Particularist pain

La Muette embodies debate over Holocaust vs. other genocides.

drancy memorial 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
drancy memorial 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A single boxcar stands as a silent gatekeeper to a derelict housing project. La Muette (French for "the mute one") is a housing complex in Drancy, an impoverished suburb in northern Paris, infamous for being the hub where deportees were imprisoned before their final journey to the death camps. La Muette wasn't built on the former transit camp. It is the camp, renovated and turned into housing for poor working-class and immigrant families - its original intended purpose back in the late 1930s. Today, inhabitants live between the very walls where internees had been parked 65 years ago. A monument by French artist Shelomo Selinger stands next to the boxcar, its biblical quote summing up the issue all of France is debating this week: "Look and see whether there is any suffering like my suffering." The French are afraid that their president's latest statements could generate competition among the memories of former victims of wars and genocides, a race to determine who has suffered the most, and more division within society. When Nicolas Sarkozy announced at a dinner organized by the CRIF (the umbrella organization of Jewish communities in France) that every fifth-grader would be "twinned" with one of the 11,000 French Jewish children killed during World War II, he triggered mixed reactions. France's chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, and writer Marek Halter praised the idea, calling it "beautiful and generous" and "worth trying." But Simone Weil, chairwoman of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah and a strong supporter of Sarkozy's presidential campaign in 2007, dubbed the announcement "unbearable, inconceivable, tragic and, above all, unfair." A guest at the dinner, she added: "We can't inflict this on 10-year-old children. We can't ask a child to identify with a dead child. The weight of this memory is way too heavy to bear." Since then, many psychologists have stepped up to denounce an idea they think would be too morbid for young children. "We deportees ourselves had trouble, after the war, talking about what we experienced. And today we try to spare our children and grandchildren," Weil said. France's political landscape was split in a very unusual way over the proposal, with vocal supporters and opponents on both sides of the political spectrum. Supporters from the Left and Right have since lowered their enthusiasm after polls quickly revealed that 85 percent of the French rejected the idea, even though a large majority considers "remembrance" as a civic duty. "It's even more necessary now that the survivors of this tragedy of our history are about to pass away," Sarkozy said in defense of his project. "You don't traumatize children by offering them the gift of a country's memory." Teachers, however, are worried about how they are being told to teach that memory. "Armenia, Cambodia, Algeria... There have been many genocides and massacres," explains Céline Pain, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the elementary school next to La Muette. "The kids wonder why we don't cover them as thoroughly. Instead of focusing on the Shoah exclusively, we need to find a way to cover crimes against humanity as a whole." French history had its share of atrocities, and teachers fear that focusing on a single issue at the expense of all others, such as the colonial wars in Southeast Asia or Algeria, can only fuel resentment. Since the statement, Sarkozy's government and aides have been slowly and carefully backing down in the face of overall disapproval, made worse by the president's poor popularity ratings, with less than 35 percent of the French still supporting him. Even though his ministers still assure he is committed to the spirit of the proposal, they have suggested "sponsoring" a dead child could be a class project rather than an individual duty. In front of a commission that gathered to discuss the idea, Weil even declared that "the president has kind of made a mistake," and suggested that the story of all deported children (Jewish or not) could instead be a starting point for a new approach to the study of the Holocaust in schools. Aline Cadiry, another teacher from Drancy, believes this was Sarkozy's plan to curb anti-Semitism in the suburbs. "He wants kids to be aware [of the Holocaust] as early as possible, especially the ones from immigrant families who lack the background knowledge," she says. "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is lashing back at us here. Muslim kids identify with the Palestinians and their sufferings, and they associate Jews in general with Israel and its army's negative image." She believes Sarkozy wants children to stop seeing the Jews as oppressors, by showing them how much they have suffered and been oppressed themselves. But while the teachers want to work on memory, most consider Sarkozy's proposal on memory as inappropriate. IN PLACES like Drancy that memory is everywhere. Nadine Dufresne has been living in La Muette for 30 years and has had time to experience its "nefarious atmosphere." Wrapped in a thick winter coat, she brushes gray locks from her face with an absent look. "It's a heavy memory to carry," she explains. "Sometimes it feels like the people still live here." Dufresne assures she has seen "weird things" ever since she has moved in to La Muette. Holes in the walls, mysterious stains, slashed clothes, scratches on her kitchenware. Her neighbors nod silently. "This place is cursed," one of them spits. The former camp is probably not haunted, but living in what used to be the anteroom to the death camps for tens of thousands of victims certainly is daunting. In the 1930s, La Muette was considered state-of-the-art urbanism, the new face of modern working-class housing, a precursor to the cheap housing projects that would be erected throughout the country after the war. The construction work had been completed but the equipment and amenities hadn't been delivered yet when the war broke out. Under the German occupation, the authorities turned the place into an internment camp. The setup of La Muette was ideal: The five-story, U-shaped block, with a vast central space, could be easily closed off and watched. Between 1941 and 1945, nearly 70,000 people were sent to extermination camps from Drancy. Today, the boxcar is all that remains of the camp's dark past. It was torched in 2005, causing a national outcry. A note signed "bin Laden" was found on the site, along with an inverted swastika. Some analysts were quick to accuse Muslim youths, but swastikas were found the same day all over the walls of the Great Mosque of Paris, pointing toward old-school neo-Nazi hate, which targets Jews as well as Muslims. "The boxcar is a nice symbol," Dufresne says, but she feels the Jewish community has declared some sort of ownership over the place's memory. "We would prefer that they speak to all of us at the annual ceremony. The speeches in Hebrew make us feel like they want to keep us out, that they want to separate us when the people here should be united." While most of the deportees where Jewish, Gypsies, homosexuals and other "undesirables" were also interned in Drancy. But many ignore that fact - or don't care as much. Shelomo Selinger's monument clearly shows it is devoted to the Jewish victims. The central sculpture represents the 10 people necessary for a minyan, with a man wearing tefillin, and the letters lamed and vav, which combined stand for the 36 righteous people according to Jewish tradition. Nadine leads the way deeper inside the housing complex, in front of closed-down fronts and rundown staircases. "We never have a problem during the day," she says. "But at night, kids from the area come and deal drugs in the hallways." All the services and shops on the ground floor have shut down, one after the other, but one place is still open. Nadine shows a simple metal door: the Drancy History Museum. A local high-school class is here to listen to André Berkover, a Holocaust survivor who has come to tell his story and answer questions. The walls of the single-room memorial are covered with pictures and texts describing the raids, life in the camp, deportation and the final solution. More than 1,500 French junior high-school students visit every year, according to the museum's Web site. Despite allegations that French children are less aware of the Holocaust today, the full history of World War II, its roots and consequences, is taught at length to all ninth-graders. Most classes go through such meetings with survivors. At this age, the children are considered old enough to fully understand that difficult chapter of history. The denial of the Holocaust is a crime in France, punishable by prison. In the same spirit, it is illegal to deny that the Ottoman massacre of Armenians in the early 20th century was a genocide. But it is not the case for other massacres. The situation has become awkward in a country that presents itself as a united nation that doesn't officially recognize any ethnic or religious community. The truth is, some communities do feel left out because they have less political clout or don't get the same kind of recognition by the state. Ryan, Zachary, Selma, Thomas, Zishan and their friends are listening to Berkover. They're all French - Christians, Jews, Muslims or atheists - but many of them are second- or third-generation children of immigrants from Africa, Eastern Europe or Asia, a mixed bunch of cultures and origins. They read the panels on the walls, read about the details of the Drancy camp. Berkover describes the raid, the separation from his mother, the convoys, Auschwitz, Birkenau, the random executions, his escape throughout the Polish countryside. He was 14 - just like the kids he's talking to. They are impressed, hit by the human experience. Their questions are straightforward. "How hard was it? How did you make it through?" They don't talk politics, discuss the logic of ethnic cleansing or the roots of anti-Semitism. The get-together is coming to an end. Berkover agrees remembrance should remain a key point in history programs. "It's good to study those issues with a direct witness, possibly with videos when all survivors will have passed away." But he despises Sarkozy's idea of sponsoring a dead child, which he calls morbid fetishism. "Three weeks before the local elections, this is a move to secure the Jewish vote," he says. He has no sympathy for the French president's tough-on-immigration policies and his campaign to hunt down and expel as many illegal immigrants as possible. Nearly 22,000 undocumented people, including children, were deported in 2007. "What's going on here takes me back 65 years. Today those people are sent to what they call retention centers. To me they're just like internment camps." It's 4:30 p.m., outside the local elementary school in Drancy. The school day is over and parents have shown up to pick up their children. The diversity of people makes the place look more like some Brooklyn neighborhood than a typical French town - except the kids are playing soccer instead of baseball. Aline and Céline, the two teachers, are mulling over the duty of remembrance and Sarkozy's proposal. "In the end, we'll do whatever we want. They can't impose us the way we'll teach that tragedy to the children." Sarkozy's proposal will probably fade into oblivion, like many other taboo-breaking, provocative ideas he has thrown about in the past year. With an interesting lesson to be learned: If the "duty of remembrance" of the Holocaust is pushed too far, it can actually result in a negative reaction, at the expense of the very people it is supposed to protect.