© Michel Fingerhut 1996-8 ^  


Nadine Fresco:
Remembering the Unknown
Int. Rev. Psycho-Anal. (1984) 11, 417 © Nadine Fresco
Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan
Reproduction interdite sauf pour usage personnel - No reproduction except for personal use only

We are very grateful to Nadine Fresco for allowing us to make this text available here.
On the Faurisson affair, see Vidal-Naquet (1981) and Fresco (1981). `L'Emprise' was the general titre of no. XXIV of the Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse, autumn 1981. It is difficult in English to find a term that can bear the degree of generality and abstraction possessed by the French word. The sense in which emprise (from prendre, to take) is used here might be rendered by 'hold' or 'grip', as in such phrases as 'to take hold' or 'to be in the grip' of something (Tr.). In France, a booklet delivered by the mayor's office to couples for the registration of births and deaths (Tr.). `The black mystery of what happened in Europe is to me indivisible from my own identity. Precisely because I was not there...' (Steiner, 1969). `Those whose civilization--whose breathing--was entirely defined by Yiddishkeit, those whose very lives depended on the Yiddish domain, were unable, when their culture disappeared, to alter or shift their fundamental allegiance to what no longer existed and which can now exist only in an obsessive, terrified memory' (Marienstras, 1975). FINKIELKRAUT, A. (1980). Le Juif Imaginaire. Paris: Seuil. FRESCO, N. (1981). The denial of the dead. Dissent, 3: 467-483. FREUD. S. (1937). Analysis terminable and interminable. S.E. 23. MARIENSTRAS, R. (1975). Etre un Peuple en Diaspora. Paris: Maspéro. PONTALIS, J.B. (1977). Frontiers in Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press, 1981. SCHNEIDER, M. (1980). Blessures de Mémoire. Paris: Gallimard. STEINER, G. (1969). Language and Silence. London: Penguin Books. VEGH, C. (1979). Je ne Lui ai pas Dit Au Revoir. Paris: Gallimard. VIDAL NAQUET, P. (1981). Les Juifs, la Mémoire et le Présent. Paris: Maspero.

In this article the author presents a few interviews of Jews born after the second World War and discusses the matter and manner in which they relate to a traumatic event they have not personally experienced: the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis. Silence, nostalgia and substitution are the main recurrent themes.

L'auteur rapporte dans cet article un certain nombre d'entretiens avec des juifs nés après la seconde guerre mondiale et étudie le contenu et les modalités de leurs liens avec un évenement traumatique qu'ils n'ont pas vécu: le génocide des juifs par les nazis. Les propos rapportés ici s'organisent essentiellement autour des thèmes du silence, de la nostalgie et de la procuration.

In diesem Artikel werden einige Besprechungen mit Juden dargeboten, die nach dem zweiten Weltrieg geboren wurden. Sowohl die Form als auch der Inhalt ihrer Beziehung zu einem traumatischen Ereignis, welches sie nie persönlich erlebt haben, nämlich der Rassenmord der Juden durch die Nazis, wird auch besprochen. Die Stille, die Sehnsucht und der Ersatz sind die meist wiederkehrenden Themen.

En este articulo el autor presenta unas cuantas entrevistas con judios nacidos después de la segunda guerra mundial, y trata el contenido y la forma de su relación hacia un acontecimiento que ellos no vivieron personalmente: el genocidio de los judios perpretado por los nazis. El silencio, la nostalgia y la substitución son los principales temas que se repiten.

It was some time ago. What had struck me was that all eight of them, without exception, had understood at once what it was about. I had simply said to each of them that I was undertaking a piece of research and that I wanted to interview him (her) because he was Jewish and had been born just after the war. I added, when they did not already know, that I myself belonged to that category. I could have heen more explicit. I could have explained that I wanted to study what impact an event of the nature and scope of genocide had had on the generation following the event. I would probably have done so if they had asked me. But, in an astonishingly identical way, they were content with what I told them. They asked no questions. Only one refused, rather abruptly, but without seeming, any more than the others, to need an explanation. I interviewed each of them only once, which seemed quite normal to them. In any case, no one, on either side, made any comment about it. The interviews took place where it suited them best, either at their home or at mine. They all spoke at length, for three, four, sometimes five hours, some in reply to my questions, others almost without pausing for breath. Maybe the meetings should have been broken down into shorter periods. Instead, in just over a week, I had recorded eight interviews. I did not go on. I could probably not have clone otherwise. No one showed the slightest reticence before the tape recorder--perhaps, too, I was particularly careful not to perceive any reticence. I knew very well that I would forget everything that had been said and that, without a recording, none of it would have stayed with me--nothing at any rate that I could use. I had each interview carefully typed out in full. I put everything into a grey file--it amounted to a lot of paper--and put the file on a shelf, without reading a single fine. That was some time ego. About that time, Robert Faurisson began this noble and difficult undertaking of converting the dupes, revealing to the world the non-existence of the gas chambers and of the so-called genocide perpetrated against the Jews by the Nazis.1

What struck me when it was suggested that I write an article for the Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse on the general theme of `L'Emprise'2 was that I didn't ask any questions either. Normally--I mean, on any other subject--I would have asked for further comment, elucidation as to what was expected of me, etc. I then remembered the grey file. I had certainly done well to record those eight interviews. Meanwhile I had forgotten everything about them. Why I had recorded them, why I had stuck them up on a shelf without reading them, the self-evident way we had all realized what was expected of us: that, too, no doubt, had to do with the emprise.

There were eight of them, all Jews, born between 1944 and 1948, mostly in France. Four men and four women. Almost the same story. But, quite obviously, they represented no one other than themselves. Once embarked on the subject that had brought us together, they told me what they could and wanted to tell me. Similarly I understood and retained what I could and wanted to understand and retain. In other words, we are far from being everything that is recounted here--still less, no doubt, only what is recounted here (Vegh, 1979).

The first kind of emprise was that of silence. At home no one ever mentioned the war years. There was a deathly silence on the subject--and the revelation came very late, during adolescence. `You're old enough to know now. You had a brother--he stayed in Poland, with your grandmother. And they didn't come back.' A dead brother had just fallen on one's head, as it were, just when one most needed him alive. But from childhood, the silence had been too total for the information to come as a complete surprise. `Maman, tell me about when you were young.' And, lifting her child on to her knees, the mother would begin. It was always the same story, always in the same order. Then what? `Then papa and I got married and then you were born.' Before that `then' was the gaping, vertiginous black hole of the unmentionable years in which an impossible `family romance' had been swallowed up. The mother's account always stopped at the same point, just before the war. Then they came to live in France. In changing place, they had also changed time. The child grew up, but the stories did not change. And there wasn't much at home to feed or unmask that silence. Not a word had been mentioned about that dead brother or that dead sister. No photograph, no object had been left around to remember them by. Sometimes, children had rummaged in their parents' papers, looking for what had been hidden from them, without actually knowing that anything had been hidden from them. `When I was 12, I took out the livret de famille3 from my parents' cupboard. My name was in it, and that of my brother, who is five years older and then, before his name, I read "Judith, born 12 January 1936". I had never heard of her. I asked my brother: "Who's Judith?" He said: "Ask maman". I asked my father: "Who's Judith?" He said: "Ask maman". I don't know why, but I never asked my mother. And I never said anything more about it at home. But because nothing had been written opposite the words "died on . . ." in the livret de famille, I did not realize that Judith was dead, I assumed that she was mad, shut away in an asylum, and that my mother went to see her, but didn't want me to know.' The search for information is limited. In place of the forbidden death, the child invents madness. The mother's silence, the madness of the mother, locked up in her own silence. And the child emerges from childhood carrying around in her head a living, mythical sister, locked away somewhere, who would have been a loving, understanding companion. `At that time I was not getting on very well with my parents. My brother and I were always rowing and fighting.' About the same time, without knowing why, she began to read all she could lay her hands on about the deportation. There were always the same photographs, the fleshless bodies, the shaven heads, the huge staring eyes. At home there were no photographs, as if no one had died, as if no one had ever lived. And sometimes she woke up in terror, after nightmares in which mad people with huge, staring eyes, locked away in wooden huts, came back to haunt her. `Right up to the time when I wanted to go to Germany--I was 17--my mother had never said anything against the Germans. But that day, she warned me: "You might find yourself in a Nazi family". Then she took out from a wallet a photograph of a small girl who looked somewhat like my elder brother. It was Judith. It was the first time I had seen my mother cry. She said hardly anything. It took me a very long time, but from that moment, the mad big sister gradually turned into a little girl who had died. Later I found other photographs of her. I reconstructed the six years of her life, photograph by photograph. They had been put away in the cellar. I never showed them to my parents. They never mentioned them to me. Maybe they had forgotten about them.'

The silence formed like a heavy pall that weighed down on everyone. Parents explained nothing, children asked nothing. The forbidden memory of death manifested itself only in the form of incomprehensible attacks of pain. `My mother got terribly depressed at times. I didn't know why, but that's how it was. It was part of our life.' For the parents, identity had been so intolerably synonymous with persecution that sometimes, to hide death from the children. they also hid from them the fact that they were Jews. `Until I was about 10, I didn't know that my mother was Jewish. Her whole family had been exterminated, all of them had disappeared, almost without trace. Since she had never told me. and since no one had ever spoken to me as a Jewess, it was something I lived through in silence. When I was 10, I put all my clues together. I had found a box of photographs of my mother's family at the back of a wardrobe behind three suitcases. And I realized she had a brother who looked very much like me. Then I went and told her that I knew she was Jewish, and that set off one of those terrible attacks she had all the time. My father said to me: "If you realized she was Jewish, you only had to come and tell me, you didn't have to go and upset her". I didn't do it again. I had done it to put a name on what had been happening every day for years without my understanding it.' Putting a name on what the silence of others had made strictly unnameable generally remained impossible for the child--and only a reconstruction of the past enabled him or her, years later, to regard that time as one of a world of silence, occasionally interrupted by clues to a drama that one was forbidden to witness.

It was a silence that swallowed up the past, all the past, the past before death, before destruction. To speak up and thus to realize the grip of death, which was that grip of silence, seems to have represented for these parents too grave a danger for such an action to seem possible. Later, in the memory of their children, this produced: `No one ever talked at home about being Jewish. In fact, no one ever talked about anything that might be a problem. As far as my parents were concerned, they had come out of it, and there was no point in talking about it. This did not stop my father from giving me the name of one of his brothers, the one who had been deported. It was there all the same, but there was no point in talking about it.' Yet talking about it was something that would probably have been indispensable if the process of mourning was to be worked through. But, for those parents, silence seemed proportionate to the horror that had annihilated members of their families, while they themselves had escaped. It was a horror that prevented them from talking either about the dead, or of anything but the dead--as if life itself had been confiscated by those disappearances. It was an impossible mourning, `wounds of the memory' of parents frozen in silence, behind their dry eyes (Schneider, 1980). They transmitted only the wound to their children, to whom the memory had been refused and who grew up in the compact void of the unspeakable. `If one had to convey such horror to a child, I don't know how one would do it, how one could bring oneself to do it, or what one would use. It's something one can't share with anyone, perhaps with one's child, but then only secretly, without actually saying it. The justification was credible enough: to spare the children an account of the sufferings they had not known, and from which at all costs the parents wanted to save them. And the children had been cast in the mould of that prohibition, struck dumb by silence, unable to transgress it, unable to ask for an answer to the question that they dared not ask their parents. `At the end of the war, my mother began to expect that her brother would come back. She had managed to persuade herself of this or that, that he was in Argentina, that he had lost his memory, that everything would turn out for the best. Everything I'm saying now I worked out for myself. My mother never said anything about it. I felt that the only possible communication I had with her was through silence, that if I said anything, something would be lost. My mother's brother could be alive only if we waited for him in silence. But if we started to talk about him with other people, we would realize that he was dead, because ten years had gone by and he had still not come back, and people might say we were crazy. I said to myself: I've a crazy mother, but no one knows except me, it's my secret, I know why she's mad.' It was to take several years before this child, trapped in silence, would be able to `say anything' without fearing that she would hurt her mother.

The silence was all the more implacable in that it was often concealed behind a screen of words, again, always the same words, an unchanging story, a tale repeated over and over again, made up of selections from the war. `When my father talked about that time, he always said the same things, it was always the same things I heard. If I can't piece together a lot of things about that period, it's because of the fascination I felt in always hearing the same stories told over and over again. Whenever the subject cropped up, it was always the same things that were said, I always heard the same things.' Litanies of silence, which outline an invisible object enclosed in an impossible evocation. And the child let his thoughts play only within the narrow limits laid down by a complicity from which there was no escape. `My uncle and aunt would come to the house and we always talked of the same thing. I always asked the same questions and they always answered in the same way. I don't know how I saw it then, it was so much part of myself. It was too close for me to be able to see it.' A blindness, inherited from silence, of children dazzled by the `black mystery' of a time before they were born.4 The destruction had been such that not a single image survived from pre-war Jewish life that was not now stained, marked by death. What the Nazis had annihilated over and above individuals, was the very substance of a world, a culture, a history, a way of life. The success of their enterprise of eradication lay ultimately in that colonization of life by death, in that anachronistic hold of the present on the past. The pre-war Jewish world had been retrospectively annihilated, made non-existent. Life was now the trace moulded by death.5 The life before--and the pitiful attempts, constantly resumed, at commemoration, celebration and other museographical undertakings were merely an attempt to silence the silence that now weighed on everything that had one day existed. But the life after the choices adopted--Zionism, assimilation, religion, etc.--are also evidence today, among other things, of the various attempts, in the next generation, to unburden oneself of this weight and this bond. Some, trying to annihilate the genocide, are trying to revive what has disappeared. They learn Yiddish, they record what the old people have to say, an oral memory, ethnography--Yiddishkeit as a province. Others remain as if trapped in the fascination exerted on them by the mystery in which they played no part. The blindspot of some primal scene, the place of concentration where death took place is also, for them, the only way out in which they can find an access to the life that existed before their birth. It is a concentration of death, but it is also the ultimate concentration of life. It is an end to the dispersal of a people: Jews who have found one another again, who have come together, reunited, whose existence has been so annihilated that only by gazing at the annihilation itself would one be able to touch the abominably terminated reality of their presence on earth. `I've got a very old "78" that crackles so much it's now almost inaudible. It's a song in Yiddish sung by Sarah Gorby. I don't understand Yiddish, I don't know what the words mean, in fact I don't want to know. But whenever I listen to that song, I start crying. It's always at one particular point in the refrain, the tone of her voice becomes so sweet, so heartrending that I seem to sink back into the memory of some old cradle song, which no one ever sang to me--or that I've forgotten. And at that precise point, the same thought always occurs to me: did someone sing it inside the camp, did some woman try to comfort her child with that song as they were going into the gas chamber?' when the evocation becomes too unbearable, one turns oneself into a demiurge of a lost world, one goes back, one drowns the nightmare in some unchanging dream--and the song becomes a lullaby for all comforted children, who at last go to sleep, far from the shouts, the whips, the boots, and the barking dogs, wrapped in the warmth of a mother's breast and tongue, words of milk and honey murmured in the ear, stronger than death, cold, hunger and fear. To stop the intolerable evocation of the fear of those small children. `The idea of their fear has always been much more painful to me than that of their death. And that's what I've inherited. I always feel that the fear with which I live almost permanently is the fear of what I have not myself had to face. It's because I haven't had to face it that I'm afraid of it. All the fear that could be lived through was lived through by that brother who is dead. And for a long time I've been under the illusion that because of his fear, because of the fear of all the others, Jews no longer owed anything to anybody, that the horror had been paid for, that the debt to terror and fear had been paid.'

Those Jews who have come late upon the scene, burdened with their posthumous life, infatuated by an irreparable nostalgia for a world from which they were excluded on being born, feel a vertigo when confronted by the `time before', the lost object of a nameless desire, in which suffering takes the place of inheritance. The past has been utterly burnt away at the centre of privileged lives in which the distress of the present is no more than the televised spectacle of young children dying somewhere else, at the other end of the planet, together with the fear of losing a suffering to which one clings as to one's very identity. It is a danger of life--and not a danger of death, a fear of recovering from that lack and of losing, in losing nostalgia, what gave depth to life. `Imaginary Jews', armed with `the ability to dramatize their biography' and for whom `Judaism acted . . . as a redemption of the everyday' (Finkielkraut, 1980). But the fascination heard in the interviews differs oddly from the delight reported by Finkielkraut when he writes: In a sense, I was fulfilled: the proximity of war at the same time magnified me and preserved me; it invited me to identify myself with the victims while feeling pretty sure that I would never be one of them'. Where he felt fulfilled, others expressed the intense frustration that stemmed for them both from the inability to identify with the victims and from the near certainty of never being one of them. Born after the war, because of the war, sometimes to replace a child who died in the war, the Jews I am speaking of here feel their existence as a sort of exile, not from a place in the present or future, but from a time, now gone forever, which would have been that of identity itself. `Even now, when I see someone with a number engraved on his arm, what I feel more than anything else is an almost incommunicable feeling, made up for the most part of jealousy. I tell myself that there is nothing to be done about it and that it is not my fault if I have come too late. I shall never be one of them, still less one of those who did not come back. What they lived through was a drama that is not mine. They lived through it, they experienced it, and I have nothing but that absurd, desperate, almost obscene regret for a time in which I cannot have been.' It is as if the dead had carried off with them the sense of life and identity, as if those who were born afterwards could no longer do any more than wander about, prey to a nostalgia that has no legitimacy.

What, indeed, can be done with the fantasy of being only one of them, of overcoming that distance by merging with them, what can be done with the feeling that they have abandoned you as much as you have abandoned them and that, dispossessing you of them, they have dispossessed you of yourself ? That by their death, they are all-powerful, while you are the inevitable betrayal, perpetrated every day of your life, of their suffering and their disappearance. What can be done with that frustration, that jealousy at being unable, like those dead children, to remain an unchanging object of love. The amputated are left only with phantom pains, but who can say that the pain felt in a hand that one no longer has is not pain. These latter-day Jews are like people who have had a hand amputated that they never had. It is a phantom pain, in which amnesia takes the place of memory. After so many years, one can still not manage to look steadily at genocide--not only because it may be, strictly speaking, unthinkable. The letters one does not read, the documents one leaves in a corner, the questions one still does not ask--with, at the same time, the acute awareness of the imminent disappearance of the last individuals who could answer one's questions, the books whose contents one forgets as soon as one shuts them, the information one does not retain, the names of people and places, dates, circumstances. One might ask the same question a thousand times, one would forget a thousand times an answer with which one can do nothing. One pretends to pursue unrelentingly the reason for one's parents' silence, while, on the contrary, everything shows how much one avoids tearing away the veil from the forbidden. Like another secret around another mystery, that sexual knowledge `between enlightenment and fantasy' of children `who know something they did not know before, but who make no use of the new knowledge that has been. presented to them' (Freud, 1937; Pontalis, 1977).

One remembers only that one remembers nothing. `When another aunt spoke to me of the deportation of my father's sister, it made a quite terrible impression on me. But I forgot it. It's one of those things I left in the dark. There are a lot of them. There are things that I have always believed and thought on that subject, but I don't know when I picked them up. I must have learnt somewhere what happened to her after Drancy, but I don't know how, or when, or from whom. I must have found out about it, then forgotten. I buried it, I don't know where.' One doesn't remember, one wasn't there, one saw nothing, one cannot, one does not want to feed one's impossible quest with anything other than the phantom of a void that recalls that one is only dispersed, far from the death on which true life ran aground. To remember would be to remember their life and their death. But that memory is forbidden--and one is afraid of thinking that something exists that is worth remembering, when one does not manage to remember this. All memory seems to be, ought to be, memory of that, all forgetting, forgetting of that. Like an unchanging symptom, the repeated pain caused by the realization that one constantly forgets places, moments, people, is like the simple reflection of the pain that finds in them its true name. That, too, they carried off with them, with the disappearance: the sense of remembering and forgetting. As if one gave oneself the right to remember only with genocide as one's memory. As if the very faculty of remembering and forgetting derived from the genocide. As if the genocide alone had made you a being of memory and forgetting.

One relates to this disappearance any idea of disappearance--and the anguish that stems from it, even though one might be glad that something has disappeared. `There's a whole series of words, which, immediately, almost automatically, make me think of that event. Even when they are quite ordinary words, like "wagon", "convoys", "gas", "star", and others. Or just the word "disappearance", which makes me think of their death in the camps. For example, some time ago, on the radio, a journalist was explaining that anti-smallpox vaccination wasn't obligatory anymore, because smallpox had disappeared. God knows that there was every reason to think that that particular disappearance was a very good thing. But when he said that, I felt a kind of distress at the idea that it no longer existed, that this thing would never exist again, and that one day one would no longer know what it had been--and perhaps even that it had disappeared.' Commemorations or amnesia: one doesn't know whether it is the memory or the forgetting of death that is the more intolerable. Or even the idea that one day one would have forgotten that one had forgotten. The images don't stay, the words don't stay, the dead don't stay.

`In the end I made up my mind to go to Poland. I had written on a paper the name of the villages where my parents were born. It seems absurd, but I was afraid of forgetting them on the way. There are no longer any Jews in Poland--or very few. I already knew that at the Yiddish theatre in Warsaw, they had to call on Polish actors, who were then taught the language, so that they could put on a play. I didn't want to see that. I walked up and down the paths of the Jewish cemeteries in Warsaw and Cracow. There are no Jews in Poland any more, there are only the places where they died or the places that go on living while they are dead. In Cracow, the synagogue doorman and the cemetery keeper aren't Jews. And it's the oldest synagogue in Europe, with the one at Worms. And only the cemetery was alive. In some villages near Lodz, nothing has changed, the market, the carts, the horses, the wooden houses. It's just that there are no longer any Jews and the synagogues are used as warehouses. I went to Auschwitz, Chelmno and Treblinka. At Chelmno, Jews were gassed in gas trucks which travelled between the village and the forest. In the clearing today all that remains is the outline of the ditches, marked by a border of stones, into which the contents of the trucks were emptied--those who hadn't been completely asphyxiated were finished off with bullets. Now the earth covers everything, grass and small flowers grow there, as if nothing ever happened. Then, in front of those ditches, which still hold so many of their bones, I felt the absurd, heart-rending desire to lie down on that impassive ground, to stretch out my arms over my dead brothers, to protect them, to preserve them from their completed deaths, to comfort their fear, their intolerable feeling of loneliness, their certainty of having been abandoned forever. And never as in that sunny clearing, where nothing remained but the trace of ditches, never as there, on the very place of their death, have I felt them to be so much alive.'

To protect them from their death would also be to turn oneself into a mad scribe, obsessionally jotting down their lost thoughts, what passed through their heads during their last moments, their prayers, their despair. the images that came back to them, childhood memories. the words, their last words, the voices of those who have groaned, wept, howled, prayed, the silence of those who said nothing, their last looks, their last gestures, their sobs, their trembling arms, their beating hearts and their already dying bodies. No one will ever be able to restore those words, those tears. those thoughts. And this obsession, this unspeakable, pitiful suffering is merely `love's labours lost'. So there remains the litany of the names, unknown townships, already forgotten towns, to be found in the wretched little calendars of the Rue des Rosiers. And one does not even want to think what the association of former inhabitants of Kozielice, Czentochow or Minsk Mazowiecki would be like. A face swims into the memory: at Cracow, a very dignified old gentleman, president since 1946 of the Jüdische Gemeinde--an attendance of ten on big occasions--who said, quite simply: `I'm too old to be nostalgic'. The very places are in exile, reduced to a listing of their names, a paper memorial, a toponymy of death, an imprescription of regret. So there are the photographs taken by the Nazis, those other obsessional archivists, the gaze resting again and again on the long lines of men, women and children, the arrival at Auschwitz of the Hungarian Jews in 1944, in their over-sized coats, clutching suitcases, the yellow star like a spider on their chests. Sometimes one can make out an expression, the fear that can be read on their faces. They don't know that the selection has taken place, they are going to die in a few moments, they don't shout out, they move forward almost peacefully, occasionally one of them is smiling and there are the two little girls sticking out their tongues, like little girls do, coquettish, embarrassed, when someone takes their photograph. Nothing speaks of their death as do these photographs showing them alive.

But how can one express the nostalgia, the feeling on leaving Treblinka? A small village with so gentle a name, like the diminutives of childhood, the children playing in the paths between the houses, the flocks of geese, the wheat stacked in sheaves in the fields, the bridge over the Bug, the setting sun. A small station among trees, the timetables of trains from Siedlce, Lublin or Byalistok. And, a little further on, the still visible trace of the branchline that led, through the forest, to the inside of the camp. That name, Treblinka, read and re-read, which evoked fear and death at the other end of the world, and which still stands, incredibly, in large letters over a small country railway station. The nostalgia that takes hold of you for that place where they came to die in whole convoys, where, apart from the memorial on the site of the camp, nothing remains of their presence, a village like any other village, which one is going to leave alive, to which one will never come back and which one is already beginning to forget. The face of the peasants when they tell you how they tried to get near the wagons packed tight with Jews shouting and moaning, begging for water, and the peasants went up and, closing their fists, passed their thumbs over their throats in a brief, unequivocal gesture to let the Jews know what awaited them. And confronted by their self-righteous, almost joky evocation of that nightmare in the midst of the countryside, in the midst of peasants, children and geese, the crazy, sick, unthinkable idea rose up of not going back, of staying there, a Jew among those Polish peasants, never leaving that place, annihilating oneself alive in that small village, dying there from life as they came in whole trainloads to die from death. `I don't know whether I ought to say such a thing, but sometimes I feel that it's us who have been deported. Not because we are like them, but because on the contrary we came after them and our lives no longer have any meaning.'

Jews deported from meaning, their residence permits withdrawn, expelled from a lost paradise, abolished in a death in turn dissolved, dissipated, disappeared. Posthumous Jews dispersed with the ashes of those left alive. Latter-day Jews, deported from a self that ought to have been that of another. Death is merely a matter of substitution. `I think that incident completely changed my mother, suddenly it was her sister, her little sister that they were looking for, and not her. After that, I think she lived with that idea practically always in her head, all her life, wherever she went, whatever she did. The idea that at one time, one of them was arrested and it wasn't her.' But who is left aside? The intolerable arbitrariness of fate condemned one to die and the other to live. Because one was not arrested, taken away, exterminated, because one missed death, one is then condemned, for years on end, to miss life, a survivor irremediably other than that other one who holds, holds back existence, transfigured and magnified by his very disappearance.

Measure for measure, the incompletion of the working through of mourning seems to have been the yardstick of catastrophe. First because of time: the unthinkable nature of the `final solution' lies not only, indeed, in the unthinkable nature of a place--that mythical territory `further to the East', where the documents of the Nazi administration situated the ultimate deportation of the Jews. The metaphorical `further' of a definitive beyond. It is also the inconceivable nature of a time, the extreme difficulty there is in perceiving as simultaneous, strictly contemporary, the unfolding of life, on the one hand in various parts of the world, the pursuit by each individual of all kinds of activity--and, on the other, the process of death as it was carried out in Poland (Steiner, 1969). At Treblinka, in order to allay the suspicions of the deportees, to prevent them from panicking on realizing what awaited them, thus disturbing the smooth running of the process, the Nazis hit on the idea of putting up, at the place where the convoys stopped inside the camp, a false, trompe-l'oeil railway station. On the façade of the station was painted, exactly as it should be, a clock, with dial, figures and hands. Time had stood still.

The time that has passed since the end of the war remains, for whoever is affected by mourning, heavily in thrall to that time, unthinkable, unassimilable, immobilized in death. The paradox is that the undertaking or eradication was of such scope that the absence of those millions of dead is still being lived through, forty years later, whether one recognizes it or not, as a sometimes very burdensome presence. It is a present stemming from an inordinate event, which one does not wish or is not able to confine within one's past and which makes it difficult for time to fulfil its function as the privileged place of mourning.

Substitution is also the swallowing up of the particular by the collective, just as it is the obligation of the collective laid on the particular. `I no longer knew whether in fact it was just a personal family drama, something quite ordinary --unfortunately people do lose young children--or whether it was part of the global death of millions of unknown people, people who were beginning to take up all the room, as if they had invaded the house. I felt as if I was constantly swinging between two kinds of death. But more and more for me now, that brother who died before I was born is one of them, a face among millions of annihilated faces. It's as if he just represented their identity. And the feeling of brotherhood I feel is for them all, who are not my brothers. He, after all, was never my brother, since I was never his. It's as if that unknown, omnipresent boy, who so burdened me with his absence, had gradually joined that immense body of those who disappeared. As a result he is no longer alone and is less of a burden to me. But I'm not at all sure that it could work in the same way for my parents.' The death of one taken over by the death of the others confers on him the meaning of a destiny, but at the same time conceals what is specific in the loss. The child inherits the incomplete mourning of the parents, decked out as a brother who has never been one--rather like those young women forced in France after 1918 into a posthumous marriage with a fiancé who had meanwhile died at Verdun or on some other field of so-called honour. Sometimes the only reference point in the silence is provided by a few words heard in adolescence, like an inadmissible birth certificate. `When we realized that he wouldn't come back, it was just at the end of the war, we were determined to have another child. So we had you.' To add to the already long list of what one does to a child--beats it, kills it, etc.--one replaces a child. One burdens the next child with the impossible duty of making up for an irreparable loss. This despite the irony of the German language. To pay reparations, wiedergutmachen, means literally, `to make good again'. So we had you--or how genocide became, literally, a raison d'être. If he had not died, I would not be here. If I were not here, he would not have died: it's difficult to say whether the sense of guilt or of imposture is uppermost. `When I was 17, I was fairly bulimic. And my mother was so anxious to get me to eat. For her, eating was synonymous with security, with peace. She wanted me to be happy, she wanted to give me the happiness that she had not been able to give my brother because he was dead. And I told myself that precisely because of him I didn't deserve to be happy, I had no right to be happy--even if it was precisely that that would have pleased my mother. I was bulimic, but I would have preferred to have been anorexic, so as to look a bit more like the deportees in the photographs. But it was as if life urged me on despite myself. It made me sick, I made myself sick. And my mother returned to the attack with her broths and her pâtés, which she prepared with such loving care. It was appalling, because I told myself that I had to eat, to please her--and I wanted to eat all the time. And at the same time I had the intolerable feeling that I ran the risk of killing her, with each mouthful, as if she had to go without for me. And I imagined those mothers in the camps giving their child the last bit of bread they had left. It was constantly like the unbearable image of the pelican who lets her own young devour her belly. I should have been happy to see her so happy to see me eat, since she could give me all the food that my brother would never eat. But precisely the opposite happened. A few years ago, I saw a film by René Féret called Histoire de Paul. It's the story of a very pale young man, who never says anything and who is shut away in an asylum, and his mother comes to see him. She has made pancakes for him. It's clear that she understands nothing of what is happening. Her eyes are quite devoid of expression, like those of her son. She sits down beside him and, without a word, starts to stick big pieces of pancake in his mouth. And he swallows it all, without saying anything, without moving. Tears flow down his cheeks. And she goes on stuffing him, and he goes on eating, interminably--as if she was going to kill him with her pancakes, as if he was going to die from them. It all takes place in utter silence, with totally inexpressive faces. I don't think I've ever seen anything so unbearable in the cinema.'

The war was not over because peace had returned. Many continued to die--all sorts of deaths. And the horror of what human beings had subjected other human beings to displaced in time the gangrene that until then had been propagated in one place: `They turned us into dogs'. On arrival in Paris, the deportees who returned from the camps were sent to the Hôtel Lutétia. And each of them, merely by his return, emphasized the absence of someone else who had not come back. Returning alive from the place where others had died, he was subjected to the looks of those who had not been deported and who, sometimes, asked him how much his life had cost. Like a chain of remorse and reproach, in which each individual drew on the back of the one in front of him the mark of shame drawn at the same moment on his own back by the one behind him. And at the end of the chain was the child: `Long after the war, people came to my parents' home in the evenings, when I was in bed, and they talked in Yiddish of what had happened. Even today, my parents don't know whether I understand Yiddish. Some of them had come back from a Polish camp whose name I forget. It's not as well known as some of the others, and I've forgotten its name again, I'm always forgetting that one. For nights on end, I listened to what had happened. They were in the kitchen, while I was in the room next door. The door was shut, but it was a very small apartment. They talked of those who had come back and what they had done to come back. And I found that very hard to bear. Even today it's one of the few subjects about which I can get quite violent. I can't bear it when people criticize those who tried, by whatever means, to stay alive, for doing whatever they did. The Jews who went into hiding, who were not deported, resented those who had come back alive from the camps. Those who got out were kapos. Personally, I have never really tried to find out. I haven't tried because I couldn't. It is intellectually and humanly impossible to differentiate between the one who got out by burying the others, the one who got out by striking the others, and the one who got out by not getting noticed. When people came to our home, my parents never asked them directly how they had got out, what they had done to stay alive. But the question was always there, even if they never asked it. The word `kapo' comes from kaput--it's history's last word. That is to say, the losers are never the dead but the kapos, those who got out. At cards, when one is capot, it's when one hasn't taken a single trick. There were the very clever ones who escaped deportation--then there were the less clever ones, the kapos,--and, lastly, the least clever of all, those who died. It's no use talking about them, they are dead. But among the living. I was rather in favour of those who were not the cleverest. And there's always a winner and a loser, the mother and the whore. The mother is the D system and the whore is the kapo. And those who belonged to the D system made themselves look virtuous after the war by not inviting those people into their homes, rather as one does not invite a woman of ill-repute. It's true that among those who came back, there were more women than men. The people who came to my parents' home had been kapos, since they were there. The women often came back alone from the camps. They came to our home two or three times. They told their stories and didn't come back. I felt that my mother had rejected them more than my father. The men didn't talk. They daydreamed.'

The mother for the whore, the sister for the brother, the mother for the child, the singular for the plural, the living for the dead. Endless substitutions with which one so easily feeds the sense of guilt and which makes it as difficult to oppose ambivalence, hostility, hate--and to disinvest death when the death of one is so much the reflection of the death of another.

So there were eight of them--and they spoke only for themselves. They talked of silence, nostalgia, substitution; of the movements in space of a diaspora whose sense has been lost; of those who went away, those who remained, those who came back; of those who, even today, cannot get over it; and of time, as the only true space, of words and silence, life and death. Jews wandering nowhere and who have never arrived. But, whether a clinical case or a human group, no one, as we know, has a monopoly on substitution, nostalgia and silence.

In the middle of one interview, one of them--I don't know why--began to tell a little story. By way of conclusion, I would like--I don't know why--to repeat that story. `It was some years ago. It was about ten in the evening. We were at home, reading, chatting, watching television, I don't remember. Suddenly the doorbell rang. That was odd, at ten in the evening. I went to see who it was. A little old man stood there, wearing an overcoat and carrying a small suitcase. The coat was rather threadbare and the man looked tired. It was just like in a film. He said: "Good evening, Monsieur R". And I said: "Yes, what do you want?" "Well, I've been given your name. I've just crossed Paris on foot. I've no money. I was given your name. Could I stay with you?" It's ten in the evening, you're sitting quietly at home, with the lights on, not bothering anybody. "Who gave you my name?" I asked. "I've forgotten, but someone did. I'm very tired, you know." I hesitated. Yes, it's true I did hesitate. but it didn't make any difference in the end. I said to him: "No, really, I can't help you, I'm terribly sorry". And I shut the door. Then I couldn't sleep. I kept turning it over in my mind. I spent the whole night sitting in a chair, smoking. I said to myself: "What have I done? I've done something quite terrible". And next day, I said to myself: "He'll telephone, something will happen". I asked the porter if he had heard anything: nothing. It took me weeks to get over it. And then--I know it sound too good to be true--some time later, perhaps three months later, the doorbell rang. There was a man, just like in a dream, with a long beard, wearing a hat and a long threadbare coat--and carrying a large briefcase. He never realized what had happened. No sooner had the bell rung than I asked him in, sat him down in the sitting-room, offered him a beer. He must have said to himself: "Just a minute, where exactly have I landed?" And I asked him: "What have you come for?" And he said: "I'm collecting money". And I said: "Why? What's it for?" It was for a Jewish school, at Annecy or Grenoble, I don't remember. "How much do you want?" I asked. "I don't know, give me, let's say, thirty or forty francs." Then I said to him: "All right, listen, come every month, and each time I'll give you eighty francs". He came for six or eight months. Then, I don't know what happened, but he didn't come any more. He must have thought I was completely mad. He couldn't understand. And the beggars in the street don't know either. If they did, they'd all be queuing up at my door.'

Copyright © Nadine Fresco

Published in the Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse No. 24 (1981). We are grateful to the Editor for permission to reprint.

It is the policy of the International Journal/Review of Psycho-Analysis to publish original papers only. But papers already published in languages other than English may be republished in the Review if it is thought that they should be made available to English speaking psychoanalysts. This moving paper is felt to be such. even though it is not grounded on psychoanalytical research. Ed.


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