History in the making – thoughts on cataloguing the Liberation collection (Part 2)

In the first part of my blog-post on working with the Liberation donation, I explored the fragmented and sometimes contradictory vision of history that the books in the collection offer, each point of view representing only a tiny portion of the actual events. In this second part, I want to expand on the odd feeling I sometimes had that the entire collection itself, despite offering quite a complete view of the period’s publishing landscape in France, was only a fraction of the whole story. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the collection; indeed, what it doesn’t say is just as interesting from a historical point of view as what it does say.

This is particularly striking with regard to the camps and Jewish people. We have many accounts in the collection of life as a non-Jewish prisoner of the Germans (particularly as a prisoner of war). And for everyone writing about it, this experience was the most terrible of the war: the privations, the squalor, the absence of contact with your relatives outside; it was impossible, it seems, for these prisoners to imagine something worse.

Yet with hindsight, we know that whatever suffering they went through was nothing compared to that endured in the concentration and extermination camps, particularly by Jewish people. But the descriptions of these camps in the collection are less abundant, and when there are accounts about them, they will often have been written by political prisoners who are not Jewish. In fact it is striking how little there is about the Jews at all in the collection; it is only as reports of the Nuremberg trials start emerging that they seem to get a bit more notice. This is because the collection as a whole isn’t proportionally representative of who suffered but of who got published. Maybe publications by Jewish authors on concentration camps are few because few survived or had recovered enough at the time. But it is also likely that the Jews were trying to tell their story to a French people too absorbed in its own pain and loss to accept, or even comprehend, that there was one suffering far greater. It is clear going through the collection that the French at the time saw themselves exclusively as first victims, then victors, of the war, and that it would take a long time for them to accept that they were also perpetrators of some of its horrors (see for example the “Rafle du Vel d’Hiv“, an episode that saw the French police collaborating with the German authorities to send Jewish people to Auschwitz).

Another thing that the collection only hints at is the importance of colonial troops. As I said in my previous post, the books made me realise how crucial the exterior Résistance had been in the fight against the occupiers. These Forces francaises libres get quite a lot of recognition in the publications, from gala programmes to books for children. But there is rarely ever any mention of who the soldiers were and where they came from, what the composition of the forces was; only through the names of the army corps – Division d’infanterie algérienne, Régiment de spahis marocains, Régiment d’infanterie coloniale, etc. – do you start getting the idea that a lot of them didn’t come from France, and that nothing could have been done without soldiers from the countries France was colonising. A look on Wikipedia informed me that there were almost as many men from Senegal, Chad, Cameroon, Algeria and many other French colonies as there were from France, yet they are never mentioned, never named. Most importantly, despite the many illustrated publications about the outside forces, they are almost never pictured apart from the very rare and all the more precious occasion (some African soldiers made the large front page of “L’Armée française au combat” – see pictures below). It is hard not to see the crushing irony of these soldiers being sent to liberate the country that was occupying theirs.

The experience of cataloguing the collection could at time be harrowing. The books on concentration and extermination camps, albeit relatively few, made me realise how little I knew about the true horror of the Holocaust. I had to flip through descriptions of tortures beyond imagination, that made me see gas chambers as almost merciful; I didn’t know there were so many ways one could kill a human being. It was quite a dissonant experience after this to come back to my usual job of cataloguing contemporary German books; whereas I would previously find it strange to be dealing with so many recent publications about the Holocaust (what can there be left to say?), I now wondered why every book wasn’t about it. Neither was I prepared for the emotion I would feel upon opening an album and seeing pictures of my home city in France, its most famous streets absolutely destroyed – no trace of the destruction remains today, I didn’t even know it had been bombed. Once again I was amazed at the speed at which we collectively moved on. But the fact that life went back to normal so quickly after such terrible events also left me with a paradoxical sense of hope; in a world that seems trapped in endless wars, it showed me that reconstruction and reconciliation are not impossible after all.

And I also hope this post can help you put the current crisis in perspective, as it has helped me.

Anne-Laure Lacour

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