lundi, janvier 31, 2005

Shoah Memorial day

Hey, I'm only 4 days late posting this blog. I lost it twice already due to a slatternly attitude towards my PC, the consequence of which my dear brother in law Chris, here for the weekend, has spent several hours undoing, and hopefully with it my cavalier attitude towards spyware, viruses, and Microsoft updates. Thank you Chris, and may that be a lesson to anyone else as hopeless as me. Life is much more straightforward with a computer that actually functions, as New Zealand found out only recently, to its cost. Apparently the Russian Mafia hacked in and brought down the internet throughout the whole country, just as an experiment to see what kind of a hold it had on the system. A tight one, it turned out. Let that be a lesson to the rest of the world so dependent on the internet!

But onto more serious lessons to be learned. The 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

This is such a big subject, and I have so many thoughts on it. To coincide with last Thursday's anniversary it was the opening of the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, the first museum of the Shoah in any European city, which is such an incredible fact some people don't believe it. It's true though. There is a museum called Beit Shalom in the New Forest, but no such museum in Amsterdam, Berlin, London or, until Thursday, Paris. The story of the Holocaust, that most European of crimes, is confined to the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam and Berlin. In London there is a very well-executed Holocaust Gallery modestly tucked away within the Imperial War Museum. Until now America and Israel had the monopoly on Holocaust Museums, which merits some reflection too. In fact the Memorial de la Shoah has the most extraordinary history. It was conceived over 50 years ago, as an archive and a memorial - decades before the notion of the Holocaust Memorial had become the accepted currency it is today. Isaac Schneerson, its founder, determined to create a memorial to the 6 million murdered Jews of Europe, at whose symbolic centre would be a wall inscribed with the names of all the Jewish victims of the Nazis. His fundraising committee included Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, the Queen of Belgium and David Ben Gurion. In May 1953 a memorial stone was laid at a location that had been acquired with the help of the Paris city council. The very next day, as reports of the ceremony reached Israel, there was a debate on the subject in the Knesset; 3 months later Israel passed a law insisting that the memory of the Shoah be forever situated in Israel and nowhere else, which is how Yad Vashem came into being, and also deciding that all victims of the Nazis be posthumously awarded Israeli citizenship. It seems barking now, but at the time the ideology of Zionism was so strong and broadly unquestioned by Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora that it was still possible to persuade people that there was a logic in asserting that Israel is the symbolic homeland of all Jews, even those murdered before the state even came into being. There was a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing between Jerusalem and Paris as the Israeli government tried to force Schneerson to abandon his plan and accept that henceforth the memory of the Holocaust would be sited in Israel not France. Schneerson was essentially blackmailed into ceding defeat, his memorial was erected on a much more modest scale (a crypt called the Memoral of the Unknown Jew), and Yad Vashem came into being, the first museum of the Holocaust in the world, with the Hall of Names in which the names of the six million murdered Jews are inscribed. So the opening of the memorial this week, with an enormous amount of attendant media focus, is a momentous event. The wall of names is of more modest proportions than Schneerson originally intended, with the names of the 76, 000 deportees from France (including that of my father in law Philippe and his mother and uncles). It was terribly moving to be there last week, as dozens of people (several thousand people in the course of the day) searched the wall for the names of their relatives. All along the base of the wall there were bunches of flowers left in homage to those who did not survive. (A relatively small percentage of the Jewish population of France was actually deported, in the region of 20% - but of that 20% almost none - 2,500 - survived. My father in law, who was 14 when he was arrested in December 1943, and who spent almost exactly one year in Auschwitz before the death march of January 1945 which preceded the Liberation, was the youngest deportee from France to survive.)

On Thursday there was a huge ceremony at Auschwitz, broadcast live worldwide. I was intrigued to see that there were three representatives from France who spoke there: Simone Weil, ex-minister and survivor of Auschwitz, Cardinal Lustiger, Jewish-born, who survived the war hidden by the Catholic church and was later ordained, who read a message from the Pope, and Chirac himself, opening the new 'French Pavilion' (which makes it sound a bit like the Venice Bienale, but, like, whatever) who beat his breast publicly and claimed full responsibility for France's collaboration with the Nazis. It's amazing to see how the moral and legal responsibility has come into being in the last decade since Chirac in 1995 officially acknowledged France's part in the deportation of the Jews during the war. For 40 years the French couldn't deal with it at all, totally denying any responsibility. Now the opposite has happened; all the text throughout the new Paris museum insists again and again on the full and willing responsibility on the part of the French police, rail authorities and individuals who turned their Jewish neighbours over to the Gestapo.

But then, in the background to all this, remember that in the last presidential elections, 25% of France voted for Le Pen, whose racist and antisemitic discourse appears in spite of all Chirac's atonement for France's Second World War record, still to find favour with one in four. The proportion is lower around Paris of course (in spite of the fact that the le Pen residence is in the Paris suburb of St Cloud). That'll be make it more like one in three - or two - of those nice friendly barmen who serve you your Suze in that lovely bar you enjoyed being in so much in Provence last summer. It's certainly something to think about.