One by One : FRENCH CHILDREN OF THE HOLOCAUST: A Memorial By Serge Klarsfeld, Edited by Susan Cohen, Howard M. Epstein, Serge Klarsfeld, Translated by Glorianne Depondt, Howard M. Epstein; New York University Press: 1,881 pp., $95
“Thanks to France, anyway” is scrawled on a wall at the Drancy deportation center outside Paris in 1944--”Merci quand meme a la France.” And elsewhere on the wall, in the hand of a 17-year-old: “Marcel Chetovy . . . arrived on the 1st, deported 31 July, in very very good spirits and hoping to return soon.” He did not return.
What do we know of the million Jewish children murdered by Nazis? How can we possibly “know” such a thing? This new volume from Serge Klarsfeld, “French Children of the Holocaust,” will help us if anything can. It tells the story of the children deported from France and portrays them in a host of touching photos, plus brief biographies and quotes from their letters (see accompanying extracts).
Since the 1960s, the flow of historical, political, sociological, cultural and psychological studies has augmented until we might forgivably feel sated, even jaded. Numerous diaries and survivors’ memoirs exist. In recent years, thousands of survivors have given videotaped interviews, mainly in the U.S., a store of otherwise irrecoverable and vanishing testimony. If we care to, then, we can consult ample documentation and analysis, along with memoirs and tapes bearing individual witness.
Yet no single source, apart from Martin Gilbert’s superb account, “The Holocaust” (1986), can convey at once both the enormity of what happened in the middle of this century and its personal particulars. We know so much about Anne Frank (1929-1945) through her crowded diary entries, about Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) through the 800 watercolors in her striking autobiography “Life or Theater,” about Jerzy Feliks Urban (1930-1943) through the diary that his cousin Anthony Rudolf has recovered. But could we bear to know so much about each of the million children, one by one by one?
“French Children of the Holocaust,” more vividly than any other source I know in any language, presents the human personhood of the catastrophe. About 2,500 images--arduously gathered over 20 years from snapshots, formal portraits, family groupings, identity cards, memorial plaques and gravestones--show French-born children and those who had found refuge in France, infants through late adolescents, looking out with smooth fresh features. These are not the children precariously hidden with Gentile families or in convents and monasteries, or those luckily sent on children’s transports to England, but girls and boys living their everyday lives before they learned what “deportation” meant.
Here is Henri Blindt, standing in short pants alongside a large harp; Jacqueline Zemelman, posed in white gloves and holding a picture book; Sarah Szulklaper, seated smiling on her father’s knee. And here is Marcel Chetovy, in a field somewhere with jacket and tie, his hat pushed back on his head and his hands clamped melodramatically over his heart.
Each child stands arrested in time, so to speak, embodying the human distinctness that the “final solution” intended to obliterate. Georges Halpern writes from the Izieu children’s home: “We look for blackberries and raspberries and white mulberries. I hug you with all my heart. Georgy.” Ida Fensterszab remembers: “The last time I had seen my mother she had insisted on changing my hair comb. She had swept my hair up, as was the style, which made me look like a young woman. I’m sure that was why I escaped the first selection.” Interned at Pithiviers, Berthe Haut writes her mother: “photos, please, for me they are more than food.”
Looking straight out from the page as they do in photo after photo, these faces draw us into touch with them. An editor of this volume, Howard Epstein, discovered that the Paris apartment he lived in after the war had been inhabited by a girl sent from there to Auschwitz. In the 86 convoy rosters that name 11,400 children deported from France, I found dozens with about the same birth date as mine. Why aren’t they now in the prime of life, getting joy from their own children?
Klarsfeld wants his present-day compatriots to acknowledge that these Jewish boys and girls, of whom only 300 survived, once dwelt among them in every French town and city. His lists, besides name and date of birth, give the place of birth and, most unusually, the last known address--street numbers in anyone’s neighborhood.
Klarsfeld himself barely escaped one of those convoy rosters. In Nice in September 1943, a few days after seizing the young painter Charlotte Salomon, Eichmann’s brutal SS henchman Alois Brunner found Klarsfeld’s father, Arno Klarsfeld, who offered himself for arrest to protect his wife and two children hiding behind the false panel in a closet. Arno was murdered in Auschwitz. The frontispiece to Serge Klarsfeld’s 1978 “Memorial to the Jews Deported From France, 1942-1944” shows the author at age 6 in short pants, holding his father’s straw hat and smiling up at him.
For more than 30 years Serge Klarsfeld and his wife, Beate, a German Protestant whose father served in the Wehrmacht, have dedicated themselves to documenting the Holocaust’s victims and exposing its perpetrators. They will not let France airbrush out of the picture, sometimes literally, the French police and militia who abetted the Gestapo.
In 1968 in Berlin, Beate Klarsfeld leaped onto the platform of a Christian Democrat rally and slapped West German Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger in the face for his Nazi past; later he lost the election to Willy Brandt. For 10 years the Klarsfelds forced West Germany toward prosecuting the Nazi leaders of anti-Jewish action in occupied France. In Bolivia, they found the “Butcher of Lyon,” Klaus Barbie, who had raided the Izieu Jewish orphans’ home, and they got him extradited for trial in France. At great risk they’ve both flown into Damascus to ferret out Brunner.
Serge Klarsfeld has said that “French Children of the Holocaust” is meant “in favor of the victims” and is not “a book against the killers.” But how not, given the heaped atrocities it took to rupture 11,400 life-spans? This family album of a whole generation amounts to raw indictment, not mitigated but strengthened by the fresh and promising faces.
Klarsfeld’s grand, poignant volume takes its place alongside other major memorials: the children’s building at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where names are constantly intoned within a vista of endlessly reflected candles, and the identification cards of Jewish victims handed to every visitor at Washington’s Holocaust Museum. “French Children of the Holocaust” is a collective memorial, like the collective biography by Charlotte Delbo that will appear in English this spring, “Convoy to Auschwitz,” with vignettes of all the 230 Frenchwomen in her 1943 transport.
Since Klarsfeld’s book came out in France two years ago, he found a thousand more photos and included them in the American edition, which is finely edited and translated and introduced by Susan Cohen, Howard Epstein, Glorianne Depondt and Peter Hellman. In February, an exhibit drawn from the book will open at New York’s New School for Social Research and afterward will tour the country.
The first printing of this American edition sold out quickly, which is surprising. At $95 and weighing 7 pounds, this grim photo archive may not seem just right for one’s coffee table. Yet clearly it has an intense attraction--and not, I think, because encountering one innocent face after another lets us escape the crass fact of so much innocence destroyed.
With Anne Frank, for instance, we do tend to escape. What sticks in the mind are her candid smile and bright dark eyes looking up from a book, and her last recorded thought: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” No one sees Anne wasted from typhus at Bergen-Belsen and dying a few weeks before liberation.
With the children’s faces in Klarsfeld’s book, what grips us is their renewed presence. The book’s cover image is a 1940 identity card: HOROWITZ, Anny-Yolande, age 7, “no profession / hair blond / eyes blue / nose straight / complexion pink,” plus a childish signature and blurred fingerprint. Stamped in heavy red letters are the terms JUIVE (Jewess) and Etranger surveillee (monitored foreigner). Yet what springs out at us is a child’s gaze, livelier and truer than the machinery that tried to efface her.
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