When I was a little girl, I can remember my mother watching a series on public television about the Holocaust. The introduction of the show is hard to forget, because photographs of Jewish people…men, women, and children…were surrounded by flame. I remember that it terrified and fascinated me. It certainly made a deep impression on my psyche; but I sure didn’t want to know the story behind such gruesome images.
Now I live near a town in France where I take French lessons in a building that was once used as Nazi headquarters during WWII. Apparently, there are many locals who still refuse to enter the building. I can’t say I blame them. Interestingly, the town was divided between those resisting and those assisting. Makes for some uncomfortable relating at community functions, no doubt…even after all these years. Someone who now works in the building told me that they used to execute people in the square outside. Chilling thought. Would my desire for survival or my humanity have won out? Would I have resisted or assisted? I know what I’d like to think.
I believe in the lasting resonance of things that occurred in a space and time. It isn’t so much ghosts I fear. But I do believe an energetic imprint remains. If you close your eyes, you can feel the soldiers, feel the villagers, feel the mixture of hatred and fear. You can hear secrets whispered and the orchestrations of betrayals. I can’t help but wonder about the people who had to live through it. And I can’t help but be shocked to realize it happened less than 100 years ago. That isn’t so long! Even if few remain who lived through that awful time in history, there are many alive who heard the stories first hand from their relatives.
These kinds of experiences must have such a deep and unfathomable impact, not just on a community, but on a culture. I feel completely blessed to have grown up in the USA. We’ve fought our share of wars (hell, seems like we start most of them!), but in my own lifetime, we’ve never fought on our own soil. Of course, historically, we had the Revolution and the Civil War. But we were fighting ourselves. We’ve never faced a foreign enemy on home turf…not like elsewhere. The point is, I wonder what kind of impact an occupation has on the people of a town or country. I wonder what beliefs nestle their way deep into the subconscious of a people who have lived in such fear and oppression, who have had to face the decisions one only ever faces in wartime. What insidious seeds get planted and passed down?
There really is very little here than isn’t stained by war…from one time or another. Things are old here, and you can feel the history, almost smell it as it oozes out of stone walls and rises like smoke from a damp earth. It isn’t just a metaphysical thing, of course, because in every town, there is a monument to remind everyone of the dead from two world wars. Blood has been spilled, great grief and loss compiled over centuries of human arrogance and power-mongering.
By the way, years later, I did learn the story of the Holocaust when in middle school we had to watch the same series whose beginning sequence had so frightened me as a small child. Ever since, I’ve been endlessly fascinated with movies focused on that time period like The Reader, The Pianist, Sophie Scholl, The Black Book, and The Counterfeiters. Eventually, I even taught units on the Holocaust to my own middle school class. It was too important; they needed to know the terror of which man is capable. They needed their eyes opened and their hearts broken lest they ever fall into the hateful patterns from a history forgotten, though it is no better to get frozen in past tragedy as if it was the present moment.
So now, here I am. I walk this land conscious of its history, breathing in the air. And I pray that through me, with each exhalation, some healing takes place. I pray that the despair never comforted, the anguish never extinguished, finally releases into peace and light. I pray that restless and vengeful souls find their way home and that the energetic stains of their pain be purified within those that still live and still love. I breathe not to erase the memories of a horrific history but to transcend them. I also pray for the day when mankind isn’t hurling itself towards another war.
What else can I do?
Read the account of Jean-Jacques Auduc and the French Resistance.
On women’s role in the French Resistance
Charlotte Sorkine: French Resistance Heroine
On 1) Nazi Collaborators and 2) Nazi Callaborators in France
On a country split by inconvenient truths.