Student Dispatch from France: Never again?

May 27, 2010

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," 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."

Official acknowledgment by the French Republic of the complicity of the Vichy government with the Nazi regime in enacting crimes against humanity between 1940 and 1944 has occurred only in the past several decades and after many years of official silence. An important moment in this process, described by the historian Henry Rousso as "the return of the repressed," occurred in July 1995 when former French president Jacques Chirac, in an historic speech on the anniversary of massive roundups of Jews in Paris 53 years earlier, declared that France, "land of welcome and asylum ... [had] committed the irreparable." Along with a growing willingness to make public the "ever-present past" of the Vichy era, numerous commemorative plaques and monuments have been inaugurated in Paris, urging us to "never forget." Yet has this call to vigilance been heeded? In the fourth dispatch in this series, student Aida Mekonnen reflects on the ultimate efficacy of collective historical memory in averting the genocides that have occurred since the Holocaust.

Never again?
By Aida Mekonnen

Memory, especially in the wake of tragedy, is a theme that ran through the entirety of our Spring 2010 first-year seminar on "France and the Holocaust in Film and Literature." In studying and examining this infamous calamity, one consensus among the students in the class was that the Holocaust must be remembered to prevent future genocides, with knowledge and consciousness of the history of this period informing conscience. This statement appeared valid during our discussions, and still does today. However, the question I ask myself is: has this approach really worked? If so, why are equally senseless killings still occurring today? Had we not vowed to never forget? Had we not said "never again?"

Our visit to Drancy was by far, for me, the most surreal part of the trip. In class we learned about Drancy's past as the major site of the Holocaust in France, and about its present: the structures formerly used to hold internees of this concentration camp have reverted to their original function as low-rent housing. As a result, physically being there felt strange and slightly uncomfortable. We took a train from Paris to the station at Le Bourget, where more than half a century before, those interned at Drancy boarded trains headed primarily towards Auschwitz. We proceeded to catch a local bus, and headed toward our destination.

The Drancy monument created to commemorate the lives interned and lost at the camp, and built by the sculptor Shelomo Selinger, whom we also had the pleasure of meeting, looked almost unreal. It bears the title "The Gates of Hell," with two "portals" framing a central column composed of 10 figures caught up in a whirlwind. I'd seen it countless times in class, but experiencing it in person is completely different.

I looked to the sculpture, inscribed with the number of Jews that had passed through the camp, most to their eventual deaths. Reminders of this history can also be found by the front door of nearly every public school in Paris, in the form of plaques, many of relatively recent date, reminding those entering or passing by the school that Jewish children were arrested and taken from it. Finally, a commemorative monument, inaugurated by the French government in 1995, close to the banks of the Seine River in Paris' 15th arrondissement, recalls the massive July 1942 roundup by the French police of more than 13,000 French, foreign and stateless Jews, among them more than 4,000 children. The majority of them were interned for five days in horrifying conditions in the Paris cycling stadium known as the Velodrome d'Hiver, before being taken to Auschwitz.

The notion of what great destruction humans are capable of now became painstakingly apparent to me. Almost as painful to me was another question: are these efforts to remember really working? Have we not turned a blind eye to the pain and suffering of populations in various regions of the world? Hadn't the Khmer Rouge, under the power of Pol Pot, been as cruel, being responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians? At present, does the suffering of Darfurians in Sudan continue to go unnoticed, even though the death toll is estimated to have reached 400,000?

The final question I am left with, now that I've returned home to my family and friends, is: what are we doing wrong? And what does "never again" really mean?

* * *

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.

  • Placed outside the Lycee Turgot in Paris in 2004, this plaque in memory of the Jewish children deported from France, among them students at this lycee, exhorts: 'Let us never forget them.' A ring next to the plaque provides a space for memorial bouquets, such as this one from the Paris mayor's office.

    IMAGE: Carly Reichelt
Last Updated November 18, 2010