenting us with a ‘Holocaust in absence’ – ‘the edge of darkness that Sebald’s fictions repeatedly bring us up against: a place and a time in which the ordinary constraints of history give way to an immense penumbral continuum of human suffering, exile, and “silent” catastrophes that take place “without much ado.”’ (Anderson, 121). His references are often oblique – in After Nature, Sebald imagines the clouds into which ‘without a word the breath Of legions of human beings had been absorbed’ (96), and in the first of his ‘Poemtrees’, when the landscape that you pass in a train ‘mutely … watches you vanish’ (p3), because it’s Sebald, we think of the trains that crossed Europe, taking their passengers to annihilation. As Ian Galbraith says, ‘Sebald’s landscapes are never innocent’ (p. 189), citing the references to Landsberg and Kaufbeuren in ‘Cold Draught’, and to Turkenfeld in ‘Somewhere’ (Across the Land and the Water, pp. 57, 135)
As George Steiner writes, the points where words fail have traditionally been seen as the points where music begins, or where we fall silent in the presence of the divine, but there is a more recent phenomenon, where ‘language simply ceases … The poet enters into silence. Here the word borders not on radiance or music, but on night’ (46). Is this silence, a ‘suicidal rhetoric’, nevertheless a valid and moral alternative when ‘the words in the city are full of savagery’?
Mark M Anderson, ‘The Edge of Darkness: On W. G. Sebald’, October, 106 (Autumn, 2003), 102-21
Michel Butor, Curriculum vitae: entretiens avec André Clavel (Paris: Plon, 1996)
Thomas Clifton, ‘The Poetics of Musical Silence’, Musical Quarterly, 52, 2 (1976) 163-81
Paul Griffiths, Modern Music: A Concise History from Debussy to Boulez (London: Thames & Hudson, 1990)
Jean Guéhenno, Journal des années noires, 1940-1944 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947)
Florence Rigal, Butor : la pensée-musique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004)
Florence Rigal, ‘De la polyphonie à la monodie: Butor, une voix politique’, L’Esprit Créateur, 47, 2 (Summer 2007), 33-42
Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence. West German Literature and the Holocaust (NY; London: Routledge, 1999)
W G Sebald, After Nature (London: Penguin, 2002)
W G Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (NY: The Modern Library, 2004)
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (NY, Atheneum, 1982)
Eric de Visscher, ‘”There’s no such a thing as silence…” John Cage’s Poetics of Silence’, Interface, 18 (1989), 257-68
Once you start thinking about labyrinths they crop up everywhere. Just recently the context was crime fiction, particularly of the noir variety (to be another blog, soon). The other night, it was memory, memories of a specific encounter, that between Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his former protege Werner Heisenberg, in September (or was it October?) 1941. As the protagonists, aided and challenged by Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, try to ‘follow the threads right back to the beginning of the maze’ (p.56), the answers they seek elude them as soon as they seem to be within reach. Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, just ended at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield (part of a season of his work), entwines physics, philosophy and politics (and is the only evening at the theatre I can recall when interval chat in the bar concerned semiconductor-based quantum optical memories).
The play starts with a question – why did Heisenberg visit Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 – and the possible answers put forward by all three protagonists are diverse and contradictory, but not mutually exclusive (complementarity theory at work). Did H, then working in Nazi Germany, want to recruit B to help with their atomic weapons programme? To pump him for information about either the science or the progress being made by British and American scientists working in the field? To warn or offer him some sort of protection from Nazi racial policies? To seek absolution and forgiveness? Perhaps all of the above. But as they re-run and redraft the encounter, the moral certainties become muddied, and clear again, repeatedly.
The play has been criticised for leaving us with these questions unanswered. For some, there’s no ambiguity at all – Heisenberg was a German patriot, who supported Hitler’s war aims, and his nuclear programme. Frayn’s human and conflicted portrayal is therefore a form of revisionism. I didn’t read it like that. The play allows Heisenberg to present a variety of self-justifications – his patriotism, arising out of the humiliation and deprivation that followed the first war, the fact that he did not tell Albert Speer how a bomb could have been made, the fact that he ‘never managed to contribute to the death of one single solitary person’. Unlike Bohr, who did make some contribution to the Allied nuclear programme, and thus played a ‘small but helpful part in the deaths of a hundred thousand people’ (p.91) at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, that Heisenberg presents those self-justifications, or allows them to be presented by the generous-spirited Bohr, does not mean that the audience accepts them, any more than we accept Heisenberg’s equation of the ‘impossibly difficult situation’ faced by Bohr with his own (p.21).
When Heisenberg speaks of the hardships and devastations visited on his country after the first war, we surely cannot help but think of the hardships and devastation currently being visited by his country on occupied Europe. When he ducks the occasional challenges about the expulsion of Jewish scientists, about the deaths of fellow-scientist Goudsmit’s parents in Auschwitz (‘He thought I should have done something to save them. I don’t know what. So many hands stretching up from the darkness for a lifeline, and no lifeline that could ever reach them’), about the possibility of resistance (‘You think I should have joined the plot against Hitler and got myself hanged like the others. …What would it have achieved?’) do we let him off the hook? Hardly. And nor do Bohr and Margrethe.
The only possible claim for absolution would rest in the suggestion that Heisenberg chose not to consider doing a particular calculation knowing that it would have shown the possibility of using fission to create a weapon. Everything we are told about Heisenberg’s character seems to make this unlikely. David Lindley, in his fascinating book Uncertainty, concludes that Heisenberg was ‘not the man to do practical nuclear physics or engineering’, and had genuinely never figured out how a bomb would work. He says that ‘this failure transmuted into a story that the Germans, meaning in particular Heisenberg, had turned away from the moral repugnance of building atomic weapons, or had even deliberately misled their political superiors about the feasibility of doing so. Heisenberg never exactly said this. He never exactly denied it’ (pp. 221-2). That he was prepared to allow this suggestion to remain in the air, perhaps even in preference to the suggestion of a scientific failure, scarcely redeems him. Similarly, when the possibility occurs to Bohr that Heisenberg had directly or indirectly enabled his own escape from Denmark, and those of thousands of Danish Jews – Heisenberg doesn’t confirm or deny this, not exactly. He says ‘Nothing to do with me, by that time. I regret to say’, but has earlier claimed Duckwitz from the German Embassy, the man who forewarned the Resistance of the timing for the SS roundup, and reported the entire patrol boat squadron unseaworthy on the night of the escape, as one of ‘his’ men. Strangely, Heisenberg (in the play) credits Duckwitz with having persuaded the Swedish government to accept the refugees, whereas other sources claim that it was Bohr himself who did so, delaying his own departure from Sweden to the US until he had won that concession. Uncertainty piled upon uncertainty. In the end, Frayn trusts the audience to draw its own moral conclusions.
From an arts & humanities viewpoint, we tend to see science as a realm of certainties, of clarity and precision. But, to quote a physicist friend, science is not an exact science. However, what Heisenberg means by uncertainty is not the fuzzy thing that I might mean by it, even though one of the words he used – Unscharf – does mean blurredness or fuzziness. It’s about the limitations of measurements – the way in which precision in the measurement of one variable implies a reduced precision in measurement of the related variable, but ‘this ratio, the uncertainty relationship, is itself precisely formulable’ (Frayn, p.98). In relation to human memories and motivations, obviously, there isn’t a precise ratio. However, the basic principles that the observer changes the thing observed, that the act of observation determines what is and isn’t observed, lend themselves readily to wider application, and the uncertainty of thoughts is ‘a systematic limitation which cannot even in theory be circumvented’ (Frayn, 99). Heisenberg and Einstein clashed bitterly over uncertainty – the former insisted that we could not construct ‘an absolute, God’s eye view into the inside of an item’ but merely observe its behaviour, in various ways, and infer what we could from that, whilst the latter maintained that whilst observers might disagree, ‘events retain a distinct and unarguable physicality’ such that a consensus could be arrived at between apparently conflicting accounts and an underlying objectivity persists. (Lindley, 132). Bohr brought a particular perspective to this ‘inexactness’ – complementarity, the mixing of incommensurable concepts, which have necessary but contradictory roles to play – ‘an unavoidable disharmony’ (Lindley 148).
Bohr and Heisenberg are incommensurable concepts themselves – Heisenberg who skis at speed down the slope, caring only that he gets there, that it works, never caring ‘what got destroyed on the way’, whilst Bohr does ‘seventeen drafts of every slalom’ (pp 24-5). Bohr revels in the contradictions, whilst Heisenberg lives and breathes paradox and contradiction but ‘can no more see the beauty of them then the fish can see the beauty of the water’ (pp 65-6).
It’s often said that for evil to triumph all that is required is for good men to do nothing. In this case, just possibly, evil was thwarted by inaction rather than action. Had Bohr argued the science with Heisenberg in 1941, the latter might have realised the crucial calculation that would enable the bomb to be built in time for Hitler to use it. Margrethe suggests that this was ‘the last and greatest act of friendship’, to leave Heisenberg misunderstood. In the Lyceum production, as the final redraft takes place, and this time Bohr doesn’t walk away, but asks him why he is so confident that building a bomb would be ‘reassuringly difficult’, in the background we hear a low booming sound, increasing in volume as Heisenberg stops and says ‘Hold on’ and ‘a very different and very terrible new world begins to take shape’ (p.89).
The Lyceum production was wonderfully performed by Henry Goodman, Geoffrey Streatfeild and Barbara Flynn, and, as Jonathan Brown said in the Independent, ‘the sheer intelligence of the drama and its subject matter is a thing of beauty’ (9/3/12). It makes demands on its audience, it challenges, but it’s also moving and haunting, and terribly hard to forget.
If I’ve misrepresented science in any of the above, I humbly beg its forgiveness.
Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (London: Methuen, 2003)
David C Cassidy, ‘A Historical Perspective on Copenhagen’, http://web.gc.cuny.edu/ashp/nml/copenhagen/Cassidy.htm
David Lindley, Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science (NY: Doubleday, 2007)