Posted on 19 July 2009 Sunday

Why would a school librarian join a 5 week seminar on “Visions of the Dark Years: World War II and its Legacy in France”? Why not?! A librarian is more useful to school community members if she develops knowledge beyond search and discovery of information. So, here I am amongst a group of 14 educators from all over the US who all teach French and/or French history and are quite fluent in both areas. I’m not, and that’s why I’m here: to learn! I have a pretty basic conversational level of French and am able to get something out of most of what I see and hear.

So, the program began with a basic introduction to France in the 1940s. France, a country where for centuries  the law has forbidden questions pertaining to religion and ethnic origin. Yet, in the 1930s antisemitism reached great heights. France was a strong colonial power, with some of its colonial citizens choosing to emigrate here. The French Republic collapsed with the German actually creatively dared to go around the Maginot line, ushering in the Vichy Regime. The Dark Years.

Our first week was filled with presentations from Henry Rousso (a leading historian), Olivier Rubinstein (publisher of Suite Francaise) and Annete Levy-Willard. Levy-Willard, a journalist orginally hired by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. She is noted for her reporting of the Papon affair, leading to the conviction of Maurice Papon for crimes against humanity. Yes, the French deported men, women and children of Jewish origin in the hands of the Germans at Auschwitz. More on this trial.

We’ve visited museums and monuments throughout Paris dedicated to the victims of the Shoah. And, with these slivers of memory touching the surface, the collective memory of France has a huge hole where the Vichy regime has fallen, much like we do in the US when it comes to issues of race and slavery. It has been difficult to trace how large and how effective the resistance movement actually was. There is a desire, a need to believe it was a large movement faught by valiant young citizens. But, resistance can be quiet. It can be silence. It can be resisting laws, ignoring regulations, creating underground networks or carrying out more directly subversive acts.

I study these things contextually but always bring them back to me. How do I resist the genocide in Sudan? How do I make it a part of my students memory? How do we move beyond silence and tell accurate stories?

I’m pulling up memories from several weeks of work, as a colleague was kind enough to loan me a laptop for the weekend. Mine died and you cannot image how trying it can be to work on a French keyboard in a cybercafe!  So, my reflections are colliding everywhere.

We walked among the ghosts and toured Vichy. There, with buildings where resistance was planned, where German officers lived and ruled and where victims were tortured and massacred. And where people lived their lives among the healing waters of Vichy. Leaving the town, we stopped in a small spot surrounded by fields of sunflowers and corn. There is a wall, built and designed in a west African style, seemingly of the red clay earth. Here in the tiny, well kept cemetery are the remains of over 100 African soldiers who were in France fighting for the French. The armistace was signed, yet these soldiers for reasons not quite known kept fighting. There were all killed by the Germans during their quest to be the Great While Rulers of the Planet.  Each grave is market with name and rank, and where the name is not known the marker simply says <<inconnu>> or “unknown”. A memorial plaque marks the site.

The history of minorities here is coming along. To me, there is clearly a greater recognition of the role of Africans and Asians fighting in France than there is of persons of color fighting in the US.

As any true educator, I keep learning. For me, history and memory are contextual. Librarians are keepers of memory. Learning hear, how societal memories change over time for various  reasons helps with collection development: adding to and subtracting from the books on the shelf. Primary sources documents are important to maintain, however sources which help us get accurate interpretations are important as well.

Somewhere along the line, I’ve learned to always carry little gifts when I travel. When in London, my son and I found the little bottles of American brands of alchohol were handy little gifts. Before coming to France this time, I picked up some Obama items while at the airport in DC. They have made such wonderful gifts! I would not even have been able to find such a thing when Bush was president, let alone wanted to give them to someone!

The weather here in Normandy has gotten chilly as the rains have come in this weekend. I have about another week and a half remaining.