At a reception just before the April 2 preview of the New York Public Library’s not-to-be-missed exhibit, “Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation,” the show’s guest curator, Robert Paxton, was presented with the Legion d’honneur by Jack Lang, president of Institut Mémoires de l’Éditions Contemporaine. Following the presentation, Lang, who is of Jewish ancestry and whose credentials include “socialist, member of the French National Assembly and Ministry of Culture,” cited then-president Jacques Chirac’s 1995 speech as a “defining moment for our national conscience, when he acknowledged the responsibility of the French State for the politics pursued by Vichy during that period we rightly have taken to calling the ‘Years of Darkness.’”
Alongside samplings of wartime works of André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre and other intellectuals, the exhibit includes a cartoonish illustration with the caption “Israel Uber Alles, Le Perel Juif!”; a reference to the Stavisky riots of February 6, 1934, claiming that “corrupt deputies protected Jewish speculators” and citing the revelation that both the production and the composer for the exquisite film “Les Enfants du Paradis” — made during the occupation — were Jewish and had to hide that fact.
The film was released in Europe in 1945 and in the United States in 1947. The exhibition press material notes: “Unlike other defeated European countries, France struggled under two dictatorships: the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators…. The period of the Vichy regime [under the leadership of Marshal Philippe Petain, a World War I hero], which lasted from 1940 to 1944, was a tumultuous time for French literature. A number of the best-loved writers of the 20th century produced some of their finest works, such as Sartre’s ‘No Exit.’” The exhibition “explores the deep divisions between left and right, highlights a perhaps surprising amount of sympathy for the Nazis and the homegrown fascism of ‘Vichy.’”
On display are original letters and documents, including exile experiences of Jewish intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, who escaped to America, and Otto Freundlich, who died in the Holocaust. It also features the manuscript of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Française,” original copies of illegal underground publications by such resisters as François Mauriac, Albert Camus and Louis Aragon, as well as the writings of Nazi-favored authors such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline (who fled to Denmark after the war).
Among the files are index cards of banned books written by Jews, Communists or those critical of Nazis; letters by Céline, complaining about his treatment by Jews, and a handwritten note about the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, by a member of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars. Then totally unknown, Arendt was described as “swarthy, intelligent, sparing of words, courteous, efficient.” Also on display are two pages from the manuscript “Introduction to Petain’s Paroles aux Français” from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers of the Yale Collection of American Literature.
The opening night’s guest list included France’s consul general Guy Yelda; New York Public Library president Paul LeClerc; the library’s co-curator George Fletcher; David Marwell, executive director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust; Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the board of America-Israel Friendship League, Michael Curtis, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University and author of “Verdict on Vichy” (Widened & Nicholson, London 2002).
The exhibit was originally conceived by IMEC director Olivier Corpet and first mounted in Caen, France, in 2008. It was adapted and reshaped for an American audience by Paxton, Mellon professor emeritus of Columbia University, and will be at the library until July 25.