On January 31, 1944, a young French dentist from Fougères who had taken refuge in Marseille with his wife and their newly born daughter was denounced as a Jew by his French neighbours; he was arrested by French policemen, who sent him to the Baumettes Prison, where he was held by French prison guards. The French dentist was then transferred by train, driven by French railway workers, to Compiègne. There he was picked up by French policemen who sent him to Drancy, where he was held by other French policemen. On March 7, the French dentist was put on another French train, taken to Auschwitz. He arrived in Auschwitz on March 10 and for the first time he saw German guards. He did not return from this extermination camp. The young French dentist was my uncle.
Should I blame every French and German person living today for this crime, among so many others? Of course not. Must I do everything in my power to prevent it from happening again? Of course, I must.
This tragedy, among so many others, reminds us of a few obvious facts:
1. There have been, and there still are, many forms of racism other than the one linked to skin colour. Throughout history, and even today, “Whites” (to use these now outdated designations) have been exterminated by other “Whites” in the name of a so-called difference in race. To speak only of France, Jews, Italians, Poles, Arabs, (all white), were each in turn accused of being of an inferior race; and sometimes massacred for that. In Africa, throughout history, “Blacks” have exterminated, even very recently, other “Blacks” in the name of a so-called difference in race. Similarly, in Asia between “Yellows”; and in the two Americas between “Reds.”
2. The torturers cannot be blamed for applying the laws of their time. Even if these laws are, in our eyes, appalling. To be noted, however, there are people, in their time, who fought for the repeal of these laws in these countries or elsewhere. We can only, in the name of our laws and our values, commit ourselves to chasing down those who today continue to advocate for or apply what we have fortunately made illegal.
3. Furthermore, we cannot blame the descendants of torturers for the crimes of their ancestors. Except if the new generations glorify their ancestors. Jewish Law has already said this very well (contrary to an overly simplified interpretation of a verse of Exodus, clarified by the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel). We must require that our contemporaries remove all traces that glorify these torturers of the past, do everything possible to ensure that the various forms of racism are eradicated, and that the descendants of the survivors of these persecutions are compensated and integrated as well as possible.
4. In particular, it is absurd to ask today’s Americans to apologize for the genocide against the Native Americans, for the treatment of their slaves kidnapped from Africa, and for the fate of all non-whites in American society since the creation of the United States. On the other hand, however, it must be required that they remove the monuments glorifying the fighters of the Confederate army, re-contextualize literary and cinematographic works inspired by these monuments, and above all, do everything possible to ensure that Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities today have the same opportunities as other citizens of the United States. We know that this is far from being the case.
5. It is also true of France: we cannot blame French citizens living today for the crimes of Saint Louis, Bugeaud, or Laval. Or for the crimes of the Triangular Trade, or for the crimes of colonization, or for the crimes related to the collaboration with the Nazis. Furthermore, we cannot condemn those who, in the past, committed certain acts that were legal at the time but that would be considered, legally or morally, as crimes today: we cannot blame Colbert, or Jules Ferry, for having acted in accordance with the law and the morals of their time; otherwise, we should also consider as murderers every president of the French Republic, up to and including Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who sent convicts to the scaffold, refusing to exercise their presidential pardon powers. We must, however, demand that our contemporaries remove the traces of all those who acted in violation of the laws or morals of their time. For example, there should not be an avenue Bugeaud in Paris; a rue Brasillach, an avenue Céline unless we re-contextualize the portrayal of these authors, distinguishing the ignoble man from the very partly grandiose literary work. And everything must be done to ensure that the minorities who, in large part, hail from the former colonies, which are for the most part Africans, and Muslims too, have the same opportunities as other French citizens. We know that this is far from being the case.
6. Finally, after the dictatorship of the racists, we must not fall into another form segregation in the name of anti-racism, which would only exacerbate imaginary differences within the only race that exists: the human race. Thus transforming, sometimes consciously, into a mortal struggle, that which is only the very difficult march toward universality.