Hidden Voices: Childhood, The Family and Anti-Semitism in Occupation France,
a conference at Columbia University
April 3-4
and at La Maison Francaise.

Lai Orenduff
 This interdisciplinary symposium on material culture and daily life in Occupation France was organized by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis (Rutgers University). During the war, Flitterman-Lewis said, ``Everyday thinking in 1940's France led to normalized complicity in the deportation of Jewish families and the persistent invisibility of everything surrounding Jewish life in French society.'' 

Presentations covered a range of perspectives with an emphasis on the lives of children. Personal memoirs or the daily impressions of ordinary French citizens were treated with the same attention as the more technical discussions of laws and institutionals, but I was more interested in the role the arts played during this period. What role did the arts play in normalizing the dominant ideology? 

The conference began with Professor Richard Weisberg (Benjamin Cardozo School of Law), who provided a comprehensive and devastating account of the French legal system's complicity with Hitler's genocidal campaign during the dark period known as Vichy. 

As in Germany, the exclusionary laws passed under Vichy rule formalized institutional anti-semitism. Rosemarie Scullion (University of Iowa) discussed the work of the novelist and Nazi sympathizer, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who, while recognized along with Proust as one of France’s greatest 20th century modernists, engendered and reinforced a type of racist thinking that resulted in the massacre of innocents during this period. Celine already had an important public presence, and his feelings on race published in documents and pamphlets had a substantial social impact. 

The role of music during the Vichy period was discussed by the composer and musician Alicia Svigals. The French film Le Voile Bleu, a popular melodrama directed by Jean Stelli and Francois Campeaux, was screened and discussed. The 1942 film is ostensibly about a woman who devotes her life to caring for children, but the film revealed the way ideology was casually but consistently presented to the French kindergarten-aged children. The second day of presentations included Philip Orenstein (Rutgers), David Slavin, (University of Georgia); Rosette C. Lamont (Sarah Lawrence College); Steven Jaron (St. Lawrence University), and Renee Roth-Hano (School of Social Work, NYU). Slavin addressed the issue of Algerian Jews and their instantaneous statelessness once the anti-semitic laws were passed under the Vichy regime. Lamont showed how Charlotte Delbo, a non-Jew, had the moral courage to stand up to the German authorities. Orenstein and Roth-Hano related their personal experiences as children hidden in Christian homes or churches. Jaron spoke on the writings of Georges Perec and Sarah Kofman. Consistently brought out in all the presentations was the effectiveness with which text, language, or visual depiction could convey the message of anti-semitism. 

No heady ideas were used; the propaganda campaign concentrated on the basic fundamental needs of people. Posters declared work, country and family as moral pillars of the Vichy government. The idea of maternal love was a popular theme in film and posters, extolling the role of motherhood for women while at the same time disallowing young Jewish girls from playing with dolls. Mother's Day was a big event even as thousands of young Jewish children were being separated from their families and sent to deportation camps. A slogan from a 1941 poster, ``Jews Must Be Swept Away to Make the House Clean,''led to the ideas of expulsion and removal and ultimately to think of Jews in nonhuman terms. 

Another poster read, ``Are You More French than He?'' The implication was that unless you could prove your Frenchness, you would be denied human rights. You were impure and needed to be expunged. Ideology became manifest as these anti-semitic feelings became normalized.