Student Dispatch from France: Place, memory and the Holocaust

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," reflected Silverman, "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."

In this first entry, Michelle Simon, one of the undergraduate participants in the study tour, explores the complex relationship between place and memory in the case of France’s experience of the Holocaust. Plaques, memorial monuments and other memory sites -- all of relatively recent date in France -- bring the past and the present together in one place. However, this past can truly only be present if it is kept alive through knowledge, consciousness and a will to remember. Yet who is responsible for doing this work of memory? And what should become of such sites?

Place, Memory and the Holocaust
By Michelle Simon

I used to believe that a place could hold a memory. But now I think that all memories lie within those who are educated about the past. Two weeks ago I visited Paris for the first time and expected to fall head over heels in love with this enchanting city. But because of the magnitude of the topic I was studying, France’s experience of the Holocaust, I had a difficult time seeing beyond Paris’ dark past. Among the many memorial monuments our group visited, two of them, I felt, held particularly strong memories. The first of these is located in a small Parisian park, the Square du Temple, in the Marais, a neighborhood that has always had a large Jewish population. The second is found in the Parisian suburb of Drancy, site between 1941 and 1944 of France’s major internment and transit camp. I was prepared to be emotional and confused at Drancy -- the foremost site of the Holocaust in France -- but the former experience caught me completely off guard. But then I looked around and realized that places only hold memories if you let them.

It was a picture-perfect park scene, with kids running everywhere and having fun on the swings. Kids were playing ping-pong and soccer while their parents watched from the benches that circled a lawn in the center of the park. Little did I know that we weren’t just taking a shortcut through the playground. In a grassy area opposite where we entered the park was a small billboard. The sign listed the names, first and last, as well as the ages of the children deported from that neighborhood. A disturbing piece of information, which chills me each time I read it, is included on the billboard. These children ranged in age from 2 months to 6 years old. That means that most of them weren’t even old enough to go to school. These children were arrested by the French police in German-occupied Paris and later murdered in extermination camps just because they were born Jewish.

As I read the message, I couldn’t help but cry for those kids. What made it even more difficult was the setting in which I read the sign. There were young kids playing around me! It was so surreal. There I was reading the names of children deported and killed nearly 70 years prior, and yet there was young, carefree life surrounding me. For me, this park held the memory of those deported children. I couldn’t enjoy the atmosphere because I couldn’t get the past out of my mind. I was so confused by those around me who just went about their day and didn’t stop to read the names. This park holds no memory for them. I was angered that this remained a park for people to enjoy. I felt that it should be a place of mourning rather than of entertainment and relaxation. That park, that billboard and our memory are the only burial those children received.

Built in the mid-1930s, the Cité de la Muette in Drancy was intended as public housing. It was modern, built taller rather than wider, in a U shape surrounding a grassy courtyard. In August 1941, this housing complex was requisitioned by the Germans as an internment camp, initially for foreign-born Jews. Until July 1943 Drancy was run by French police under the control of the German Security Police. Suddenly the U-shaped complex became a hell primarily for Jews, but also for political prisoners, Roma and homosexuals. It was a holding ground that preceded extermination camps, as nearly 65,000 French and foreign-born Jews were deported from Drancy in most cases to Auschwitz, of whom fewer than 2,000 survived. Many others died in Drancy due to lack of adequate care.

After the war, Drancy was never demolished. That’s right, this interment camp is still standing today, and has reverted to its original function as low-rent housing. People are living in Drancy today despite what happened in the exact same place less than a century ago. The sight of it was harder to bear than I expected.

We arrived at Le Bourget train station, the same station from which Drancy internees departed for the extermination camps. Talk about eerie. We then caught a local bus to take us closer to the former camp. In front of the now courtyard is a memorial area. The beautiful stone sculptures are the creations of Shelomo Selinger, himself a survivor of nine camps, whom we were to meet later that week. Just behind Selinger’s art is a train track leading to a single dark brown train car. So much of Drancy’s memory is held in this small area. I am curious to know whether or not residents ever go to pay tribute to those who are honored and remembered by the memorial. Spending a few hours at Drancy was incredibly moving and disturbing. I am still baffled that people can live there knowing what happened, walking past a beautiful monument every day. Drancy’s memory is alive at the memorial site since those who visit are, hopefully, there to remember. However, I fear that the memory is dying with the residents, if it is not dead already. Are they carrying on the history and memory of their home? If they don’t, who will?

If places could hold memories, that billboard wouldn’t be in a recreational park. If places could hold memories, there wouldn’t be residents at Drancy. These places would be museums or historical sites, preserved for educational and ceremonial purposes. It is our responsibility to carry on the memory of our pasts. We are the only connection from the past to the future. These places can serve as reminders for us to remember, but the walls, unfortunately, cannot speak for themselves.

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To read additional 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