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Cafe de la Paix Place de l’ Opera, Paris, 1940 (AP)

Living in the past

Culture | A U.S. exhibition attracts new attention to French anti-Semitism then and now

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

Irène Némirovsky, a Ukrainian Jew whose family fled the Russian Revolution in 1917, emigrated to France where she would become an established novelist by the time Marshall Pétain announced that his Vichy government was "entering on the path of collaboration" with Hitler's Germany in 1940.

By then Némirovsky had converted to Roman Catholicism, but it made no difference to the Nazis and their French collaborators. On July 13, 1942, they arrested her in the town of Issy-l'Évêque, where she had taken refuge with her two daughters. They deported her and nearly 1,000 others in her convoy, all of Jewish descent, to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus one month later. Authorities also arrested Némirovsky's husband and sent him to Auschwitz, where he was gassed.

What are familiar stories of Jewish extermination by the Nazis are told with a new twist in an international exhibition currently on display at the New York Public Library. There among the artifacts collected for "Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under the Nazi Occupation" is a carefully typed and stamped certificate, dated March 26, 1945, and signed by the mayor of Issy-l'Évêque. It testifies that he and "French police" ordered the arrest and deportation of Némirovsky-and represents just one bit of evidence in a long debate over who was responsible for atrocities directed at Jews in France. Only this year in a February ruling did the Conseil d'État, the highest French judicial body, acknowledge direct responsibility, saying French officials "facilitated deportation from France of people who were victims of anti-Semitic persecution."

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After decades of debate over wartime crimes long attributed to Nazi occupiers, the court said the French government "bears moral and legal responsibility" for deporting nearly 76,000 Jews during the World War II occupation of France. Of those, less than 3,000 survived.

The New York Public Library exhibit captures the everyday life under the occupation that is still a matter of political debate in France. The Paris literary scene that exploded in the 1920s and '30s with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus-where comfort, ease of travel, and the freedom to write and publish almost anything were taken for granted-came to an end in June 1940. Under Nazi-occupied France food and fuel were rationed, travel was restricted, even paper-vital to the literati-became scarce, used primarily for propaganda and regularly denied to the existentialists, the novelists, and the poets who did not publish pro-Nazi treatises. Overnight it became a crime to listen to the BBC.

Using official French archives (from the Institut Mémoires de l'édition contemporaine, or IMEC, and the Mémorial de Caen) as well as material from private collections, the exhibition tells epic stories through the often mundane pulp of ration cards, government notices, letters among friends, and subversive notations delivered on the back of an envelope.

Among the items on display: Jacques Audiberti wrote an entire novel on leftover wallpaper as the paper shortage deepened. Némirovsky wrote an outline and manuscript for a book (Suite francaise) in a worn leather-bound notebook complete with a map of France drawn by her eldest daughter. Philosopher Jean Wahl scribbled poetry from a Jewish holding camp at Drancy, outside Paris: "In prison but I am still there, in faith. Everywhere walls; ­everywhere laws; everywhere the cold." He would later escape the camp and make his way to the United States, where his writings were typed and smuggled back to France.

The New York collection-on display through July 25-represents a recent achievement in bringing together what cumulatively amounts to a diary of the occupation. Némirovsky's unfinished writings, including two novels, were only recently discovered in one of her daughter's suitcases and were made public in 2004.

But the exhibit contains no simple story of resistance and heroism. In what curator Robert Paxton calls "a lost continent" of thought and knowledge, French literary society charted an uncertain course through the early days of occupation, when it looked as though no one could defeat Hitler. Free thinkers became Nazi propagandists. The religious-minded were drawn to the pro-Catholic Pétain despite his crimes against Jews. Only as hardships widened and censorship and restrictions on Jews and others tightened did the resistance grow. Bureaucrats took to stealing paper for subversive newspapers, and resistance writers moved to mimeographing leaflets in dark apartments during blackout hours. What becomes clear, as Paxton notes, is that for these scribes "not publishing is a kind of annihilation."

The world on display at the New York Public Library, and particularly its depictions of anti-Semitism, isn't only for the history books.

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