Archive for June, 2015

Mural from dining hall at Les Milles

Mural from dining hall at Les Milles


When at the local tourist office, upon first learning about the camp at Les Milles, barely outside my temporary hometown of Aix-en-Provence, I can’t say I wanted to go there. But I knew I would. Having been to Holocaust memorials and museums—having been to Auschwitz—I knew what I was in for. I also knew that since it was in my neighborhood, a visit would be compulsory. For those of us alive and well seventy-some years after the eruptions of World War II, the least we can do is to pay attention, to pay our respects.

So, along with my husband and French and American friends, I went. We arrived by bus, and walking along a dusty road of an old industrial area of Les Milles, found ourselves staring through a fence at a large, grim brick edifice. It had been a tile and brick factory from the 19th century to World War I, when it was abandoned. Then, in 1939, it found new life—and a new purpose—as a concentration camp, which operated for three years.

Camp des Milles

Sometimes called “the antechamber of Auschwitz,” it was intended first as a transit camp, until 1942, when it became a deportation center. After the war, like most such camps in France, it was destined for oblivion. But some thirty years ago, Alain Chouraqui discovered its existence, and led the long campaign to preserve it—to transform Les Milles from the site of unspeakable crimes to one of guidance toward a more humane future.

“We decided to fight to preserve this camp,” he said, “since we understood that this camp was in fact the last one preserved in France… We were interested in showing that the bad people were not only the Germans or Nazis, but they were French.

“The question of identity, racism, anti-Semitism ,” he also said, “are still very active and dangerous, and we want to show people how far it can lead societies.”

His point was abundantly clear when, as we approached the grounds, we entered a security clearing room one-by-one; offending objects such as pocket knives were removed from us, and a heavily armed soldier scrutinized from outside. Asked if this procedure had been in place long, he answered no, only since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, 2015.

There is no sugar coating the dismal immensity of a 19th century tile factory, the cold, the dank, the dust of it. When such a place becomes a holding pen for human beings without adequate clothing, bedding, sanitary facilities, or food, its wretchedness cries out over decades.

But still, what we discovered at Les Milles astonished us: That despite the deprivations and fear, for the extraordinary collection of artists, musicians, and intellectuals thrown together there—more than 10,000 internees from many countries over three years—creation was resistance.

The Camp of Painters

The Camp of Painters

Initially the detainees were Germans living in France, some Nazis, but in one of the cruel ironies of the war, many were anti-fascists who had fled the Nazi regime. Then the numbers began to swell with dissident artists and intellectuals: painters including Max Ernst, Hans Belmer, Ferdinand Springer;

Ferdinand Springer

Ferdinand Springer

writers such as historian Golo Mann (son of Thomas Mann) and Lion Feuchtwanger, who would live to write a memoir about the camp, “The Devil in France”; and Nobel-Prize winning scientists Otto Meyerhof,

Otto Meyerhof

Otto Meyerhof

who won the prize for medicine in 1922, and Tadeus Reichstein, who would win it in 1950 for his invention of cortisone. There were architects, sculptors, orchestra conductors, journalists, comedians, and political dissidents.

I felt as if we met them in the silent dust they left behind. In the former kiln, stacked with bricks to create a stage and seats, prisoners created a theater named “The Catacombs,” after a cabaret in pre-war Berlin that had been shut down by the Nazis for its political satire and “depravity.” The sounds of Goethe’s “Faust”, of orchestra music, still echo there, just as the stories of lost loves and lives and hopes still exist in the graffiti of hearts, faces, messages, a Star of David left behind on the walls. In all, it is thought more than 300 original works were created at Les Milles, most of them eventually smuggled out.

The most visible of what remain are the murals of the guards’ dining hall, which burst with humor, color and satire. It was hard for me to imagine the kind of courage it took to create comedy in the face of despair, and my first instinct was to withhold my laughter. But I couldn’t, not in front of the cartoon-like figures in blue carrying trays; not when seeing the ironic message beneath plates piled high with delicious food: “If your plates aren’t very full, let our drawings calm your appetite.”

"If your plates aren't full enough..."

“If your plates aren’t full enough…”

And certainly not in front of the large mural of a comedic “Last Supper” featuring a cowboy, an Eskimo, a Henry VIII-like king, and others all gorging themselves on the food of their countries, while a disdainful figure—supposedly the Vichy camp commander—looks down at them from above. I decided that the artist meant for me to join him in laughter, which, like food, is always better shared. He was most likely Karl Bodek, who was deported to Auschwitz.

Visiting Les Milles invites such connections—with the artists and what they left for us, with the horrors of what took place here, but also with its heroes. There was the security guard Auguste Boyer who smuggled out Jewish children and sheltered them in his home. He was fired for his defiance. There was the French camp commander who ordered a freight car to take endangered dissidents close to Spain. There was the American journalist Vivian Fry who helped smuggle over 2,000 refugees—some from Les Milles—to safety in America. And there was the American Vice-Consul Hiram Bingham who worked with Fry by issuing false visas. He was also fired for defiance.

Defiance. Creativity. Resistance. This is where the visit ends, with a “Reflective” exhibit tracing not only the genocide of the Jews, but of other holocausts. Armenians, 1915-1916; Gypsies, 1939-1945; Rwandans, 1994.

The Scars of Rwanda

The Scars of Rwanda

It invites—challenges—each person to resist in large ways and small. To be intolerant of hate speech, to act against group pressure and stereotypes, to help stamp out racism wherever it’s found.

One picture is blown up to make its own powerful statement as a mural. It shows Germans at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin all standing to give the Nazi salute. But one man, who remains quietly sitting, arms crossed over his chest, resists.

Lone Dissenter

Lone Dissenter

As my companions and I left across the dusty yard to the exit, we were all pretty silent. I know what was on my mind, and later my husband said he was lost in the same thought. One of the many ways democracy can give way to authoritarian regimes, according to a display in the Reflective section, is when laws and governing principles protecting freedom and human rights are eviscerated and turned on their heads under a false veneer of legitimacy.

The display did not mention the American Patriot Act, nor the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, allowing unlimited and anonymous spending in political campaigns. Nor did it pose the question, “If you had been here at Les Milles, what would you have done?”

What it did ask, though, was far more difficult. “Who are you, really? And what do you intend to do now?”


The Fireside Angel, Max Ernst, 1937

The Fireside Angel, Max Ernst, 1937


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Cave Hand

You leave the hot sun of Southern France, the hills now heavily forested and rolling into the distance, the nearby limestone cliffs and gorges, gouged by time and the Ardèche River. You step inside the Chauvet Cave, or rather its newly opened replica, 6 kilometers from the real one near the Pont d’Arc,le pont d arc adjust your eyes to the dark, your skin to the cool damp, and quickly know you have become a time-traveler. You have entered the world of Cro-Magnan man and the oldest-known example of cave art, dating back some 36,000 years.

You are struck first by the sensation of it, the dimensions, the unfolding chambers defined by low ceilings and icy looking stalactites and stalagmites, which catch the cave light and glow with a shimmering beauty. Then there is the floor, its scattering of bones, many of them accumulated and piled together by the cave’s earliest inhabitants, cave bears, who also left many footprints and claw marks on the soft earth.

Then you not only look up, to the walls, but you begin to see. They are suddenly alive with animals—huge, mostly predatory, dangerous animals—mammoths, lions, wooly rhinoceroses, reindeer, bison, ibexes, horses.cave lions

From chamber to chamber you follow them, sometimes in single images; sometimes in pairs; sometimes copulating; sometimes fighting; sometimes in full gallop across the steppes which were then outside. You will learn that the cave has 450 animal pictures showing 14 or perhaps 15 different species.cave rhinos

You will learn a dizzying number of other facts, too, about paleontology, geology, speleology; about carbon dating, theories of evolution, and the family tree of early man. But you can’t, just yet, take them in because your eyes are still swimming with red dots, the burst of them like a balloon sellers’ display, which caught you near the entrance.

And then you have seen it, the first hand outlined on the wall. It is the artist’s hand, a signature, a hand very like your own. It is followed by other, some full-on handprints colored red, some “negative” prints, done in outline. One artist, with a markedly crooked little finger, displays his—or is it her?—signature print in many places throughout the cave, making it possible to trace his/her work. Then, many hands come together for a full–blown painting of handprints.Chauvet hands

The artistry is dazzling, the techniques amazing: the use of charcoal, and natural pigments, such as ochre; the artists’ ability to paint with brushes and fingers, to scratch images; their mastery of depth and dimension by incorporating rock surfaces into their work; their astonishing depiction of movement—like early cinema—by painting several “animals” side-by-side in motion, which, especially when viewed by torchlight, actually represent one animal running.

Once you have seen this art up close for yourself, you will be eager to understand what it means. What was its intent? You will learn many theories, postulated by many experts. They run into each other with words like ritual, animal spirits, magic, shamanism. No doubt the words hold pieces of the truth, but no one can say for sure. That is also true for all art. You can become learned and informed and knowledgeable, but you can’t really know what it means, you can only feel it, in your heart, in your bones.

In 2010, Werner Herzog made a film entitled “Cave of the Forgotten Dreams,” about the Chauvet cave and its art, which was discovered in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet. But the result of Chauvet’s spectacular find was to create the replica, which took dozens of experts and artisans, many years and 55 million Euros to make. So the dreams created in this cave were hardly forgotten; they were merely resting in their own dream state until the homo sapiens sapiens of your time—like yourself–could pick them up to stir inside the dream field where these Cro-Magnan mothers and fathers left them.

Was that their intent? Before experiencing their art, that would have seemed a far-fetched question. But when you have felt its power, its connection to you– even though its world of steppes and wild beasts has long vanished—the millennia between their time and your own seem erased. Little as you may understand about who they were and how they lived, the one thing you know here is that this tribe of hunting and gathering artists is your tribe. They exist in you; they are you.

This is what happens when you see great art. It makes you rethink everything.images (4)

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