DRANCY, France—This was once an antechamber to Auschwitz, the beginning of many ends.
In the 1940s, it was here, on the outskirts of Paris, that about 65,000 Jews were interned and deported to their deaths in the horror universally known as the Holocaust but known in France as the Shoah. For the vast majority of them, the modernist apartment complex that housed this camp was the last image of France they saw before being forced onto trains to the gas chambers.
Today, there is a memorial museum in Drancy, but the housing project — once known as the “Silent City”— is still in service, an eerie home for low-income immigrants who may or may not be aware of the things their walls have seen. On some level, this is fitting. In the France — and the Europe — of the 21st century, the lessons of the 20th no longer seem self-evident, and certainly not sacrosanct.
For decades, France's willing collaboration in the Nazi Holocaust was recognized as the most shameful chapter in the nation’s history, a story recounted in public schools and a crime for which a sitting French president formally apologized. Paris is home to one of the world’s premier Holocaust research centers, and black plaques now adorn the facades of nearly every school from which a Jewish child was known to have been deported.
But despite these displays of public memory, the unthinkable has happened. The National Front — a political party founded by a convicted Holocaust denier — has mounted a surprisingly credible bid for the French presidency.
The party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 88, once dismissed concentration camps such as Drancy as a “detail of history,” a remark that landed him in the political wilderness for decades. Now, a very real scenario exists in which his daughter, Marine Le Pen, could win the upcoming French elections.
Has the “past that will not pass” passed after all? Or has it merely ceased to matter?
One man deeply troubled by the question is Serge Klarsfeld, the most prominent living Nazi hunter in France and also Europe.
Now 81, Klarsfeld, a child survivor of the Holocaust, has spent his entire working life tracking down former Nazis alongside his wife, Beate. Those the Klarsfelds have brought to justice include Klaus Barbie, the infamous “butcher of Lyon,” and Maurice Papon, a former civil servant who authorized the transfer of nearly 1,700 Jews from Bordeaux to Drancy. The Klarsfelds also arelargely credited with having successfully pressured subsequent administrations of the French government to acknowledge publicly the country’s complicity in the Holocaust.
In short, they deal in the “details” that the elder Le Pen would rather forget.
Sitting in his office, a veritable memory cavern strewn with books in a multitude of languages, stray photocopies of archival sources and oversize maps of various concentration camps, Klarsfeld struggled to put the rise of the National Front into words. Eventually, he sighed.
“I regret finishing my life in a period that so resembles the 1930s,” he said.
“Yes, the Shoah is honored everywhere. You have grand memorials in Paris, in Drancy, and other places, and all that shows that there is a living memory. But history never stops. It’s chaotic, history.”
But until recently, it had indeed seemed as though history — or, rather, the French public’s understanding of it — had come to a final resting place.
Robert Paxton, 85, was the first to argue, in the mid-1960s, that the French had not been merely passive victims of German occupation and had relished the opportunity to install an authoritarian wartime regime, one that wasted no time in persecuting long-unwanted minorities.
At the time, his view sent shock waves through the French public. But eventually it became the consensus opinion, a point of reference for even the French government as it began to process the most painful parts of its past.
These days, Paxton says, that is no longer the case, as the country finds itself further and further removed from the 1940s.
“The focus on the past has diminished,” he said, “largely because there’s simply nobody left to put on trial. Everybody’s dead. The judiciary phase of going back over all of this is closed. And this chapter of history is seen by many French people as no longer so urgent.
“There is a kind of moving on.”
Few have attempted to move on with more desperation than the National Front of Marine Le Pen, who has nominally banished her father and made considerable efforts to curry favor with French Jews in the wake of recent terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists. The National Front of today, her marketing machine would suggest, is not the National Front of the past.
But links between the two still exist. Despite the oft-invoked talking point that father and daughter are estranged, Jean-Marie Le Pen ultimately loaned his daughter’s campaign 6 million euros this month, when a Russian bank could no longer meet its pledged amount.
Representatives of the National Front did not return requests for comment.
For a significant portion of the French-Jewish community, the largest in Europe, there is little difference between the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen and that of Marine Le Pen, said Yonatan Arfi, a vice president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Organizations (CRIF), the largest Jewish advocacy group in France.
But from the organization’s work with Holocaust education in schools, he said that especially among the youngest generation of French students born into families where even the grandparents may not remember the war, preserving the past was often a lost cause.
“That younger generation feels so much historical distance from the events that it often makes them feel as they though they have no particular duty regarding that history,” he said.
In any case, if Marine Le Pen were to win the final round of France’s presidential election in May, Klarsfeld — who has always prided himself on defending the French Republic — says he would emigrate.
“I wouldn’t stay in that France,” he said. “After having lived the Shoah in France as a child, I don’t think I could bear it.”