Tuesday, July 13, 2010

WW2 reckoning, Occupation

Last night, by accident, I watched a French film 'Nina's House' on TV5, the French cable channel. It took me a moment to realize this subtle, incredible film dealt with an exhibition I saw in May at the Mairie of the 3rd Arrondissement in Paris. The exhibit showed photos, documentations of 'Houses of Hope' set up in France during the Occupation but in full steam at Liberation and into the 60's. These 'houses of hope', many in old abandoned chateau, were run for French and Jewish orphans. After the war France accepted many Jewish children (Polish, Rumanian, Russian) freed from the camps who'd lost their families. Some later found them, many didn't. One of them was Elie Wiesel.

But it explored something I've always wondered about...WW2's aftermath - the diaspora, the displaced and the orphans.

Here's more about the film
In the waning days of World War II, as the Nazis were pushed east and Jews began to emerge from hiding, the French government established "houses of hope" to care for Jewish children until their parents could be located. "Nina's Home ," dramatizes a year in the life of one such house, and in the process becomes a deeply affecting meditation on cultural identity. What does it mean to be a Jew when you're 9 and your people have been reduced to ash? How much is owed to the past and how much to the future?

The present is a limbo freighted with sorrow and possibility. The film opens in September 1944, when most of the children hold out hope their parents will return from Germany, where they have been sent "to work." The Allies control western France and a contingent of Nazi POWs labor on the grounds, a vivid reminder of recently conquered conquerors who some of the children can't resist tormenting. "The Krauts did plenty worse to us," reasons one boy, to which Nina soberly replies, "Do you want to be like them?"

Nothing connects these kids except their heritage and their suffering. One little girl, obviously hidden by Catholics, crosses herself before each meal. Others are ardent communists. By and large they're secular and cosmopolitan, atheists because they see no reason for God's existence and much evidence to the contrary.

The liberation of the death camps in Poland in early 1945 knocks another leg out from under them; the older children read the newspapers and silently understand they're orphans.

Like Nina herself, "Nina's Home" makes room for them all, searching for common ground. It's the work of writer-director Richard Dembo (he won a foreign language Oscar for 1984's "Dangerous Moves "), who died during post-production, yet the film survives its maker as a stark, cohesive experience.

The director follows the children's individual stories with straightforward style, making each narrative thread clear, always circling back to Jaoui's wearily compassionate Nina and to the future coming into focus. Small moments of joy intrude: a visit by the painter Marc Chagall , bearing a milk-cow, leads to an impromptu mural on the wall of a shed.
Here's one of those orphan today

But moving to the present after more than 65 years the French government announced
EVERY police document from France's time under Nazi occupation is to be digitised and published online.

Thousands of cardboard boxes of documents currently stored in a basement in the Musée de la Police in Paris are to be scanned and uploaded to a website.

They include every police daybook from the period under German occupation, from 1940 to 1944, plus details of arrests, fines, notes from questioning and official reports.

The documents will shed further light on the Gestapo's work in France and the role of the Brigade Spéciale, the force responsible for tracking down resistance workers, dissidents and Jews.

The archives also include full records from the épuration légale, the wave of official trials for collaborators following the fall of the Vichy regime in 1944.

The Paris préfecture de police will begin the major operation to digitise the records in the coming weeks.

It will take several years and the scanned documents will be published in batches from 2015, as they are legally protected for 75 years.

The final batch should therefore be ready by late 2019, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of France.

As well as improving transparency, the project will also help preserve the archive - the paper used by the police during the Occupation was of a poor quality and some of the documents are beginning to fade.

Cara - Tuesday


  1. To understand the relationship between France and Germany in the 20th century, it is important to know that there was only twenty-one years between the end of World War I and the start of World War II. The Germans had been humiliated when forced to sign the surrender on November 11, 1918 in a railroad car in France . Hitler was a soldier in the German army, wounded and decorated for bravery, when the German people were told of the surrender. The Germans believed that the was was progressing in their favor when suddenly it was all over. No surprise that Germany as a nation believed it had been sold out. Someone had to have been responsible and blame was placed on the Jews, the people who belonged no where.

    Hitler forced the French to sign their surrender to Germany in May, 1940,in the same forest, in the same railroad car. The French were not going to get any mercy from the country they had held up to ridicule.

    French Jews, like the Jews in most of Europe , were tolerated. Anti-semitism was a reality. (I will spare you the details of the Dreyfus Affair); although there were many French who risked their lives to protect Jews, there were not many who protested.

    France 's decision to preserve the documents from this period and to release their content is another major step in guaranteeing that those who deny the Holocaust are countered with the reality of documentation by the Germans themselves.

    The Shoa Visual History Foundation, begun by Steven Spielberg after he completed SCHINDLER'S LIST, has over 50,000 interviews of camp survivors as well as interviews with the children of the lost, rescuers, and members of the resistance groups in all the occupied countries.

    Most of us born in the first wave of the baby boom have fathers who saw what was done to the children of Europe . Most of our fathers did not talk about their experiences. It is important for us to investigate, to the degree to which we are able to confront the horrors, to we can make sure that our children and grandchildren realize what these men were doing when some were barely beyond childhood.

    J.Robert Janes, a Canadian, is the author of a series of outstanding books set in France during the occupation. Jean-Louis St-Cyr, a detective with the Surete, and Hermann Kohler, an ordinary German policeman pushed into the Gestapo, are assigned to be partners by the German Occupying Authority. Their job - to investigate ordinary crime, those murders, robberies, and assaults committed by the ordinary people.

    There are far too few of these books.

  2. There is a long and bitter history between France and Germany that greatly influenced the first half of the 20th century.

    the Franco-Prussian War was fought between July 1870 and February, 1871. When it was over, the German states were united into the new country of Germany. As the winners, Germany annexed the French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine.

    At the end of World War I, France demanded that Germany sign an unconditional surrender in a railroad car in a forest on November 11, 1918. To further Germany's humiliation, France took back Alsace-Lorraine.

    There was only 21 years between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II. It was Germany's turn to humiliate France by requiring them to sign an Armistice in the same railroad car in the same forest in June, 1940.

    Anti-semitism was an issue in France before the war; it did not disappear during the German occupation, with all the French coming together to face a common enemy. French Jews were sent east, to the camps, leaving their children to the care of whoever was willing to help them.

    The Nazi's believed that they had created the Thousand Year Reich. They documented their plans, from Lebensraum to the Final Solution.
    The decision of the French to preserve the documents from the Occupation and their plan to make them available to the public is another step in ensuring that the stories of the survivors, their children, the rescuers, and the Resistance are told to subsequent generations. They are primary sources that can refute all the arguments of the Holocaust deniers.

    J.Robert Janes is the author of an exceptional series of books about life during the Occupation in France. Jean-Louis St-Cyr, an inspector with the Surete, and Hermann Kohler, a police man in Germany before the war but now forced into the Gestapo, are assigned to work together by the German Occupation Authority to solve ordinary crimes committed by ordinary people. The books are anything but ordinary; it is unfortunate that there are not more in the series.

    Steven Spielberg began the Shoa Visual History Foundation after making Schindler's List. All

  3. Last night, I managed to post two slightly different versions of the same response.

    My apologies, Cara. This is a topic that does get me going. People born after the war, especially two and three generations after those who had to fight in it, think they know the story because they know about the camps. There is so much more; there were so many heroes.

  4. I came here intending to question why you posted Tuesday instead of Wednesday--the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

    But then I read this post, and I cannot help but be wowed by its subject. Out of horror comes the greatest light, sometimes. I hope the Chagall mural is still there. But whether it physically endured, the spirit of it and the spirit of France live on.

    Thank you for the education and the glimpse of an inspiring film.