Student Dispatch from France: 1+1+1+1

May 25, 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."

In the past few decades, a major emphasis of Holocaust historiography in France has been the focus on individual victims. This effort, championed in large part by historian and lawyer Serge Klarsfeld and his wife, Beate, draws on research that is extraordinary in its breadth and detail. The work of the Klarsfelds and others aims to restore a measure of individual dignity to the victims and their families, provide the children of deportees with information about their families, and establish additional irrefutable evidence of the Holocaust. As student Hillary Cohen discovered, powerful exhibits such as the memorial to the children from France killed in the Holocaust, as well as survivor testimonies, serve a powerful pedagogical and memorial function in terms of stressing the Holocaust's magnitude and in personalizing an often unimaginable catastrophe. In today's dispatch, Cohen recalls the group's meeting with the Klarsfelds and student Carly Reichelt describes an unforgettable encounter with one survivor, sculptor Shelomo Selinger.

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by Hillary Cohen and Carly Reichelt

Hillary writes:

We have read these facts and statistics about the Holocaust in books, studied them in classrooms, heard them repeated. But have you ever seen all the individual faces, heard each story in detail?

I don't know how many pictures were on that wall that day, but that room in the Memorial de la Shoah, filled with pictures upon pictures of children deported from France, made me feel completely insignificant, almost nonexistent. I've never felt so many young and innocent eyes focused on me. So many questions came to me: what if this was my brother, my sister or even me? What happened to each of these kids? What is their story? How can we still have so many unanswered questions? I felt completely overwhelmed. In the course of a discussion at their office, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld provided some preliminary answers to my questions.

The Klarsfelds are synonymous with efforts to "individualize the Holocaust." They have devoted themselves to documenting, to the extent possible, the lives, and deaths, of each Jew deported from France. For example, Serge Klarsfeld's book, "French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial," provides about 2,500 photos of the 11,000 often unaccompanied children deported from France. Similarly, the Wall of Names at the Memorial de la Shoah lists the names, birth years and years of deportation of the 76,000 Jews deported from France.

Being Jewish myself, I've learned about the Holocaust since I was young. But not until I heard survivor testimonies did I so deeply understand its effects. At the Memorial de la Shoah, Robert Frank, a hidden child during the war, told us his story in detail. At one point he began crying as he recounted his father's last words to him: "Never forget you are a Jew." He revealed that he never had his bar mitzvah and felt that he failed his father's request. In that moment, as my senses felt ignited by the raw realness of Mr. Frank's story and by my act of witnessing, I realized the unique value of such testimonies and felt privileged to listen. Taking up the responsibility of engaging oneself with individual stories of Holocaust victims and the dwindling number of survivors provides a deeper, visceral understanding of it. We forget that the Holocaust is not just "a statistic," but millions of victims with millions of faces with millions of stories: 1+1+1+1.

Carly writes:

Prior to our trip to Paris I had never been to Europe, yet alone across the Atlantic Ocean. I knew that I was going to be submerged into a new culture, but I never imagined that some of the people I encountered would have such a long lasting impact on me. Shelomo Selinger, Holocaust survivor and prominent sculptor, inspired me in ways that I cannot even put fully into words.

Originally from Poland, Shelomo was 11 years old when the Germans conquered his country and his life changed forever. His family moved into a Jewish ghetto, which was liquidated when he was 13, and his family was forced apart. Shelomo spent the remainder of the war in and out of nine concentration camps. He was sent on two death marches, was left to die atop a pile of cadavers and survived amnesia for seven years after the war. Despite everything he was put through, in 1948 Shelomo fought in the War of Israeli Independence. After meeting with Shelomo the first question that came to my mind was, “How can he create such beautiful, inspiring artwork after everything he has endured?”

He considers his artwork a hymn to life. He creates his sculptures out of hard material, granite and wood, because it contrasts with the "fragileness of life." Although his sculptures are extremely beautiful, the most moving, albeit highly graphic, art for me was his series of drawings inspired by nightmares from the camps. One image depicts the tragic experience of his aunt and baby cousin. Upon arrival at one of the concentration camps, his aunt was holding her crying baby. A Nazi soldier could not tolerate the crying baby anymore, so he smashed the child's head against a rock to kill it. Another drawing depicts the death of Shelomo's father. A Nazi soldier forced a water hose down his father's throat and turned it on, drowning his father from the inside out. Each drawing appears fragmented, inviting its viewers to use their imagination to finish the artwork in their own minds.

Shelomo has become an inspiration to me. He has such a zest for life and does not believe in letting fear and hardships destroy you. He told our group that he "believes in man and that goodness in humanity is possible." That May afternoon that I spent with Shelomo Selinger will forever hold a place in my heart.

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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.

  • At the Memorial de la Shoah, student Michelle Simon contemplates photographs and brief biographies of some of the 11,000 children deported from France during World War II. Relying on groundbreaking research by Serge Klarsfeld, this permanent exhibit reflects the emphasis in recent French historiography on 'individualizing' the Holocaust.

    IMAGE: Willa Silverman
Last Updated November 18, 2010