Royallieu-Compiègne Internment Camp

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I had intended to write about a different subject altogether before I realised that today is Yom HaShoah – or rather Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; ‘Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day’) as it is officially called. To mark this day, I have chosen to write about one of the numerous French internment camps, one that is situated only an hour’s drive from where I live.

The Royallieu-Compiègne camp was an internment and deportation camp in Compiègne, France where French resistance fighters and Jews were imprisoned between June 1941 and August 1944.

About 40,000 people were deported from the Royallieu-Compiègne camp to Auschwitz and other camps in German-occupied territory. It was one of the biggest transit camps in France, from which the Germans deported political prisoners, many of whom were civilian Jewish communists. It was from the camp at Royallieu that the very first deportation train was to leave French soil on March 27th, 1942. It took over a thousand Jews to Auschwitz, as did the next one on June 5th.

The internment and deportation memorial opened on February 23, 2008. There one can learn about life in the Royallieu camp through a historic walk which leads to two of the remaining buildings. As they walk through a dozen of rooms and two corridors, visitors learn about the historical context in France and other European countries, life in the camp, deportation and extermination by the Nazis. After the barracks, one can visit the chapel, see the beginning of the escape tunnel, contemplate the wall of names and walk through the memorial garden.

One of the things that surprised and impressed me most when I visited this camp with a group of French and Swedish students last spring was how the inmates had organized cultural life in the camp. Conferences on English, Esperanto, political philosophy, history, the humanities, science and much more were given in the barracks (as is shown in the schedule above).

I can only guess but I assume that they saw intellectual improvement as a means to keep hope alive even when there was very little reason for feeling optimistic about the future. This is a message in itself. Even in dark moments, we ought never to lose hope that there will be better times.

What we are remembering today should never happen again – not to us and not to anyone else.

Never Forget!

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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In 2005, the United Nations designated January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Here is a selection of links to recent articles that are Holocaust-related. I might update this post during the day as more articles get published.

Articles on the Jewish Chronicles Online:

England stars’ DVD assists goals for Shoah studies

Politicians challenge extremism in the European Parliament

Other Web Articles:

A book review on The FT: Witness to genocide

Chiune Sugihara, Japan Diplomat Who Saved 6,000 Jews During Holocaust, Remembered, a Huffington Post article

App review on The Guardian: New photos, videos and app shed fresh light on Anne Frank’s family life

A Lens On Prewar Europe, The Jewish Week reviews a major exhibit at the ICP (International Center of Photography)

Holocaust Posts on this blog

A Book for Children

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Over the weekend I read two very different books that deal with WW2 and to a certain extent with the Holocaust. One is The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Boden while the other one is The Pages In Between: A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home by Erin Horn.

The first book is aimed primarily at children but can be equally enjoyed by grown-ups. Hans Augusto “H.A”. Rey together with his wife Margret, were the authors and illustrators of children’s books and are particularly famous for their Curious George series. The two went to Brazil separately, married in 1935 and moved to Paris that same year. In 1940, Hans and Margret Rey fled the French capital as the German army was advancing. Hans assembled two bicycles and they rode down to the Spanish border where they bought train tickets to Lisbon. They managed to sail to Brazil and from then on to New York City.

The Journey That Saved Curious George by Louise Boden relates the Reys’ amazing journey through text as well as full-color illustrations, original photos and documents. The book is divided into two parts: the first provides background on the couple’s childhoods in Hamburg and early life together in Rio de Janeiro and then France; the second half deals with their escape from France when they realized that as German-born Jews they were no longer safe safe and had to leave without delay.

I found that The Journey That Saved Curious George is a great book to read with primary school children to give them insight into WW2 without scaring them. The watercolors by Allan Drummond and the numerous documents make the book look like a travel journal and encourage discussion. In the end, both child and adult will enjoy the captivating story, the richly-detailed illustrations and the attractive layout.

Book guide for The Journey that Saved Curious George

Books, Books

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Tempted by a review by Jew Wishes, I am currently reading The Last of the Just. It is a truly good book and I advise those who haven’t done so to read it.

I have also just bought L’hébreu biblique en 15 leçons (no need to translate I guess) and am thoroughly enjoying it. The title is a little misleading in that the lessons are so rich and informative that they need to be read in smaller portions. The approach, however, is fascinating and reminds me of a university lecturer who would urge us to read English grammars which she found to be as exciting as thrillers.

Before that I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. A colleague had read it lent it to me and I have found it to be fine if you want to read something with a quaint flavor and that is well-written. The tone is amusing and refreshing even though the story is set during WWII. When I had finished this epistolary novel, I realized Jew Wishes had reviewed it too.

Recently I have also read a book by a French neurologist and psychiatrist – Boris Cyrulnik – about his childhood as a survivor of the Holocaust in occupied France. Understandably enough, this period has had a profound impact on his whole life and he has thus specialized in psychological resilience. His latest book has not been translated into English yet but the others have.

Any good book you have read lately and would like to recommend?

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

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Bruno is a nine-year old boy who lives in Berlin with his mother, father and sister – the Hopeless Case as he likes to call her. One day when he comes back from school he is surprised to learn that the whole family is moving. In fact the reader understands that the father is a Nazi officer and soon realizes, once the family is there, that his new assignment is to be in charge of Auschwitz. After a while, Bruno, who has very little to do, decides to explore his surroundings and befriends another boy his age, Shmuel.

So as not to spoil the story for those willing to read the book I won’t mention how it ends. Suffice to say that it is not a happy ending.

This book is well-written, especially if you read it in English. I reckon that much is lost in translation. Bruno’s mistakes certainly are and I wonder how The Fury (Hitler) and Out-With (Auschwitz) can be rendered in other languages. In addition the language, which is often quite subtle, has a dinstinctingly English flavor; maybe too much so in fact considering the story is set within a German family.

Unfortunately this is not the book’s only flaw. Thus the narrative focuses on Bruno and the different events are seen through his eyes. The problem is that sometimes Bruno is extremely perceptive for a nine-year old – for instance when he becomes aware that the maid has a life of her own – and quite dense also – after a full year in their new house he stil doesn’t recognize that the people who live behind barbed wires are prisoners and he still can’t say the name of the place where he lives.

The book’s main weakness however is the total lack of historical reality. Children aged nine didn’t survive in Auschwitz; they were killed on arrival. What is even less credible is Shmuel’s lack of understanding of the dangerousness of Auschwitz; he is hungry, he is frightened and cautious but doesn’t seem to realize that the people who never come back after work have been killed.

I understand that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas wasn’t meant to be a realistic story but, because of the barbarity of the Holocaust, I find that choosing it as a background was a poor choice.

Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard

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A few weeks ago, Deborah Rey was kind enough to send me a copy of her book – I dare not call it a novel – Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard. I read it and was so moved by this reading that I wished to let some time pass before writing about it.

As an adult, Rachel Sarai visits the person she has called “mother” for years while the latter is dying. She tries and confronts the old woman to understand the pain and the abuse she had to endure from her during her childhood. She needs to have answers and she is intent on getting them.

As you read the book, you experience the pain Rachel Sarah suffered as a little girl. Like her, you need to probe into the past so as to interpret what the child remembers. You follow her as she questions her life story and hovers between past and present.

Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard is a very intense and emotional book which deals with child abuse, the Shoah, motherhood and coming to terms with a painful childhood.

Righteous Among the Nations

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I am currently reading a book of testimonies about the Jews who were saved by a whole village – Le Chambon-sur-Lignon – during WW2. Theses testimonies were written by some of the Jews who were saved by the villagers; there are also a few portraits of the people who saved them.

A few years ago I attended a lecture by someone who is a volunteer at the French Committee for Yad Vashem. One of their actions is to identify and honor non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. He explained how this is done. He also detailed the reasons why these people acted as they did.

– Some people saved Jews because they believed in the values of the French republic they had chosen to serve or work for, before the start of the war obviously. These people were mayors, State representatives, civil servants or judges. This category also includes trade unionists and political activists. Even though the latter did not work for the state, they were motivated by political ideals.

– Some people saved Jews simply because it seemed the right thing to do at a given moment. Contrary to those mentioned above, they did not act according to theorized ideals and values. They just did what they deemed right.

– The last category is made up of Christians. As concerns France, some Catholics did not follow the hierarchy and protected Jews. For instance some Jewish children were hidden by priests or nuns in Catholic boarding schools under a false identity. Protestant are a small minority in France and most of them did not aprove of the German invasion of France. Not all of them resisted of course but they usually did not support Petain and the Vichy government.

The people in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon belong to the last category. Most of them were Protestants who regularly read the Bible and saw themselves as spiritual descendents of the Jewish people. Therefore protecting Jews by hiding them and providing them with food and lodgings seemed a logical thing to do. In addition to the local hospitality, children’s homes were set up in the village by Jewish and non-Jewish humanitarian organizations to welcome orphaned children and teenagers.

It is estimated that these villagers – most of whom were farmers – saved between 3,000-5,000 Jews from certain death. In 1990, for their humanitarianism and bravery under extreme danger, the entire village was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations”. Only Niewlande, a Dutch village, has been awarded the same title.