Paris' Dirty Secret
(Cover of the Jerusalem Report, November 1, 2004)
Sarah Wildman, Paris
The building is unexpectedly beautiful. Nestled in the heart of Paris' vibrant and crowded 10th arrondissement, 85-87 rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin is a completely restored and rehabilitated turn-of-the-20th-century structure, with soaring arched windows. It was once home to Lévitan, the first Parisian furniture store to market its wares to the masses, an Ikea for the 30s. A legacy from the department store remains above the entrance: Shiny blue and gold tiles in a mosaic façade spell out "Aux classes laborieuses," "To the laboring classes." The building stood empty for years, windowless, with a parking garage on its lower levels, until 2000 when the directors of BETC Euro RSCG, the largest advertising agency in France, gutted the interior and lovingly put it back together.
"I was so pleased to find this building, there were so many positive discoveries," BETC director Rémi Babinet says, sitting in a color-coded work pod (we were in "rouge"), at the core of the building. The mosaic inscription, which had been covered with an obscuring layer of grime, was one such find. Not to mention "the space, the volume, the strength of the building, the neighborhood." It was perfect. That is, until a young historian named Jean-Marc Dreyfus approached the company last spring.
Their beautiful building, Dreyfus quietly told them, was not just a forgotten symbol of working-class Paris. The Nazis, who occupied the city in June 1940, also took to the structure, with its subterranean garage built to hold truckloads of goods, and wide spaces created specifically for displaying furniture. From July 1943 until August 1944, Lévitan was transformed from what had been a Jewish-owned department store into a Jewish slave-labor camp. Jews interned there were forced to catalogue, sort and pack the goods looted from the apartments of Jews who had been deported to concentration camps. "It was a shock," says Babinet, who admits he had heard a few unsubstantiated rumors from neighbors (Lévitan was returned to the family of its original owners after the war and then sold). He hadn't given them too much credence. "It was a reminder that there are few spaces where this tragedy was not experienced. It was a reminder that everywhere there are these shocks from the past. And people have the habit of forgetting."
The shock was not Babinet's alone. There were two other, equally unknown, Jewish slave-labor camps in the heart of the city during the occupation: Austerlitz, a storage house near the eponymous train station in the 13th arrondissement that was torn down at the end of the war and is now a construction site, and Bassano, in a magnificent town house from the mid-19th century, on the street of the same name in the chic 16th. For 13 months during the war, the three camps held a total of between 800 and 1,000 Jews who had been classified as temporarily "non-deportable." During their internment, they were forced to assist the Nazis loot the Jews of France. Hundreds of trainloads of goods were dispatched into the Reich, carrying the contents of nearly 40,000 apartments from Paris alone and the belongings of the 76,000 French Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
When Dreyfus and his colleague Sarah Gensburger announced their discoveries, the strange graffiti that architects had found four years ago in the attic of Bassano, now home to the men's haute couture house Smalto, suddenly became clear: It was the Jews marking off their time.
Thousands of pages have been written on the history of France during World War II. There are the stories of resistance, of collaboration, of the deportation of Jews and the transit camps they passed through. There are volumes refuting the mythology, advanced in the immediate post-war years by Charles de Gaulle, that France was a nation of resistors. But until last November, when Dreyfus, a 35-year-old Holocaust historian, and Sarah Gensburger, a 27-year-old sociologist finishing her PhD, published the simply titled but shattering book, "Des Camps Dans Paris," almost no one had talked about these three camps, right in the heart of the capital. They, and the depredatory purpose they fulfilled, were simply overlooked.
The publication of the meticulously detailed history of the three camps filled what the authors aptly call a "hole" in the memory of the city. It is an academic book, but it was reviewed in nearly every French newspaper, many of the articles focusing on gaps in memory and history. The tabloid France Soir wondered how it was possible that so much was known on the deportations, but nothing on camps in the center of the city. "Why this silence?" asked the conservative daily Le Figaro. "Did you know this?" asked Le Nouvel Observateur, the highbrow weekly.
Indeed, how was it possible that three camps in the center of Paris were, literally, forgotten? And why did it take a freelance historian and a grad student to dig up the truth?
The camps' absence in the history books speaks to the way the Holocaust has been studied: Both the stories we tell and the hierarchy of victimization that underlies those narratives. But, ultimately, the reason that Paris forgot the names of the camps in its midst reaches back to their very purpose: The were meant to erase memory. And they were very successful.
Dreyfus and Gensburger began investigating the camps in October of 2001, after they were approached by a small group of survivors of Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano, who had spent four years searching for a historian to tell their story. Turned down by the big names at French research centers, the survivors had tracked down Dreyfus and Gensburger through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
In the late 1990s, these survivors, and their children, formed the last amicale, or survivors group, in France. During the war, they had defied classification: Most were either half-Jews or Jews in mixed marriages; a few of them were fully Jewish, but had escaped the initial rounds of deportations with help from Christians or false papers, or more rarely, because they had special skills the Nazis needed. After the war, they came to believe that their experience of anxiety, deprivation and labor didn't match up to the terror, death and starvation experienced by those who had survived the extermination camps. So, while their experience was devastating psychologically -- sorting the entire contents of apartment after apartment made very clear to these Jews that the people whose goods they were handling were not expected to return -- it was deemed unseemly to discuss it. They had a pudeur, to use the word often mentioned by the survivors, a modesty, a reticence, to bring up their internment in the same breath as that of the survivors of the death camps.
That began to change in the mid-1990s, when a German journalist wrote a story claiming there had been a camp buried beneath the new Bibliothèque nationale de France, François Mitterand, near Gare D'Austerlitz. (The location proved to be wrong.) When even a subsequent short article in a French newspaper failed to generate wider interest, the survivors of Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano realized that if they didn't find someone to write the history, it would be lost.
By the time they found him, Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a specialist in aryanization and pillaging of Jewish goods, had just returned from a year at Harvard and several months at the Holocaust museum in Washington. He had just begun a two-year stint at the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research at the Foreign Ministry and was finishing up his first book. Sarah Gensburger was midway through her dissertation at the prestigious L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) on "righteous gentiles" (those who helped Jews) in the collective memory of France, Belgium and Israel. She had met Dreyfus in Washington, where she too had spent time at the Holocaust museum.
While they were intrigued by the survivors' stories, Dreyfus and Gensburger were doubtful as to whether they would actually find any relevant documents or anyone to interview, outside of the few former internees who had contacted them. Since they both were involved in other projects, this investigation would have to be researched and written up late at night and on weekends, without guarantee of remuneration. Nevertheless, they decided to work together. Dreyfus took on the archival work on the administrative and economic aspects of the camp operations, and Gensburger agreed to gather the oral history and research daily life in the camps.
The two were able to get a rough idea from the survivors, but they couldn't answer some essential questions. How, for example, did the furniture get from the apartments to the camps? Who received the goods once they arrived in the Reich? Who was in charge? Who were the inmates? And what was the volume and value of material handled through these places? Histories of the Nazi and German army hierarchy that ran Paris didn't help. Most of the archives had been burned when the Germans fled in 1944.
To understand how the camps functioned, Dreyfus, a slim man with a bald pate and an impish quality that belies his seriousness, spent a year petitioning for entrance to the infamously inaccessible national military archives in the small town of Le Blanc, about 300 kilometers from Paris. When he finally was admitted, he was allowed in only with a pencil and paper -- he could not photocopy or remove any items from the archives. Yet, by reading the transcripts of a1950 lawsuit regarding Jewish property from the 40s, he was able to piece together that the stolen Jewish property was initially supposed to have been routed to the Eastern front -- to German settlers in the occupied areas of Ukraine, for example -- but was in fact transported to the Reich, where it was distributed to German families who needed furniture, dishes and all manner of household goods because their homes had been hit in Allied bombings.
To trace how entire households were so briskly and efficiently cleared and sorted, Dreyfus contacted the French professional movers' union, an organization around in the 40s that still exists today. "The movers were very open," he says. "No one had had the idea to go to them. And the guy [on the phone] said to me, 'Oh, it's good, we have all the archives of World War II.'" The archives included the moving orders that implicated nearly all of the moving companies in Paris in the looting operation.
Meanwhile, Gensburger went about establishing the patterns of daily life in the camps by reading through the unindexed, and unexplored archives of the UGIF, the Union Générale des Israélites de France, the closest thing France had to a Judenrat, the Jewish council that worked closely with the Germans, established in 1941 in cooperation with the authorities. The Germans didn't feed the inmates; the UGIF did. UGIF officers also kept tabs on what was happening in the camps.
Gensburger even found documentation that corroborated a bizarre story told by one survivor: At Bassano, in addition to the sorting of personal effects, Jews were made to run a macabre, slave version of an haute couture shop, an atelier, for the wives and mistresses of German officers and officials.
Together, the two developed a picture of what had taken place. The operation at Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano was part of what was called the Aktion Möbel, or Furniture Action. It worked something like this: When a Jewish family was taken from their apartment -- usually to the Drancy detention camp prior to deportation -- they were told to leave their pets with neighbors and their keys with the building manager. The moving companies, hired by the German authorities, would come soon afterward to the apartment and empty it. The trucks would arrive at the downtown camps, and groups of Jews interned there would unload the boxes, open them, and sort the contents into sections: linens, dishes, flatware, glasses, bedding, armoires, beds, tables, chairs and so on. The interior of the camps looked like a department store: rows of items, catalogued, separated and sorted. Another unit would pack crates to be shipped into Germany. Throughout, dignitaries of the Reich would skim off the top. The wife of the German director of the operation, a man named baron Kurt von Behr, would come by now and again and roll up her sleeves to see what she could take for herself. All personal effects -- school notebooks, photographs, letters -- were burned.
Survivors spoke to Gensburger of seeing photographs of people they knew, of furniture they recognized. "They understood, after a while, that what they were handling symbolized the final desperation of so many people," says Gensburger, who is model-tall and wears clear, frameless glasses. "The Aktion M was, of course, one more way to make money and take advantage of Jews, but also a way to be sure that any kind of Jewish existence was destroyed." Furniture was useful, but "all the family pictures, the letters and so on? They burned it. So it was gone forever."
Gensburger crisscrossed France, tracking down and interviewing survivors, but many were reluctant to speak. The prisoners at Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano were what the Germans called mischlinge or half-Jews, as well as Jews who were married to Aryans, and the Jewish wives of prisoners of war (there was a general Wehrmacht order to implement The Hague Convention with regard to POWs). They had been selected and set aside to be dealt with in the second phase of the Final Solution. This was another reason for the "hole" in memory. Highly assimilated, these Jews, upon the war's end, quickly faded back into French society. They never reached out to a Jewish community that many never felt a part of anyway. Jean Levi, an 85-year-old former internee of Austerlitz whose wife was Catholic, told me he made Gensburger promise not to talk of Judaism in his interview. "[I said], 'Don't come to see me as a Jew, come to see me as a human being,'" he says stridently, before checking to see if that might offend me.
The hole created by their identity was magnified by a sense of guilt. Those who might have spoken had long been chastened by the weight of knowing the horrors they had escaped, while others had not. "There was a plan to deport them to the East," Dreyfus says, "and 20 percent were deported." But most were liberated in August 1944, when the Allies marched into Paris.
Immediately after the Allies arrived, two stories on the camps appeared in the small Resistance newspapers. But, then, Dreyfus explains, "in April 1945, the Americans opened the camps, the concentration camps, the real camps, with all the headlines and pictures. And the survivors of the Paris camps stopped talking, because they realized that their experiences were not comparable to the Shoah itself, to the death camps." The survivors of Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano withdrew into themselves. Gensburger felt it in the interviews: "They did not feel it was legitimate to speak of their own 'small and not very important story' when they saw that most of the community had been deported and died in the gas chambers." Denise Weill, secretary of the survivors association that contacted Dreyfus and Gensburger, saw this attitude among French academics as well. "The sentiment was," she says, "'they went there, they came back, and it's not that important,' compared to what the rest went through."
"For 60 years I didn't speak about what happened here," JeanLevi says a few moments after we meet. We are upstairs at the famous Café de Flore on Boulevard St. Germain. He is white-haired and impeccably dressed, down to a silk kerchief in his breast pocket. "We were reticent," recalls the former clothing factory owner. "The Paris camps were not as hard." Later he says they were simply "not dramatic."
Levi had had a small taste of the difference: After his arrest in 1943, he spent the winter in Drancy, the notorious transit camp 15 kilometers from Paris. It was cold, wet, horrendously crowded and infested with insects. Then there was a small "selection" and Levi brought forward papers proving his wife was Catholic. He was transferred to Austerlitz.
Austerlitz was not easy, but it was better. He could receive mail; it was censored, but he had contact. His wife would roll up tiny letters like cigarettes and stuff them into the collars of shirts she sent him so he could have unfiltered news of the outside world. He had more food than at Drancy. He started a theater group among the internees, and they would put on plays. Occasionally, he could even receive visitors. He slept shoulder to shoulder with his fellow inmates and it was uncomfortable, but terrible, he realized after the war, was relative.
Because he was young and strong, Levi would sometimes be sent out of the camp on moving missions. From time to time, for example, hundreds of pianos would be dropped off at a loading station to be catalogued. Levi would know in advance that he was to be on this crew, and he would have his wife secretly meet him. They would have sex under the pianos. He was, after all, only 24.
"Women in their respective departments did the packing," wrote internee Yvonne Klug in an unpublished memoir sent to me by her nephew, Ed Francell. Klug was actually an American citizen, albeit born and raised in Paris, who had married a French Catholic man. She was put in household goods. "It was a rather unpopular place," she wrote, "because we had to clean and wash all that arrived. Often we had the impression that the people had been arrested in the midst of a meal, for the saucepans were sticky and dirty and so were the plates."
Some former prisoners impressed upon me that they tried, in their own small ways, to sabotage the looting effort. They attempted to ruin some of the nicer items, breaking glasses, ripping clothing, or breaking something small inside a piano, so that the Germans would not be able to enjoy them. Levi says they would place armoires in such a way as to ensure they would tip over once the train moved. Dreyfus found an angry letter from Germany: Too much was arriving broken.
Even so, sabotage was tempered by the ever present threat of deportation. "We were 'lent' by the Gestapo to that labor camp," wrote Klug, "which meant the Gestapo could take us back any time they wished." (Klug herself was deported to Auschwitz in one of the arbitrary selections that took place from time to time in the Paris labor camps, but survived. She died in 1972.) Levi tells of his own narrow escape from deportation: On a day he spent in the camp infirmary, his entire work gang was shipped off to Drancy, and then to Auschwitz, after one man sneaked onto a moving van and escaped. Levi was spared.
In the postwar years, internees recognized that they had all been spared. "What happened elsewhere was much more tragic than this prison," says Bernard Behr, who was sent from Drancy to Austerlitz because his mother was not Jewish. At 18, Behr was one of the youngest inmates. "This was a working prison, where the most tragic thing about it was the fear that if someone escaped, then everyone would be deported." Behr insists again and again that this wasn't the most important thing to ever happen to him. And yet he bought 30 copies of the Dreyfus and Gensburger book, one for each of his closest friends and family members.
Survivors took great pains to downplay their personal stories to me. So did Serge Klarsfeld, the famous Nazi hunter. "It was not a tragedy," he said dismissively. "The tragedy was that [nearly] 80,000 Jews of France perished and the French state was an accomplice of the Nazis."
But if they were loath to relate their personal tales, half a century after liberation the survivors were determined that the story of Lévitan, Austerlitz and Bassano should not remain untold. Getting French academics to agree wasn't easy. "I don't think it's so important if you want a large picture of what the Shoah was in France, but it's a part of the story that had to be told," said Andre Kaspi, author of the 1997 book, "The Jews During the Occupation," and a history professor at the Sorbonne. Other academics had the same response: The pillaging and aryanization of Jewish goods was a secondary consequence of Nazi policy. Yet, Kaspi calls "Des Camps Dans Paris" a "valuable" book.
Kaspi echoes the sentiment of other historians, who are eager to point out that the absence of this history was not a failure of scholarship, but a biproduct of research that prioritized death over property. "History is not a process where everything is done immediately," explains Henry Rousso, director of the contemporary history program at the respected National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and the author of several major works on the Vichy and collective memory in France. "When you look at this book, you understand that the Nazis wanted to destroy any trace of the Jewish existence in the world. The discoveries about the madness of the Nazis, the barbarian aspects of the Nazis are not finished. We will find more and more in the future."
What we choose to remember of the Holocaust is necessarily contextualized: The primary, the essential, task was the documentation of murder. But Dreyfus and Gensburger argue that this hardly negates the importance of these camps. If anything, Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano provide three-dimensionality to the years the Germans occupied Paris, a fuller sense of the pervasive Nazification of the city. These camps were a systemized, routinized, methodical method of excising the Jewish presence.
"The Holocaust is not only about killing people," says Radu Ioanid, director of the International Archival Programs Division at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, based at the Holocaust museum in Washington. "It's about taking away their rights, about isolating them, about making them powerless." Part of isolating people is rendering them propertyless. Part of isolating people is negating their very existence.
Only in the last decade and a half has the focus of the historiography, and the headlines, shifted to include the looting of artwork and bank accounts. Now historians are turning to the property of average people.
In France, the first task was writing the history of those deported -- 76,000, of whom only 2,500 returned. The next step was overcoming what Henry Rousso has called the "Vichy Syndrome," the way the French as a people reconciled themselves to the history of occupation and collaboration. It was only in 1995 that French President Jacques Chirac reversed that legacy of Charles de Gaulle and embraced national responsibility for the period. In 1997, then-prime minister Alain Juppé created a commission to study the systematic despoiling of French Jewry and the post-war process of indemnification. But while the reports, published four years ago, were thorough in analyzing the aryanization of Jewish businesses and banking, what Dreyfus and Gensburger revealed is what happened to the possessions of regular people. "The aryanization was studied only in the second phase in Holocaust studies," explains Renee Poznanski, director of the political science department at Ben-Gurion University, and an expert on Jewish life in France during the Holocaust. " Jean-Marc is [one of] the first to really get into that. And it's not disconnected from the zeitgeist." This was about the small details of daily life, what happened to the plate they ate on, the bed they slept in, the clothes they wore.
"You know that the persecutions and Final Solution took place in Paris," says Gensburger, "but you know that it was in Drancy or Compiègne or Rivesalte." These were the major internment and transit camps of France, but though Drancy is only 15 kilometers from Paris, it is a world away. Living in Paris, it would be very, very easy never to set foot in Drancy. Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano, on the other hand, are in "the heart of Paris and Paris is the city of culture, of light, tourism, beauty -- of everything," adds Dreyfus. "It's impossible to have the Shoah in the middle of Paris. It is difficult to accept," he says.
"The Germans chose the building because it was discreet," says Dreyfus. We are on a tour of Lévitan with Miranda Salt, a sleekly dressed PR manager from the advertising agency that now occupies the building. "It's such a bright, optimistic space," says Salt as she takes us through the main hall. "You have to imagine," says Dreyfus, ignoring her, "that this was full of inmates. And they had the feeling that they were being swallowed" by the boxes that surrounded them.
Salt presses on and takes us to the rooftop terrace. It offers an unobstructed, 365-degree view of Paris. The night's light is purple and you can see the Eiffel Tower. The prisoners, Dreyfus explains, "were not allowed to approach the few windows that existed then. But once a week they could walk on the terrace."
We can see the tops of buildings and into a few top-floor apartments. Last spring Sarah Gensburger put up ads in buildings surrounding Lévitan asking if anyone knew its history. Two women contacted her. They said they lived on the top floor of an adjacent building, and had seen Jews walking the terrace wearing the yellow star. They knew of the camp. It took 60 years for the world to know as well.
November 1, 2004