The gap between family history and official memory: the writer Cécile Wajsbrot
The writer Cécile Wajsbrot talks about the fault lines and discussions taking place in French society. In the spotlight are various topics, including collaborationism, the Holocaust, and the memory of the Algerian War.
Iryna Slavinska: Let’s start with a more general question. So, is the theme of memory present in contemporary French literature?
Cécile Wajsbrot: I think that in the last while it has been present more than ever before. It may be said that in the preceding ten or more years French writers have shown an interest in researching the meanderings of memory. I feel that separate attention is being paid to the dark pages of French history—let’s call them euphemisms.
Iryna Slavinska: Which “dark pages” are especially interesting to French authors?
Cécile Wajsbrot: If we are talking specifically about contemporary authors working today, I can identify two main trends. One is the period of the occupation and the Vichy regime. There was no talk of this even twenty years ago, but today the deportation from French territory of French people and foreigners who were Jews is now being discussed in this context.
The second trend is the Algerian War. Writers needed less time to start working on the topic of the memory of the war in Algeria. More time was needed to resume work because both tendencies appeared approximately at the same time.
Iryna Slavinska: Is contemporary French society ready for a dialogue about, say, collaboration during the occupation and the Vichy regime?
Cécile Wajsbrot: Now more than ever before, in any case.
Iryna Slavinska: In any case, I presume this is a very painful subject.
Cécile Wajsbrot: Yes, it’s a painful one. At the same time, there are people who say that over seventy years have passed since the war, and now we can talk about something else. There are also those who believe that the topic of collaboration is discussed far too much as it is. I don’t know how to put it. The entire history of French memory of the Second World War can be recounted. The main thing is that now it is better than ever before, but to this day the situation is not satisfactory.
Iryna Slavinska: In this context, what are the fault lines with regard to the experience of collaborationism. For example, when the subject of the memory of the Second World War comes up in Ukraine, a frequent topic is the conflict of memories between the part of Ukraine that was occupied by the USSR in 1939 and the part of Ukraine that had been occupied earlier, after the Ukrainian Revolution. In these parts of Ukraine there can be various memories of the Resistance, collaborationism, etc. What pressure lines exist in France?
Cécile Wajsbrot: It has always been about the Resistance and collaborationism. But in the 1960s and 1970s as well as the 1980s, but a bit less, there was an official discourse, according to which the Resistance, first and foremost, existed in France, but there also existed a reality that was completely unlike it. The American [historian] Robert Paxton wrote the first book about this; it was called Vichy France, and it came out in the early 1970s. It was the first book to offer a more accurate picture of reality.
At the same time, it cannot be said that no one talked about this earlier—it was discussed all the time. For example, during political debates allusions were constantly made to the Resistance, but there was generally no discussion of the deportation or destruction of the Jews. Everything began changing—very, very slowly—only in the 1990s; in other words, two decades ago. The focus shifted to the question of the extermination of the Jews in Auschwitz.
One can say that today there are also conflicting memories about the Algerian War. As I mentioned earlier, there are people who think that there is too much talk about it. There is an additional problem: the rather strong presence in France of those who come from North Africa. Let’s say that a transplantation of the Middle East conflict to France has taken place. Thus, there is a certain number of young people of precisely this background who were born in France and are attending high school. They are the second or even third generation of French people in their families, and they can’t stand what is generally being said about this.
But at one time it wasn’t spoken of at all. I think that there will never be any correct standard here: it is talked about either too much or too little. In any case, there are people who do not want this to be discussed. For example, everything about the Algerian War is complicated. Here you have numerous sides of the conflict, if one can put it this way. For example, there are the so-called “pieds-noirs,” Franco-Algerians, that is, French people who lived in Algeria and left during or after the war and after the relevant treaties were signed. There were also the “Harki,” Algerians, who even though at the time they were all French, were citizens of the so-called “second zone” and did not have the same rights as French Frenchmen. They had fought on France’s side during the war in Algeria, and eventually they were persecuted, and some of them managed to immigrate to France. There was a National Liberation Front, which exists in Algeria to this day, but some of [its members] live in France. These are only some of the sides in this war.
If we are talking about 20-year-old French people of Algerian background today, it is entirely probable that their grandfathers were tortured—at that time horrible things were going on in France. So, their grandfathers may have been tortured by the grandfathers of their fellow classmantes. This is the kind of front line it is.
Iryna Slavinska: You have already said that a few decades ago contemporary authors became more sensitive to the topic of memory. What event is connected with this? For example, in Ukraine one can see rather direct connections with the EuroMaidan. Quite a few authors began to speak with greater sensitivity about certain historical topics, especially about the Second World War, precisely after acquiring the experience of violence, for example, on Independence Square and Instytutska Street in downtown Kyiv. If we are talking about French writers, perhaps it is also possible to see something similar, some kind of event that had an impact on them.
Cécile Wajsbrot: I don’t know. I don’t think that there is an event here that can be compared to the Maidan. Of course, one can also mention the recent terrorist acts, but the wave of attention to historical topics, to which I referred before, began earlier. I don’t think that this is the case.
Iryna Slavinska: Maybe there’s something else? Economic crises can also have an impact, say, on the feeling of security. I am suggesting only possible theories here. Perhaps it’s something different.
Cécile Wajsbrot: I think that time and a change of generations had an impact. The generation to which I belong rarely talked about such subjects. Instead, younger writers, those who are around 40 or 50 today, are the memory generation. Perhaps the generational jump has happened in our grandchildren’s generation. For example, I took part in a debate with writers from the so-called second and third generations—although some people count differently, calling my generation not the “first” but “first and a half”—and I see that they have an entirely different experience from mine. I am talking about family and collective experience. Those who are 40 or 45 grew up in a country where official memory was less mute as regards hot topics than in my time. I think that’s the point.
If we’re talking about the war in Algeria, then when the leftists came to power in 1981, the first time in a long time, with François Mitterrand at the helm, France’s crimes in Algeria began to be acknowledged.
Iryna Slavinska: Was it the same with regard to the Shoah, the Holocaust?
Cécile Wajsbrot: This happened later. In 1995 Jacques Chirac admitted France’s responsibility for deporting the Jews. I personally lived in this gap between family history and official memory. At home, of course, we talked about the fact that it was the French police that detained my grandfather, who came for my mother and grandmother. But outside the family, this was not talked about.
Nevertheless, Mitterand was the first French president to attend the commemorative ceremony dedicated to the Vélodrome d'Hiver (or “Vél d’Hiv”) roundup that took place on 16–17 July 1942. That was when the French police came for women and children—for men also—but above all for women and children, who comprised the majority of the detainees. They were taken to the Winter Velodrome, which was a bicycle velodrome and stadium. From there they were sent to camps located on the territory of France, and from there—to Auschwitz.
Iryna Slavinska: I remember the place where the velodrome is located. I walked past it during one of my visits to Paris. It stands right in the middle of a residential quarter, surrounded by cafés, shops, and bakeries. There is a commemorative plaque there. Is the Vélodrome d'Hiver a place of memory in Paris’s memory today?
Cécile Wajsbrot: Yes and no. Until that time there was not even a little plaque, there was absolutely nothing that would indicate this place and the events that happened here. Eventually, commemorative ceremonies began to be held here; I don’t remember when they started. A memorial appeared later. Mitterand came to one of those ceremonies in the 1990s; I think it may have been 1992, the fiftieth anniversary of those events.
If you had mentioned the Vélodrome d’Hiver between the 1960s and 1980s, it woudn’t have meant anything to Parisians, except for those whose families had experienced those events.
Iryna Slavinska: And, perhaps, historians.
Cécile Wajsbrot: Yes, historians. But, in any event, at school, when the upper classes studied the Second World War and the occupation, the Velodrome was not mentioned. The topic of the Vichy government was also skimmed over very quickly. Today this is no longer the case. But does a Parisian from a Franco-French family know about this? I would not be too sure about this.
Iryna Slavinska: Let’s continue analyzing the change in school curricula, which you mentioned earlier, when you talked about the way “Vel’ d’Hiv” is discussed. Did something similar happen with regard to the entire memory of the Holocaust? If you compare what existed earlier to the situation now, can you see changes?
Cécile Wajsbrot: Yes, because this topic is being studied more now. As I mentioned already, when the Second World War was studied before, nothing at all was said about the Holocaust. [Claude] Lanzmann’s documentary film Shoah had not come out yet; its premiere took place in 1985.
I was born in 1954, I finished school in 1970. At this very time, we were studying the war in the upper grades. They talked to us about the Second World War just like about the First World War—the fronts, the Resistance, the Vichy government. At the same time, we were all taken to see the film Night and Fog by the director Alain Resnais. I think it’s being shown to schoolchildren today. This film is about the liberation of the camps, about those who liberated the camps. But that film, even though everyone mentions it in this context, does not contain a single mention of France; it was only about the Nazis. There is a scene featuring a gendarme who is guarding the camp in Beaune-la-Rolande. That is the very camp where my grandfather was held. In this scene the gendarme’s headgear is blurry, so this element of the French uniform cannot be recognized.
Of course, no one talked about this with us. Few people in general knew about this. From this point of view, I will say that the situation has changed.
Iryna Slavinska: In the context of that period, when you were a child and attending school and, eventually, university, was there enough room left to talk about your own experience, your family history?
Cécile Wajsbrot: I never talked about it. No…
Iryna Slavinska: Why?
Cécile Wajsbrot: It was inconceivable, simply inconceivable. I remember a conversation with a female classmate with whom I was going [home]; it was on the way for both of us. We had probably come from the history lesson because she said all of a sudden: “For my grandfather, the war is good memories. He was young.” Then I thought and saw with my very own eyes what I already knew.
Today, after all the time that has passed and all the work that I have done, maybe I could have talked or argued about this. But at the time it was hardly possible even to imagine this. There was an abyss between me and other people. And at that time there was no bridge over that abyss.
Iryna Slavinska: What happened and what led to your breaking this silence? When and why did you begin talking about this history and, generally, raising the topic of the Holocaust in your works and in the French context?
Cécile Wajsbrot: Everything is usually more complicated, but I think that perhaps I began to write precisely because of the complexity of speaking. It was difficult for me to talk with others. Now, from the distance of the time that has elapsed, I think that it was difficult for me to talk because of this very thing. I felt…. You know Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian? Demian is distinguished by the fact that he bears the “mark of Cain.” I had the feeling—even though I could never have said the same thing about myself—that I was fundamentally different from other people. Despite my will, I bore this difference in myself.
When I began to write, this subject was too big for me at first. I think that I already knew and believed that one day I would be able to talk about this, but at the time, at the beginning, I still could not do this. At first, I had to acquire life experience as well as literary experience in order to be able to approach this topic. And I did indeed approach it.
So, in my early novels I also talked about the history of this period, about the division of Germany. But it was only in the early 1990s that I began and finished writing the novel La Trahison [The Betrayal]. In fact, I began to write it at the very time that Chirac admitted France’s responsibility for the Holocaust.
Iryna Slavinska: So that is the event which influenced you?
Cécile Wajsbrot: No, no. I began earlier. Because of this, when Chirac made that acknowledgement, I even hesitated, wondering whether it was worthwhile writing a novel. The thing is that in my texts I do not write about the past epoch but about the reverberations of the previous epoch in the present time. The subject of my novel, The Betrayal, is not about the French state’s responsibility for crimes but about the fifty years of silence afterwards. It was clear to me that this is precisely the subject.
The action of the novel takes place in the offices of a radio station, between two colleagues: an older anchorman, who had lived through the war and the occupation, and a younger, female, journalist, who was born after the war. In this story we see that the character had forgotten someone. He was in love with this person, and this person is of Jewish background, but suddenly he discovers his entire memory. And this is symbolic, if we are talking about silence in France.
One critic examined this subject, but articles came out, describing the novel as being exclusively a love story or a novel about radio. It turns out that they had totally overlooked the other dimension. The novel was published in 1997.
Iryna Slavinska: The critics turned out to be somewhat myopic and unable to scrutinize all the story lines about the war, the Holocaust, and the absence of memory. Does this speak a bit to the French social context?
Cécile Wajsbrot: First and foremost, I was very disappointed by this. At the same time, I cheered myself up with the realization that I was right to write a novel about silence because this silence continues.
In any case, I think that there are difficulties in France connected with looking directly at the state of affairs. These are problems pertaining to history and truth. But the point here is not just about history—perhaps there are problems with this in all countries. In France there is a big difference between official statements—for example, the meme about France being a country of human rights—and the actions of real politicians in France, which is not at all a country that welcomes people who come here in search of sanctuary.
Iryna Slavinska: I remember my experience of visiting the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris. I was struck by the fact that many of the objects on display in this museum come from Ukraine: Odesa, Kyiv, Berdychiv, Zhytomyr. These cities are mentioned on the small labels underneath these exhibits. My next question is about the geographic breadth, if it is indeed broad, which emerges when the issue at hand is memory of the Holocaust in France. Is there a space for dialogue about other countries, like Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania?
Cécile Wajsbrot: Yes, there is discussion of other countries. Two or three years ago this Museum of Jewish Art and History held an exhibition, “The Holocaust by Bullets.” This was the first time that this was talked about publicly, although we’re talking about a not very broad swathe of the public that visits this museum to begin with, and in my opinion, ninety percent of visitors to this museum in Paris are people of Jewish background. Incidentally, in Berlin there is antithetical proportion. There, the majority of visitors are people who are not of Jewish background. Of course, more Jews live in Paris than in Berlin, but there is also much less interest in the topic.
All my literary work consists of attempts to show that the issue here is not about some special “Jewish history,” because this is the history of France and of Europe; it concerns all French people, not some isolated citizens.
Yes, there is room in France for dialogue about the history of other countries. People generally like to talk about events in Germany or Poland, but not about events in France because what happens elsewhere is not a problem.
Iryna Slavinska: And that is how the possibility arises to talk about “antisemitism” in Poland, Germany, or Ukraine.
Cécile Wajsbrot: First and foremost, it does exist; that is a fact. But it is easier to talk about antisemitism in other countries than about antisemitism in France.
Iryna Slavinska: In this context, I must ask whether readers of your books see, talk, and think about the subjects that you describe? I mean the topics of the silence and lacunae that emerge, etc.
Cécile Wajsbrot: I think that those who read my novels are people who are not indifferent. I am most moved by the reactions of people whose life experience has not been like mine, that is, people of a different generation or background, to whom these themes speak nonetheless. They seem to be beyond the bounds of some distinctive “specific” history. Like in Ukraine, we have layers of suppressed history; just like that which was not transmitted or retold further remains in any country; where official silence on certain topics continues. And this is also quite eloquent.
Iryna Slavinska: In the French language the word “Shoah” is often used to signify the Holocaust. We also mentioned this borrowing from Hebrew in the French language.
Cécile Wajsbrot: I don’t like the word “Shoah” because I don’t understand why a Hebrew word should be used to denote something that is a fact of European history. When the word “Shoah” is used, it seems to demonstrate that all this concerns “them” and not “us.”
Iryna Slavinska: Is the word “Holocaust” also used?
Cécile Wajsbrot: Today, no. Ever since the word “Shoah” appeared, everyone says “Shoah.” In his book, the American historian Raul Hilberg writes about the destruction of the Jews in Europe. Of course, this concept is longer than the “Shoah,” although in my view, it is more accurate and neutral. In addition, anyone can say and pronounce this concept in their own language.
Iryna Slavinska: Is it possible and/or necessary to write some kind of joint European history of the Holocaust? Or, perhaps, every country should write its own history, narrative, responsibility?
Cécile Wajsbrot: I think that one does not hinder the other. There are things that took place in different ways in each country. For example, in France there were no analogues to to Babyn Yar. I think that you can begin with a national history, but it is not limited to a country’s borders. There were shared things and phenomena. It is also interesting to have a generalized view. For example, you may notice that there were very few countries where the national police collaborated with the occupiers. In the majority of countries, the governments and security services were German. In this sense, France and Norway are exceptional examples of a national regime remaining in place. For a certain period, occupied and unoccupied zones existed in France, which supposedly conducted independent policies. For example, the Vichy government adopted racial purity laws even before they were requested from Germany.
Iryna Slavinska: To conclude our conversation I will ask whether all these historical themes interest young readers—pupils, students?
Cécile Wajsbrot: It varies. Unfortunately, it depends a lot on one’s background. But, if you compare with the period when I was 20 years old, I see that today’s 20-year-olds know more about those events than my generation at their age. I knew, but only thanks to my own family and its history. A schoolchild who takes a history course today knows more than his peer in the 1970s-1980s.
This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.
Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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