Ariella Cohen – February 2022
In the small village of La Terrasse, near Grenoble, France, no one spoke about a number of Jews that took temporary refuge there. Some survived. Others were captured by the terrifying hands of the Nazis. It was only in 2011 that a teacher and director of the primary school in the village, Serge Mérandet, investigated with his pupils the history of the school at that time and discovered that a schoolgirl had been snatched from her class by the Nazis and murdered in Auschwitz, along with her family and other people who were hiding with them.
Although many such incidents occurred during the war, most of them remain unknown and undocumented. What distinguishes this story is that the teacher who discovered the historical event is not a descendant of the victims. He is neither Jewish nor an academic scholar, but rather an inhabitant who understood the importance of investigating, documenting, and recalling these events. His research has received the support of the mayor of the village and other elected officials. Its inhabitants participated in a donation to create a “Mosaic of Memory,” each buying a symbolic tessellate (a piece of the mosaic).
Here are the names of the six Jews who were rounded up on 5 March 1944:
It all started with a project launched by the municipality: “Yesterday’s La Terrasse, I remember…”1, asking the village elders to tell anecdotes about life in the village in the past. Serge Mérandet, who already knew the Groswirts’ story from a book by Roger Dubois, the village historian, that related the family’s history in a few lines, decided that it was time to rescue the memory of these six people from oblivion, six people who were swept away by the madness of the Nazis and their collaborators in the Vichy regime. He said: “It was obvious to me, as a teacher in the school where it happened and as a citizen, to give the memory of these tragic facts, fallen into oblivion, the place it deserves.”
Serge was a well-known and respected figure in the village. He was often entrusted with memories of the locals, which they were reluctant to share with anyone else. This was the case for Michel, who later became the mayor of La Terrasse, when he recalled his classmate Jocelyne, the girl who was taken out of her class by the Gestapo: He drew a map of the desks in the classroom and indicated the place where he was seated and where this girl sat. He remembered the tires squeaking as the car braked in front of the school and the principal’s face as it turned white. Another classmate said that she called her daughter Jocelyne in memory of the girl.
This memory moved the inhabitants to the extent that they chose to name their school in honor of the director and his wife, who were partisans and helped the Jews: Flavius and Françoise Vaussenat. It was at their home that Jocelyne found refuge, fleeing after her family’s arrest. It was Miss Vaussenat who helped to hide young Roland in the mountains of Vercors.
Serge had another idea to mark the memory of that incident. He thought that a plaque was not enough; it would be necessary to have a work of art, and it should be done with the help of children. Thus, this artwork could help them understand the drama of these events without traumatizing them. He approached a local artist, Corinne Chaussabel, whose studio was right in front of the school. The idea of mosaic as a medium came to them immediately, but they did not know anything about Judaism, nor how to commemorate the Shoah. They turned to a B’nai B’rith2 lodge in Grenoble for help. As a member of B’nai B’rith, I contributed to the realization of the commemoration project.
The children regularly went to the workshop, asked questions, and could talk with Corinne, sometimes in the presence of one of the members of B’nai B’rith, about the terrible experience of those people in the places that are so familiar to them. Each child attached a white tessellate to form the girl’s dress. “A tessellate like a pebble placed on the grave, or like a piece of hallah distributed on the evening of Shabbat after the blessing of bread,” Corinne associated later. I also thought of the small stones the Petit Poucet left behind him to find his way3.
In doing so, the figures of the people began to take shape and become part of the history of their village and school.
This sculpture was placed on the wall of the school and an inauguration service was held on May 8, 2012, the day commemorating the end of World War II, in the presence of official representatives of the state, a rabbi who recited the Kaddish, a choir of Diasporim Zingers, and a children’s choir singing “Bella Ciao,” surrounded by a crowd of inhabitants.
The mosaic4 is titled “I remember… one day they came.” “They” turned out to be polysemic (having several possible meanings): Some, including Corinne, thought of the German policemen who came. For others, including Serge, they were the Jews who came to take refuge. The title brings together the two meanings.
The place is highly symbolic: the school, this place of transmission of knowledge and collective memory, which in this village faces the memorial for victims of the two world wars, became another place of remembrance.
The mosaic depicts a family: father, mother, and child. The father is separated from the rest of the family by a portal (which is on the wall)—he is literally, in the reality of his location, and metaphorically “deported,” separated from them, unable to help them.
Ironically, above the door, two old signs announce: “Charitable Society” and “Fire Pump”—societal devices that have failed in their mission.
The bodies of the figures reflect their suffering: Their limbs are made with thin metal rods, referencing their loss of weight. Their faces are a mix of white and grey tessellates; their pale complexion and their dark eyes express anxiety and terror. They are hairless, evoking the shaved head of prisoners of the camps and symbolizing the loss of their identity, ravaged by the executioners.
On their bodies, the multicolored mosaic tessellates represent the fire that consumed their bodies (red), the deportee’s coat (blue stripes), the barbed wire (black), and the Star of David (yellow), symbolizing their stigmatization by the Nazis but also their Jewish identity. One can see also in the blue and white stripes the flag of Israel.
The stripes of the little girl’s dress are broken as her childhood broke and her life vanished in smoke—like the vowels in Nelly Sachs’ poem:
O – A – O – A
Cradling sea of vowels
The words have all sunk
Consonants and vowels
Cry in all languages
These ruins are formed by shards of white marble and tessellates of glass and molten glass. Regarding the former, Corinne associated it with the hardness of the life of these people and the difficulty of transmitting this idea to the village’s children. The second, frail and pure (“pure” is the etymology of the word glass in Hebrew: zehuhit, zah), “writes” what is so difficult to say in words: the vulnerability of a human being, the tragic fates, the desegregation of life and its dispersion to smithereens. But in the artwork, the pieces come together and form a new entity.
Thus, the mosaic moves the viewer and enables them grasp that the memory, made of pieces of all these broken destinies, reconstitutes unity without obscuring the tear, as in the oxymoron of Aaron Zeitline’s “The Commandment”6:
Never have I seen a brightness so black,
A reality so unreal
The dawn of such a night.7
Likewise, this other contrast—between the starkly beautiful and bright colors that Corinne Chaussabel used and the tragic message that they transmit—can be resolved by the unity found in the idea that it is the same beautiful world that allowed those atrocities to take place.
The bright colors were also chosen by the artist to bring alive the memory of the disappeared people here, in the playground, as if they were in a class photo. I also thought of the Jewish prayer for the dead: “May his soul rest inserted into the bundle of life.”
Corinne and Serge firmly opposed the proposal of a deputy to surround the mosaic with glass or wire to protect it from vandalism: We are not going to lock them up again!
The choice of the mosaic medium implies again another connotation: In French, the word mosaic is the same as the adjective derived from Moses, which means “what is Jewish,” as in the expression “the Mosaic Law” (“the Law of Moses”). The artist didn’t know that meaning, she told me. Indeed, the destruction of the Jews of Europe affects deep and unconscious layers of the artist, but beyond that, the entire culture of the post-Shoah.
This is precisely what scholars studying postmemory research, as summed up by Frosh (2019), quoting Hirsch: “Postmemory describes the relationship that the generation ‘after’ bears to the personal, collective and cultural trauma of those who came before – the experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of stories, images and behaviors among which they grew up. … Postmemory connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection and creation. … These studies are concerned with understanding how it can be that a person might feel inhabited by the memories that come from somewhere or someone else”.8
The participants in the project were committed to it even though they were not directly affected by the Shoah nor had Jewish roots. Their involvement in the research and the process of getting to know the murdered refugees made them feel as if they did know them. They were touched by what was most intimate to them and perhaps unconscious.
Working through is a psychanalytical Freudian concept describing the confrontation of the repetitive emergence of repressed material that breaks the repetition and allows the emergence of something new. Frosh, quoting Hirsch, adapted this concept to postmemory and argued that artistic work can do it, too, even if is a big challenge, as it is in psychoanalysis. I would like to add here the work of research focused on making known the events of the Shoah.
Three people who took an important role in this postmemorial work were interviewed by me and gave their testimonies.
The first was Claudie Brun who was the mayor of La Terrasse at the time.
She continued the work of her predecessor, Philippe Volpi, and dedicated all available resources toward its completion and the organization of two symposia. She also had the idea to inscribe La Terrasse among “The Places of Memory” (a national list of places dedicated to the memory of the Shoah that I define later).
I asked myself, what were the elements of her past that predisposed her to such an investment? And I proposed her to speak about herself.
At the very beginning of the interview, she immediately noticed a small painting hanging on a wall facing her, and she commented: “These four figures behind the balustrade symbolically represent the Shoah. A family frozen in the anxiety of the future.” It is true that we were there to talk about the memory of the Shoah, but this painting was not at all supposed to represent it, and the immediacy of her association indicated how much she was impregnated with this topic.
Her grandmother was from the village and lived there during the war. She certainly knew the hidden Jewish people. Her uncles were partisans, and in the evenings of her childhood, she was lulled to sleep by their stories of blown-up German trains and imminent arrests sometimes foiled.
Her father was a gendarme in the Pyrenees who warned Jewish families when he could of the roundups that were being prepared. Her mother later told her that she often trembled with the thought that he could have been found out.
A Jewish family lived next to them, and their daughter played with her brother. This family was deported; only the girl, it is said, was able to jump off the train. Her parents were very upset by this deportation, and Claudie, who had not yet been born, was also very touched through their stories. As postmemory explorations put it: The ‘personal’ experience is haunted by that of others until feeling a possible responsibility.
When I ask her about her experience during this work of memory, the word that came her was “recognition”, to speak, in fact, of “acknowledgement”—hers and that of the inhabitants of La Terrasse—to know what those persecuted Jews had experienced, the momentary refuge they had found there, and the denunciation and horror of their death.
“Recognition” is a word with several meanings. In the view of the French psychoanalyst Lacan, we can see it as a signifier with several signifieds. (To put it simple, signifier is a word that unconsciously has importance to an individual and that refers to multiple significations). Here are the different signifieds of Claudie’s signifier, recognition, as they occurred to me:
In all cases, the memorial, to the creation of which Claudie contributed, is also a stele for this Jewish family of the Pyrenees, composed as that of the mosaic: a mother, father, and daughter. This stele, we could suppose, is a debt that Claudie felt she had paid to the past, which relieved the weight on her shoulders.
The family of Serge Mérandet, the instigator of the project, was of Italian origin, and his family had the experience of being treated as foreigners and suspected of conniving with the enemy, as was his uncle at the beginning of the war. Serge knew what it was to be a foreigner, even if in his childhood all the children played together without knowledge of their different origins.
A word that came to Serge’s mouth was obvious, in the sense of a conviction. It was obvious for his family to provide, to the extent their means allowed, food to the resistance fighters. It was obvious to his father in the fall of 1944, when he enlisted in the battalion of Chasseurs Alpins, which had just been reconstituted, and participated in the liberation of the place where he lived. Similarly, it was obvious for Serge to bring back to the village the memory of the past: “Working in a school where this tragedy took place, as a citizen committed to what is happening (racist and anti-Semitic murders in France), it was necessary to do it. It had to be done for the disappeared people, for the murdered children, so that they did not die for nothing.”
Speaking of this family at the inauguration of the mosaic and afterward, during successive commemorations, his voice was tinged with emotion and his eyes filled with tears. Why this emotion? “I’ve been with these people for years. At the beginning, they were only names on paper. Then as the research progressed, they materialized themselves: I learned their date of birth, the cities in Poland where they came from, their addresses in Paris where they lived successively, the house where they hid, the farm where they bought milk, the outings with the villagers in the mountains that Edwin did while clowning around as in a picture given by an elder. They became live beings.” Reading their names, it is as if he was reading the names of his missing relatives.
In his last speech of commemoration on May 8 before his retirement, in front of the Mosaic of memory and the monument to the dead, he spoke for the first time of his father, a partisan, with this same emotion.
“If I did this, it was in relation to my father. If he was able to do that, I can also do my little bit of work. It is not, of course, on the same scale, but my father was one of the driving forces of my actions.” If the father saved the freedom of his country at the risk of his life, the son saved a murdered Jewish family from oblivion and restored their memory to the village where they found refuge.
A thread was transmitted from father to son—the filiation9 became obvious; the transmission from one generation to the next did indeed take place.
This mosaic contains, for Serge, the memory of his father, his family, and his engagements.
Corinne Chaussabel, the artist, to my question about what her work evokes for her, answered: “There are not always very pleasant things … very strong moments of my life, good and not so good. “
“Among the pretty things, I remember walking to school and there was fresh and white snow. Our legs were sinking to the knees. And when we met other children, they joined us. And when we found dead birds, we buried them. I remember the fine pieces of wood that we crossed in front of the grave. Yet I am not a religious person, though maybe in a certain way, yes, but nonpracticing. Those are nice things, cute, I think. Others were darker.”
But before we continue with the darker things, let’s stop on this remembrance, which as nice as it may sound, features dead birds. “You were already in the burial!” exclaimed Serge when he heard it.
And indeed, during the interview, Corinne said when talking about the memorial: “It was the first time this family was buried.” I added, “It’s like a tombstone on their grave. In Hebrew, it’s the same word, Yad, which means a memorial and a tombstone.”
Who, or what, did Corinne bury with the birds and with the murdered Jewish people?
“My grandfather was deported, imprisoned on a farm in Germany. My father—I’m going to cry [her voice breaks]. … My grandmother gave birth without the presence of her husband, and when my father was three, four years old, he had to be hidden, because he was circumcised. … Operated on due to phimosis.”
Perplexed by this story thus told, I asked her to say more.
“I always knew it. My mother told me about it every time we walked in a nearby village. She showed me a house, saying: ‘This is where your father was hidden.’ My father first told me about it when I took him to see my work: ‘I was also a hidden child,’ he said, very affected. This is the first time I am talking about it, too.”
Corinne is very discreet, secretive. She said she was now able to talk about it with her mother and her father, who is beginning to lose his memory. Some weeks later, during the second interview, she told me her parents’ explanation: “The grandmother was left alone to do everything on the farm, his son was going to spend time with her own mother. She even had a Medal of Merit for maintaining the activity of the farm alone.”
Her words seemed to me to be a version that seals even stronger the secret and emotion that it encloses.
But after thinking, another meaning of these words hidden child appeared to me: Even if the life of the father was not as dramatic as that of the Jews, this identification with the hidden children allowed him to put words to a certainly traumatic experience of being a child born during the war, whose father was a prisoner until he reached 5 years old. Perhaps hidden child were the words that he made his own to speak for the first time of his distress of those years. The roots of her postmemorial work started here for Corinne and continued with her own life experiences.
Thus, something attracted Corinne to Judaism: In college, her best friend was Jewish, and she was often invited to Shabbat evenings and holidays. She knows the customs of laying pebbles on the grave and distributing blessed hallah pieces to guests, to which she associated, a posteriori, the tessellates of the mosaic. This friendship lasted until her friend left for Israel.
Another sign of this underground link with Judaism is her thought that she could be taken for a Jew, because there are “especially Jews who care about the memory of the Shoah.”
She was deeply affected by the Groswirts’ story, and every time she walked in front of the train station, which is near the hotel that housed the Gestapo’s headquarters, she described feeling “chilled in the back.” It was there that the Jewish family was first taken after their arrest.
His investment was passed on to her son, who when asked as part of a task at a college where he studied to comment on a work of art, chose to talk about the mosaic and his history. He did it in a very sensitive and right way, as the third generation of postmemory.
Now let’s go back to the “dark” moments of her life that Corinne mentioned: a motorcycle accident of incredible violence, when she was 20 years old, with multiple fractures that immobilized her in the hospital. Corinne spent a year in intensive care and a very painful rehabilitation—her body image was that of a body in pieces, her psychic experience was that of disaster. As soon as she was able to paint, she found an outlet for her sorrow, but her paintings were like her body and her mind, tortured and twisted. And she recalled: “I believe that, unconsciously, building the characters in mosaic was a way to rebuild myself, to pick up the pieces.”
“I needed to create ‘living,’ colorful people, with a whole body, present in the playground, to whom the pupils can pass the ball.” She conceived of them “living” as she conceived of her own renaissance, gathering visual sensations from her hospital bed, as she put it very poetically on her website: “She looked at the life, at the light, at a slightest sun’s beam, the walls on her room, the trees rocking as dancers in front of her window.” Later, these sensations “were splashing as the lava from a volcano … the bursts of colors such the confetti of a permanent feast that splashes the canvas of the artist … before that the mosaic imposes itself all of sudden” as a privileged medium of the artist giving a frame and a structure to this explosion.
And she added with a little mischievous smile: “In my workshop, we chatted a lot together.” About what? “There are secrets that remain.”
These people of the mosaic were alternately alive but also etched on their own tombstone: Corinne could bury her “dark moments” and create a living artwork. She said to herself, reviewing on her website the creations of her disfigured and exploded 20s: “Now I can remove the part of the accident from my website and move on.”
We see through these interviews how the fact of bringing back the past constitutes a psychic work, a real working through, which is not a matter of facts alone but of identification with people deprived of their words and life.
For their work, Serge, Corinne, and Philippe Volpi, the mayor at the time, received a B’nai B’rith prize for memory on April 14, 2013.
Corinne still speaks about it as a great surprise, with emotion still present.
But this postmemorial work does not end here; the projects of both Serge and Corrine and those of our association “La Terrasse, Place of Memory” are ongoing.
Serge is overseeing a project to make a frieze to serve as a memorial to the teachers of World War II in the schools of the region, describing what happened near where they lived.
He continues his investigations, with every discovery raising new questions:
– Who were the other Jews hidden at La Terrasse?
– What was the fate of Edwin, whose name could not be found on the list of victims?
– Just before the arrest of the Jews, a network of partisans was discovered: Was there a link between the two events? Did the resistance fighters help the Jews find refuge?
– Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the house where the Groswirt family lived belonged to a painter, Adrien Simoneton, whose son-in-law, a partisan, died in Mauthausen.
This last point led us to wonder if we could not focus our next symposium on the works of this artist and the theme of art during these dark times.
Corinne, after the Mosaic of Memory, has already created for our second symposium a large pebble on which she reproduced, also in mosaic, the road that leads from La Terrasse to Auschwitz and titled it “They left…”
A third artwork is already in progress to represent Rachel (the only person we could locate a picture of, thanks to the OSE10 archives) at all ages of her life—in mosaic tessellates, of course. The goal is not to bring her back to life, but to integrate her into the collective history.
The title could be “They came back…” I suggested.
All these projects aim to complete our knowledge of the history of the village and could generate new works yet to be created. The initial project, thus, has become a puzzle to complete, tessellates to add for a new mosaic.
But this work has a much broader scope that concerns us all regarding the question of postmemory.
Our goal is to register La Terrasse on the national list of Places of Memory: a memory of disappeared people, of those who survived, and of those who supported them without always being able to save them. Pierre Nora, a French historian, defined a “Place of Memory”11: “A place, or an object, becomes a ‘Place of Memory’ when it escapes from oblivion, for example by affixing a commemorative plaque, and when a community reinvests it with its affect and emotions.”
The memorial work of La Terrasse corresponds to this definition: the representation by the mosaic, the symposia, and the investment by the whole community give a symbolic dimension to the crude historical event and preserve it as a warm and living memory, preventing it from fossilizing. By doing this, although awakening and resurrecting history, we also refer to it as history12. Yes, the Shoah can now become the past, but without forgetting what could occur again in the future; we must remain vigilant, investing in active and creative postmemory.
This future is evoked precisely by another work, the sculpture of Sanja Ivekovic, a Croatian, in memory of the anti-Nazi resistance, portraying a pregnant woman holding a wreath of laurels with these words: “The Pregnant Memory.” As the magazine L’Arche quoted Chantal Delsol, professor of philosophy: “Memory is a matrix—not only does it generate memories (and their representations in the creations) but it also inspires the acts and thoughts of the future.”13 And that is its true value.
Ariella Cohen, Psychoanalyst, Grenoble, France
COHEN Ariella (2019), Quelques paroles que m’inspire la mosaïque, in La Terrasse Lieux de Mémoire. Les actes des colloques 2018-2019
COHEN Ariella (2007), Un psychanalyste à l’écoute de la Shoah ou une métaphore personnelle pour dire la Shoah, site gepg.org
(Version en hébreu) Lesaper mehadash et hashoah : metaphora ishit, in Gerontology, Journal of the Israel Gerontological society, 34(3), p89
ERTEL Rachel (1993), Dans la langue de personne, Seuil
FROSH Stephen (2019), Postmemory, American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 79 (2)
L’ARCHE (2018, mai), N°672
NORA Pierre (sous la direction de) (1997), Lieux de mémoire, Gallimard
PEREC George (1978), Je me souviens, Hachette
PETITIER Paule (1997), Préface, in Pierre NORA, Lieux de Mémoire, Gallimard
SACHS, Nelly (1989), Lettre et Enigmes en feu, Berlin, In Rachel ERTEL, Dans la langue de personne, Seuil
SCHWARTZ-BART Simone & PLOUGASTEL Yann (2019), Nous n’avons pas vu passer les jours, Grasset