POSTCARD: Valley of the Ashes

DRANCY, France—The town of Drancy is a glum, dismal Parisian suburb a world away from the arrestingly beautiful city just a few stops south on the commuter rail. At first, it seems indistinguishable from the rest of the banlieue: poor, squalid, and populated primarily with immigrants. French (at least from what I heard) is spoken only in broken accents if at all; trash litters the streets.

A sort of Parisian analog to what F. Scott Fitzgerald calls the “Valley of the Ashes” in The Great Gatsby, Drancy is a town that, like so many others in the immediate vicinity of its capital, France would wish to forget. But something about Drancy’s particular past—and, I am sorry to relay, its present—demands the utmost amount of national and, perhaps, even worldwide attention.

Just about five hundred yards from the town center, a concrete, U-shaped structure frames a rectangular park. Ordinary enough, at least until it becomes clear that this building formerly served as the most notorious of the major internment camps from which the French government willingly deported approximately 75,000 Jews during World War II (some 67,000 of whom left from Drancy). Today, however, this same building is neither museum nor memorial but a low-rent apartment building, where, presumably, families share meals and children blow out birthday candles.

I have to wonder: Do the residents know that 40 to 50 internees were shoved into each room before those rooms became their living rooms and dining rooms? Do they know that their building was once, in the words of historians Robert O. Paxton and Michael R. Marrus, an “antechamber to Auschwitz?” Do they even care?

Of course, at one end of the park, there is a memorial to what Drancy was seventy years ago, but it feels oddly placed, almost an afterthought. A reconstructed cattle car may elicit the terror of the crimes conducted on the spot, but the vitality of the apartment building evokes an eerie juxtaposition of the darkest history with the most seemingly indifferent present, a time in which people are somehow permitted to live in such a place.

I should mention that I am not one of those people who thinks that the French government attempts to hide its indifference and complicity during World War II. As Susan R. Suleiman points out in Crises of Memory and the Second World War, the Vichy years have become somewhat of a national obsession in France since the mid-1970s, and the highly public trials of various criminals such as Klaus Barbie in 1987 and Maurice Papon ten years later have only fanned the flames of shameful awareness and embarrassed curiosity.

Nevertheless, the question still remains: how, in a nation so conscious of its past, can Drancy be allowed to be what it is today, a home as any other? It should be obvious that using the structure of an internment camp as everyday living quarters is nothing short of the utmost disrespect, for an “antechamber to Auschwitz” can never really cease to be what it once was. In other words, Drancy is not a lease; it cannot change from an internment camp into an apartment building in the same way that a butcher’s shop can easily become a florist’s.

I am not saying that the building should be torn down—quite the opposite. It should remain forever as a memorial to those victimized in a time when the universalist nature of French republicanism was invalidated and when what was perhaps Europe’s most progressive nation-state betrayed a huge number of its own citizens. Anything less would be (and is) entirely inappropriate.

In that sense, the French government would do well to liberate Drancy for a second time—this time from the most flagrant of indecencies.

James K. McAuley ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Currier House.

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