The Algeria Hotel
France, Memory, and
The Second World War

Adam Nossiter
(Houghton Mifflin)
In June of 1940, the Nazis defeated the French army, marched into Paris and, shortly after, divided France into two parts. The Northern section was to be governed by the Germans. The other was a puppet government, one that would be centered in the town of Vichy. The president of "Vichy" France was Marshal Pétain --- hero of the French armies of the previous world war.

Nossiter has chosen to concentrate on three aspects of Vichy France. The first is the recent trial of Maurice Papon. Papon --- a distinguished member of the government of de Gaulle --- was tried in Bordeaux a few years ago because of his intimate involvement in the dispatch of 1,560 Jews to German concentration camps between 1942 and 1944.

The second has to do with the town of Vichy. Nossiter interviewed citizens, asking about life in fascist France, the only non-occupied country outside of Bulgaria (he points out) that voluntarily dispatched Jews to their death. The final saga tells of the French town of Tulle, which, in June of 1944, lost 200 of its men, by hanging, as punishment for anti-Nazi partisan activities.

Nossiter is interested in guilt, excuses, time, and forgetting. But he becomes very much a part of the history he is exploring with his comments, his questions, and, ultimately, his feelings. These give a richness to his narrative that would have been lost in a simple retelling of an interesting footnote to WWII. His presence is not unlike the Greek chorus, commenting on the truths of what took place. But he is astonishingly forward in his interviews with those families who perpetuated these horrors, and, equally, with those who suffered most during those years.

For fifty years, Gaullists were proud of their role in WWII --- especially with the heroic stories out of the French Resistance. However, in truth, during the years from 1940 - 1944 there was much temporizing, turning away, pretending that horrors were not taking place. This is thus a tale of collective amnesia --- an amnesia that still is part of those who lived those years, either as oppressed or oppressor.

§     §     §

In his research, Nossiter found that the Algeria Hotel in Vichy was the headquarters of The Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives. He looks up those who worked there fifty years ago, calls them, asks them questions. One Mlle. Debarnot who had been an eighteen year old typist at the Commissariat exclaimed,

    Look, personally I didn't have the time to find out what they did...I didn't have any idea about what was going on there, absolutely not.

The author comments,

    She sounded impatient. Like others looking for a job at the Commissariat, she would have filled out a detailed application, with questions like, "Is or was your grandmother of the Jewish race?"

    "They gave us things to type, and that was it. Look, I don't have a single memory of it," she said before she hung up.

Another, Mme. Massiani, was daughter of the owners of the hotel. When asked about the Commissariat,

    "You're telling me something I didn't know," she said coolly. The conversation shifted. She said, "There's a very powerful Jewish lobby in France, you know."

Nossiter calls and visits the families in Tulle, Vichy, Bordeaux, both those who are Jewish (thus those whose parents perished), and those who worked for the Nazis. His quest appears to be not only discovering history, but studying the faces of morality.

Many of those he questions suggest that this history is best off forgotten. Papon, during his six month trial, said, as one would expect: it happened so long ago; why dig up the past? what's done is done; and --- most importantly --- I had no idea that these things were going on. "Because of the trial's weaknesses and Papon's evident strength, it took patience to maintain the connection between the defendant and the victims." Papon's strategy?

    It consisted of thoroughly removing himself from the court's logic by calling into question the notion of memory itself, at least as it was applied to the distant period of the Occupation.

"He had," says Nossiter, "his own relationship to the past, but it could not be comprehensive." Papon said,

    "You're asking for concrete examples fifty-five years later! I'm not a genius!"

And why, considering his superb act in court, was he finally convicted? It was the clarity of the testimony of the civil plaintiffs, says Nossiter: those few who survived, those whose families had been shipped "to the east." And too, it was the "nuances:"

    The precise degree of Papon's connection to the trains going east, his knowledge of what awaited the passengers --- the trail's two central questions of fact --- became nothing but nuances in the face of this testimony. The inheritors had shown that the crime was not actually old but sharply contemporary..... Papon's mere presence in the prefecture back then was enough. It was particularly damning that life had simply gone on for him during those years, in the high bureaucrat's unvarying routine: the chauffeur picking up the young man at his apartment on the Rue Davis-Johnston, taking him downtown, and dropping him off again in the evenings. In his diary for 1942, Papon noted some events that had preoccupied him: a country festival, a hunting party, an allied bombing in the Bordeaux suburb of Lormont that killed 245. There was no mention of the Jews.

§     §     §

As we read through The Algeria Hotel, we are reminded of Proust, and the question of memory, of one's participation in those memories, of the way we can turn memory any way we choose. The people of Bordeaux, Vichy, and Tulle lived through a bifurcated time --- a time when they were technically being governed by their own countrymen. Those of Bordeaux and Vichy quickly forgot, and they were mostly resentful of the trail, obviously irritated by the questions of the author.

Those who lived in Tulle, by contrast, said that they are still haunted by the memories of the 200 of their own who were hung in 1944 by the Nazis. "I was intrigued," he writes, "by the conviction that the town was still suffering."

Nossiter is seeking to understand how individual memories, and the cant of those memories, are to be confronted. If we forget, are we not the better for it? Should we dwell on the past, no matter how sweet, no matter how sad, no matter how brutal?

To the reader the value of this wonderful book comes clear as he tells of his visit to Mme. Godillon, in Tulle. It is the heart of his story, the very reason for his careful study: "Charles Godillon had been a lathe operator at the arms factory, thirty-six years old, a father of two and expecting another child. You could still make out, in faded pencil, the note he had scribbled to his wife on one of those cards before being led out to die --- not knowing, as it turned out, how.

    "Goodbye my dearest, my little ones, and all my family that I loved so much. Call the one who is coming Charles, or Marie. I am leaving to be shot: goodbye my love, my dear ones."

The author concludes:

    She was visibly shaken by this forced dredging up of her most painful memory, and I left her feeling ashamed of my inquisitiveness. Mme. Godillon had talked, with emotion and sorrow, of others who had died that day, of her own grief, of her intense struggle to make ends meet afterward, and of her solitude. Yet when she made reference to the murder of her husband fifty-five years before, for the first time her tone had abruptly shifted. There was a kind of release. Her statement was like a window onto an intimate reality, one so essential its relationship to the normal pain of loss was not the expected one.

--- Lolita Lark

Note: the cartoon at the top of the page is titled "Henri Sjöberg's Vichy." The artist made satiric drawings of the bureaucrats of Vichy, which were later published as Hors-Saison à Vichy. The drawing shows a French official at work in his office at the Hôtel du Parc.

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