Dispatch from France: Remembering in vain?

University Park, Pa. -- In early May, nine Penn State students traveled to Paris to participate in a week-long study tour led by Willa Z. Silverman, professor of French and Jewish studies, on "France and the Holocaust." This embedded course, designed primarily for students in Silverman's Spring 2010 residential course on "France and the Holocaust in Film and Literature," encouraged students to prolong and intensify their study of this topic through both meetings with camp survivors, historians, "hidden children" and Resistance members, and visits to the sites of the Holocaust in France, including memorials and a concentration camp.

"In the end," Silverman said, "I hope that this trip will incite students to engage broader aesthetic, historical and ethical questions that concern each of us, such as the challenges of representing catastrophe, the dangers of intolerance, the duty to remember and the necessity of pursuing justice."

Following a series of five student dispatches, Silverman offers her own reflections on the trip as well as what she and her students learned about history, memory and the Holocaust during the spring semester.

Remembering in Vain?
By Willa Silverman

"Is it in vain that we try to remember?" This question, from Jean Cayrol's script for Alain Resnais' acclaimed 1955 documentary reflection on the Holocaust, "Night and Fog," informed both the investigation that my students and I pursued during our spring 2010 first-year seminar on “France and the Holocaust in Film and Literature” and the week-long study tour in Paris that followed the course.

Remembering may seem in vain for those of us born after the Holocaust -- in the case of my students at least two generations after, often with no familial connection to it, and on another continent. Like the inquisitive yet insistent camera in "Night and Fog" slowly panning abandoned train tracks near Auschwitz, at the site of the former Drancy concentration camp and in Paris itself we found ourselves searching for traces of a past unfamiliar to us.

Having not lived this history, we are left with representations of it, whether visual or verbal, encompassing the films and literary works our class considered this semester, as well as the memorial monuments we visited and survivor testimony we heard in Paris. Yet how does one recount an event that, in Elie Wiesel's words, "defies language?" The challenge of representing a catastrophe of such magnitude, as my class discovered, poses another impediment to remembrance. How can one remember what in Wiesel's view "is located beyond understanding?" One response is offered by Shelomo Selinger, a Holocaust survivor whose art deeply affected our group when we viewed it in Selinger’s studio. Selinger's fragmented style in both his drawings and sculpture invited us to join the artist in the difficult work of representation, to put imagination and engagement at the service of remembrance by "filling in" the intentional gaps in his work.

Remembrance may seem vain, moreover, at a time when the number of Holocaust survivors is decreasing markedly as our temporal distance from the Holocaust increases. This reality struck us at Drancy when we listened to the testimony of Jules Fainzang, the last survivor of a convoy of 1,000 people that on Aug. 28, 1942, left Drancy for Auschwitz. At times, Fainzang, as well as fellow survivor Shelomo Selinger and hidden child Robert Frank, fell silent. At other times they were overcome by emotion, or else censored themselves out of a sense that they were upsetting us by recounting their stories. The desire not to relive a trauma, we realized, also works against the will to remember.

Remembrance may seem in vain, finally, given the historical amnesia that for years blocked French collective memory regarding the Vichy government's complicity in enacting the Final Solution. In 1955 French censors required Alain Resnais to obscure a photographic still in "Night and Fog" that showed a French policeman guarding the Drancy camp. The numerous plaques, monuments and visibly marked sites of Holocaust memory that we visited have not always been part of the Parisian cityscape, but today they are. According to Serge Klarsfeld in our discussion with him, the work of French collective memory in regard to the Holocaust is "finished," as contrasted for Klarsfeld with French collective memory concerning France's past as a former colonial power.

In "Dora Bruder" (1997), a haunting work about the narrator's search for information about one of the 76,000 Jews deported from France with whom the narrator feels an inexplicably strong connection, author Patrick Modiano writes that "the camps, History, time -- everything that defiles and destroys you," all work at cross-purposes with memory, whose goal is to record and preserve. When we read Modiano's "memory-book" in class this spring, nearly all my students disparaged the narrator's obsessive and often futile quest to reconstruct and record the life of a stranger, 15-year-old Dora Bruder. Several days into our Paris trip, however, one of my students told me she now understands Dora Bruder as a type of allegory about the duty to remember. This duty to remember, as our group sensed by the end of our trip, not only invites homage and piety. It also encourages us, ultimately, to pursue justice and to help clarify the historical record. The work of remembrance is assuredly difficult and complex. But it can never be in vain.

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To read the entire series of student dispatches from the "France and the Holocaust" study tour, click here; to see sets of photos from the tour, click here.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010