A museum to show it 'is possible to resist evil': Lyons wants to ensure lessons of the Nazi occupation of France are remembered, writes Julian Nundy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE rooms where the Nazis used to torture Resistance fighters and Jews, a new museum has opened. The Centre of History of the Resistance and Deportation is an attempt by the city of Lyons, particularly Michel Noir, its Mayor, to ensure that the lessons of the Nazi occupation of France are remembered.

For Elie Wiesel, the Nobel peace prize- winning chronicler of the Holocaust, at last Thursday's inauguration, 'there is nothing more urgent, more meaningful than to give a moral force to memory' and show that it 'is possible to resist evil'.

Set in the former Military Health School where the Gestapo installed its Lyons headquarters - one of the places where Klaus Barbie, who died in a city jail last year, used to torture his victims - it has displays of documents of the time, such as posters and newspapers of the Vichy collaborationist regime and clandestine Resistance journals.

One headline, in the Vichy Le Cri du Peuple of 8 June 1941, reads 'Perfidious Albion, the historical enemy of France, is continuing its series of crimes against our homeland'. In a mock dining-room with furniture from the period, a wood-encased wireless gives out 'London calling . . . The elephant has broken a tusk' - illustrating the coded orders for the Resistance which were transmitted in BBC broadcasts.

The centre also has a library with 5,000 books and documents, a special area with reading material for children and an auditorium. On weekday mornings, the centre will be open only to parties of schoolchildren, representing an effort to keep memories alive for what Jacques Chaban- Delmas, the youngest Resistance general and a former prime minister, described as 'the young who will live the 21st century'.

Mr Chaban-Delmas spoke of the 'unhappiness of our time', outbursts of racism, 'even neo-Nazism'. At a colloquium coinciding with the centre's inauguration, speakers referred to neo-fascist attacks on asylum-seekers in Germany and 'ethnic cleansing' in the former Yugoslavia as examples. 'The spirit of Nazism is still alive,' said Roland Dumas, the Foreign Minister.

A reminder that France has its own extreme right came during the speech by Mr Noir, who was a member of the Gaullist RPR party but is now an independent. Recalling that during the trial of Barbie in Lyons in 1987, he had written an article entitled 'It is better to lose an election than to lose your soul', the Mayor said he had written it because he saw 'my political friends hesitate over their own attitude towards the National Front', the anti-immigration party of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

At this point, Bruno Gollnisch, a National Front member of the European Parliament and the president of his party in the Rhone department, rose to protest. An elderly former Resistance fighter hit him. There were scuffles and shouts of 'Out]'. Police moved to protect Mr Gollnisch, a professor of Japanese civilisation at Lyons University.

The speech by Mr Noir, 48, was one of the more moving moments of the inauguration. Twice, notably when recalling his own father's internment in the Mauthausen concentration camp and 'those 186 steps out of the quarry', he broke down.

Another was an edited 45-minute cassette from the Barbie trial, showing testimony by witnesses tortured by the Nazi police chief in Lyons. One, Simone Lagrange, who was deported to a camp at the age of 13 in 1944, watched extracts from her own testimony describing how, in the wagon going to Germany, 'we became different people' during the five- day journey - after mourning the first who died in transit, they began to welcome subsequent deaths, since the survivors had more air.

The 400 hours of film of the trial, the first French hearing ever recorded this way, are supposed to remain under seal for 40 years. Mr Noir obtained an exemption from a Paris court to show extracts at the colloquium.

They are, if anything, more vivid than the actual trial. During the trial, witnesses stood with their backs to the public and press. The film shows their faces as they described their experiences.

What the ceremonies last week did gloss over was the issue of collaboration and what a speaker called 'a mea-culpiste conformism' leading at best to passive acquiescence by the French under occupation. The organisers said the participation by Chinese, Israelis and Palestinians was intended to underline modern resistance and, as an inscription in the centre put it, that 'those who do not remember the past are doomed to re-live it'.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments