Some Views of Shoah in French High Schools
I want to begin with a personal anecdote.
About fifteen years ago, I was teaching an honor course at Hunter College on "Politics and Literature." The class was a multicultural, multinational and a multiracial group of students majoring in French, Italian and Spanish. Once a week, a guest lecturer was invited and we dealt with topics ranging from the influence of Giuseppe Mazzini’s writings on the Risorgimento, the movement that united Italy in the middle of the Nineteenth century, to the Dreyfus Affair in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and to African Voices in Caribbean Poetry. There was high-spirited debate and students often spoke with excitement, but little controversy resulted. I forget what the topic was that sparked the unexpected incident I am about to recount.
Maria, a student, was chattering about news broadcasts. At first, nobody seemed much interested in the dribble she was spouting about the military-industrial manipulation of American television, then, a well-worn commonplace. She went on to choose for her example, the Holocaust, in her words the "Wall Street Jewish soap opera." "Were not we all sick and tired of hearing about the so-called extermination of the Jewish people?" she asked nobody in particular. How did we know it wasn’t all being made up by the Jewish lobby that controlled the media? Why all this talk about the Jews while there was silence about crimes committed in other parts of the world, Latin American and the Caribbean, and on and on and on. Other students gave approving nods.
My own reaction astonished me. I wanted to interrupt this unbearable voice box, but I could not. I began to sweat profusely and to shake like a leaf. I felt myself trying to avoid vomiting, unable to shape a single utterance. As I was about to faint, I noticed Maria had suddenly stopped talking and all gazes in class were now fixed upon me. It seems I had turned white as a sheet. I tried and managed to regain control of myself. Finally the words spilled out. I talked about the extermination of my grandmother, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins and my own miraculous survival. How could I prove it? By bringing in documents? Family pictures? Were my words enough?
The next day when I walked into my office, I found a huge bouquet of red roses and a note of apologies. My visceral reaction to Maria’s remarks had probably led the class to question their own assumptions and there was no doubt in my mind that they believed my testimony. I liked all these students, especially Maria. Discovering that they shared revisionist views characteristic of the most vulgar anti-Semitism possible was painful for me. I also understood that they inscribed the vicissitudes of their own people in their attitudes. Nevertheless, I could not let them assert their own memory of indignities at the expense of the truth.
Last summer at Cassis, I too was dismayed to hear an eminent French historian state that Auschwitz survivors and survivors of other camps frightened French school children with their tales and made them feel excessively guilty. The first thought that crossed my mind was that the problem was about to be resolved since all direct witnesses are now quite elderly. Soon, nobody will be left with first hand experience. My own perspective is one that believes in the transmission of memory. Now that I myself am beginning to be a player in the end-game of life, I feel a new sense of urgency about this mission. Still, also, I believe that a wrenching emotional climate is not appropriate in a classroom. I remembered the incident I have recounted to you. Having to correct false statements and perspectives by invoking my own testimony in a very emotional way seemed to me exploitative, effective though it was.
My present task today will be to place the historian’s statement in a French context by reviewing the teaching of the Holocaust --I prefer the French term Shoah-- in French secondary schools. I plan to conclude my presentation by introducing you to an example of how to teach this material taken for a provincial French History class that I found on the worldwide web.
My main source of information is a superb article by Dominique Borde, "Faire connaître la Shoah à l’école." (1) The Ministry of Education centrally sets the curriculum for French secondary schools. The study of the Second World War and its aftermath became part of the History curriculum for "Troisième," Ninth Grade and "Première, Eleventh Grade only in 1962. By 1989, the "Programmes et instructions des collèges" made the following recommendation: "You will stress the total character of the conflict, the Final Solution and the war of extermination waged by Germany." (2) That same year a sixty page pamphlet, Le nazisme et le génocide, Histoire et enjeux, written by François Bédarida who was the director of the Institut d’histoire du temps présent, was published by Editions Nathan, a leading French publisher. It was distributed to 35000 teachers of History and Geography free of charge. All current French history textbooks dealing with the war include Shoah.
Nevertheless, teachers in the field encounter many specific problems. First, Borde believes History itself is not allotted enough time. One hour and fifteen minutes a week for Ninth Grades for a syllabus dealing with 1914 to the present, and an hour and a half to two hours in Eleventh Grade for the 1880-1945 years. I should note that they have revised all this and that a new "Programme" whose text I do not have will go into effect later this year.
The second obstacle, according to Borde, is the age of the students themselves. Their parents were born after the war and grew up in an environment that avoid any mention of what had happened. This is also now the case for many grandparents. What kind of memory do these youngsters need? Any answer we give must take into account the world of the future in which they are to live and work, a world that we cannot yet imagine.
The third impediment Borde discovers relates to students’ knowledge about Judaism itself. Today’s youngsters in France (and in the United States) identify Judaism with Israel, and questions often come up about such matters as the role of the Palestinians, the peace process, the Jewish settlement in Occupied territories. In French society everyday racism comprises latent anti-Semitism, but also an anti-Arab racism.
Borde’s fourth difficulty is that the teacher must somehow insert Shoah in a narrative of history. However, what and whose history? Before we can inscribe it in French History, we must frame Shoah within the history of the Jewish people itself. It is also part of German history, Nazi history, and European history. We must moreover seek its full meaning within a universal framework.
Finally, there remains the most fundamental issue of all. Should Shoah be historicized at all? The perpetrators themselves sought to hide the Final Solution and to obliterate their transgressions utterly. They almost succeeded. After the war, everyone sought to forget what they had experienced. The executioners pretended nothing had happened and complained about their hardships and the rigors of the "épuration." Many survivors felt nobody was prepared to hear their voices, and in those years they themselves wanted to try to forget everything and go on with their existence. It was as though they carried within themselves the lives of their kin had lost. By giving themselves to life, they sought to achieve the destinies denied to those who had died. They had to preserve whatever vitality they had left to live for those whose days Shoah had cut short.
After the war, General De Gaulle had the facts about the Vichy regime, collaborators, the militia ("milice’), concentration camps, and countless atrocities. To preserve national unity and traditional institutions he preferred to highlight the role of the Resistance and the Free French. Once they defeated their common enemy, the victors found they engaged in the Cold War. New ideological combat lines were drawn in which many former Nazis claimed they had been and were still anti-communists.
In a philosophical perspective, I will mention the names of Theodor Adorno and Maurice Blanchot (who had belonged to extremist right-wing movements in the Thirties) there was a point of view that Auschwitz was unthinkable. The tools and words of the historians were inadequate means for the expression and the transmission of Shoah. In Claude Lanzmann’s words: "Auschwitz and Treblinka can be compared with nothing else, nor will they ever be so compared." Speaking of such an unspeakable happening, a happening that was impossible to recount or even utter, was blasphemy. It was forbidden to link Shoah with other historical massacres:
In France (and in other countries, including the United States), there remains the practical question of how to teach this history. Should there be visits to the various sites, such as Auschwitz and Dachau? Should students be encouraged to undertake the mission of making themselves into the agents of the witnesses of eye witnesses and so on in a great chain of first, second, third hand testimonies?
It is at this juncture that I want to unravel reservations of the French historians. The American participants of the Cassis conference were unaware that there were meetings bringing together the Auschwitz survivors of L’amicale d’Auschwitz, the Association des professeurs d’histoire et de géographie (APHG) and the Fondation pour la mémoire de la déportation. Let me give you a brief sense of the tone of the meeting of December 6, 1997 the account of which was published on the Internet. (4)
The topic that day was life in the ghettos. Jacques Burko the moderator reminded his audience of researchers, history teachers and surviving witnesses of the genocide that they were all agents of transmission of this history. He introduced the witnesses and their topics: Edith Gricman on the Lodz Ghetto, Paula Borenstein on the Vina ghetto, Prof. Korezec on Bialystok, Prof. Tomkiewitz on cultural and scientific life in the Warsaw the ghetto, and Samuel Brinbaum on resistance in the Warsaw ghetto.
Reading the transcript is almost unbearable, and face to face encounters must have been more so. The fact that the Allies had won the war was not a consolation for the handful of survivors living on rationed time. For instance, the day of the liberation of Paris, claims Edith Griman who was deported from the ghetto to Birkenau in August 1944 was the day when, in her words: "I lost my relatives, my father, my mother and my husband." Everything stated here is already well known, witnesses are not only living documents, but also interactive living witnesses.
At the end of last year, on December 12, 1998, the groups met again, and this time they devoted their conference to testimony. Marie-Paule Hervieu presented an account of her work and that of her colleague, Nicole Mullier, with the former deportees of l’Amicale d’Auschwitz, especially Raphaël Esrail, the very group singled out at Cassis. I shall try to present the general protocol established by this teacher, a protocol that possibly reflects a common approach.
When living witnesses are invited to a school a decision must be made as to the place of the encounter, whether to choose the classroom, library, or auditorium. How long should the encounter last? An hour seems too little, two hours can provide a foundation for further discussions. It is advisable to invite at least two witnesses, but not more than five or six. Everyone must have enough time for his or her presentation. An entire day with two hour sequences allows enough time for adequate analysis. This time frame also allows choosing a theme, and concentration camp labor is the theme chosen this year. The testimony can be preceded by films, book exhibits, drawings, photographs, and it can be completed by study trips to Drancy, Stuthof, Mauthausen or Auschwitz, etc. Classes have been going on these trips for the last few years.
The next phase is determining the testimony’s content. The emotional charge is often very strong, and often excruciating for both witnesses and students. Preliminary material must be presented in a rational way by the teacher, preferably in an interdisciplinary context. While physical presence is essential, books, films, slides and videos are equally important.
The evidence makes it clear that Marie-Paule Hervieu privileges the study trips to the place of memory already mentioned, "a categorical imperative linked to our human condition" are the words she uses. Along with the words of witnesses, such visits inscribe images in memory that will remain indelibly engraved in our consciousness.(5)
The question I have after reading this survey --and here I may echo the reservations of the French historians present at Cassis-- is whether it is legitimate to teach History by manipulating the children’s emotions. Furthermore, in the case of Shoah, care must be taken to prevent the fascination with horror resulting in gratification of destructive impulses inherent in underlying sado-masochistic tendencies. May I note in passing that the "Guidelines for Teaching About the Holocaust" set forth in the pamphlet published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum warn about this danger:
I want to conclude my presentation with an example of a remarkable Internet web site that seems to me exemplary insofar as it leads to remembering Shoah by making the personal historical, and universal, and conversely, showing how the historical and universal is also the personal. The site in question is La mémoire juive en Soissonnais, which was established by Dominique Natanson, a teacher in the Aisne department, the Picardie region of northern France, has as its focus Maurice Waljsfelner, a Jewish child from the region who was deported to and died at Auschwitz (7). I wrote Dominique Natanson asking him how his project had come into being, and he generously answered by sending me an advance copy of his forthcoming article that is going to appear in Les Cahiers Pédagogiques. (8)
In 1985, Dominique Natanson suggested that the designation Maurice Waljsfelner be given to the Collège de Cuffies near Soissons. This name had been chosen at random among the names of children listed in Serge Klarsfeld’s Mémorial de la Déportation de Juifs de France. All that was known of him was that he was born in 1933, and was ten years old when he was arrested by the Soissons Gestapo in January 1944, almost two years after the arrest of his mother and father in 1942. He died in a gas chamber in February 1944, when in Natanson’s words, he was "ten years old, the age for entering "sixième" the class that in France is the equivalent of Junior High School.
While preparing for the ceremony marking the naming of the school, all the children wondered what Maurice had looked like. No traces remained of the family. As a substitute for an actual photograph, Natanson copied and posted photographs of the local press covered the event at the local press covered the event at other children reproduced in the Mémorial. The ceremony took place. The local press covered the event reporting the eloquent words of a ninth grade student, Sandrine Dzedgora, in front of 400 students. Two women from Crouy, a neighboring village, had known "little Maurice." They got in touch with Dominique Natanson and gave him the prewar photograph of him when he was six or seven that they had kept. They remembered that his Polish-Jewish parents, Jankiel and Bella who lived above the café belonging to their parents, sold socks and stockings.
The Ninth grade class began delving further, leafing through departmental archives, thumbing collaborationist newspapers. They discovered the existence of a Righteous woman, Mme Cholet who was a part of a chain of solidarity that saved a Jewish youngster from Soissons. While the lycée’s concierge delayed the Gestapo, the school principal, school personnel, a shopkeeper and two workers made the young girl vanish. The following year, in a nursing home setting, another group of students became acquainted with Mme Kisselman who had organized the rescue of several Jewish children. The artist Adek, the painter of many strange and anguishing pictures about Shoah came to an art class. All this became the subject matter of a book, La mémoire Juive en Soissonnais in 1992. In 1993 it received the Corrin Prize founded to protest trivializing and forgetting Shoah. By then, the students who worked on this project had graduated, but nevertheless, they came to the Sorbonne to receive the prize, proceeds of which were spent on the acquisition of various materials about Shoah.
The Waljsfelner Collège was now listed by name in directories and on the Minitel. Rosa, Maurice’s cousin who lived in Belgium had been seeking survivors. In 1997 she conferred with the school, and a visit was arranged in May 1998 with forty students from several classes. She told her own wad story, distributed Belgian chocolates, and most important, she lent the class ten photographs of Maurice and his parents.
These photographs are now on the Internet. I found them on a list of the historical documents of the Occupation posted by Natanson, and taken from his book. The document in question forbids Jews from selling in markets reproduces and ordinance of L’Argus Soissonnais of January 22, 1941:
Prohibition of Jews from Selling on the Market
The document is accompanied with an statement explaining that prohibitions have been increasing since the October 1940 Jewish statutes, also reproduced on the web. Modest Jewish peddlers of Soissons, for instance the Wajsfelner family found that they no longer had any means of earning a living. When you click on the name, Wajsfelner, the hyperlink leads you to the little boy, his immortality now ensured in cyberspace, hardly a compensation for a life cut short, but the only homage to his memory that is possible.
When there will be no more survivors to provide oral personal testimonies, films, videos, recordings of the witnesses will probably remain available worldwide to all users of the great new technology. By imitating Dominique Natanson’s model and integrating these obliquely into the historical record as it were, on the bias, may be a good way for now to preserve memory of Shoah.
Hunter & The Graduate Center, CUNY