This is where you’ll find resources concerning the exhibition “The voice of witnesses” to help you deepen your knowledge about the subject.
Seven emblematic voices
Primo Levi, Marceline Loridan-Ivens, Imre Kertész, Elie Wiesel, Samuel Pisar, Aharon Appelfeld and Simone Veil were mouthpieces for the witnesses to the Shoah. They have given these stories – including their unspeakable part – echoes, faces. Through their works, their trajectories and the symbols they have become, they have contributed to making the history of the Shoah audible within French society. Each of these seven figures, giving it its individual depth, has contributed to the shaping of collective memory.
To listen to their voices, we have chosen to present, for each of them,
two archives from French radio and television: one among their first speeches, and one among their last, shortly before their death.
We hear both the evolution of their testimony, the transformations of their voices, but also, implicitly, a brief history of the French media and the place they give to witnesses.
The first one, Primo Levi, has a special place because he never gave an interview in the French media. We invite you to listen to an unpublished archive of Italian television, RAI, which broadcast a documentary in 1983 entitled Back to Auschwitz. The writer was returning to testify at the scene of his deportation. It is here translated into French for the first time.
These archives are accompanied by texts written by specialists, friends, children and translators of these seven witnesses. They complete and extend their sound portraits.
July 13, 1927 — June 30, 2017
December 22, 2004. Simone Veil, serial number 78651, poses for the cover of the news magazine Paris-Match in front of the entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp where she landed on 15 April 1944. For the first time, Simone Veil has returned with her two sons and grandchildren. These are two worlds, two lives.
Sixty years later, the survivor is still haunted by images, smells, screams, humiliation, blows and the sky darkened by the smokes of crematorium furnaces. When she arrives in Auschwitz, Simone Jacob, a sixteen and a half year-old young girl, is accompanied by her mother Yvonne and her elder sister Milou. Her father, André, and her brother Jean, were deported to Lithuania, where they would disappear. Denise, her other sister, a liaison officer in the Franc-Tireur movement, lives clandestinely in Lyon under a false identity.
Tattooed as soon as she arrived, subjected to harassing work and humiliated, she witnesses the arrival of the Jews from Hungary – nearly 400,000 in seven weeks – and their extermination in open-air pits. Because she is pretty, a kapo takes her, along with her mother and sister, to the small Bobrek camp where the prisoners work for Siemens in less harsh conditions.
In January 1945, as the Red Army approaches, the Nazis put the remaining 68,000 prisoners in Auschwitz on the road. Supervised by soldiers who shoot everyone who stumbles, Simone, her mother and sister walk 70 kilometres in the snow in the polar cold, barely dressed, without food or water. These are the “death marches”. All three end up in Bergen-Belsen, between Hamburg and Hanover, in northern Germany, in an overcrowded camp, with no food, no medicine, and almost no water. Yvonne died on March 15, 1945, three weeks before the arrival of the British, suffering from typhus and completely out of energy. Simone Veil never resigned herself to her death.
After a long wait, the two sisters are repatriated to Paris at the Hotel Lutetia on May 24, 1945. Their sister Denise, alias Miarka in the Resistance, has already returned. They have no family, no parents, no home. The end of the war has not been the return of happiness. New punishment, we don’t listen to racial deportees like her. Political deportees, as her sister Denise, are honoured for their courage and bravery. They are victims, not heroes. The handful of survivors, barely 4 000, faces the misunderstanding of a country, indifferent to the drama of the Jews. They inspire pity, sometimes feel that they are embarrassing, so they keep quiet and suffer in silence. No one to listen to them, no one to believe them. A second death. As soon as Simone Veil comes out of anonymity thanks to her joining the government in 1974, she seizes every opportunity to talk about the hell of the camps. She will never get tired of talking about it. On behalf of all those who have not returned, she will fight for them to be remembered. Whether it is rainy, windy or hot, Simone Veil, dignified and silently respectful, honours all the ceremonies, tributes and manifestations of remembrance.
Her speeches or statements, although sober and without pathos, strike hearts and leave their mark on people’s minds. After having been a minister twice, president of the European Parliament, member of the Constitutional Council, she fights to make the “never again” of deportees a reality. President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, she works tirelessly to pass on the memory of the Shoah to future generations. Over the years, Simone Veil has become the internationally recognized spokesperson for former deportees in all the major forums – UN, Council of Europe, etc. Time can’t help it. We do not come back from Auschwitz.
At the twilight of her life, her unfailing bond with all the exterminated Jews made her say: “I have the feeling that the day I die, it is the Shoah I will think of.”
February 16, 1932 — January 4, 2018
Aharon Appelfeld was born on 16 February 1932 in Jadowa, near Czernowitz (at the time in Romania, now in Ukraine). It was this city in which he spent his childhood that he considered to be “his place”. The only son of an assimilated Jewish family, full of European and universalist ideals, he was also in contact with his grandparents of Hasidic tradition in the Carpathians as a child.
He was eight years old when the war broke out and his mother was murdered by the Nazis. Parked with his father in the Czernowitz ghetto, then deported with him to a Transnistrian camp, he escaped and spent the war wandering in the forest, finding refuge with peasants, prostitutes and thugs. Enrolled at the end of the war as a kitchen boy by the Red Army, he later joined the cohorts of refugees heading for Italy, and embarked clandestinely for Mandatory Palestine (Eretz Israel) where he arrived in 1946.
He then learned Hebrew, which he would use as his writing language and in which he published forty-five collections of short stories and novels, while teaching literature and the art of writing at the University of
Beer-Sheva, as well as at foreign universities such as Yale and Harvard. Winner of the Israel Prize, the Nelly Sachs Prize and the Médicis Etranger prize in France, he has seen his books translated into more than thirty
languages. He died in Israel on January 4, 2018.
Beyond these few biographical landmarks that trace the trajectory of a Jewish child during the war and a survivor living in Israel, Aharon Appelfeld was first and foremost an eye, a sensitivity and a voice whose literary enterprise aimed to wrest the victims from the dehumanization into which the torturers had plunged them. He did not consider writing “about the Shoah”, a massive extermination enterprise fomented by the
Nazis, but rather sought to get individuals out of the crowd to give them back a name, a unique history, fragilities, joys and obstacles. Influenced by Kafka for the relationship to the indecipherable enigma, by Hasidic
literature for the mystical dimension, by Proust for the narrative, in the smallest details, of a lost world – a time – and by the Bible for its stripped-down style, he forged a Hebrew language with unique resonances
containing European culture, Yiddish intonations, perplexity, amazement, love, loss and the ability of literature to echo the unspeakable.
September 30, 1928 — July 2, 2016
A life for memory
Born on September 30, 1928 in Sighetu Marmației, subcarpathian Romania, on Sim’hat Thora Day, the ultimate celebration of joy of the Torah, the third of four children, Eliezer (who will be later called Leizer) Wiesel will later become an only son. His sister Hilda is eight years older, and Batya is five years older. Tzipora, most frequently called Tzipouka, was born in 1934 (and was murdered when she arrived in Birkenau with their mother). The beginning of his adolescence was driven by a supposedly happy mysticism around his maternal grandfather, Reb Dodye Feig, and his rabbi from Vizhnitz.
It was at Pessa’h, the Jewish Easter of spring 1944, that freight trains arrived. Never before had so many trains arrived in Sighet. Within six weeks, 600,000 Jews were deported from Hungary and the Carpathians annexed by Hungary. Of the first night of camp, which tore his life in half and suddenly destroyed the god of his adolescence, Elie Wiesel kept an indelible scar.
After the “death march” with his father and thousands of other deportees, they arrived in Buchenwald, more dead than alive that winter of 1945. His father died there in February.
On the morning of 6 June 1945, the “children’s” train – most of them teenagers – chartered by the Americans and the Red Cross left Buchenwald with 535 boys aboard for France, where 427 boys were expected by
the OSE (OEuvre de Secours aux Enfants). On June 8 during the day, Leizer – as he continued to call himself until the late 1940s – landed with his companions in Ecouis, Normandy. A new life began for each of them.
Then it was Ambloy, near Vendôme, the so-called “religious” group, of which Leizer was a member, and, at the beginning of the 1945 school year, the Château de Vaucelles, in Taverny. He will learn the French language
and culture, in particular with François Wahl, discoverer of philosophers at Le Seuil.
Elie Wiesel wished to go to Israel in 1948 but he could not. In 1949, the Jewish Agency offered him a place on a boat, which was to take a group of olim. It was a shock, like a dream. He looked for an Israeli newspaper that did not yet have a correspondent in Paris. They all had, except one: Yedioth Ahronot.
Two encounters: Rav Shoushani and Francois Mauriac. On his return to France, he met Rav Shoushani, for whom he felt fascination mixed with fear. Then, in the first days of May 1955 was the crucial meeting with François Mauriac, to whom he revealed his deportation. Francois Mauriac persuaded him to write. He wrote, three years later, the preface of the French version of And the world remained silent, under the title La Nuit
(éditions de Minuit).
New-York and Saul Lieberman
In 1955, his mission in New York for the United Nations changed the young man’s life. In the early 1960s, he became involved for Jews in the Soviet Union and reported a burning testimony from Moscow, The Jews
of Silence. His meeting with Saul Lieberman played a decisive role in his life, opening up a university career without any degree other than obtaining the degree of Doctor honoris causa in 1967. Lieberman also became his master until his death in 1983. Elie Wiesel married Marion Ester Rose in 1969 and their only son, Elisha, was born in 1970. Wiesel then became a professor, first at the City University in New York, then at Yale, before being called to Boston University to hold the prestigious chair of Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities.
His career took an incredible leap forward when President Carter offered him, on a silver platter, in 1979, the position of Chairman of the United States President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which was transformed
in 1980 into the US Holocaust Memorial, until 1986, the year of his Nobel Peace Prize.
On a splendid idea of Jack Lang, François Mitterrand entrusted him, in 1992, with the mission of creating, then presiding over the Universal Academy of Cultures (which disappeared in 2004 due to lack of resources).
The last few years
On June 16, 2011, at the age of 82, he underwent a triple bypass operation, an experience that inspired his last published work, Open Heart (Coeur ouvert), and by which he closed the work born with Night (La Nuit), so to speak. In 2006, Night won a real triumph in the United States thanks to Oprah Winfrey and her “Book Club”. The book then became a best-seller, some fifty-five years after its publication in English – 6 million copies sold and the book selected in schools. In France, 151,000 copies have been sold in nearly sixty years.
Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016, at the age of 87, leaving nearly forty books and also a single concert recorded in 2010 with Hassidic songs from his childhood.
Michaël de Saint Cheron
November 9, 1929 — March 31, 2016
“Live and write the same novel” was the credo of a writer who only knew one identity to himself, the one he created by writing. “Medium for the spirit of Auschwitz” as he claimed in Galley Diary (1992), Kertész questioned in his work the conformism of the individual and their tendency to adapt to state violence in the 20th century. Writing allowed him to regain a personal destiny and to wrestle himself from the fate of the “functional man”, who did not live his life but his social function, a character at the heart of the first novel he published in 1975, Fateless.
Born in 1929 in Budapest to an assimilated Jewish family with little religious affiliation, Imre Kertész was deported in the summer of 1944 to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald where he became a “Muslim”. Back in a defeated Hungary, soon subject to communist rule, he only found his mother. At 16, he took his Party card, without being a convinced communist. In 1948, he joined a daily newspaper, an experience he drew inspiration from in The Union Jack (1991), and was expelled in 1950.
Mobilized in 1951, the former deportee found himself assigned as a guard in the Budapest military prison: he drew his vocation as a writer from this dual experience as a victim and an executioner and gave up any other profession. Demobilized in 1953, Kertész met Albina Vass (1920- 1995), who had just been liberated from the Kistarcsa camp: they lived together for forty-two years. Housed in a 28 m2 bachelor flat, their situation improved a little thanks to the copyright that Kertész received for the musicals he wrote between 1959 and 1965. This disliked activity allowed him to devote half the year to his novels. This began in 1955 with I, the executioner, who remained unfinished. In 1960, he turned to the history of his deportation.
Self-taught, Kertész was a great reader of Thomas Mann, Camus, Nietzsche, Kafka, but also Thomas Bernhard or Sándor Márai. Rejecting the canonic literature of the camps of his time, he decided to traumatize his reader with a new language that corresponded to the type of “functional man”: the “atonal language”. The publication in 1975 of Fateless did not shake his literary environment but got him to become an official writer. A fruitful period began with the writing of major texts: The Pathseeker (1977), Fiasco (1988) and Kaddish for the unborn child (1989). At the same time, he made many translations from German, from Nietzsche to Freud and Joseph Roth.
Kertész welcomed the regime change with a mixture of joy and caution. Little read so far, he became a cult writer after the publication of his new Procès-Verbal (1991) which denounced the limits of the democratic
Hungary. With the German translation of his works in the 1990s, he fully entered the European literary scene. But these successes went hand in hand with mourning (his mother in 1991, Albina in 1995), a profound dismay for the Hungarian political climate and doubts about his writing, as mentioned in Un autre (1997). Thus he fought for thirteen years to complete his novel Liquidation (2003), while developing various essays (in French, gathered under the title L’Holocauste comme culture). In 2000, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
In 2002, Kertész was awarded the first Nobel Prize for Literature, which had never before been awarded to a Hungarian-speaking author. The Nobel marked a turning point that he mentioned in his journal Sauvegarde (2010). In Hungary, a series of controversies accompanied this prize and pushed him to settle in Berlin from 2003 onwards. Ten years later, he returned to Budapest with his second wife, Magda Ambrus (1942- 2016). Despite the illness, he devoted himself to a novel, L’Ultime Auberge (2014). A last newspaper, Le Spectateur, appeared one month before his death on March 31, 2016.
July 31, 1919 — April 11, 1987
Primo Levi was born in Turin to a perfectly assimilated Jewish family on July 31, 1919. As Mussolini came to power in 1922, his youth was shaped by fascist education and the anti-Semitic measures gradually put in place until the racial laws of 1938 directly targeting the Jews. At the end of 1943, everything accelerated. Mussolini, deposed on July 24, was reinstated in power during the occupation of northern Italy by German troops. Retreating to the Alps, Primo Levi was in contact with different groups of supporters. It was at this time that, on December 13, he was arrested by fascist militias. Declaring himself a Jew rather than a resistance fighter, he was interned on January 20, 1944 at the Fossoli camp, equivalent to that of Drancy.
On February 22, he was deported in a convoy of 650 Jews to Auschwitz, 526 of whom were gassed upon their arrival. He survived in the Buna-Monowitz camp for eleven months. Escaping evacuation (“death marches”) to other Nazi camps, he was released on 27 January, but did not return to Turin until the following October 19. It was at that time that he began to write about his experience of deportation and internment, through which he experienced the double violence of the Shoah and the concentration camp system. First, he said, came the poems, then he started writing the 17 short chapters of If this is a man (Si c’est un homme) which, refused by several major publishers, was published by a small publishing house in 1947. In 1958, Einaudi finally republished the book, which quickly became the classic we know today. A tireless thinker of testimony and memory, he reworked its content several times until
1985 with The Drowned and The Saved (les Naufragés et les Rescapés).
In the 1950s, he began to intervene publicly as a witness in demonstrations and then in schools. At the same time, he produced specifically literary works by experimenting with all genres (novel, theatre, short story, part of which is dedicated to anticipation, essay). He has received numerous literary awards. His intellectually very intense life goes beyond that. A chemist by training, it is not only a profession for him, it is also a real optical device through which he observes the world, including the concentration camp world. Thus, each text of his almost experimental collection The Periodic Table (Le Système Périodique) (1975) is based on an element of Mendeleïev’s table. Another facet of this highly complex personality, Primo Levi has been recognized since the 1970s as a true intellectual through his regular columns in major Italian newspapers. In the grip of deep depressive episodes, affected by many negative aspects of the evolution of society (terrorism, Holocaust denial, etc.), he died when he threw himself off the stairs on April 11, 1987.
March 19, 1928 — September 18, 2018
Marceline Loridan-Ivens was born Marceline Rosenberg in March 1928. Her parents, traders in Épinal, had arrived from Poland nine years earlier. The family moved to the free zone, settling in the small castle of Gourdon in Bollène that the father had just bought, still believing that France would be able to protect them. But very soon, the children were hidden. One evening, while passing through her parents’ house, Marceline was arrested with her father, Schloïme. She was 15 years old.
They were imprisoned in Marseille, then in Avignon, in the Saint-Anne prison. On the wall of her cell, Marceline engraves this sentence: “It is almost a joy to know how unhappy you can be.” They are then transferred
to Drancy, antechamber of Auschwitz. They left by convoy 71 of April 13, 1944. His father has this prophecy: “You are young, Marceline, you will be fine. I’m not coming back.”
In Birkenau, Marceline became the serial number 78750, and a friend to Simone Veil who slept with her sister and mother in the same barracks as her. She survives and works. That is how she meets her father
one day. He is still alive. In November 1944, Auschwitz was evacuated. Marceline was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, then to Raguhn, where she worked in an aircraft factory. The last transfer, as the bombing progressed, was for Theresienstadt. On this last trip, she comes out alive from a van filled with dead bodies from typhus. Then begins the long journey back to France, then to life. The unbearable prophecy is being proved: his father would not return.
Marceline Rosenberg married and became Marceline Loridan, but it was in the artistic effervescence of Saint-Germain-des-Prés that she fought against her memories and ghosts. Cinema became her weapon. It is on a screen, during a long shot of the film Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été) by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, that she tells for the first time her story, that of a young girl deported to Auschwitz at 15, with her father who never returned from there. She said: “I loved you so much that I am happy to have been deported with you.” It was in 1961, in the midst of a
period largely amnesiac.
And it is through the films afterwards, but behind the camera, that the survivor seals a pact with life, the present, the great causes of her generation. A love pact too, with the great documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens, who became her husband. They left to turn 17th Parallel, Vietnam in War (17e Parallèle). Then they plunged into the cultural revolution in China, from which they drew fourteen short, medium and feature films gathered under the dreamy title How Yukong moved the mountains (Comment Yukong déplaca les montagnes). Marceline is not necessarily in a foreign country there.
War, survival, revolt are part of her. Crushed by history, she now feels that she has a strong influence on it. And it was with a camera that she returned to Birkenau to finally exhume the camp that had wanted her death and shoot La Petite Prairie aux bouleaux. That was in 2003. “I’m alive!”, shouts the heroine from the top of an abandoned mirador. In 2015, she published a letter to her father, But you did not come back (Et tu
n’es pas revenu) (Grasset). Two years later, she broke the silence of the survivors. In L’Amour après, she tells how the camp froze her woman’s body, what it would take for her to experience desire and pleasure.
She passed away in September 2018, at the end of a fiercely balagan life.
March 18, 1929 – July 27, 2015
Samuel Pisar experienced a tortuous and miraculous odyssey, which propelled him from the worst depths of the human condition to some of its highest peaks. He was 10 years old in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin split his native Poland between them. It first fell under Soviet occupation and then, two years later, under the Third Reich occupation. Deported to Auschwitz, Majdanek and other death camps, he escaped from Dachau after the Normandy Landings. Thus, at the age of 16, he was released by the American army, being the only survivor of his family and his school.
Wandering through the ruins of post-war Europe, he was taken in by the French branch of his family, which had been saved by the Justes of Chambon-sur-Lignon. He then joined his uncles in Australia, as far away as possible from the fratricidal Europe of his childhood. Not having been to school since the age of 10, speaking only a few bits of English and French, he had to learn everything. But he pursued his studies with the same determination he had deployed to survive in the camps. From Melbourne, he moved to the United States, where he obtained a Juris doctor from Harvard (and later from the Sorbonne), before joining John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s administration.
Over the years, he has become an international lawyer, a pioneer in East-West trade transactions during the Cold War, and an interlocutor for many political and economic decision-makers around the world. He always insisted on the fact that two beings coexisted in him: the one he called the little one – that kid, that skeletal sub-human with striped rags, a shaved head, drowned eyes who had developed in Auschwitz an extraordinary
instinct for self-preservation; and the other, that sophisticated man, holder of several doctorates, advising the world leaders. He never stopped having a dialogue with the little one until the end. It was his most authentic voice, his conscience and the source of his most sharp and accurate instincts.
Despite everything he has been through, he has managed to maintain a deep faith in humanity, and an optimism coupled with a great sense of humour. Samuel Pisar felt that it was an abdication to be pessimistic. That after Auschwitz, to really have survived, you had to live your life fully and believe in the future. Above all, it was necessary to bear witness and transmit. To testify, tirelessly, of what he had experienced in his flesh and soul, became his mission. First to honour the memory of those who did not return: his mother, Helena, his father, David, his little sister, Frieda, gassed at the age of 8, all the children at his school, and all the
others, the 6 million. But also to call for awareness, to alert future generations to the fanaticism, hatred and violence that could one day destroy their world, just as they had once destroyed his.
He left this duty of transmission to his wife, Judith; to his children, Helaina, Antony, Alexandra and Leah; and to his grandchildren, Arielle, David, Jeremiah and John. More than any of his professional successes, it was his family that mattered most to him, because “ultimately, it is this new family, the resurrection of the one I lost, that constitutes the greatest triumph of my life”.
And then what?
At the time of the death of the witnesses, what is on the horizon for transmission? Two answers are outlined here: the first is a library. The number of books it contains indicates the extent of what the witnesses are leaving us. Books, like voices, survive over time.
The second answer is in the form of a video installation. Through a gallery
of six portraits, now not only sound but film as well, it shows us who today are some of the heirs, real or symbolic, of this history of witness that we have traced.