Friday, December 20, 2013

Dreaming expands our humanity: Report from Paris, 1944

Paris, August 1944 and December 2013

I'm in Paris in August 1944. People are hungry and torn between hope and despair. Allied armored columns are speeding towards the capital, according to the BBC and the underground newspapers passed hand to hand. The word from Free French General Leclerc is Tenez bon. Nous arrivons. "Hold on. We're coming."
    But not all the French are looking forward to the Liberation. I listen in on the frantic conversations of once-comfortable bourgeois merchants and functionaries who grew fatter by serving the Germans, and ordinary Parisians who obeyed Marshal Pétain's appeal to "collaborate" with the Militärverwaltung in Frankreich, the German Military Administration in France.
    I look in women who were kept as mistresses by German officers. Some have been living in luxury, in swank hotels, with running champagne and silk stockings. I watch them huddled together, talking about survival plans. They are terrified of what will be done to them when their protectors are gone. I watch some of them pleading with Hans or Otto, Don't leave us. Take us with you. A Wehrmacht colonel feels sympathy, but there's nothing he can do except to give his mistress his gold cigarette case. He has no idea what will happen to him, when Paris falls, as he knows it must. His comrades will simply dump the women they used and leave them to the mercies of their countrymen. Some will be stripped of their finery and their hair, beaten and shamed and used for rough sex.

I woke from this dream feeling oppressed, in a hotel off the Boulevard Saint-Germain during a visit to Paris a few days ago. To clear my feelings, I trekked out to Montparnasse to visit the Memorial Maréchal Leclerc and the Museé Jean Moulin. I sat in a little theater with a wrap-around screen watching multiple images of Paris in the last days of the Occupation.
    I wondered why I had dreamed into the situation of the people I had viewed the previous night, people who had made unpleasant choices and were facing unpleasant consequences, people who would not be among those jostling to cheer the Americans and the Free French as they entered Paris. Maybe one of those women was kept in a room in my hotel, under the Occupation.
    It occurred to me, yet again, that one of the functions of dreaming is to expand our humanity. In a hotel bed in Paris, I traveled back across time into life situations of people who were compelled by history to make terrible choices. I was reminded that the typical Parisian during World War II was not a Resistance fighter but someone who was simply trying to survive, to put food on the table, to get through.
     I was in Paris in 1970, a year after Marcel Ophüls' tremendous four-hour documentary film  Le chagrin et la pitié ("The Sorrow and the Pity") was released. The film showed how collaboration was normal for most of the French under Vichy, and all the justifications for it beyond acceptance of military defeat. A government committee ruled that the film “destroyed the myths that the people of France still need”. More recently, French historian Patrick Buisson has claime, in a book with the provocative title, 1940-1945 Anneés  Erotiques (“1940-45 Erotic Years”), that a remarkable number of French women traded sexual favors with the Germans. He floats the idea - infuriating to many - that for some French women this amounted to a kind of sexual liberation. Photos from Nazi archives, like the one above, were displayed in a big exhibition in Paris showing what look like high times shared by Nazi officers and French girls, generating more rage and disgust.
    So perhaps I was dreaming not only into French lives in 1944, but into the continuing challenge, for the heirs of Occupation - in which everyone's family had a story - to come to terms with history. Mulling this, I recognize that those of us who are born and live in countries that have not suffered invasion and occupation in recent generations are truly privileged. It is a challenge to our empathy and imagination to grasp fully the history of other peoples.

    I recalled a Latin tag from my school days. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. It is from Terence (aka Publius Terentius Afer, writing around 170 BCE) and it means, "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."
   Dreaming, nothing that is human is truly alien to us.

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