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French historian debunks myths at Holocaust memorial




“[France] may have preceded other countries when it comes to extremism, but it has a vast [international] following in this regard. I feel quite pessimistic [about developments],” she confided to the SA Jewish Report on the resurge of anti-Semitism worldwide.

Poznanski was the keynote speaker at the 2019 International Day of Remembrance for Victims of the Holocaust at the Holocaust & Genocide Centre in Forest Town, Johannesburg, on 27 January.

She is the author of a number of books on the Holocaust, including Jews in France in World War II, and Drancy un camp en France (a camp in France) – referring to the notorious internment camp in Paris, from which many thousands of Jews were transported to extermination camps.

The date 27 January is significant, as it is the day the Auschwitz death camp was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945. Auschwitz has since become the symbol of the Holocaust. This year also marks the 80th year since the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

Numerous survivors attended the memorial in Johannesburg. They were born in Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Belarus, Lithuania, and Rwanda. Diplomatic staff from Germany, Turkey, Poland, Sweden, Croatia, Israel, and the United Nations were also present.

Martin Schäfer, German Ambassador to South Africa, said 27 January was “a difficult day for Germans”.

“We have to face what happened in the name of the state and the [German] people,” he said, pointing out that, “Nothing is self-evident, even 74 years on.”

Shäfer said he was grateful for the friendship and interaction established with Holocaust survivors in South Africa. “I am grateful for the unbelievable miracle of being able to commemorate, mourn, and cry with you about the pain and losses inflicted by the state of Germany, the German people, perhaps even my own family.”

Describing the Holocaust as “the most evil crime that the earth has ever seen”, Shäfer said it was “a shame that it took the effort of the entire world to liberate the Jews of Auschwitz and elsewhere”. Stating that the liberation of Auschwitz was also the liberation of Germans, he pointed out that liberation depended on efforts to remember, to share the pain and loss of those who had suffered, and to do everything in one’s power to make sure that (such crimes) were never repeated.

Shäfer observed that genocide is often sparked by hatred of the other so deep, it is taught to children. “Germans considered the French a ‘hereditary enemy’,” he said. It was taught at school. “The consequence was three wars [in the 19th and 20th century] that ravaged Europe. After World War II – and over the grave of millions – we have overcome this hatred through the will of leaders and the people. There is now no ‘enemyship’ between Germany and France.”

If that was possible, he asked, why aren’t we optimistic about eradicating anti-Semitism?

His optimism was not shared, however. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in a message broadcast to the audience, “This year, there has been an alarming increase in anti-Semitism. The centuries-old hatred is growing stronger with the rise of neo-Nazism, attacks on Jews, and bigotry on the internet. Mainstream policies are also targeting minorities.”

Poznanski spent time debunking current popular myths by French historians and the media about the role French citizens and the French resistance had played in saving Jews.

How was it possible, she asked, that of the 330 000 Jews living in France in 1939, 75% had managed to survive the Holocaust – one of the highest survival rates in Europe? The answer was complex. It was due to a combination of factors, mostly geopolitical in nature, including the fact that country to the east of France was occupied by Italy, which gave Jews a certain amount of sanctuary and undermined the German occupation in northern France.

It had little, however, to do with sympathy of French citizens for the plight of Jews, or efforts by the French resistance to save Jews. “The vast wave of sympathy by the French for Jews is a fraud,” she quoted an historian as saying.

“The Vichy authority [in southern France] had a firm resolve to pursue anti-Jewish policy,” Poznanski said, undermining myths by right-wing historians that leader Philippe Pétain’s government was actually working behind the scenes to rescue the country and French Jews. “This was also not a marginal element. It was supported by a significant portion of the population.”

Likewise, the French resistance was largely indifferent to the fate of the Jews, she said.

“Until the imposition of the yellow star, the vast majority of French citizens placed their hopes in Pétain, including his anti-Semitic attitudes about the Jewish problem. Spiritual authorities, also never denounced these laws. So, too, publications in general.”

After the imposition of the yellow star and the roundups of 1942, there was a certain amount of indignation at “the barbarous methods imposed by a barbarous country”.

Jews found it easier to make allies and avoid arrest – including amongst the Gendarmerie, or French police – by late 1943, Poznanski said, when there was the sense that an allied victory was imminent. It was only then that anti-Semitism began to lose its relevance. Even then, this was often contradicted by crackdowns against Jews, and a general sense of isolation from the wider population.

Jewish survival must also be attributed to rescue networks organised by Jews themselves, Poznanski pointed out.

Jewish writer Leon Werth, who fled Paris in 1940 to escape German occupation, wrote in 1943, “Nothing can prevent this from taking place.” This sentence has relevance today. Though Poznanski believes the only way to prevent the resurgence of anti-Semitism is through a massive education campaign on the subject, she said, “Poland confronted the past, but look at what is happening now?”

Pointing to the inherent complexity of history, she said, “Human reality is not black and white, but grey. Reality is complex. It is only by understanding the past in all its nuances that we can understand the present.”

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