Monday, 16 August 2010

The Time of the Roundup

“The Time of the Roundup,” in Paris City Hall, is another matter entirely, with its subtitle, “The Exodus of Jews in France during the War,” and its logo poster, an innocent-looking, vulnerable child wearing the despised yellow star. The exhibition itself is harrowing.

It’s not just the half-used canister of Zyklon B, nor the limp Auschwitz prisoner’s uniform hanging forlornly from the wall, nor even the “usual” photographs of emaciated near-cadavers after the Liberation.

No, the terrifying, immensely disgusting part is what Hannah Arendt termed the banality of evil in her analysis of Adolf Eichmann. Like the letter from the Poitiers police chief explaining to a Jew, probably cowering for dear life in the Bristol Hotel in Paris, that he is not Jewish enough to worry about his fate. He’s told he’s clean—so to speak, Aryan—in a pallid, bureaucratic prose that truly disgusts the reader.

Next to this letter of exculpation is a cluster of demented sociograms in which an Aryan “blood policeman” is showing, with the coldest logic, which family trees are tainted and which not. And there’s the odious telex of Klaus Barbie consigning forty-four children of Izieu to death.

Fifty years. Five hundred years. Anniversaries of bitter memories. And artful museology adequate to the challenge of communicating complex messages on subjects of the utmost seriousness. If the meaning weren’t so crucial as we witness a recrudescence of Nazism across Europe—heat lightning pre-figuring damaging storms—one could be distracted by the sheer panache of the presentations.

Meanwhile, down in Marseilles, where the proximity to North Africa has given the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen its greatest victories, the city fathers have just opened a new museum of African, Oceanic, and Amerindian Arts in La Vielle Charite, founded as a refuge for “fallen women” in the eighteenth century.

Now it has become a therapeutic haven for reeducating fallible humans on the cusp of the twenty-first century. Europe is fighting back at its worst interior enemies—perhaps the only true way to honor those fallen in the Holocaust.

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