It is a truism to say that the transmission of history to the young is paramount to any just and democratic society. We know how diaries such as that written by Anne Frank and films such as Schindler's List contribute to forming a young person's historical consciousness. As vehicles for the transmission of human values, their messages are frequently transnational and arguably transhistorical. While the specificity of the moment is not neglected, they convey universal messages of suffering and heroism, guilt and treachery, selflessness and perhaps recovery. It matters little that Anne Frank was by nationality Dutch or that Oskar Schindler was German, since their tales of moral courage and defiance, however controversial, transcend the bounds of place and time.
Nevertheless, since the particularities of national experience at times require a narrow focus which appeals to a specific set of problems, a place in Holocaust studies for books and films which focus on national identity is undeniable. In France the problem of how to evaluate the war years is acute for adults; all the more so is it for how adults transmit that history to young people. The problem has been made blatantly clear in recent years as guardians of official memory, and in particular government and church representatives, have come forward to admit that the war years were more complicated than they wished it to have been. The historical referent is to 16-17 July 1942, when close to 13,000 Jews were arrested and interned in a cycling stadium north of Paris, although the history of the referent reaches to June 1940 and the early days of occupation. At the time of the Liberation just over four years later, more than 250,000 Jews in France had been deported to camps in the East; 75,000 had died in transit or in the camps. Newspaper reports and media images of the Sons and Daughters of the Deported are no longer unfamiliar to the French. Today teenagers are routinely taught about the fateful complicity of the Vichy era. But there is a sense that French youth require exposure to the period that speaks to them from the blithe vista of the ado.
Claude Gutman's novel Les passages is therefore a timely work. Written for young readers, it fictionalizes the deportation of the Jews of Paris and of the survivors' return through the eyes of Joseph Katz, a turbulent Parisian teenager whose parents number among the deported and dead. The novel begins in 1946 with Joseph's return from Palestine, where he escapes following capture and torture by the militia. Prior to his incarceration, he learns from his friend Elie, a member of the Jewish vocational organization ORT, that a sweeping round-up of the Jews is imminent. He tries in vain to alert his parents, themselves immigrants, but their stubborn loyalty to republican values blinds them to the danger at their door. Imagining themselves as citizens of Gaul, whose papers en regle would shield them from harm's way, they leave Paris only in the summer of 1942 when they are arrested by the Vichy police. In the meantime, Elie helps Joseph go underground, finds him a small apartment, acquires for him false papers, and initiates him into the life of the mind, Marx, Apollinaire, and the surrealists. Joseph meets, eventually, an orphaned Jewish boy, Daniel, whom he shelters and feeds. It is at this point that he lays his personal safety aside and is recruited by a resistance cell whose function is to rescue Jewish children.
Joseph's story is not told directly but through a narrative frame set just after the war, when he seeks to reestablish his ties with family friends and to set his life in order. His mental state shuttles between self-reproach and a clear conscience ("c'est de ma faute, c'est de ma faute, ce n'est pas de ma faute"), and his anger cannot be contained. It is directed at the Germans and the French, but the object of his mistrust and fury goes further. Monsieur Rosenblatt, a friend of Joseph's murdered father, hopes to provide an education for him, if only he becomes his son. Monsieur Baumann, a resolute Zionist, tries to draw him into his circle; he does not realize that the young man had just left Palestine after a bitter experience with the halutzim, or young pioneers. And so the goodhearted moralizing of his elders drives him further into isolation.
Les passages, then, is timely, but I cannot say that it is a wholly welcome contribution to the literature of Vichy, because there are stylistic and, in my view, needless concessions to our own time which obscure the culture of the dark years. It is unlikely that Joseph, were he truly a figure of the war years, would refer to his parents by their given names, Ida and Schlomo, as he does throughout the novel. This irritating allowance indicates that Gutman himself would seek to take advantage of the progressivism of a segment of young French people by playing to an exaggerated sense of maturity and parity with their parents. Why would he resort to such an inane gesture of communion with youth? Presumably, only to draw them into his protagonist's bleary coming of age. That they should distrust commonplaces of authority (work, family, the homeland) would therefore be reinforced through Gutman's novel. And yet it would have been preferable to read a story in which the past was still more present - that is, in which history spoke, in its native tongue and with all its complex jargon, to the youth of France. How was the Commissariat aux Questions Juives organized? What made the Union Generale des Juifs de France politically ambiguous? Les passages need not answer these questions, but it would be desirable if the novel at least provoked some curiosity about the time. In leveling out the historical bumps, or in ignoring them entirely, Gutman underestimates the intelligence and sensitivity of young people and leaves them with an uninspiring sense of banality. It is not that literature or art cannot function as a potent vehicle for the transmission of the past. In this case, however, the ordinary lyceen would be better served by a screening of Au revoir, les enfants, followed by a careful reading of the French translation of Marrus and Paxton's Vichy France and the Jews.
Steven Jaron St. Lawrence University