All entries for September 2012

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.

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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