To Bear Witness After the Era of the Witness

The Projects of Christophe Boltanski and Ivan Jablonka

in French Politics, Culture & Society
Donald Reid University of North Carolina

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This essay examines how two French individuals in the third generation of Holocaust victims/survivors, Christophe Boltanski and Ivan Jablonka, research and present their grandparents and how they challenge contemporary memory culture. Their works differ in their ambitions and the strategies used to achieve them, but both Boltanski and Jablonka take the most disrespected of historical genres, the history of the author’s family, and reveal its potential in an arena where the duty to remember what was done to Jews as a group can obscure the complex individuals who were victims. These forgotten selves and what they reveal about the societies in which they lived are the subject of Boltanski’s and Jablonka’s work. Particular attention is devoted to the Communist parties in Poland and France and the relations of their grandparents to them.

My father once told me that he was astonished not to be killed when he was walking down the street. Clemency, of which he was thus daily the object … filled him with emotion and confidence in mankind.

Luc Boltanski1

The distinction we make between our family stories—our personal histories—and what we like to call History, with its pompous capital H, makes little sense. They are in every way the same…. To do history is to lend an ear to the pulse of silence, to attempt to replace an anguish so intense as to suffice unto itself, with the sweet sorrowful respect the human condition inspires in us. This is my work.

Ivan Jablonka2

Ivan Jablonka was born in 1973. His paternal grandparents died at Auschwitz and his father survived as a hidden child in France. He grew up and lives today in what he calls a society marked by a memory culture in which one is asked to reflect on and pay homage to the victims of the Holocaust.3 But, he recognizes, this “duty to remember” can be stifling, a matter of the “ossification of memory” and of rhetoric distanced from both the historical event and the victims being honored.4 As what Annette Wieviorka has termed the “era of the witness” to the Holocaust comes to a close, Jablonka has pursued “the creative liberty of re-remembering [ressouvenir].” He sees Daniel Mendelsohn’s quest to recover the lives of family members who died in the Holocaust as “a new genre of witnessing, that of the ‘witness by procuration’, who involves his readers in the emotional experience of the engagement and research necessary to become such a witness.”5 This is Jablonka’s project as well.

Like Mendelsohn, Jablonka is a grandchild of victims of the Holocaust, born long after the event. So is Christophe Boltanski, the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor who hid from the police in Paris until Liberation. Analysis of Boltanski’s La Cache and Jablonka’s Histoire des grands-parents que je n’ai pas eus: Une enquête offers the opportunity to assess how individuals in the third generation of Holocaust victims/survivors research and present their grandparents and how their work challenges contemporary memory culture.6 La Cache is an extraordinary non-fiction novel set in the Boltanskis’ hôtel particulier on the rue de Grenelle in Paris. Histoire des grands-parents que je n’ai pas eus is Jablonka’s deeply engaging and revealing account of researching the history of his grandparents. The two works are different in their ambitions and strategies to achieve them, but both take the most disrespected of historical genres, the history of the author’s family, and reveal its potentials in an arena where the duty to remember has asked survivors to witness by speaking of what was done to them and only secondarily of their own selves. These selves are the subjects of Boltanski and Jablonka:

Myself [Jablonka writes], I tried to give back to my grandparents the visage that the Nazis stole from them … to give back to each victim human dignity and substance. In this family microhistory, the protagonists are the living, with their revolts and their setbacks, their journeys and their normality, and not the beings-for-death…. The dead were not always dead, and it is important to give them life, their life.7

La Cache

Christophe Boltanski spent a good deal of time as a child with his paternal grandparents. His great grandfather was an immigrant from Odessa who worked at Citroën; his great grandmother, Niania, ran away from Odessa to marry him in Paris. Their son, Étienne Boltanski, was a Third Republic success story; classroom achievement led to a career as a doctor. Both he and Niania worked in medical units of the French army during World War I. Étienne’s parents were not practicing Jews. Traumatized by his war experience, he converted to Catholicism.

Christophe’s grandmother, Myriam Boltanski, was the seventh child of déclassé die-hard Catholics who gave her up as a small child to be adopted and raised by her godmother, a wealthy widow, novelist and conservative Catholic with feminist leanings in Fougères. Myriam inherited from her a small chateau in the Mayenne with eight farms on 250 acres of land. She derived income from the property, but she refused the role of chatelaine. Myriam rejected the reactionary nationalist and antisemitic ideologies of the families from which she came, although she maintained contact with her birth family. One of her brothers was an enthusiastic supporter of Marshall Pétain and a Vichy civil servant. A niece who fell in love with a German officer had her head shaved in a public shaming after Liberation; she spent years in a psychiatric clinic and never recovered. Myriam learned elements of Russian Jewish cooking from Niania, who lived with the couple, and this was all that kept Étienne connected to his parents’ culture. Sunday mornings in the postwar years Étienne and Myriam Boltanski and their children got in the car and went to church and then to get food from a Jewish delicatessen in the Marais. However, Étienne and Myriam did not themselves enter the church and their progeny enjoyed butter and ham on matzo. These outings were also the occasion for the children to deliver copies of L’Humanité Dimanche clandestinely to party members in their well-off neighborhood.

Not long after her marriage to Étienne in 1929, Myriam contracted polio. However, she refused to think of herself as disabled and would not use a wheelchair. When she knew she was going to take a flight at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, with its long escalators, she would go to the Montparnasse-Bienvenüe subway station and train like an athlete, practicing getting off the moving walkways without slipping. Myriam was a prolific author. Writing under the pen name Annie Lauran, she drew on her life and that of her families and on Niania’s stories of her family for a number of novels. She also wrote several accounts of outcasts in French society, including second-generation immigrants and the aged. The four children of Étienne and Myriam spent much of their childhood and adolescence in the cocoon of the family apartment on the rue de Grenelle in Paris, attending school irregularly or not at all.

The title La Cache refers to the hidden elements of the Boltanski family’s lives and in particular to a space beneath the floors in their apartment where Étienne, sought by the authorities as a Jew, concealed himself for twenty months in Occupied Paris. Many in France hid during the war: Myriam sheltered the mother of a Jewish friend at her chateau; in the house where her husband was ensconced, she also put up a young man seeking to escape labor service in Germany; a friend of Niania who was a chief of staff in the Ministry of War harbored her. What set Étienne apart was that he was hidden by his wife in his home. Their son, Christian Boltanski, says of his mother during the war, “it was a period in which she had been heroic, and as someone who wasn’t able to walk, it was one instance when she’d been able to take action, to save someone….”8 However, Christophe is careful not to define his grandparents or explain them solely in terms of this experience. He knows his grandfather was in a literary club with André Breton and Théodore Fraenkel before World War I but, Christophe believes, whatever inventive, confident, audacious nature this suggested that his grandfather had before the war, he lost in his years of service. Christophe also recognizes that important elements of his grandmother’s behavior are rooted in her desire to cement the family unit she had been denied as a child. What Christophe Boltanski (and Ivan Jablonka) do so well, and which is at the heart of the best third generation accounts, is to make their grandparents’ lives more and other than narratives leading to the homogenization, the denial of individuality to men and women, inherent in genocide.

La Cache can be read in light of the work of Christophe’s uncle, Christian Boltanski, an artist who in 1969 produced a little book, “Research and Presentation of All That Remains of My Childhood 1944–1950,” which includes reproductions of photos and other artifacts he associates with the first years of his life. In the face of “the shameful thing death is,” Christian set himself to “preserving oneself whole, keeping a trace of all the moments of our lives, all the objects that have surrounded us, everything we’ve said and what’s been said around us.… So many years will be spent searching, studying, classifying, before my life is secured, carefully arranged and labelled in a safe place.”9 Almost forty years later, he explained, “My real work, what I’m still doing now, started” with this book.10

What lay behind Christian’s ambitious project? “I lived out my entire childhood listening to survivor stories,” he explained. “All of my parents’ friends had come out of hiding or returned from the camps.”11 His sister (and Christophe’s aunt) used the name Anne Franski when she exhibited her photographs. Christian calls himself a “child of Shoah.”12 For Luc Sante, Christian “is the preserver and protector of the sum of all those individual life stories that lie beneath public notice and generally go unrecorded…. [His works of art] have been seen as proxy memorials, substituting for what we don’t know about the victims of the past century’s wholesale slaughters, the Shoah in particular.”13 This is the context in which to understand both Christophe Boltanski’s and Ivan Jablonka’s works. For if Christian seeks to save all from the void that is death, both he and his nephew recognize that he used a palette of images and stories, valuing his aesthetic sensibility over factual accuracy. This, Christian believes, is the cost of pursuing a response to the erasure of a collectivity that is genocide. “[W]hen I talk about myself, I want to reach the collective, so I use artifice and not my real life. I often tell stories as if they happened to me, whereas I actually heard them from someone else or read about them. If I like a story, I might steal it. For instance, the fact that I’m born of an unknown mother might be true and it might be false.”14 Along these lines, Christian told a New York Times correspondent that his twelve-year old brother, Jean-Élie, had delivered him in 1944.15

Christophe Boltanski’s La Cache draws on family lore, but he is quite aware that these stories are told and remembered for particular reasons in particular situations. He uses his skills as a journalist to question the accounts individuals give of their lives. Christian was registered at birth as having an unknown mother. To explain Étienne’s disappearance when he went into hiding in 1942, his parents staged a screaming match for neighbors and Myriam divorced her apparently runaway husband. Christian was born a week after the liberation of Paris. When his father went to record his birth, the situation was more than the authorities could handle. Étienne’s paternity was recognized, but Christian’s mother was unnamed. But Christian’s brother did not deliver him. Étienne’s first venture outside after twenty months in hiding had been to find a doctor and convince him to come to the apartment to deliver the baby. Christian is an artist whose work is recognized and honored worldwide for its engagement with the millions of individuals who suffered and died in the Holocaust. Christophe’s La Cache is a very different oeuvre, that of a descendant both distanced from the experience and in the position to gather and assess the stories told in his family.

Christophe’s goal is to examine his grandparents in their own right and not just as an individual sought by the police during the Occupation and his guardian angel wife. However, understanding their lives and those of their families, as hurtful and sometimes duplicitous as they may have been, also helps account for their ability to confound the authorities in wartime Paris. And life in Occupied France in turn informed their postwar existence. “Their behavior,” Christophe writes from his experience living with them, “was a rejection of good manners and social conventions. It declared a rebellion against their peers. It also created an insider’s club, a break with the outside world, and was in this sense somewhat pathological.”16Yet, this also explains the freedom and happiness Christophe felt within the confined world of his grandparents’ home with its qualities of a “hippy encampment.”17

After experiencing the antisemitism of neighbors and her husband’s colleagues during the Occupation, Myriam “no longer [felt] bound to bourgeois norms because the war had proven their utter hypocrisy.”18 She hosted monthly get-togethers of Jews, Communists, and gays: “Pariahs, despite their bourgeois way of life [whose] … understanding of the fragility of the social order made them freer, more open, more indulgent despite their lives marked by death.”19 Christophe’s father, the sociologist Luc Boltanski, was well aware of the “tensions” inherent in his mother’s efforts to make these groups and a few Catholic families as well “cohabit.” The social sciences, he explains, “gave [the young Luc] the hope of eliminating” these tensions; only later did he realize that the tensions she was bringing to their home, “that was it, the world.”20

Christophe devotes attention to explaining why stories told in his family take the forms they do and seeks to present accurate accounts of events. Yet he calls La Cache a novel, rather than a memoir or a family history, both genres in which it could be placed. What are Christophe’s sources? He has his own experiences with his grandparents. These take the form of his observation of and participation in unusual forms of behavior, for instance vacations in which the grandparents and their offspring take off with Myriam at the wheel of a small car rigged up so that she could drive it. The family would go as far as possible each day, but rarely got out of the car and slept in it at night. Other important sources for Christophe are his father and his aunt and uncles. As the case of Christian shows, Christophe is aware that stories reveal as much about the tellers as their subjects. At one point, he stops his narrative of his great grandparents to say he is “aware that all of this flows from a single source: Niania [whom Christophe never met], whose life accustomed her to disguising, sweetening, magnifying” a life reshaped and passed down in oral and Myriam’s written retellings until it reaches Christophe.21 He is at his best and most revealing in presenting and analyzing the many reinventions that his great grandparents’ and grandparents’ lives as survivors, not just of the Holocaust, involved: his great grandmother survived the total break with her family and her homeland in a France she loved, but whose antisemitism she soon recognized; his grandmother survived being given away as a child and polio; his grandfather survived life on the front in World War I.

Étienne and Myriam left no letters or archives because they “did not want objects to survive them.”22 However, Myriam’s novels, as published works, do survive her, presenting her own and her families’ lives as stories, with their own integrity and a different kind of truth than what an historian constructs from documents. Although Christian claims not to have read any of his mother’s novels, Luc, when asked by Le Monde to name “the unknown masterpiece that swept you away,” responded with his mother’s novel L’Usurpateur, which deals with Aristide Briand and his electoral defeat of her father, from which he never recovered.23 There are many types of truth in novels. Queried on his experience in World War I, Étienne would not talk about himself, but directed questioners to Henri Barbusse’s novel, Le Feu. For Christophe, his grandmother’s novels are a major source. In them, he sees her presenting material otherwise absent in many family stories, particularly about Étienne’s parents. But many also draw on her own life: her adoption, polio, a lover hiding under the floor-boards during Occupation, and her son Luc’s decision to move out of the house as a teenager, an act she considered a betrayal.

Christophe identifies La Cache as a novel. Although he found his grandfather’s birth certificate in the Paris municipal archives online and read his great grandfather’s naturalization papers at the Archives nationales in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, archival research is not a central element of his quest. Christophe recognized that in his grandmother’s works on marginalized social groups, she favored “’tape-recorder literature’” in the style of Jean Rouch’s cinéma vérité; her novels had this quality as well.24 She was taken by Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, and wrote a book about a female murderer based on interviews with her.25 La Cache too is a non-fiction novel that uses techniques of fiction to interpret and relate information Christophe has gathered. It reads more like a novel than a history in its structure of chapters, which move through the rooms of the apartment rather than through a chronology. The non-fiction novel provides Christophe a means to depict the multiple re-inventions and self-fashionings that were the truth of his family, itself a palimpsest he preserves in his presentation

Christophe followed up La Cache with a non-fiction novel, Le Guetteur, about his deceased mother, Françoise.26 She had always been something of an outsider to the family world in the rue de Grenelle. Waiting politely to be served while “everyone else threw themselves at the food in a joyful melee,” Françoise would go home hungry from a meal chez les Boltanski.27 Christophe’s paternal grandparents and his mother were secretive, but his grandparents created a nurturing world from elements of their wartime experience, while his mother grew increasingly solitary and paranoid. As a young woman, Christophe believes, Françoise had imagined herself a resister like those revered in the France of the 1950s. During the Algerian War, she was a member of the Jeune Résistance; her work included hiding a FLN leader. When he was arrested in November 1961, Luc and Françoise fled her apartment, taking FLN archives with them.

They went to see Pierre Bourdieu, who burnt the contraband papers. The couple spent two months hiding in an apartment in Paris, where Christophe was conceived, just as Christian had been in the hiding place at the rue de Grenelle eighteen years earlier. Françoise said little about this period. Christophe finds this is also true of the veterans of her network he interviews. Resisters during the Occupation tell their story to a receptive public; Jewish survivors are told they have a “duty to remember,” but the French “suitcase carriers” are not called upon or are turned away and in turn they have little to say, claiming to forget what French society does not want to remember. Christophe sees his mother’s experience, like that of his paternal grandparents, imbricated in French collective amnesia of the nation’s troubled past.

Histoire des grand-parents que je n’ai pas eus: Une enquête

Ivan Jablonka established his reputation as a leading historian of his generation with several books on abandoned children placed with rural families by l’Assistance publique in nineteenth and twentieth-century France. He is skilled at using archival dossiers to reconstruct the individual lives of these children and to give them agency, what they had lacked in previous treatments.28 Writing the history of children without parents, he explains, came directly from his father being an orphan.29 Ivan’s paternal grandparents, Matès and Idesa Jablonka, were refugees from Poland who were rounded up by French police in February 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. A retired couple near Fougères, where Myriam Boltanski, too, had gone after being given up by her family as a small child, took care of Ivan’s father, Marcel Jablonka, and his sister, Suzanne, for one and a half years, until November 1944. To learn of the grandparents he could never know, Ivan did research in twenty archives in Poland and France, in family papers, and in interviews with family and friends in France, Argentina, Israel, and the United States.

Matès’ father Shloyme Jablonka, Ivan’s great grandfather, was quite religious, but all five of his children as well as Idesa were Communists, what Ivan terms “the death and reincarnation of Judaism” in antisemitic interwar Poland.30 However, the parents and children remained close. Matès and Idesa came from the social and cultural worlds of the Polish shtetl and of the Polish Communist underground. Both are gone, destroyed by Polish antisemitism, Nazi genocide, and Stalinism. The descendants of Matès and Idesa and their immediate family are Jewish and many are or were Communists, but they cannot live in the vanished realms of the shtetl and the Communist underground, accessible now only through the work of historians.

Although we learn a great deal in Histoire des grands-parents que je n’ai pas eus about the codes and practices of these lost cultural and political communities, Ivan’s subject is not these, but his grandparents who inhabited them. The Communist Party was outlawed in interwar Poland, so Matès and Idesa lived illegally in Poland and then in Third Republic France, where their efforts to regularize their situation were unsuccessful, and finally in Occupied France, where they were hunted down as Jews. For more than a decade, the only time either of them was recognized by the state as who they were was when Matès volunteered for the Foreign Legion and served nine months in 1939–40. Not surprisingly, Ivan’s grandparents and their relations left relatively few documents and the stories descendants tell are necessarily second or third hand. The papers on which family history often depends are lacking. However, Matès’ and Idesa’s illegal lives and their efforts to regularize their situation in France have left a wealth of archival documents. Ivan titles his book a history, rather than a biography, for he is working from reconstruction of the historical context to give meaning to the many traces he has found of his grandparents’ existence, rather than putting their fully conceived lives into historical context. He is very clear when he makes deductions or hypotheses, “embrac[ing] these uncertainties as full partners in the complete narrative.”31

Ivan frequently tells readers what he imagines, not to fill gaps in the narrative, but to make them aware of the ways nostalgia or the distance from another world can both inform and distort our historical reasoning: “I picture Shloyme [father of Matès] as one of those old men in Rembrandt paintings, surrounded by a halo of light. But maybe he was partially deaf and foul-smelling.”32 And perhaps both were true. Individuals we meet in Histoire des grands-parents que je n’ai pas eus are complex. The demobilization of foreign volunteers was delayed long after the French troops in the Foreign Legion were sent home. An officer who found this unjust broke with his superiors and discharged sans-papiers in the Legion, including Matès, saving them from forced labor. But this officer did not go on to join the Resistance, as we might expect; he took command of the unit of French volunteers fighting the Soviet Union in 1944 and died a general in the SS.

The incorporation in Histoire des grands-parents que je n’ai pas eus of the narrative of the research itself—what historians usually leave to citations in the notes—ensures that the reader accompanies Ivan as one thing leads to another: archives, visits, family stories, accounts of individuals with similar lives and experiences to his grandparents. His account has qualities of the detective story. As Luc Boltanski shows in Énigmes et complots: Une enquête à propos d’enquêtes, the polar presents a murder that suggests there is something deeply unsettling in the established order.33 Although this general threat may remain when the whodunit ends, the detective’s identification of the killer provides solace to the reader. Ivan Jablonka’s account has different qualities. If there is no doubt who murdered his grandparents, Ivan reveals that the individuals who were murdered were not the generic Jews the killers thought they were killing. This is true even in the deductions and hypotheses with which the concluding chapter on Auschwitz ends. Although Matès’ life resembles that of a leader of the Sonderkommando uprising in October 1944, a Polish Jewish Communist leather-worker refugee in Paris who fought in the Foreign Legion in 1940, Ivan cannot be certain that his grandfather participated. If he is a detective, he is unlike those in novels in that he tells clients, his readers, that sometimes what you can know is what it is you cannot know with certainty.

A work of literature that comes to mind for readers of Histoire des grand-parents que je n’ai pas eus is Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder, the reconstruction of the life of a young Jew in Occupied Paris who died at Auschwitz. It shares qualities with Ivan’s account of his grandparents in Paris, particularly the fact that Modiano and Jablonka frequently find their subjects in buildings and places the authors know and frequent in their lives in Paris today. However, Ivan criticizes Modiano for not mentioning the significant research that Serge Klarsfeld did on Dora Bruder for Modiano. “The investigation, as you narrate it, is more of a novel than a reality,” Klarsfeld told Modiano, because Modiano makes himself the investigator.34 Ivan’s concern is less with the failure to credit a source than with Modiano’s creation of an “I,” in the form of the researcher who did not exist35: “At no time does Modiano show how he constructs his knowledge. For me, the narrative construction and the construction of knowledge are one and the same thing.”36 This project is at the core of Histoire des grand-parents que je n’ai pas eus.

French Communism and Holocaust Survivors

As Annette Wieviorka, whose paternal grandparents were Polish Jewish refugees in France sent to their deaths at Auschwitz, has shown, the French Communist Party incorporated the deaths of Jews deported from France as Jews (not Communists) like Matès and Idesa into their own history of persecution and resistance during the war.37 Neither Étienne nor Myriam—a Catholic convert and a lapsed Catholic—nor Ivan’s paternal grandparents identified strongly as Jews, but Communist politics and culture played an important role before the war for Matès and Idesa and after the war for the Boltanskis and for Marcel Jablonka.

Christian Boltanski recalls that his grandparents “were completely isolated from the typical French bourgeoisie. Eighty percent of my parents’ friends were Jewish survivors of concentration camps, and almost all of them were Communists.”38 Having grown up in the bourgeoisie that would embrace Pétain and his regime’s antisemitism, Myriam joined the Communist Party after the war and hosted monthly meetings of her cell, composed of well-off bourgeois who, like her, had reason to embrace a politics not consonant with their class interests (and were therefore discrete about the delivery of L’Humanité Dimanche). French Communists appropriated the memory of the particular oppression of Jews in France during the war, but their clear opposition to the France that the Occupation had revealed made it the political culture of choice for many survivors like Christophe’s grandparents.

Christophe Boltanski does not engage in debates about the nature of Communism, but Ivan Jablonka makes clear that he does not accept François Furet’s condemnation of Communism as an illusion as applicable to his grandparents’ beliefs and practices when they were Communists in Poland in the 1930s: “there is no continuity between the hopes of 1933 and the repression of 1953”: “It would be entirely too smug of us to assert, with ironclad certainty and the benefit of a century’s hindsight, that the horrors to come had already been germinating, like the worm in the apple. And it would be an illusion to think that their aspirations were an illusion.”39 Ivan does not want to define Matès and Idesa by either the Holocaust or Stalinism.

Two French anarchists, who married Idesa’s first cousins, saved Marcel and his sister Suzanne during the Occupation, taking care of them after their parents’ arrest, finding the family near Fougères that took them in, and arranging to get funds from the Jewish underground to pay for their care while in hiding. As anarchists, they were well suited by character and ideology to stymying the inhuman projects of Pétain’s État francais. However, after the war, French Communists took care of Marcel and Suzanne. As Katy Hazan shows, French Jews saw it as their duty not to turn over care of orphans of the Holocaust to l’Assistance publique.40

French Communist Jews felt the same away about Communist Jewish orphans. Marcel’s experience may have led his son, Ivan, to study l’Assistance publique, but Marcel’s childhood was in orphanages established and operated by an organization of Communist Jews, the Commission centrale de l’enfance (CCE). These homes practiced collective education, life outdoors, and progressive pedagogy, which “opened to [his] father, as to his brothers and sisters of the dormitory, the paths of resilience.”41 Ivan is their heir today:

I [Ivan Jablonka] was his [father’s] child, but I was also the child, the new victory of the resilience, the rescue always begun again … [of the CCE homes, operating on the] principles of a self-run republic of children under the eye of Jewish teachers, themselves traumatized and whose consolation was to see ‘their’ kids live again.42

Marcel remained a Communist long after many left the party following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, saying that “the Party was my family, my religion.”43 If this was the culture in which Marcel was raised, Étienne and Myriam Boltanski’s experience reveals that meetings with party members were also sites where those who suffered during the war could and did talk about the Occupation and the Holocaust in a France that was not yet willing to confront these events.

During the war, Christophe’s grandparents learned the need for and the gratification of living together in an enclosed space, that of the apartment and later the small car. However, Marcel Jablonka’s memory is not so much of his early years as a hidden child as of an idealization of life in the Communist orphanages, marked by freedom and moving from one site to another, with a band of adolescents. Marcel does not believe that his children can be happy in an apartment in Paris without the conviviality of a bunch of friends and the chance to explore nature that he knew as a youth. He sought to save his children from the solitude of apartment life as he had been saved in the Communist foyers. Marcel tried to recreate this experience when he took his family on trips each year in a VW camping van, accompanied by one or two other families and their children: “The German gift for organization was put to work not for mass crime, but for joy, intimacy, family integration, and it is easy to understand how the camping van saved my father, and us with it,” Ivan tells us in his memoir, En camping-car.44 Ivan felt the security of travelling in an enclosed space with this family, but also that of feeling his family could take to the road at any time when faced with a threat: “devotees of the camping van which was itself a fidelity to Judaism.”45 The camping van brought together the two defining elements of his father’s youth: the Jews’ refusal to attach themselves to one place; and collective life, what Ivan calls “the best of what Communism brought to the twentieth century.”46

But things are never so straightforward. Marcel lives with the feeling of abandonment by his parents who gave him up as a small child to save him. This explains why he refused opportunities to learn of his parents from other survivors when he was young and fits with what Ivan terms an element of the Communist ethos of “looking ahead, not to the past.”47

But Marcel now deeply regrets it. Ivan believes his father can only be happy when he feels his children are happy and in turn Ivan experiences a particular happiness when he feels his father is. Histoire des grand-parents que je n’ai pas eus can be read in light of this dynamic. Ivan involved his father in his research, taking him to archives when he sensed he would make an important discovery about his father’s parents as well as to interviews with those who knew them. Ivan is pleased that his father says the book changed his life.48 What informs Histoire des grand-parents que je n’ai pas eus is rooted in the trauma his father experienced and his father’s reaction to it: “There was, in my summer fun [on the trips in the camping van], a familiarity with death. My presence in the world was communicating with the time before my life. I was remembering people I have never known. What resulted was a strange thing: me.”49 This, he explains, is how he became “a child of Shoah”50 who came to know himself in writing of the grandparents he could not know.


Christophe Boltanski’s and Ivan Jablonka’s desire to learn about their grandparents gives them a different starting point than the standard gambit of pursuing research to engage with an existing historiography. Because knowing about their grandparents is important to them, they have a commitment and a freedom to engage with their subject that biographers and academic historians lack. Their work makes contributions to a diversity of historiographies of childhood, gender, refugees, antisemitism, and Communists in Poland and France among others, but that their projects are possible and take the forms they do as a non-fiction novel and a story [histoire] is a product of their personal and emotional origins outside of that historiography. Today, as all witnesses pass away, Christophe Boltanski and Ivan Jablonka use their vantage points, as descendants of survivors of the Holocaust, to draw on a variety of sources, including family accounts of which they are inheritors and interpreters, to give individuality to those whose lives were lost or transformed in the Holocaust, and in so doing to bear witness themselves. For Ivan Jablonka, this individuality is revealed in an historical account well aware of its dependence on deduction and inference. While Christophe Boltanski does correct and question elements of the myths and legends of his family, this is not his primary concern, not only because this lore is all he has in some cases, but because in these tales he gains access to survivors’ mentality by seeing what they want us not to remember as well as not to forget.

In La Souffrance à distance, Luc Boltanski analyzed how the media brings images of the tragedy and pain of faraway events to audiences and how those audiences do (and ought to) respond to them.51 The Holocaust is a past event, therefore distant in a different way, but it is frequently ref-

erenced in accounts of the suffering of distant collectivities that we receive news of today. What Christophe Boltanski and Ivan Jablonka do so well and in different ways is to present individuals with their particularities—what makes them individuals—that enable and require us to comprehend in new ways the lives and the loss they experienced. They remain distant, but not far away.



Luc Boltanski’s commentary on his poem about his father, “Le rescapé,” in Poème (Paris: Arfuyen, 1993), 18.


Ivan Jablonka, A History of the Grandparents I Never Had, trans. Jane Kurtz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 123.


“L’Historien comme écrivain et comme témoin,” Interview of Ivan Jablonka by Alexander Prstojevic and Luba Jurgenson,, 16 May 2014,


Ivan Jablonka, “À nouvelle histoire, nouvelle mémoire,” in Nouvelles perspectives sur la Shoah, ed. Ivan Jablonka and Annette Wieviorka (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2013), 97.


Ivan Jablonka, “Comment raconter la Shoah,” 30 October 2007,; Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, trans. Jared Stark (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006); Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (New York: Harper-Collins, 2006).


The defining factor in most work on the third generation is that the individual had extensive personal contact with a Holocaust survivor. Third Generation is defined in a major work on the subject as “a person whose grandparents survived the horrors of the Holocaust.” Esther Jilovsky, Jordana Silverstein, and David Slucki, “Introduction” to In the Shadows of Memory: The Holocaust and the Third Generation (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2016), 1. Jablonka, however, could not have met the grandparents he “never had.” Aurélie Barjonet refers to the children of “hidden children,” like Jablonka’s father, as generation 2.5. “Les petits-enfants: une génération d’écrivains hantés,” in L’Enfant-Shoah, ed. Ivan Jablonka (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2014), 220.


Jablonka, “À nouvelle histoire, nouvelle mémoire,” 99–100.


Christian Boltanski and Catherine Grenier, The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski, trans. Marc Lowenthal (Boston: MFA Publications, 2009), 22.


Christian Boltanski, “Research and Presentation of All That Remains of My Childhood 1944–1950,” in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 25.


Ibid., 35.


Boltanski and Grenier, The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski, 17. Myriam Boltanski published a book of accounts by political and racial deportees of their lives in the camps and after their return. Annie Lauran, La Casquette d’Hitler ou le Temps de l’Oubli (Paris: Éditeurs français réunis, 1974).


Boltanski and Grenier, The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski, 22.


Luc Sante, “Foreword” to ibid., 1.


Ibid., 237–238.


Dorothy Spears, “Exploring Mortality with Clothes and a Claw,” New York Times, 9 May 2010, C1.


Christophe Boltanski, The Safe House, trans. Laura Morris (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 32.


Ibid., 192.


Ibid., 201.


Ibid., 90.


Nathaniel Herzberg, “Les Boltanski, le mythe de la caverne,” Le Monde, 16 July 2008.


Boltanski, The Safe House, 41.


Christophe Boltanski in conversation with Marianne Hirsh at the Columbia Maison française, 17 November 2017,


Boltanski and Grenier, The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski, 28; Jean Birnbaum, “Boltanski, détective critique,” Le Monde, 16 February 2012.


Boltanski, The Safe House, 9.


Annie Lauran, Psychanalyse d’un fait divers: Samia (Paris: Éditeurs français réunis, 1978).


Christophe Boltanski, Le Guetteur (Paris: Stock, 2018).


Boltanski, The Safe House, 33.


Ivan Jablonka, Les Vérités inavouables de Jean Genet (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2004); Ivan Jablonka, Ni père ni mère (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2006); Ivan Jablonka, Enfants en exil: Transfert de pupilles réunionnais en métropole (1963–1982) (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2007). He extends his examination of this project to the diversity of marginalized, stigmatized populations of children in Les Enfants de la République: L’intégration des jeunes de 1789 à nos jours (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2010) and in Laëtitia ou la fin des hommes (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2016).


Ivan Jablonka, “Petit-fils, historien, Juif,” in L’Enfant-Shoah, ed. Jablonka, 248–249.


Jablonka, A History of the Grandparents I Never Had, 48.


Ibid., 211.


Ibid., 20.


Luc Boltanski, Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies, trans. Catherine Porter (Malden: Polity Press, 2014).


Serge Klarsfeld to Patrick Modiano, 3 April 1997, in Modiano (Paris: L’Herne, 2012), 186.


Jablonka, L’Histoire est une littérature contemporaine, 268.


“L’Historien comme écrivain et comme témoin.”


Annette Wieviorka, Déportation et génocide: Entre la mémoire et l’oubli (Paris: Plon, 1992).


Boltanski and Grenier, The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski, 19–20.


Jablonka, A History of the Grandparents I Never Had, 66. See Donald Reid, “François Furet and the Future of a Disillusionment,” The European Legacy 10, 2 (April 2005): 193–216.


Katy Hazan, “Les collectivités juives en France après la Shoah,” in L’Enfant-Shoah, ed. Jablonka, 68.


Ivan Jablonka, En camping-car (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2018), 9.


Ibid., 89. “Ivan Jablonka, historien : ‘J’ai tenté de les libérer mes grands-parents de leur propre mort’,” Télérama, 29 March 2015,,124567.php. To understand Jablonka’s father’s memory of his experience see the 1946 CCE film, Nous continuons,


Jablonka, A History of the Grandparents I Never Had, 64.


Jablonka, En camping-car, 27.


Ibid., 68.


Ibid., 71.


“L’Historien comme écrivain et comme témoin.”


Jablonka, En camping-car, 163.


Ibid., 10–11.


Ibid., 91.


Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics, trans. Graham Burchill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Contributor Notes

Donald Reid is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Germaine Tillion, Lucie Aubrac, and the Politics of Memories of the French Resistance and several works in the history of French labor, including Opening the Gates: The Lip Affair, 1968–1981. Email:

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