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Exhibit Explores French Lit During WWII


Hiking stick in hand (I’m recovering from a pulled hamstring), on April 16, I got on a packed Madison Avenue No. 4 bus. An elegant gentleman immediately got up and gave me his seat. “Mr. Volker!” I exclaimed, recognizing Paul Volker, chairman of President Obama’s newly formed Economic Recovery Advisory Board. “How nice to see you again,” I said to the towering 82-year-old former chairman of the Federal Reserve. Volker seemed distraught. His companion sitting next to me explained: “We are late for an event and could not get a taxi. Where is everybody?” I said, “It’s the last day of Passover.” Of our encounters over the years, the most memorable one occurred on May 19, 2001, when Volker was my tablemate at the Council of Foreign Relations dinner, following an advance screening of HBO’s 90-minute film “Conspiracy.” The chilling docudrama recreating the January 20, 1942 meeting at Wannsee, Germany, which set forth Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution, starred Stanley Tucci in the role of Adolf Eichmann.

In this, the month of Holocaust remembrances, candle-lightings and memorial dedications, the Volker bus encounter brought back the memory of that evening. Benjamin Meed, then-president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, was visibly distraught, as were several survivors who left after the screening before the dinner. Elie Wiesel was upset and chose to be silent. Michael Berenbaum, author of more than a dozen books on the Holocaust, made a brief presentation and Richard Holbrooke (now special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration) stated: “Though everyone in this room understands the context, the average film viewer, particularly younger students, won’t understand what is going on.” An agitated Menachem Rosensaft (newly named general counsel of the World Jewish Congress) expressed concern that the film might be a boon to skinheads. And Tucci confessed: “When they began filming at Wannsee and I put on the [German] uniform as I approached the gates… my stomach turned over. I felt I was about to faint.” Whenever I read a Holocaust memoir, listen to a survivor’s testimony or see a Holocaust film, “Conspiracy,” with its bureaucratic, administrative sang-froid discussion of the details of the destruction of Europe’s Jewry, keeps running mental interference.

In addition to Volker, our dinner table mates included Richard Gardner, a former ambassador to Spain and then Italy, and his wife, journalist Danielle Luzzatto Gardner, who revealed that her great-aunt Margherita Scarfatti (the subject of “Il Duce’s Other Woman”) had been Mussolini’s Jewish mistress “who taught him how to eat with a fork and knife.” Volker is also a trustee of the board of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, founded by Arthur Schneier, senior rabbi of Park East Synagogue, and has been a frequent dais presence at the foundation’s annual dinners which honor world leaders.


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.


The March 26 American Friends of Open University of Israel Gala at the Plaza felt like a simcha. The buffet was superb; AFOU’s president, Ingeborg Rennert, mingled and made sure everyone was happy, and the honorees’ speeches were short. Board chairman Malcolm Thomson touted Israel’s Open University’s role in empowering a nation in which one-third of the population “lives in poverty, and another third can’t afford education.” Among the guests were New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and his wife, Veronica; Ambassador Dore Gold, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. John Bolton, America’s former ambassador to the United Nations, received the Tzedek Award, and New York Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein, who lauded Bolton for his service to the nation and his “willingness to challenge [in the name of] what is right,” received the Yigal Allon Award. Recalling his father’s truncated education during the Depression, Klein said: “Today, your zip code, skin color and poverty will determine your education.… We will never fix education in America until we fix poverty.” Still, he was upbeat: “America will get through, as we did in the past.”

In her presentation of the Tzedek Award to Bolton, Rennert informed the audience that the award was inspired by the imperative from the Book of Deuteronomy: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. “Justice and righteousness must you pursue in order that you may live,” Rennert said. “Mr. Ambassador… you exemplify morality and decency in a society that shut its eyes to justice.… In the halls of the United Nations, you alone, singularly, had the courage to speak the truth…. You alone were the staunch defender of our democratic ideals and values. You did not fear your internal critics or external enemies.” Benjamin Tandowski, AFOU board member, presented the Yigal Allon Award to Klein. He outlined the origin of this prestigious award: “Yigal Allon — statesman, warrior, philosopher and acting prime minister, along with Baroness Dorothy de Rothschild was the visionary behind the establishment of the Open University of Israel.” Tandowski noted that “Allon, like our honoree [Joel Klein], understood that the future of Israel depended on a highly educated population.”

Open University’s new and first woman president, Hagit Messer-Yaron, offered brief welcoming remarks. The program notes informed that Messer-Yaron, who is a professor of electrical engineering at Tel Aviv University, is an “internationally acclaimed expert in statistical processing with application to source localization, communication and environmental systems.” This left me and most of the guests linguistically in the dust. What may help translate this into common-speak is that she is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the world’s foremost professional association for the advancement of technology. She is the author of numerous scientific papers, including a pioneering article in the journal Science, titled “Environmental Monitoring by Wireless Communication Networks.” Her book, “Capitalism and the Ivory Tower,” was published in 2008.

The Open University of Israel is the country’s largest university, educating one of every six students in the country. It affords Israel’s active-duty soldiers, large immigrant population, the disabled, the indigent and yeshiva students the opportunity to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees.


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