I am in my beloved French countryside in a tiny hamlet in southwestern France. I have close relationships with neighbors, some of whom I have known for 30 years now. Yesterday, for a lark, Roz Jacobs and I took an hour-long drive through the countryside to go to a vide greniers (literally an emptying of the attics—what we call garage sales). We passed through a town I’d been curious about, Lacapelle Marival and decided to stop there on the way back. The garage sale had serious junk—sometimes French junk has charm, but this stuff really didn’t.
That’s why soon we were back on the road and visiting the 13th century chateau at Lacapelle Marival. I noticed a humble marble plaque on the wall. Its carvings were eroding. (I don’t know why we use marble for monuments as they always erode.) The heading—nearly illegible, must not have been carved, but painted. It says, “FRANCAIS SOUVENEZ-VOUS” (French people, remember). The rest is engraved and says in French, which I’ve translated. “Here on 11 May 1944, 86 inhabitants of Lacapelle Marival were rounded up and deported, victims of Nazi barbarism. Those who did not come back: Clement DELPRAT, Camille GAUZIN, Louis GIBRAT, Raymond LABARTHE, Jean LACAM Mr. and Mrs. Philippe MLAVER, Victor THIERRY, Georges THORELLE, Pierre CROZES.
When I noticed that plaque, I wasn’t aware that today, was the 75th anniversary of a much larger roundup. The roundup of Jews in greater Paris began 75 years ago today, July 16 1942. The French police in occupied northern France rounded up some 13,000 men, women and children, pulled them from their homes in order to deport most of them east to be murdered at Auschwitz. It’s not easy to transport so many people at once. So, about 6,000 were taken to a transit camp in a town called Drancy and the others were taken to a holding place—a large enclosed stadium north of Paris known as the Vélodrome d’Hiver or Vél d’Hiv, which means the Winter Cycling Stadium. They were kept there for five days before they were taken to various internment camps around France and ultimately, for most of them, to Auschwitz. I will not recount the suffering, the stifling heat in the days and cold in the nights, the lack of sanitation, the terror of the children, the noise, the confusion, the suicides. You can read those accounts. One particularly compelling account is in the book, “Sarah’s Key.” The roundup commemorated by the plaque in Lacapelle Marival was almost two years later. German authorities continued deporting Jews from French soil until August 1944. Ultimately about 77,000 Jews living in French territory were killed in concentration camps and killing centers—mostly at Auschwitz.
But the question I posed in the title of this post is why remember? This question is at the core of The Memory Project. Memories give our lives meaning. They anchor us; they help us know who we are. Think of why Alzheimer’s is such a tragic disease. When a loved one doesn’t know who you are and can’t recall life’s experiences, it feels devastating to everyone around, even if that person seems quite content in the present. It is shared experience and memories that give life its richness and depth.
Remembrance is also cautionary. We remember so we don’t repeat mistakes of the past. That’s one of the major reasons that governments around the world believe that teaching about the Holocaust is an essential responsibility. The nightmare of governments turning viciously on their own people, of entire societies accepting and even cooperating in the mass deportation and murder of people –friends and neighbors—for their religious beliefs (Jews and Jehova’s Witnesses, for example), their heritage (Roma or Sinti) or their physical condition (people with disabilities) is one that is not in the distant past. It is in living memory. The proof that it can happen is that it did happen. If we remember, we pay attention to the indicators that we are sliding into dangerous territory and try to change course.
Remembrance is honorific. It feels good to pay tribute to people for their accomplishments, for their sacrifices, for what they mean to us. There are so many reasons to remember.
So, here I am a Jewish American in a small village in France. This sparsely populated area was known for having resistance fighters. That is a comfort to me. A few kilometers away, there is a monument to the resistance and a museum in our capital, Cahors. In researching for this post, I read about a local engineer named Gabriel Niel, who used his position as a road surveyor to inform Resistance fighters of the location of German troops. Niel was captured and died in a convoy on his way to the concentration camp, Dachau. There’s a street named after him in Cahors. Now I am motivated to go and look for it. I could say that I am wasting a beautiful sunny day sitting here at the computer digging into these stories of the past, but instead I feel good learning about a man who gave his life to resist tyranny. It feeds me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything on the Internet about the ten people whose names appear on the plaque in Lacapelle Marival but I don’t think I wasted my time. I feel good to have thought of them.
So, on this particular day, I invite you to remember someone who means something to you, whether the person is living or not, just remember what you love and take note of it for yourself. Perhaps take sometime to remember someone you don’t know, one of the people mentioned on the plaque above, or one of the people in our portrait gallery. Or someone who was killed in police custody or someone whose life has impacted on yours in ways you hadn’t thought about before—like the person who invented something you love or the parent or grandparent or great-grandparent who emigrated or built a home or a business that has something to do with who you are. Let the feeling of remembrance fill and fulfill you. That is the power of remembrance.