September 18, 2012

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

In a collaborative work on France during the Second World War, the historian Henry Rousso noted of the Occupation period that it was ‘an ever-present past’– ‘un passé qui ne passe pas.’ The four years of Vichy government and German Occupation remain a preoccupation of French historians and indeed of the wider French public, and not without good reason. It was as late as 1995 when Jacques Chirac, the then-President, apologised for the role played by the État français–French State–in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to Nazi Death Camps. That Chirac chose the former location of the Vélodrome d’Hiver as the backdrop for his speech (an area heavily frequented by tourists on their way to the Eiffel Tower, as I recorded in a blog last year), and indeed did so on the first day of the infamous Rafle du Vel d’hiv, the 16th July, signalled an explicit break with the Gaullist vision of French history.

Where de Gaulle, in Rousso’s terms, created a period of ‘deuil inachévé’ (loosely translated as ‘suspended mourning’) through his narrative of the war, which emphasised the role of the Resistance and minimised the autonomy of the Vichy regime, Chirac’s admission of state complicity in the Holocaust marked a pivotal moment in the historiography of the ‘Dark Years.’ Although Chirac created a dichotomy in his speech between ‘Vichy’ on the one hand and ‘France’ on the other–suggesting, like de Gaulle, that Vichy was distinct from the French nation– his desire to publicly acknowledge that the French authorities were the driving force behind anti-Semitic legislation during the war increased French interest in the Shoah. The excellent Mémorial de la Shoah in the Marais quartier of Paris (from which thousands of Jews were deported during the rafles from 1942 onwards), was refurbished in 2005, and numerous films depicting the Holocaust in France have continued to drive up public awareness of anti-Semitism under Vichy. The big-budget productions La Rafle and Elle s’appelait Sarah (Sarah’s Key), both released in 2010, focussed heavily on French involvement in the Rafle du Vel d’hiv. Both films received both critical and popular acclaim, providing further proof that interest in the Vichy years is still notably high.

Newly-elected President Hollande went even further than Chirac in his speech of 22nd July 2012, in which he acknowledged that the Vel d’hiv round-up was ‘a crime committed in France by France.’ Hollande also emphasised that the French should remember the victims of French actions during the Holocaust. Through placing a greater emphasis on the role of France, as opposed to ‘Vichy’, in the implementation of the Final Solution, Hollande re-affirmed that the Shoah was integral to modern French history.

That the memory of Vichy’s anti-Semitism is still very much alive in the public consciousness today is, therefore, very well documented. The public and academic interest in the Occupation years has, though, spurned controversy in the case of the one-time transit camp at Drancy, in the northern suburbs of Paris. The Cité de la Muette at Drancy was originally built as social housing under the Third Republic, and since the Occupation has reverted back to its original use. During the war, though, the housing complex was used to accommodate Jewish men, women and children before their deportations to the Nazi Death Camps. Drancy, like other holding camps in the Loiret (Orléans) region, was managed directly by the French police. Conditions at the camp were notoriously poor, with little sanitation; suicides were common. During the Rafle du Vel d’hiv, the camp housed single men and women or childless couples, who were taken directly to Drancy and thence to Death Camps. Drancy also later housed some of the men and women who had been incarcerated in the Vélodrome d’hiver.

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