Young reporters of remembrance
Henri Borlant was the only Jewish child under 16 who was arrested in 1942 to escape from Auschwitz. Deported in July, he survived three years in the death camp. On his return, he became a doctor. When Les Chemins de la Mémoire invited him to meet with students of the Metz Lycée de la Communication, he replied: “It is my duty.”
I will tell you my story. I was born in Paris on 5 June 1927. I was the fourth of nine children. My parents were Russian Jews who came to France before the First World War, in 1912, inspired by the idea of democracy. At the end of the 1939 school year, there were rumours of war. In Paris’s 13th arrondissement, the authorities feared there would be bombing. As in other neighbourhoods with lots of children, evacuations were organised. So my mother, my brothers and sisters and I were put on a train which took us to a little village south of Angers. That night, my mother gave birth to the youngest of my sisters. The next day, 1 September, posters announced general mobilisation. I was enrolled at the local school and received a Catholic education from the priest and schoolmaster there. Before long, I was baptised, took my first communion, was confirmed and became a firm believer. I left school at 14 and got a job at the local garage. We were happy because we were together, and we were discovering all the pleasures of the countryside, which contrasted with the many restrictions of life in Paris.
The idyll was broken on 15 July 1942, when German soldiers came for us. They had our names and our address. My father was not on the list. I was 15 and I was on the list, as were my brother Bernard and my sister Denise. I thought that Germany needed a workforce and that I was going to work. But my mother was on the list as well. I was not prepared for that. She was in no state to work. I didn’t get it. We climbed into the lorry and drove off. Other families were picked up along the way. When we got to the Angers seminary, I was separated from my mother and my sister. The next day, my father joined me, and my mother was sent back to the village. We stayed at the seminary for five days.
Then, one morning, we were loaded into cattle trucks, with no windows or seats and no room to lie down. I would never again see my sister, who was separated from us. The train sat there for hours before it left. People began writing notes, which they pushed through the little opening in the roof. I did the same: “Mum, it seems we are leaving for Ukraine to do the harvest there.” I learnt later that the message had been delivered to my mother by a railway worker.
The journey took three days and three nights, with nothing to eat or drink. Finally, the train came to a halt in the middle of a field. You could hear men shouting, dogs barking. We got out and were told to leave our bags behind and to hurry. We were put in rows of five and made to walk the mile or so to the Birkenau camp, where we soon learned that the barbed-wire fence surrounding it was electrified. We were led to a large hut, where we were ordered to get completely undressed. In front of everyone? Yes. I was very shy. They began hitting us with batons. Others came to shave our heads and faces. I saw my father, naked and with a shaved head. Next, we were tattooed with a number. That number was our name, our identity. I became 51 055. The French people in the camp, mostly resistance fighters or communists, had a red triangle next to their number. A letter indicated your nationality. The cruellest had green triangles to show they were ex-criminals. They were often leaders of Kommandos, or labour units.
We were given clothes that had been worn by people who were sick or had probably died wearing them. Our shoes were like wooden clogs. They were very hard to run in. Soon, we all had lacerated feet. We were beaten and shouted at, and given nothing to eat or drink. Trains arrived every day with more deportees. We were told: “This is an extermination camp. You will only get out of here by the crematorium chimney.” We were terrified. There was nothing we could do.
WHAT WAS THE ONE THING THAT MOST MARKED YOU DURING YOUR DEPORTATION?
I think it was hunger. When you’re starving, you’re no longer entirely human. You’re driven crazy, you lose weight, you overexert yourself. I know the sort of hunger experienced by those skeletal figures you see in archive photographs, reduced to skin and bone, who died as a result. Hunger: you may use the same word when you skip lunch, but it doesn’t mean the same thing. We experienced something that cannot be put into words. When you’re hungry like I was, you have no more dreams, nothing. Hunger makes you obsessed.
WERE YOU ABLE TO STAY WITH YOUR FAMILY?
After the first week in the same hut as my father, we were separated. I sometimes saw him in the evening. After a month, he told me: “I’m 54 years old. I won’t hold out very long. You must keep going, because your mother will need you.” After six weeks, I did not see him anymore. Two months later, I was sent to Auschwitz I and separated from my brother; I did not see him again. I stayed for a year in Block 7, which was run by a furious madman with a green triangle. After a year, I was sent back to Birkenau. It had become a vast camp. I looked for my brother, but did not find him.
WAS IT POSSIBLE TO MAKE FRIENDS IN A CAMP?
Not only was it possible, it was essential for survival. No one survived without mutual help. There comes a time when you can’t go on alone. There comes a time - when you have a high fever and need supporting on either side to stop you from collapsing during roll call - when otherwise you just wouldn’t survive. There was moral support too: people talked to me, gave me courage and told me they were there for me. Another day, it was my turn to be there for them. We tried to group together with those who spoke the same language. And when you’re in a group, you see danger on all sides and can warn the others; that’s part of the survival code.
All those I met in the camp I saw regularly afterwards. They were the only people with whom I could discuss life in the camps. Dr Désiré Hafner I knew right up until his death; it was he who would later advise me to become a doctor myself. I had interviewed him for a DVD for the Deportation Remembrance Foundation. I asked 15 friends if I could interview them; wonderful people who had all been there. People who knew about it, because they had been through the same ordeal. No one can understand us better than those who have had the same experience.
HOW DO YOU THINK YOU MANAGED TO SURVIVE THREE YEARS OF DEPORTATION?
I can’t explain it. I was 15 and fragile. I would not have bet on myself coming through it. And yet I survived typhoid and tuberculosis. There really is such a thing as the will to live. Some would say, “There’s no point suffering just to die”, then they would clutch the electrified barbed wire. There were some suicides. But most of us said we had better try to survive, even in those conditions, one more day, then another, and another. When I tell you that, I am tempted to add a phrase which is not my own, but from La Fontaine’s fable Death and the Woodcutter: “Rather suffer than die Is the motto of mankind.” You suffer, you’re miserable, but you cling to life.
WHAT WERE THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF YOUR LIBERATION?
In October 1944, as the Russians approached, a number of us were evacuated to camps near Berlin. Every day, Allied planes flew overhead. I was finally sent to Ohrdruf, a small subcamp of Buchenwald. I became a newcomer, which means I was given the worst duties. One day, I was sent to the butcher’s in town to get food for the SS. While they were loading and unloading the lorry, a POW came up to me and said (he was French): “Stand firm, it won’t be long now. The Americans aren’t far away, and if you manage to escape, my fellow prisoners and I will hide you. The butcher is anti-Nazi. You can trust him.” On the night of 3 to 4 April 1945, knowing the Americans were on their way and wanting to avoid a forced evacuation, a death march, I escaped with a fellow prisoner. We went to see the butcher, who gave us prisoners’ clothes. The next day, the Americans arrived. I was free. In their jeep, we took them to the Ohrdruf camp. We had an urgent need to tell and show them what had been going on. By 13 April, I was at the repatriation centre. On the 16th, I arrived at Montigny-Lès-Metz. There, they carried out strict checks on your papers. I had none. And I didn’t fit into any category: prisoners, undesirables, workers. They didn’t know about deportees. One of my fellow prisoners, who was told that his wife was waiting for him at the Gare de l’Est station, took me with him. When we arrived in southern Paris, we had our first meal in France. The telephone rang and I was told, “We have found your mother. She is expecting you at her flat in Paris, with your brothers and sisters.” I didn’t think I would ever see her again. I had always thought she must have been on one of the many convoys that arrived in Auschwitz. I went to meet her. She never asked me a single question, and I never told her anything.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST PART ABOUT RETURNING?
There was nothing hard about returning! I was in Paris, I was 17, my mind was set on the future. I thought nothing would be difficult after what I had been through. Above all, I was reunited with my mother. I could hug her and tell her how much I loved her. Not everyone was as lucky as me. Two years after returning, I enrolled at medical school, despite not having any qualifications before I was deported. In two years, I had passed my brevet and my baccalauréat. I didn’t give up, ever. I became a doctor, a profession I loved. My consultation room was on boulevard Richard Lenoir, in Paris. One day, I treated a German lady who was referred to me by a friend. She had left her parents after finding out about the Holocaust. She came back some time later and I hired her. We fell in love, got married and had three wonderful daughters. She is at home as we speak.
There have been other happy and gratifying moments too, such as the time at the Élysée Palace when the French president awarded me a decoration and made a small speech. There is also what I am doing with you now, which is to say, fighting Nazism, which is important. Above all, I was conscious that happiness is not something that should be taken for granted; not everyone is fortunate enough to have food to eat when they’re hungry or to be with the one they love. When you have lived through what I have, it would be silly to waste your life.
IN A WAY, TO TALK ABOUT THINGS IS TO RELIVE THEM. DO YOU FIND IT DIFFICULT TO TALK ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED AGAIN AND AGAIN?
No, no. I had decided never to return to Auschwitz. I was often asked to accompany school and university groups there. In 1995, I was contacted by a history teacher whose students were working on a project and exhibition on the theme “The liberation of the camps and the return of the deportees.” I provided them with some tape recordings of first-hand accounts to help with their research. They asked me to get in touch with Serge Klarsfeld to invite him to the opening of the exhibition. I didn’t know him personally. But I phoned him anyway and told him I had read the book he had written on the deportation of children and that in it I had seen a photo of my brother. He asked me what my name was and I told him. He consulted his lists and said, “I didn’t have you down as one of the survivors - were you not taken first to the Hotel Lutetia?” “No, I returned earlier.” He added me to the list of survivors, and agreed to come. It was then that he asked me to accompany him on a visit to Auschwitz with a group of 15-year-old students from the Rhône-Alpes region - the same age as I was when I was deported. I said yes because I didn’t dare say no, and when I put the phone down, my wife said: “Are you mad? You know you tremble with fear at the idea of going there!” When the young people arrived with their teacher at Lyon airport, he said to them: “This is Henri Borlant. He was your age, 15, when he was arrested in July 1942. Six thousand children under the age of 16 were arrested in 1942, and he is the only one who survived.” It hit me like an electric shock. From then on, I told myself I could not refuse to serve as a witness, knowing that I was the only survivor of all those children who were murdered.
YOU HAVE PUBLISHED MERCI D’AVOIR SURVÉCU (THANK YOU FOR SURVIVING). WHEN DID THE IDEA COME TO YOU TO PUT YOUR EXPERIENCE DOWN ON PAPER?
There came a time when I said to myself: “If you don’t do it now, you never will.” I didn’t have a written record. I’m no writer, so I told my story to people who agreed to listen and write it down. I made two attempts but was not happy with either. So I said to myself: “You’ll just have to do it yourself.” And I set about writing. When the book came out, it had a far greater impact than my filmed interviews had had. One journalist asked me, “Why didn’t you do it before?” and I replied, “Because I'm not a writer.” I would rather answer your questions, because I can see you and I can tell how interested you are; it’s quite different and I do it with pleasure. I remember one day, a long time ago, someone asked me: “Have you ever felt ashamed to be Jewish?” I answered: “Ashamed to be Jewish? No, I’ve never felt ashamed. At one time, I felt afraid.” It kept running through my head for several days. Then, some satisfactory answers came to me. I wasn’t ashamed to be Jewish; I was ashamed of feeling afraid, and I overcame that fear. Even so, I kept the fear for some time, then one day it disappeared.
DO YOU FEEL ANYTHING TODAY TO STILL SEE THE TATTOO ON YOUR ARM?
Yes, I do. It isn’t just a tattoo, a number. It is precisely the number 51 055. That number means it is 23 July 1942, when I was 15 years, one month and ten days old; it means that I was taken to the concentration camp, that I survived for nearly three years, and that I resisted the Nazis’ plan to turn us into smoke and ashes. So it is something I am proud of. The Nazis burnt us to make us disappear, so that no one would know, and I am here now, showing you this tattoo. Some compete in the Olympic Games and take home a gold medal. This tattoo is my gold medal. It means there are very few of us who made this journey, and that I survived it, diseases, beatings, hunger and all. I am here, alive and kicking, and I go on denouncing all those things today. I have never wanted to have this tattoo removed. To begin with, I hid it because I was afraid of being attacked by antisemites. But today I show it; I see no reason to hide it. With this tattoo, I fight racism and antisemitism, and I also defend democracy.
There is one thing it is my duty to insist upon. I am one of those who lived through that time, which lasted four long years, during which France was governed by Marshal Pétain, Pierre Laval, etc. They collaborated with the Nazis, they arrested innocent people. During those four years, they killed my father, my brother, my sister, my grandparents. They killed large numbers of children and babies. It went on for years, then the Nazis lost and I was able to return home, to find my country once again with a democratic government. There are many countries in the world, and many millions of people, who are deprived of democracy and envy us. Democracy was handed down to us, we inherited it. People shed their blood to rid us of absolute power. We are very fortunate to have the right to vote, to have freedom of movement, to be able to say what we think, be for or against. When, like me, you have lost that right and you regain it, you know its worth. Democracy can be lost if people aren’t interested, or don’t make the effort to find out. At election time, there is a large percentage of people who don’t go out and vote. You are young, well-educated people. You ought to do your research, think hard, make your choice, and learn to be responsible citizens.
AFTER THE WAR, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE GERMANS?
Thank you for asking me that, because it’s an important question. It is not the Germans but the Nazis I hate, be they French or German. In the camp where I was, there were anti-Nazi Germans. I cannot forget how they risked their lives fighting the Nazis. If I told you the story of how I met a pretty young woman, it is because she was German, and I married her. Her father was a soldier during the war, and when her daughter asked him for explanations, he said: “It is the past and not to be spoken of.” That was when she decided to come to France. I am not against people who have done wrong being tried and convicted for their crimes. Societies need justice, not pardoning. Only the victims can pardon, no one else.
For further information
Merci d’avoir survécu, Henri Borlant, Éditions du Seuil, 2011.
Head of research at the CNRS and a specialist in Second World War history and remembrance, Denis Peschanski spoke at a conference at Metz high school on the mechanisms for the construction of collective memory.
Could you briefly explain to us the mechanisms for the construction of memory?
Let’s take two examples from the Second World War: the exodus of May-June 1940 and the Allied bombing of Normandy in 1944. Although these were both major events, neither has been etched in the collective memory, because they did not make sense to society. What could be done, in the case of the exodus of 1940, about the fear that led nearly eight million French people to flee before the rapidly advancing German army? The entire country witnessed it, yet it has negative associations with things like shame, flight and looting. In the case of the Allied bombings, what meaning might be given to bombs dropped by the very people who were coming to liberate you, albeit at a cost of large-scale destruction, with whole towns reduced to ashes and thousands of victims? Memory is selective and conserves only those events which contribute to the construction of identity and are therefore of social utility. The conditions for inclusion in the remembrance narrative are therefore not fulfilled.
To take a contemporary example, my colleagues at the CNRS and I did a study of the terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015. They tend to be referred to as the “Bataclan” attacks: the café and restaurant terraces of the 10th arrondissement and the Stade de France seem to have faded from the collective memory. This shows how selective our representation of the past can be.
So what are the conditions for making memory collective?
Today, we are seeing a big debate around terms like individual memory, shared memory, cultural memory, collective memory. These are extremely sensitive subjects. Collective memory is a memory shared by a number of people belonging to the same group. Unlike history, which is based on the real importance of an event at the time it takes place, it is founded on a feeling of the utility of an event for the construction of group identity.
For an event to be preserved in the collective memory, it must have meaning: both positive and negative aspects of the past - like collaboration and the Vichy regime, which make up a negative side in opposition to the Resistance - must therefore be of social utility. Thus, the role of memory is not to prevent the same events from happening again - which is alas doomed to failure - but to create a feeling of identity, a social bond, to enable the population to exist collectively.
But memory is not frozen in time; it evolves and acts upon history: take the example of Jean Moulin, who was not incorporated in the collective memory as a Resistance hero until December 1964, the date of his admission to the Pantheon and of Malraux’s famous speech. It is the symbolism behind the figure that establishes them as a hero in our collective memory.
How can we assimilate certain remembrance sites, such as the death camps? What is the best approach to take?
Sites of major importance in terms of remembrance attract floods of tourists. Yet places like these, with such a tragic history, are difficult to assimilate. Auschwitz, for instance, receives ever increasing numbers of visitors; remembrance tourists from all over the world come in their thousands to contemplate at this symbolic Holocaust site. This need for respect and contemplation is a testament to the vividness of this collective memory. But it is essential for a balance to be struck between such gestures and the purpose of remembrance, depending on the site or event. Remembrance is above all within us, in our emotions, our most intimate selves, our thoughts about past events.
Visiting a place like Auschwitz is demanding: a great effort is needed from everyone to confront the indescribable, and a considerable time is required to take it all in. This was reflected in the approach taken by your teachers, and I congratulate them for it.
For further information
Le Fort de Queuleu
Following on from their Eastern European remembrance trip, the students from Metz visited the former internment and transit camp at Queuleu. It was an opportunity for them to see where European history meets the history of their region and of the Resistance fighters who were arrested there.
Built between 1868 and 1870 as part of the first chain of fortifications around Metz, the Fort de Queuleu was used by the Gestapo as an internment and transit camp during the Second World War. We went there in April. Our guide was a member of the Fort de Metz-Queuleu Association for the Remembrance of Internees-Deportees and the Protection of the Site. She began by telling us that, in 1943 and 1944, between 1500 and 1800 prisoners were interrogated and interned here before being sent to concentration camps, ‘re-education’ camps or prisons. Among them were Resistance fighters, saboteurs, smugglers, hostages, those dodging the compulsory labour camps in Germany, and Russian prisoners.
In June 1941, the “Mario” resistance group was set up in Moselle, an area annexed by Germany. Founded by Jean Burger and with around three thousand members, it became a threat to the Nazis in the region when, in 1943, it began carrying out acts of sabotage and stealing weapons. Arrested resistance fighters were held in the Fort de Queuleu, guarded by twenty or so Hitler Youth.
We began our tour by climbing down the main stairs, which we did with our eyes wide open, unlike the prisoners, who were blindfolded. We came to a cold, dark corridor, which led to a room recreating the prisoners’ arrival, with plastic mannequins in period dress, arms raised and eyes blindfolded. Any who did not hold their stance were beaten by the SS. Next, they were interrogated in a small room by the Gestapo. Those who talked, giving information about their group and comrades, were deemed to be of no more use and sent straight to a concentration camp; those who refused were tortured until they confessed. A heavy atmosphere pervaded the visit.
Next came the reconstructed office of Georg Hempem, the SS officer who ran the camp, then the 18 individual cells for Resistance leaders, and the group cells that would have been crammed with prisoners. Conditions were inhuman: prisoners were kept blindfolded all day, with their hands and feet bound, and were fed only soup or coffee, which was distributed in a dozen bowls, so that only those nearest the door were able to lap it up. Before the cell of Jean Burger, leader of the “Mario” group, we tried to picture him, pacing up and down to prevent himself from descending into madness.
Upon arrival at the camp, detainees were deprived of their identity and received a number, which they had to recognise when it was called out in German. Octave Lang, a primary school teacher from Saint-Avold who was arrested in October 1943, recalls: “One by one, we were thrown into a kind of office, in which a Gestapo officer asked each of us our occupation. ‘Well, now, a primary school teacher... Let’s show him the SS’s teaching methods!’ Then, turning to me, he cried: ‘And remember: you’re not Monsieur Lang anymore; from now on, you’re number 124!’” The camp was evacuated in August 1944 and the prisoners were sent to concentration camps.
A short distance from our homes, this site echoed what we had seen in Poland a few weeks earlier. The realities of repression and deportation are many. They are found in different places, in Europe and at the heart of our city.
In the footsteps of la deportation
In February, 50 final-year students of the Lycée de la Communication in Metz travelled to Nuremberg, Prague, Krakow and Auschwitz. Five of them tell us about their journey of remembrance of deportation.
We have all seen films, read books and imagined the horrors which deportees must have suffered during the Second World War; but seeing the places with our own teenage eyes gave us a different feeling, stronger and more profound. Most of us wanted to go on the trip to visit the Auschwitz camp. To see, find out and understand, and to honour the victims.
Going as a group was a further motivation. To the question, “Could you visit Auschwitz with your family during the holidays?”, we all answered “no”. Why? Auschwitz is definitely not a tourism site. It is first and foremost a site of remembrance and contemplation. We needed teachers with us, to provide the necessary explanations. Going in a group also meant that we could share our impressions.
VESTIGES OF THE JEWISH PRESENCE IN CENTRAL EUROPE
First we visited the building that was intended to host the Nazi congresses in Nuremberg. Then we headed for Prague, in the Czech Republic, to see the Jewish quarter and its many synagogues, each one different. One of them made more of an impression on us than the rest. The interior walls of the Pinkas synagogue were covered with the names of the 77 297 Czech Jews who were massacred during the Second World War. The first floor had an exhibition of drawings by children deported to Teresin between 1942 and 1944. It was captivating to see a child’s innocence through drawings representing the horrors of war.
The following day, we visited the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. There had been a Jewish settlement there since the late 15th century. When the Germans occupied Poland, they decided in March 1941 to move residents to another ghetto, surrounded by walls, where living conditions were very harsh. There, people were split into two categories: those unfit for work, who were the first to be executed; and those fit to work, who were given a pass.
What struck us when we entered the old ghetto, this “prison” with natural boundaries marked out by rivers and rocks, were the sections of wall built by the Nazis in the shape of tombstones: a way of telling the inhabitants they wouldn’t get out alive. We learnt how some showed tremendous courage and humanity, like the pharmacist Pankiewicz, who wasn’t Jewish but stayed in the ghetto to save lives. This included hiding several children in his office.
Today, in Ghetto Heroes Square, is a commemorative monument consisting of 68 empty chairs, in memory of the 68 000 Jews of the ghetto who died.
“GROUND STEEPED IN HISTORY”
The last day of our school trip to Central Europe would take us to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau). We learn about Auschwitz from primary school age, which is probably why it has a mythical aura for our generation. We left Krakow early in the morning. The hour’s bus ride gave us time to reflect on what we were about to see. Some were afraid of how they would react; others couldn’t wait to satisfy their curiosity. For some of us, reading the closing pages of Primo Levi’s account prepared us for what lay in store 40 miles away.
From the moment we arrived and stepped out of the coach, we understood that we were treading on ground steeped in history. The mood was as cold as the temperature. We entered equipped with headsets to listen to the guide’s commentary. Her soft voice seemed to attenuate the horrors of which she spoke. We passed the sign saying “Arbeit macht frei” and entered the camp.
Our guide showed us around, block by block. In one of them is a quote from Winston Churchill - “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” - which takes on its full meaning in this setting. As we moved from one building to the next, the sight of saucepans, suitcases, clothes, portraits, glasses, combs and hair enabled us to picture the scale of the genocide. Inside one of the rooms was a pile of canisters of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based chemical used for extermination in the gas chambers. Further on, a gigantic book listed all those killed in the Holocaust: four million identified by name, out of a total of approximately six million dead. Some of our party couldn’t resist flicking through the pages of this immense tome, in search of a relative or a name they knew.
THE VASTNESS OF BIRKENAU
Auschwitz I seemed vast enough to us; we weren’t prepared for the sight of the second camp (Auschwitz II or Birkenau), which was approximately 30 times bigger. Unlike Auschwitz I, Birkenau was built entirely from scratch during the war, mostly by deportees themselves. The notorious watchtower at the camp’s entrance was not built until 1944. Upon entering, the first thing you are struck by is the sheer vastness of the place. It seems never-ending. The brick huts on the left were for the women, the ones on the right for the men. The reconstruction of beds and latrines enables you to imagine the horrendous living conditions of the deportees. The tour involved a lot of walking. But there was no question of complaining, because 70 years earlier it was not students in search of knowledge like us who trod this ground, but starving, exhausted, dehumanised deportees. At the other end of the camp, the perspective is inverted: from there, you can no longer see the watchtower. Near the forest, we saw the gas chambers and crematoriums in ruins. Further on, the disinfection building still stands. A hundred personal photos of Jewish victims are displayed there. A fresh, white flower had been laid on one of them, doubtless by a family member.
Towards the end of the tour, we stopped before a memorial, beneath which ashes are buried. Spontaneously, we observed a minute’s silence. It was such a powerful moment that we forgot about the cold. Then we went on our way: on our left, the unfinished extension to the camp was further evidence of the Nazis’ grim design. In the pin-dropping silence of that late afternoon, our heads buzzed with a thousand thoughts.
For further information
Gérard Métral is the son of Alphonse Métral, one of the founders of the Association des Rescapés des Glières. After studying art in Paris, he became assistant to the sculptor Émile Gilioli, maker of the National Monument to the Resistance at Les Glières. Today, he is chairman of the Association des Glières.
Can you present your father, Alphonse Métral, to us?
Born in 1921 into a humble family, my father started work at age 16, as a lathe operator. In the late 1930s, he joined the JOC (Christian Worker Youth). His responsibilities covered the department to begin with, then the two Savoies, and ultimately the Isère, Drôme and Hautes-Alpes.
In early 1943, he decided to dodge Compulsory Labour Service (STO) and set up a camp for objectors who, like him, refused to go to work in Germany. There, a special relationship was formed between the maquis and a poor yet generous population, for whom fraternity really meant something. Life in this maquis, in perfect osmosis with local inhabitants, was the germ of what became known as the “Les Glières spirit”. On 31 January 1944, the maquis of Manigod was the first to respond to Tom Morel’s call to make their way to the Les Glières plateau; my father was to become Morel’s second-in-command.
How did he pass on his story and the memory of the Resistance to you?
The story of Les Glières was for a long time known only to the survivors (despite the publication in 1946 of a book describing their fight for freedom). So it was not until later that my father felt the need to tell that story, not just at home but through the association of which he was by then the chairman. He believed that, as time went by, it was important for the memory to be preserved.
The museum, then the construction of the National Monument to the Resistance on the Les Glières plateau, are important milestones in the process of telling that story. I naturally took part in this process and I think, in retrospect, although he never expressed it openly, that it was his wish for me to keep the “Les Glières spirit” alive. Because of my occupation, the construction of the monument marked the start of my involvement.
What were the different stages involved in erecting the monument?
In the early 1970s, a road was built giving access to the Les Glières plateau, but there was nothing to indicate the presence of the maquis. So the association decided to erect a monument that would speak to future generations. A national jury, comprised of experts from the art world, was set up and a call for projects was issued to choose the artist.
From a total of 85 entries, an initial shortlist of five was drawn up, before the sculptor Émile Gilioli’s architectural sculpture was chosen. Far removed from the designs traditionally used for commemorative monuments, the work’s clean lines and the fervour it exudes make it an ode to freedom. At the official opening of the monument, on 2 September 1973, in his speech André Malraux celebrated the exemplary nature of this maquis, leading it to become famous all over the world.
What activities does the Association des Glières carry out today to promote this remembrance?
In partnership with the Haute-Savoie departmental authority, two sites have been opened to receive school groups and visitors: one at the National Cemetery of Morette, the other on the Les Glières plateau.
Aside from the commemorative ceremonies, which always attract large numbers of people, the association’s activities take a variety of forms: the creation of a “Remembrance Trail”, with information terminals in each commune in the surrounding area; the organisation of a walk in the footsteps of the maquisards, for 2 000 primary school pupils each year; the publication of an annual themed magazine and books devoted to the history of this maquis; and the development of a website.
In a redesigned layout, accessible to all, the Ain Museum of the Resistance and Deportation gives an up-to-date interpretation of the events of the Second World War, through the experiences of the inhabitants of the Ain and the strategic issues of importance to the department.
The Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation de l’Ain is housed in the former Nantua prison, in the heart of the Haut-Bugey area, an important remembrance site for the Resistance. It was founded in 1985 by the association of friends of the museum, comprised of Resistance veterans and deportees. Formally opened on 18 October 1986, it passed into municipal control in 1990, and has been run by the departmental museums directorate since 2004. Its rich collection (films, photographs, posters, uniforms, military equipment, deportees’ belongings, etc.), consisting mostly of donations from Ain inhabitants, enabled it to obtain ‘Controlled Museum’ status in 1992 and the Musée de France label in 2003.
The museum renovation was completed in September 2017, with support from the DPMA’s regional partnerships programme. The priorities were to ensure accessibility, update its historiographical approach in line with current thinking and develop the collections. The different visitor resources and tools on offer (multimedia, touchscreens, etc.) mean that the museum is accessible to a broad public, including people with disabilities. The display, based around the experiences of Ain inhabitants between 1939 and 1945, reveals the strategic importance of this area, situated between Lyon and Geneva, and its peculiarities (divided by the war, a maquis stronghold, sustained three German counter-attacks in 1944 and fierce repression). First-hand accounts of engagements between 1940 and 1944 punctuate the display. Other issues addressed are the reconciling of history and memory in this place imbued with the spirit of its founders, and the construction of remembrance and its usages since 1945.
A depiction of “life in the maquis”, built by the founders in 1993, has been preserved. An important element in the museum’s history, this space presents the Resistance from the point of view of those who participated in it. Five multimedia terminals offer the opportunity to hear extracts from eye-witness accounts. An animated map places the Ain in the context of 1939 and the successive occupations: German, in June 1940, then German and Italian, in November 1942. Dedicated areas look at what life was like in the Pays de Gex. Objects like a wood-gas generator and a bicycle with tyres made of springs demonstrate how people had to adapt to the restrictions of wartime. Three areas discuss the early resistance, the birth of the movements, the role of networks, the Armée Secrète (Secret Army) and the unification of the Resistance. A second animated map shows the locations of the maquis camps, parachute drops and acts of sabotage. A series of rooms look at the structure of the maquis and the help received from the Allies in the form of two-way radios (MCR-1, S-Phone transmitter). There is an immersive area devoted to parachute drops and acts of sabotage.
Two documentaries analyse images from the film Ceux du maquis, which was made in the Cize and Granges camps, and footage of the maquis parade in Oyonnax on 11 November 1943. A specific area deals with the repression, persecution and rescuing of Jews. Next, the battles for Liberation, the end of the war, the return of the deportees, the reality of the concentration camps and the impact of the deportations are discussed.
The construction of remembrance post-1945 through monumental heritage, the history of the voluntary organisations, decorations, the Righteous Among the Nations, the changing face of commemorations and the role of a Resistance museum today, all enrich the visit. In addition, the exhibition Les Jours Sans (Days Without), produced by the Resistance and Deportation History Centre in Lyon, runs from July to November.
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A new national cemetery in Vercors
In 2018, the French State will acquire the Pas de l’Aiguille site, in the department of Isère, the 274th military cemetery to come under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Armed Forces. This will complete the process of acquisition of the three cemeteries in Vercors, begun in 2014.
The Vercors plateau, which rises to a height of 2 300 metres, has the appearance of a natural fortress, 60 km long and 30 km wide. In 1940, the site became a refuge for all those who were victims of the repressive measures of the occupier and the Vichy regime. With the invasion of the southern zone by the Germans in November 1942, Vercors became a centre of resistance for those who rejected the idea of a subservient France.
VERCORS, A TRAGIC EPIC
In 1942, the idea emerged that Vercors might support the Allied landings expected in Provence. Captain Alain Le Ray was charged with drawing up the Plan Montagnards, whose execution was entrusted to squadron commander François Huet, Vercors’ military commander in 1944, and Eugène Chavant, the maquis’ civilian leader. By early 1944, there were nearly 400 maquisards in Vercors. This natural citadel was becoming a threat to the enemy.
On 6 June 1944, Vercors responded to the order for general mobilisation. The message broadcast by Radio Londres gave the signal for armed action. Volunteers flocked here in response, so that there were a total of 4 000 by July. The Republic was restored and the French flag flew over this territory declared “free”. With support from General Pflaum, General Niehoff, Wehrmacht commander for the southeast, decided to break the resistance. The first confrontations took place in Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherotte, on 13 and 15 June 1944. Several hundred maquisards initially stood their ground against the German troops, but were forced to retreat when the enemy returned on 15 June with more than 3 000 men.
The village fell into the hands of the Wehrmacht, who showed no mercy, killing the wounded and setting fire to homes. Just 11 of the village’s 93 houses escaped destruction. The decisive blow was dealt on 21 July, at Vassieux-en-Vercors. The Germans attacked on all sides: by road, over the mountain passes and by air. Over 10 000 soldiers invaded the plateau.
All across Vercors (at Pas de l’Aiguille, Valchevrière, La Croix Perrin), fighting raged between the enemy and the maquisards. After days of combat, orders were given for the maquis to disperse. More than 600 Resistance fighters and one hundred Germans were killed. The civilian population also paid a heavy price: 201 people were killed or executed, 41 others deported and 573 houses were destroyed. On 4 August 1945, Vassieux-en-Vercors was decreed a “Companion Town of Liberation”, a rare honour accorded to only four other communes: Paris, Nantes, Grenoble and Île-de-Sein. The maquisards of Vercors went on to fight in the First Army.
All of these sites today still bear the scars of 1944, and have been transformed into places of remembrance by local actors and the Ministry of the Armed Forces Directorate for Heritage, Remembrance and Archives (DPMA).
THOSE WHO “DIED FOR FRANCE”
At the end of the war, three cemeteries were built by the National Association of Volunteer Combatants and Pioneers of Vercors (ANPCVV). In the hills above Grenoble, the cemetery of Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherotte contains the remains of soldiers and maquisards who “died for France” in the fighting of June 1944. Ninety-eight Resistance fighters are buried there, and among them stand the tomb of Eugène Chavant and the cenotaph of François Huet.
The cemetery of Vassieux-en-Vercors contains the graves of 80 maquisards, 58 inhabitants of Vassieux and 49 unknown soldiers killed in the fighting of July 1944. The metal structures of two gliders, used by the Luftwaffe on 21 July, are preserved on the site. There is a “remembrance room”, in memory of all the victims of Vercors, and a plaque which tells how the body of Sergeant Raymond Anne, a maquisard from Vassieux, lies in the crypt of Mont Valérien, as a symbol of the sacrifice of all those maquisards who gave their lives for France. More than 1600 metres above sea level, the cemetery of Pas de l’Aiguille, in the commune of Chichilianne, holds the graves of seven Resistance fighters and one shepherd killed in the fighting of 21 to 24 July 1944.
DEVELOPING THE NATIONAL CEMETERIES
In 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the fighting in Vercors, the ANPCVV decided to transfer ownership of these sites to the State, which already maintained them, for them to be made into national cemeteries. The cemeteries of Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherotte and Vassieux-en-Vercors passed into State hands in 2015, and the Pas de l’Aiguille site, the smallest, highest-altitude cemetery in France, will do so this year.
As part of its remembrance policy, the DPMA funds the upkeep and restoration of these cemeteries according to three principles: the application of a landscaping charter, introduced in 2015; the use of more environmentally friendly maintenance methods, with the entry into force of the ‘Zero Pesticides’ plan in 2017; and the implementation of a ‘Planned Accessibility Agenda’ for these remembrance sites. Since 2014, the graves at the cemetery of Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherotte have been adorned with badges bearing the emblem of the ‘Pioneers’, and a series of works have been carried out on the external walls of the cemeteries. A flagpole is to be erected at the cemetery of Pas de l’Aiguille in 2018.
To encourage remembrance tourism, historical information panels have been installed in each of the cemeteries. Meanwhile, the ‘Remembrance Room’ at Vassieux-en-Vercors now has an interpretation area. A frieze explains the role and history of the Vercors Pioneers. A permanent exhibition, Visages du Vercors (Faces of Vercors), was opened in July 2017 on the edge of the cemetery, which pays tribute to the maquisards and civilians who took part or were killed in the fighting.
Finally, the DPMA and its operator, the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War (ONAC-VG), signed a framework agreement with the commune of Vassieux-en-Vercors, the Vassieux-en-Vercors Resistance Museum, the Vassieux-en-Vercors Memorial and the ANPCVV, aimed at fully integrating these remembrance sites with the local tourism fabric and supporting local actors in their regional development activities. A similar agreement has been signed for Saint-Nizier and will be for Pas de l’Aiguille. In this way, the DPMA demonstrates its desire to work in partnership with local stakeholders to preserve the spirit of these sites. In 2019, a tourism brochure presenting these three cemeteries will be published.
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