September 18, 2012

Lieux de mémoire or lieux d’habitation? Drancy and the ever–present past

Despite considerable cultural and academic attention to the importance of the Vel d’hiv as a place of national memory (a lieu de mémoire in Pierre Nora’s terms), Drancy features far less in cinematographic representations of the Vichy period. There is no reference to Drancy in either La Rafle or indeed in Sarah’s Key. By contrast, the camp does feature in the much earlier Sebastian Faulks novel Charlotte Gray, in which the father of a local résistant is incarcerated in Drancy, where he later dies. Such is the dominance of the Vel d’hiv in fictional recreations of the Shoah that Drancy appears to have been somewhat neglected, despite the fact that the social housing complex still exists, where the Vel d’hiv does not.

An exhibition this summer at the Mémorial de la Shoah did, however, focus closely on the role of Drancy as a lieu de mémoire. The temporary exhibition, in the museum’s solemn crypt (which, incidentally, does feature in Sarah’s Key), recorded some of the handwritten notes carved into the walls of the building by the Jewish detainees, many of which were moving, recording personal reflections on the plight of particular deportees.

The same museum made headlines this week in the build-up to the official opening of its new permanent exhibition in Drancy by President Hollande on Friday. While the mayor of Drancy has welcomed the new museum, which will complement the existing memorial in the cité–a replica of a single cattle truck of the sort employed to deport Jews from Drancy to the Death Camps, installed on the site in 1988, before Chirac’s pivotal speech–other public figures are less convinced. The cité still provides social housing for over 500 people, and the prominent historian of the French involvement in the Shoah, Serge Klarsfeld, was apparently originally opposed to the planned museum for fear of disrupting the lives of local residents. The cattle wagon has previously been vandalised and there are also, according to Le Monde, fears of further anti-Semitic protests. Drancy’s location in one of the most economically deprived French départements–the 93rd (Seine-Saint Denis)–may also prove problematic for the museum, since it is far from the typical Parisian tourist trail.

Drancy’s location and the extensive number of residents still living on the site may well pose problems for the directors of the museum. The cost of the mémorial, at 15 million euros, financed entirely through money which once belonged to the Jewish deportees but which was seized by the Nazis during the rafles, is not inconsiderable at a time of economic crisis. Yet the importance of Drancy during the Occupation cannot be understated; nearly all of the 76,000 Jewish men, women and children deported by Vichy passed through Drancy at some stage (the cité interned some 67,000 during its three years of service as a transit camp). The camp also represents a physical link to the Occupation years–one of the very few remaining. Just as Oradour-sur-Glâne, site of the most notorious massacre of civilians by the Nazis in France during the war, has remained a permanent reminder of the horrors of the Occupation, Drancy acts in much the same way, a physical place of memory. The emphasis in the new mémorial on educating local schools of the importance of the Shoah in France should help to build links between the inhabitants of the cité today and those of the Dark Years. With the same open approach that has proved so successful in the Marais, the Mémorial de la Shoah may help to break down modern-day anti-Semitism in the banlieue and beyond.


Eric Conan and Henry Rousso, Vichy: an ever-present past (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1998)

On the role of Drancy during the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv, see Claude Lévy and Paul Tillard, La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 1992)

Films: La Rafle (Dir: Rosemary Bosch, 2010)

Sarah’s Key (Dir: Gilles Pacquet-Brenner, 2010)

I contributed a comment piece to the University's Knowledge Centre on the 70th anniversary of the Rafle du Vel d'hiv which can be found here. I also recorded a podcast on the same subject for the BBC History Magazine which can be consulted at this link.

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