The place of witnesses

Jean Monin, a survivor of Montluc and the camp of Mauthausen, tells schoolchildren his story during a visit to the former Montluc Prison, 16 December 2014. © Mémorial de Montluc

Commemorative ceremonies give pride of place to the witnesses of the events being remembered. Today, their testimonies are not just a “scenographic resource”; they are essential to the act of commemoration, from the prior work on remembrance, to its ritualisation on the day of the ceremony.

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The witnesses of the conflicts – combatants and civilian victims – have a special place in national and local commemorations organised by the Ministry of the Armed Forces and its regional partners, like the prefectures, local authorities, the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War (ONAC-VG) and other organisations. A time of tribute and recognition, the ceremonies are often directed at them and, by their presence, they provide a physical link to the past. Yet their role or moral authority can go beyond that, and witnesses are often protagonists in the preparations of commemorations, as well as helping society on a process that takes participants from the task of remembrance to just, sincere, responsible contemplation. The actions carried out by the memorials, represented here by Montluc Prison National Memorial, and the presence of veterans at national ceremonies, such as those commemorating the D-Day landings, are just two illustrations, among so many others, of this special place.

“Cementing the words in a commemorative ritual”

Montluc Prison National Memorial is housed within the very walls of the former prison. Destined for demolition in 2009, the site reopened its doors in 2010, allowing the public to discover its history, and former inmates to return to the place of their internment in 1943-44. After what was in some cases a difficult first step, the prison survivors soon became witnesses, a role which they fully embrace at the annual commemorations of 24 August, the anniversary of the prison’s liberation, in which they take part. At the ceremony, they embody the memories of the site. Yet the vocation of a memorial and its witnesses is not limited to the presence of survivors, however symbolic it may be, on key dates of the commemorative calendar. At Montluc, where their lives changed dramatically, the survivors are positioned as protagonists in their own right – for how can their presence at the ceremonies be understood without knowing their backgrounds and the significance of the site?

The desire to pass on their story thus soon went beyond the commemorative setting, to precede it. Events enabling the public to meet the survivors provide an opportunity for the younger generation to fully grasp the meaning of this remembrance site, by offering them the chance to learn, understand and discuss in order to better commemorate. Thus, by attending a ceremony, the public, and young people in particular, embark on a process that combines contemplation, comprehension and questioning. That process enables those who have been able to take part in this remembrance work to become multipliers of the message without ever replacing the witnesses they have met. It is therefore crucial for Montluc Prison National Memorial to allow this awareness-raising journey to take place, so that the site fulfils its commemorative role and becomes a forum for dialogue between different generations. International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on 27 January, is an eloquent example of that work. At a ceremony, officials and veterans stand side by side with over 200 Lyon youngsters, among them the memorial’s remembrance ambassadors. Each of them holds the keys to understanding the full history of the site at which they stand, the resonance of the witnesses’ words and the symbolism of the remembrance ceremony in which they participate. A time of shared remembrance of other remembrance sites, by witnesses and ambassadors brought together to remember the past and show vigilance to ensure it never happens again. At a time when fewer and fewer survivors remain from some conflicts, it is important that ceremonies and sites pass on these essential words, to cement them in a commemorative ritual.

Messages of peace from the Normandy veterans

In Normandy, there is a special, almost carnal bond between the people who come from around the world to attend the commemorations and the veterans of the Allied nations, who are the true VIPs of these events. Still present in quite considerable numbers, in spite of their advancing years, at the major ceremonies to mark the 70th and even the 75th anniversaries of the D-Day landings, in 2014 and last year, some played an active role in the commemorations.

This active participation in the ceremonies began early on in Normandy. Thus, we remember fondly the message of hope and peace delivered to the younger generation by former Resistance volunteer Jacques Vico, at the international ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Arromanches (Calvados), in 2004, attended by Allied heads of State and government and, for the first time, the German chancellor.

But the most powerful image was perhaps the scene on Ouistreham beach (Calvados) at the end of the international ceremony on 6 June 2104: Léon Gautier, a French veteran of Kieffer Commando, and Johannes Börner, a veteran German paratrooper, embracing one another before 19 heads of State and government, 1 800 veterans, 6 000 guests and more than a billion TV viewers. This fraternal gesture between past enemies, now brothers, has remained in people’s memories, and symbolises by itself the spirit which today comes to mind when 6 June 1944 is mentioned.


Léon Gautier, ancien  du commando Kieffer,  et Johannes Börner, ancien soldat allemand, à la  cérémonie internationale  du 70e anniversaire du  débarquement de Normandie. © P. Villebeuf/Le Parisien/MAXPPP


Kieffer Commando veteran Léon Gautier and German veteran Johannes Börner, at the international ceremony of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
© P. Villebeuf/Le Parisien/MAXPPP


It is also interesting to note that, before the official event begins, with the arrival of the heads of State and government, there is a kind of secular communion between the veterans and public who have come to pay tribute to them. Thus, it is customary at the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, Colleville-sur-Mer, for each of the veterans present to have their name, the unit they belonged to in 1944 and their place of origin read out loud. This non-official custom is always the occasion for each of these heroes to receive a standing ovation and an individual tribute.

At the end of the commemorative ceremony, it is also customary for veterans to willingly exchange words with the crowd, who have also come to see them up close in the flesh, take their picture, have them sign books or T-shirts, express their gratitude and admiration, even to give in to a near-mystical impulse to touch them. Some scenes are not so different from rock stars meeting their fans! This is also what characterises the unique atmosphere of 6 June in Normandy. This aspect of remembrance is so special that it is not unusual for Second World War veterans who fought on other fronts, or veterans of the Korea or Vietnam, to also come to Normandy on 6 June, to experience this quite unique collective emotion.


Montluc Memorial, Antoine Grande and Franck Leconte – ONAC-VG