The Sound of Voices Intoning Names

Thomas Laqueur

  • French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial by Serge Klarsfeld
    New York, 1881 pp, $95.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 8147 2662 3

In a happier age, Immanuel Kant identified one of the problems of understanding any of the genocides which come all too easily to mind. It is the problem of the mathematical sublime. The arithmetician has no more difficulty in principle comprehending one murder than 600,000 – the number murdered in the Armenian atrocities of 1916-17 or by Nazi Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front in 1941 before the death camps were fully geared up – or five to six million, the best estimates we have of the number of Jews murdered in the camps. At a purely cognitive level, any number can be understood by adding, unit by unit, to the unit that comes before. But for Kant, the ability to take in great magnitudes – to feel their sublime terror – is ultimately an aesthetic act and one which depends on gaining the right distance from the subject. His example comes from a French general’s account of a visit to the Pyramids and his anxiety about how to feel the emotional effect of their sheer magnitude. Too close and we see only stone by stone without taking in the full sweep from base to peak; too far away and we lose the sublime wonder predicated on the sense that something so massive was made discrete block by discrete block.

Writing about the Holocaust has faced a similar dilemma. One strategy has been historical business as usual. However enormous, monstrous and disproportionate the disaster seems, it can be comprehended by the ordinary strategies of historical writing: appropriate distance, clear reason, fitting narrative. Critics of this approach have argued that it fails to recognise both the peculiar moral rupture of the events in question and their subjective terrors. Only recourse to the memoir and the power of memory itself – i.e. to individual experience – or to a pornography of brutality which forces the past upon us viscerally could be true to this constellation of horrors. But recourse to the particular ends up as a claim for the transcendental and has led both Post-Modern theorists and some historians of the period to conclude that the Holocaust is simply ‘un-representable’.

The brilliance of Serge Klarsfeld’s book is that it maintains in shimmering tension the claims of history – to give an objective account of the past – with those of memory: the subjective, the discrete, the momentary brought to life in the present. Whether by intention or inspired inadvertence, he has produced a form in which documents of many sorts speak both to historical distance and to the immediacy of memory. He has succeeded in representing the Holocaust simultaneously as sublime and particular. And he has produced a book which makes a moral claim of enormous importance today. Memory is a means of making loss survivable, and thus of allowing the past to have closure.

More specifically, this is an attempt at ‘a new reference work in the domain of memory and feeling’, ‘a full memorial book to the Jewish children deported from France’. Born of ‘an obsession to be sure that these children are not forgotten’, it is compiled by a man whose father fought for France in defence of what he believed to be its commitment to civic equality and, after the German victory, literally sacrificed himself to the SS so that his family, huddled behind a false wall, would escape discovery. The eight-year-old Serge survived the rest of the war in hiding in the Upper Loire, where, he says, ‘the Gestapo had no antennae.’

The greater part of French Children of the Holocaust consists of an album of pictures of the deported children themselves, at least 2500 of whom are identified by name and by such details of their lives and arrests as hard-won evidence provides. It follows, and is deeply indebted to, Klarsfeld’s Mémorial de la déportation des Juifs de France (1978), which gives the name, date of birth, nationality and convoy number of all 75,721 Jews deported from France between 27 March 1942 and 22 August 1944: Convoy One, Drancy, the main transit camp on the north-east outskirts of Paris, to Auschwitz, 1112 men, mostly French nationals, none chosen for immediate gassing, 22 survivors in 1945, through Convoy 46, 9 February 1943, 1000 deportees, of whom 816 were gassed on arrival and 22 survived (15 men, seven women), to the last ill-organised departures – No 79, 17 August 1944, carrying 51 ‘special Jews’ whom Eichmann’s man on the spot, SS Hauptsturm-führer Alois Brünner, managed to transport by trading some pigs for three cars that belonged to an aircraft battery, and No 82 from Clermont-Ferrand, 22 August 1944, about which little is known except that it arrived at Auschwitz on 8 September, that it contained three adolescent girls and that 39 men were selected for work. (Convoy numbers, like names, are printed in bold face as if to enlist typography in the affirmation of their adamantine reality.)

French Children of the Holocaust follows also Klarsfeld’s Calendrier de la prosécution des Juifs de France (1993), which provides the scaffolding for this book with its detailed chronicle – week by week, month by month, sometimes day by day – of the legislation, the meetings and negotiations, the round-ups and arrests, internments, loadings, unloadings and shipments east, the precise how, where and when of 73,157 murders (i.e. 75,721 deportations less 2564 survivors) arranged on French soil with active French assistance.

The murders themselves are left largely implicit in the chronicle and in the book as a whole. The death camps are there as the telos of its thousands of micro-histories; readers will not miss the fact that the overwhelming majority of those deported did not return and would mostly have been swallowed up in the historical oblivion of aggregate loss, had Klarsfeld and his associates not accounted for them one by one. The defence of criminals like Klaus Barbie, the SS chief in Lyon, and many others – that they did not know what awaited the human freight of the rail convoys – is exposed in detail for the mendacity that it is. But there are only a handful of reports from the East, dispersed as captions to the pictures or as supplementary material in the chronology section. Denise Holstein, 17, who was deported – Convoy 77 – to Auschwitz with nine younger children, for whom she cared in a Jewish refuge, reports that she alone survived because, in the flare of searchlights that illuminated the darkness in front of the selection ramps, she was warned by an experienced inmate to drop the child she was comforting so that she would be allowed to move to the left. All children and all women with children were sent to the right, to a truck that took them to the gas chambers.

The story of Ida Fensterszab is set out in two pages, between the picture of a plump, well-dressed girl of ten or 11, barely pubescent, standing with her well-dressed, stolidly bourgeois parents in 1939 or 1940, and that of the more knowing 15-year-old, wan but not emaciated, with large beautiful eyes and hair beginning to grow back, who has survived Auschwitz. Her parents had hidden her, the caption to the first picture tells us, with a French family in June 1940; the mother was deported on Convoy 11, 27 July 1942, from Drancy to Auschwitz (13 out of 1000 survived). Ida writes after the Liberation that two gendarmes came to get her at midnight on 30 January 1944. Various neighbours tried to dissuade them; the family’s resistance was broken by the threat that if she was not produced, the man of the house would be taken in her stead. On the train she was befriended by an old grey-haired woman. Dreams of seeing her mother again were shattered by the stench of overflowing buckets of excrement. At the unloading ramp she ran, as commanded by the SS guards; her elderly new friend called, ‘Ida, wait for me’, but she did not respond. Ida believes that her hairstyle saved her at the first selection: the last time she had seen her mother, she insisted that Ida wear a comb to make her look more ‘like a young woman’. On the Auschwitz ramp, she speculates, it made her look old enough for a work-detail. There are a few more such testimonies. But the Shoah is by and large represented here neither in first-person accounts of the camps nor in pictures of its worst atrocities. Instead we are offered a complex interweaving of sources and artefacts that document the individual lives lost. Each has its particular resonance.

The list: 75,721 names from the master-list of all deportees, winnowed to a more limited category, 11,400 boys and girls under 18. To the information on the longer list Klarsfeld and his co-workers have laboriously added, where possible, the addresses of the places from which the children were taken so that the full route to the gas chambers can be traced: Daniel Brunschwig, aged three or four, shown in two pictures, standing in a garden next to his seated mother in the first, his father in the second, was taken from 28 rue du Titien, Cannes, and from there to an assembly point in Nice, and from there to Drancy, and from there to Auschwitz on Convoy 61.

The chronology: the master chronology is supplemented by the more limited chronologies that accompany individual pictures and by the interpolation of events pertaining especially to children – the week-to-week negotiations in June and July 1942 in which the French authorities induced the Germans, who at first wanted only adult slave labour, to accept thousands of bereft children, caught in the round-ups, into the trains bound for Auschwitz; negotiations as to when to arrest children in various refuges or which children to spare for the time being, until the Germans were in full murder mode. Historical information and interpretation, based largely on Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton’s Vichy France and the Jews, have also been added.

The 2503 photographs themselves: these have been reproduced from identity cards and gravestones, from formal studio portraits and intimate snapshots, from school, camp and playground groups, from newspaper clippings and postwar missing-persons posters. Some are beautiful, some charming, some pleasingly conventional, some technically incompetent. In some the children look happy and fetching, in others tolerant of the occasion. In short, what one would expect from any collection of pictures, except for the jarring and very public Star of David which feels eerily as if it had invaded the private space of the pictures without its bearers having noticed. There were 1536 such pictures in the first, 1994 French edition; 1834 in the 1995 edition; another 497 in a January 1996 supplement; and a further 172 added to this, the first English edition, amounting to a total of 2503. The evolving, unfinished nature of the project of memorialisation is evident in the ordering of its visual artefacts: the strictly alphabetical arrangement of the first series ends on page 1414, with Elisa Zytaner, of whom we know only her date of birth, that she was arrested in the Toulouse area and deported on Convoy 77. It is not clear why Georges Lyon, shown sitting on a satin-covered box and looking as if he would rather not be having his picture taken in what must be a 1928 or 1929 photographer’s studio, is next. But on page 1416, a new alphabet begins with Robert Bergman, in short woollen trousers, knee-length socks and sweater, holding a sand pail, posed in front of a studio backdrop of a rural road. He has the chubby, still slightly babyish body of a three-year-old; his head is covered with long curls of the sort boys wore in another age. He lived at 24 rue Jessaint and was a month short of his seventh birthday when deported on Convoy 24. (Many of the children were either deported or gassed on their birthdays, not surprising when one considers the odds.) This series ends with Paul Zubrichas, looking impishly at the camera, and yet another new portfolio starts at B with the Bloch twins and their brother Jean-Pierre. From here to the end, alphabetical order breaks down.

Additional faces and bodies of children without names appear in these pictures, not to speak of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of adults: mothers and fathers, grandparents, nurses, older brothers and sisters. Fortunée Tordjman, for example, sits behind another woman so that her body is mostly hidden; both women are smiling. Tordjman’s daughter, Louise, seven, peeks out from behind her five-year-old brother, Jacques, who looks resolutely into the camera – that is to say, at us. All the Tordjmans were captured at a UGIF (Union Générale des Israélites de France) home in the South of France on 20 October 1943 and deported to Auschwitz on 28 October. But who is the round-faced woman sitting in front of Madame Tordjman, or the three children sitting on the grass in front of them, or the cheery, dark-haired and charming ten or 11-year-old girl with her hand almost on her hip and a self-satisfied sort of look on her face? There are images throughout the book of bodies in shadows and of faces blocked. Photographs are torn or cut up. There are Christian schoolmates in class portraits whose fate is beyond the scope of this book. Only one of seven faces in a Jewish Boy Scout troop photographed in 1941 is identified: Maurice Wasserman, 14 in the picture, living at 6 rue Sevran in Grenoble with his parents and brother, Georges, deported 7 March 1944 on Convoy 69. On page 1043 is a snapshot of two Jewish boys boxing at a sports club at the Saint-Martin-de-Vésubie station in the Alpes-Maritimes; nine other boys crowd around. Only one, Isaac More, bare-chested and wearing short trousers, is identified. (He is shown in a colourful tunic on the tomb picture above the snapshot.) But who are the other nine, the littlest boy whose face is almost blocked by the body of one of the boxers, the next littlest in a black bathing suit, whose face is identifiable but so hidden in shadows that I missed him on my first three or four scans of the snapshot? Their fate? Eight young women each dangling a baby in the grounds of the Rothschild Hospital, spring 1943. Suzanne was interned until she gave birth to her baby, so that both she and the infant Jacqueline could be deported, on Convoy 57, 18 July 1943. And the others? All were deported with their babies. Like the graves of soldiers ‘Known but to God’, all these ciphers have a haunting quality which is different from that of the identified images, or of historical photograph albums in which no one is identified or in which identity is not so central a theme.

The rhetorical force of the book arises from the subtle interplay of the memorial and the mundanely historical within and between its main elements: the list, the chronology, the photograph. It belies the view that the Altagsgeschichte, the ‘history of the everyday’, renders the Holocaust banal, for its victims, or indeed for its perpetrators. For Klarsfeld, God resides in the quotidian detail.

The List

Any list is a work of extreme artifice. Names, dates, things are not arranged thus in nature. However natural a list might seem, it incorporates an enormous amount of work and judgment and makes enormous claims on those who confront it. It is as much a work of art as any stone monument. It is both an agent itself and an object of regard. Klarsfeld’s list of deportations delimits a domain of what or whom precisely is to be remembered. The Nazis hoped to forget the whole murderous thing. Himmler told his generals in 1942 that their work in ridding Europe of Jews was particularly glorious not only because of their discipline in the face of the discouraging popular view that there might actually be a ‘good Jew’ but because the story of their glorious deeds would go untold. No accounts were kept of those gassed on arrival at Auschwitz nor, incidentally, of the more than half a million or so who were murdered, more or less face to face, on the Eastern Front in 1941. Klarsfeld’s list thus makes manifest to our regard one sub-group of those whom the Nazis would have had us forget – and whose oblivion the passage of time threatens to achieve.

The list also orders and delimits the domain of the dead in a very particular way: as Jews. This is no small matter in France, where there had been a tendency to conflate racial deportees with the 100,000 French men and women, including Jews, who died as political deportees – mostly Communists – or as forced labour in Germany, or with the roughly comparable number who were killed in the Resistance, executed, or victims of Nazi atrocities. (The national monument on the Ile de la Cité behind Notre Dame is ‘to the deported’ without further specification.) In other words, Klarsfeld’s work demands that a sort of universalist memory of the ‘deported’ be refined; when first published it had, as he puts it, ‘a profound impact’ on both Jews and non-Jews, neither of whom had come to grips with the defining quality of this Nazi crime.

At the same time, his efforts show, perhaps inadvertently, how difficult it is to fashion a list which signifies precisely as intended. He includes among the photographs of deported children pictures of young Jewish men killed in the Resistance – ‘mort pour la France’ rather than ‘dead because they were Jewish’, by one of the ever-shifting bureaucratic definitions of what ‘Jew’ meant. Reprinted letters show that some of these dead thought of themselves, in the particular circumstances of their deaths, not primarily as Jews but as French. And even if it is admitted, as it manifestly must be, that Jews were deported qua Jews, the French defence has been that the Vichy regime cunningly saved the second highest percentage of Jews in Occupied Europe – Denmark came first – by making what it claimed to be the necessary, if unfortunate, sacrifice of the foreign-born to save citizens.

Klarsfeld does not enter into this debate directly but his list, with its many sub-lists, does constitute a community of the dead whose defining characteristic is their ‘race’. (There are also lists of the saved, the not dead: 252 Jewish children from OSE homes who were sent to the United States in 1941-2 – OSE was the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, the Jewish Children’s Welfare Agency.) Even without anything being said about the negotiations in which French officials co-operated with the Germans in ridding France of its Jews, or any reference being made to the extraordinary cosmopolitan quality of the French Jewish community evident in the deportation lists, other sub-lists speak to the point. There were 42 children bound for arrest and Auschwitz on Klaus Barbie’s manifest of those arrested at the children’s refuge in the village of Izieu; one, who turned out to be Christian, was taken off and released to the custody of an aunt. A quick scan of the list of children in Convoy 36, for example, to ascertain their birthplaces reveals the following: Paris, Luneville, Paris, Paris, Strasbourg, Strasbourg, Angers, Paris, Tours, Paris, Strasbourg, Metz ... Not counting the first – listed only as ‘un enfant’ with no surname or other particulars – we are 15 children down the list before we encounter a foreign birthplace; and eight more before the next.

Once named, the members of this reconstituted community of the dead can be commemorated and memorialised as well as historicised as a community of another kind. The children of this community are present to our memory in this book; the community as a whole is reconstituted in the larger book from which the children’s list is derived and on the walls of a monument at Roglit in Israel, the largest assemblage of names on any memorial in the world. Names can be read and the duration of the reading measured as a sign of the magnitude of loss. The practice of reading names from monuments is, of course, not limited to the Holocaust. The names from the Vietnam Memorial, for example, are read once a year and the exact time taken is reported in the press. At 32 names per minute – the rate at which I pronounced the names of the children deported from France – it would take five hours and 56 minutes to read each list aloud. In short, the mathematical sublime can be imagined as space, as a wall filled with letters, or as time filled with the sound of voices intoning names.

The list in this particular case also bears a set of complex metonymic relationships to the thing being commemorated. It is disconcerting that the form of commemoration is to a large extent determined by the fact that Klarsfeld’s categories are perforce Nazi categories, since his sources are the lists of various sorts which they used to identify, classify, locate, arrest, deport, and ultimately kill Jews. Klarsfeld’s memorial practice follows the paper trail of criminals. Paper was murderous. In the first place, there are lists of who is to be arrested; there were adjustments to these lists. Klarsfeld reproduces two registration cards from the Drancy camp. René Lévy, born in France on 27 May 1934, arrested as part of the ‘Allg. Massnahmen gegen Juden’ (‘general measures against Jews’) is released despite both his grandparents being Jewish, because his mother was an Aryan. His card is marked, in pencil, ‘Libéré’. Ten-month-old Arlette Chabbat’s card, on the other hand, is marked ‘Evakuiert, 20 Mai 1944’. She, too, had two Jewish grandparents but her mother was Jewish. She got onto another list – that for Convoy 74, Drancy to Auschwitz. There were 16 sub-lists for Convoy 36 and it is a testimony to the energy, labour and intelligence of Klarsfeld and his co-workers that they were able to reconstruct so much of the bureaucratic skein of lists upon lists: four names from Besançon; 53 from Clairvaux without date of birth or nationality; 135 names sent from the camp of Lalande to Drancy, many children without parents. There are 51 last-minute additions on a sub-list to Convoy 26, mostly people wanting to leave with members of their families but also one child listed as ‘a boy of three’ and another as ‘a little girl wearing placard #36’. No effort is spared to make these lists monuments to the actual victims. Bernard Dziubas, pictured in a dark woollen jump suit and wearing knee socks, a great mess of dark locks surrounding his face, was known to have been deported at the age of five but Klarsfeld was not able to find his convoy number. By imagining a phonetic version of his name as a five-year-old might pronounce it – Jubes, Bernard – he was able to determine that Dziubas, Bernard left for Auschwitz on Convoy 49, 2 March 1943.

Klarsfeld’s lists also make it possible to imagine the micro-geographies of mass murder. I am reminded here of the French conceptual artist Christian Boltanski’s Berlin installation, The Missing House. On the walls bearing the outlines of floors and rooms either side of the gap between two buildings where a third had been bombed out and not replaced, he erected plaques marking the names, occupations and dates of death of the former occupants of these ghostly spaces. A group of students discovered that 20 of these former inhabitants were Jews murdered by the Nazis; the material they unearthed was displayed in glass cases in an open-air museum that occupied the grounds of a bombed-out museum. The documentation is also in a book, La Maison manquante. Klarsfeld’s list suggests a similar gesture, although to call it conceptual art would be untrue to its creator, if not to its effect. In window after window in the Marais and other heavily Jewish sections of Paris, one sees, in the weeks either side of 16-17 July, hand-lettered signs letting passers-by know that in 1942, at some very early hour in the morning, this or that Jewish family – father, mother, young children – were taken by French police from this precise address, across this bit of pavement on which the passer-by stands, to the Vel d’Hiv, the winter bicycle stadium, and from there deported.

Klarsfeld offers the means to imagine, with stairway-by-stairway, convoy-by-convoy, car-by-car precision, the spaces in and through which the Jews of France were destroyed. In Stairway Nine at the transit camp at Drancy were 64 people, all adolescents and young children, whose names we know, slated for Convoy 27 which left for Auschwitz on 2 September 1942; Car Seven of Convoy 24 held one man and 33 children; Car Eight, 40 children and seven adults including Ita Epelbaum, aged 31, and her seven children, aged 11, nine, seven, two six-year-old twins, Henri, five, and Arlette, three. Many of the children in this convoy had already been through various other camps en route to this, their final, French stop before their departure on 26 August 1942 to Auschwitz (937/1002 gassed on arrival).

The Chronology

Klarsfeld’s chronologies, too, memorialise in the manner of the lists, by delimiting the community of the dead whom we remember and representing their fate. The ‘Children of the Holocaust’ are thus revealed as a special object of memory not only because of their innocence – they are of course innocent, but no more or less innocent than their parents or grandparents – but because they were singled out. Klarsfeld forces us to recognise that children were murdered on the basis of their being children and precisely, meeting by meeting and census by census, how this was accomplished – and that they constituted a bureaucratic category which caused particular bureaucratic difficulties and offered particular bureaucratic opportunities. The French were dismayed by the indifference of the Germans to the 4115 children caught in the big 16-17 July round-up and wanted to avoid having to deal with the special problems children, especially the very young ones, presented: who was to take care of them, once separated from their parents, how would it look to have to deport them on their own later on? Moreover, they wanted the Germans to count children towards the deportation quota so as to postpone another big round-up on the heels of the first, which had yielded disappointing numbers. (Neither Pierre Laval nor his police chief, René Bousquet, had a record of anti-semitism; Bousquet told the imprisoned former prime minister Edouard Daladier that he and Laval hoped that, by appearing keen on deporting Jewish children, the French would gain some advantage in future negotiations with the Germans on other matters, even if their new masters were at first reluctant to take them.)

The Photographs

Old photographs almost demand that we see them as memorials; by their nature they bear witness to their subject’s irrefutable existence in the past, to the death of an instant – a second or two in the 19th century, 1/100th of a second or less by the Thirties – which is frozen through the chemistry of light on some sort of emulsion and preserved on glass, metal or paper. Then suddenly this thing of the past is brought into the present, like the image of a star whose light, we know, has travelled for years to reach us. Living as we have for so long with a superabundance of photographic images, the terrible magic of the art is not as apparent as it was. It is nevertheless magic. Nadar, the great mid-19th-century French pioneer of photography, looking back in 1900, thought that it was far more disturbing, far more astonishing than the other momentous discoveries of his century – the steam engine, electric light, the telephone. In its sheer ‘peculiarity’ the photograph surpassed these and more wonders. It ‘endowed man’, he thought, ‘with the divine power of creation: the power to give physical form to the insubstantial image that vanishes as soon as it is perceived’. It captures ‘the ripple on the surface of the water’, the moments that in their succession make up a life. Maurice-Mandrel Mildiner will always look out at us, on his bar mitzvah day, wrapped in his talis. He was deported to his death nine months later on Convoy 24.

Perhaps all photographs – but certainly these ones – subsist in the present perfect conditional. History on whatever scale is written in the past tense or the historical present. Liki Bornsztajn was born on 27 August 1927 in Nancy, had taken refuge in the département of Vienne in Central France, lived in a Jewish social services home for children in rue Vauquelin, and was arrested there and deported on Convoy 77, which carried her and 326 other children to Auschwitz on 31 July 1944; 726 out of the 1300 men, women and children on this particular convoy were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. All this is in the past indicative. On 16-17 July 1942: ‘The Vel d’Hiv round-up begins as planned before dawn, at 4 a.m. ...’ Historical present.

But Liki’s picture exists in another tense: she ‘would soon have been 17’, the caption tells us. Her half-brother, Wolf, born on 21 October 1933, also in Nancy, is shown as a two-year-old, very much the child of another age: his shoes could be hand-me-downs; his tunic dates from the Twenties. He would be three, and four, five and so on in the present conditional until 31 July 1944, when he would have been 11 on his next birthday. The Wolf we see is of course not the Wolf who was deported and, indeed, the world he came into was not the world which would destroy him. The baby girl Myriam Piper, whom we see in 1928 or 1929, stark-naked, her face peering just a bit to her right in this, the only surviving picture of her, is not the 15-year-old who was deported with her mother on 19 August 1942. Hitler was not in power; France still welcomed immigrants. This mixing up of time, this invitation to project what we know will happen, is irresistible. Michael André Bernstein in his Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (1994) warns convincingly against back-shadowing, against the tendency to narrate the Shoah as if it were a tragedy in which the protagonist’s fate were sealed by his very nature. The Nazi murders are not immanent in all Jewish history and it would be wrong both morally and as a matter of historical practice to rob this past of its contingency. The Jews of Europe lived, as we do, without foreknowledge.

Klarsfeld is careful not to read what he knows into the past; his narratives emphasise historical contingency at every level, from that of officials who might have acted differently to the small happenstances that permitted some people to escape near-certain arrest and deportation. He does not pretend that these pictures were made to preserve a world which was soon to be lost or even that they are collected here to resurrect that world. They were made for every conceivable reason that one might make a photograph; they give a sort of spectral flesh to the specific name. This memorial thus has none of the mood of claustrophobic elegy which suffuses Roman Vishniac’s A Vanished World. That collection of stunningly beautiful photographs of traditional Eastern European Jewish life can only be seen now in the terms set by the photographer. He tells us that, living in Germany in the Thirties, he knew ‘Hitler had made it his mission to exterminate all Jews’, and that, being unable to save his people, he set out to save their memory. Using a hidden camera – most Orthodox Jews thought that photography violated the second commandment – he took 16,000 pictures. All but 2000 were confiscated. Here Klarsfeld’s and Vishniac’s projects converge: the latter’s father ‘remained in hiding in Clermont-Ferrand ... during the entire war in order to save my precious negatives’. Vishniac’s is a world preserved against great adversity. Klarsfeld’s remembering, however, is not merely elegiac; it has the redemptive force of history as well. By assuaging the anxiety of forgetting, it makes history possible.

However much the historian in me resists the temptation to read Klarsfeld’s images proleptically, I succumb, particularly when the baby pictures are not part of an age that would be fading anyhow – pictures that look historical – but ones which might be from my infancy. I begin to measure their subjects against my own life and their death becomes more immediate. Liki’s half-brother, Wolf, looks like a baby from my parents’ generation, although he was born in 1933, twenty years after my father. Gilbert Glück, born Paris, 19 January 1935, and deported 21 August 1942, Convoy 22 (1000 people, among whom there were 293 boys and 318 girls; 817 of the passengers were gassed on arrival; no females and seven men survived), is pictured holding a large hoop and stick. It is a toy out of a Bruegel painting, the toy my father holds in the picture I have of him at roughly the same age, the timeless sign of the European boy.

The very last photograph in the book is different from these. It shows ten children, all perhaps two years old, the back row standing, the front row sitting on the grass. They are wearing the sort of baggy shorts that served as nappy covers but could also be worn on their own. I recognise them from my baby pictures. The boys all have haircuts of the sort I had. These are my sort of kids, potential school chums, just as many of the older children in the book could well have been Klarsfeld’s mates. They would now be three years older than I am. In fact, ‘I’ might have been that old. A few years before my mother died she told me that, despite the fact that she was then 37 and anxious to have a child, she had had an abortion three years before I was born because a German invasion of Turkey, to which my parents had fled, still seemed possible and she did not feel safe having a child in such circumstances. I was conceived in early January 1945, just about the time the news of the failure of Hitler’s desperate counter-offensive in the Ardennes would have reached Istanbul. As it turned out, however, the children in the last picture who look like I looked are not three years older than I am. The SS arrested them and their nurses at a UGIF children’s refuge in Neuilly and sent them, along with 230 other very young children from similar refuges, to Auschwitz on 31 July 1944 – Convoy 77, the last regular full shipment – where all of them were immediately gassed.

This dialectic between memory and history drives Klarsfeld’s book. On the one hand, it is exactly what it says: ‘A Memorial’. On the other, it is a vertiginous mise en abyme of memory. Among the photographs, hundreds are pictures of pictures on tombstones. Some are not unlike those that abound in Mediterranean cemeteries, although the sort of family groupings one finds here – a father in a fine business suit fills the frame of the studio portrait with his children, both deported, in the lower right third – are relatively rare. Some are reproductions of broken images – Albert Szpidbaum’s face is almost completely gone, unlike the luminous face of his younger sister, Monique, which is intact; both deported on Convoy 67, 3 February 1944 – as if to announce some eternal truth about the transience of all things, including memory.

Many close-up reproductions have the vitreous overlay of tomb pictures that produces a ghostly haze through which the faces seem to shine. Cracks in the surface give these extreme close-ups the quality of old masters. Scores of pictures are embedded in what look like photographic albums covering what we know to be an empty grave in a cemetery. Suzanne Kappe, born in Paris in 1931 and deported with her older sister and mother on Convoy 24, 23 August 1942, looks out at us from the oval cut-out with slightly embossed borders that determined the placements of pictures. Her mother and sister fill the other slots. The album is in white marble and it sits on a black polished slab on which we can just see, at the very bottom of the image, four stones, two black and two white, which are put on Jewish graves by visitors. The legend in black reads, ‘Mortes en déportation’. Each page threatens to sweep the reader into the abyss. Henri Flamenbaum, not quite five, dressed in a double-breasted suit, arm on pedestal, hand in jacket pocket – the pose of the 19th-century statesman – looking out at us and the camera with the apprehensive smile of a little boy who wants to please in unfamiliar circumstances. (We know his age because a legend in cursive hand across the top of the picture identifies it as taken on 24.1.42 and the caption gives his date of birth.) This rectangular photograph of a photograph is positioned on the page to cut at a right angle into a stone representation of an Edwardian photo album, one in which some paper-lace work – a rose in this case – pops out as the book is opened. Here the head from the lower portrait appears again – picture upon picture upon picture – in a framed oval below others which contain images of the faces of his two sisters, almost grown-up, and their mother. On the right of the book a note in French reads: ‘To my dear wife and children whose death broke my heart which ever bleeds and weeps and which will never forget their woe. Died during the deportation to Auschwitz.’ (They were on Convoy 20, Drancy to Auschwitz, 17 August 1942, 878 of whose 1000 deportees were gassed on arrival. No women survived.) Behind this album we can just glimpse another that lies open on the same black slab; the word ‘Déportés’ is just visible; the name P ... OFF is obscured by the rose.

In the final analysis, it is the pain which some small detail of each photograph elicits – what Barthes called its ‘punctum’, its barb, its capacity to pierce – that makes this book ‘memorial’. Images of the dead wound the hearts of the living. The abyss – the superabundance of particularities is endless, each disturbing in its fashion: the boys and girls holding toys, sometimes absorbed in them like seven-year-old Jeanine Gotteiner who carries a stiff creature almost her own size and plays with the ribbon around its neck; sometimes bearing them less personally as signs of childhood that bridge the unnatural milieu of the studio and the world of the nursery; the twins, Claude and Guy Gotteiner, absorbed as naked infants in the rug whose soft hairs are visible against the shadows of their bodies; the fingers of Stella Radomysler’s hand peeping from between her father’s thumb and index finger as they walk down the street, two years before their deportation to Auschwitz, he in a three-piece suit, she in a white dress trimmed with fur and a hat with pompoms; the shaving-brush wielded on the smiling, lathered face of his father by a laughing three-year-old Jean-Pierre Guckenheimer; two five-pointed stars cut in the wooden doors of a garage – meaningless decoration – that contrast so poignantly with the six-pointed badge worn by a resolute-looking man sitting for this picture with his wife and three daughters (Andrée Marie, aged 14, survived from this group: the hour on the watch pinned to her dress, 1.20). There are stereotypically happy pictures of the age, scores of girls in Shirley Temple poses; stereotypically serious poses – boys and girls with violins or books whose titles are just visible (Contes de ...). There are pictures that pierce in other ways: a little girl with a bare chest, a heart-locket around her neck; a bracelet barely visible on her wrist; she is looking straight at the camera – at us – her arms folded below her exposed nipples; long blonde hair. On the facing page she is dressed in a smock and standing next to her naked doll, which lies on the table. The first of these pictures was used for a poster advertising an exhibition about the Loiret Internment Camp. Innocence protests too much, as if the innocence of every man, woman and child in this book were not as great.

In the end we are rescued by history. The power, beauty and moral authority of the book derive from its being anchored by Klarsfeld’s two monumental earlier works, by the array of micro-histories which inform every page and by the historicity of the photographs themselves. It is history modelled on legal processes, forensic history: someone did something to someone at this or that place with this or that intention and caused this or that harm. It is a history of tight causal connections, a history which keeps careful track of each piece of evidence, history as detection. Klarsfeld, of course, is a prosecutor, among other roles. In 1987 he acted on behalf of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Jews deported from France, as the ‘avocat de parties civiles’, one of the private prosecutors for the civil plaintiffs, against Klaus Barbie for the murder of 41 Jewish children taken at his orders from a farmhouse in the village of Izieu on 6 April 1944. (The plaintiffs were relatives of these children.) He does not spend much energy on questions that have exercised Holocaust historiography: whether it is ‘representable’, whether the destruction of European Jews is inherent in the history of Western anti-semitism or that of a particularly vehement German anti-semitism, whether it was a largely opportunistic response to the possibility of actually murdering large numbers of Jews or a fully planned and organised conspiracy with deep roots in the past, as the Nuremberg prosecutors argued. He and his wife, Beate, are involved in a similar process to that of the truth commissions which have recorded the crimes of the regimes of Argentina, Chile and apartheid South Africa: one of making certain what happened so that it can be allowed to become history; remembered, to be sure, but past. A leaf is turned as the truth is established.

The photographs at the heart of this memorial book are also crucial to it as a piece of history. As remains, they are, in the first place, evidence of murder. At Beate Klarsfeld’s urging, and with her help, Fortunée Massaouda sat with an enlargement of the only picture she had of her three children – Jacques, 13, Richard, six, Jean-Claude, five – in front of the office of the German prosecutor bearing a sign which read: ‘I am on a hunger strike as long as the investigation of Klaus Barbie who murdered my children remains closed.’ This story of political action is not in the book under review. Here we have only the picture of the three boys, all with dark, deep-set eyes, delicate lips. The oldest boy, whose last Mother’s Day letter to Fortunée is reprinted, rests his hand on his little brother’s shoulders (Fortunée survived Auschwitz). Jacques wears short trousers held in place with a belt and lace-up shoes. Richard’s shorts are held high by cloth suspenders; he wears androgynous shoes with buckles. The youngest brother is in a knitted shirt and toddler pants. They stand in front of a ludicrously picturesque studio background. Victims of murder.

They are also clues to the narrative form in which to write the history – tragic irony – although Klarsfeld does not make this explicit. The hundreds of identity cards with JUIF stamped across them signal the betrayal of the Revolutionary tradition to which the Jews of France were so passionately committed. In 1860 a group of French Jews issued a manifesto to the Jews of more benighted lands, an invitation to subscribe to the universalist principles they believed so fervently that France embodied, and urging them to join the Universal Israelite Alliance in spreading the French language and French values to Jews everywhere. As it happened, the identity card which was created during the Revolution as a certificate of membership in the new political community, a sign of friend against foe, became after 1940 an instrument of exclusion and ultimately murder. Klarsfeld restores it to its original purpose and reincorporates its Jewish bearers into the community which had rejected them.

If the photographs and names are signs of the dead, the list and the chronology explain how they came to be that way. Consider the Izieu raid. We know that the OSE, at the end of 1943 and early in 1944, had already dispersed children in other homes to safe havens throughout rural southern France. Izieu was uniquely vulnerable. We also know that the Vichy authorities had, by the time of the anti-Jewish raids in Bordeaux on 10 January 1944, given up any pretence of protecting French Jews – foreign ones had long since been written off. It had already happened elsewhere. Laval had sanctioned the raids, over the initial objections of his regional prefect. The stage was thus set. On page 87 we have a copy of the telex in which Barbie announces to his bosses in Paris what he has achieved. (Every shipment was accompanied by a telex announcing that such and such a number of Jews were en route from A to B. I translate from the German, retaining as much as possible its telegraphic style:

6.4.44 2010 Subject: Jewish Children’s Home in Izieu. In today’s morning hours the ‘Jewish Children’s Home’, ‘Children’s colony’ was cleaned out. [The verb is ausheben and perhaps the better translation is ‘robbed’, as of eggs from a nest.] A total of 41 children aged three to 13 years were taken into custody. Further success in securing the entire Jewish staff consisting of ten heads, of which five are women. Cash and other valuables could not be secured.

Klarsfeld juxtaposes this with another micro-history of the same event. Many of the children had already been arrested with their parents and been freed into the custody of the OSE. We know from other sources that they were having a breakfast of hot chocolate and bread when the SS came and threw them ‘like parcels’ into the trucks. He reprints letters from some of the children to their parents as captions to their pictures. Henri Goldberg, aged 14, to his mother: ‘I’m going to study hard to make you happy ... and the headmistress and our teachers happy, and myself too, so that after the war you’ll find us intelligent and not consider us [him and his brother Joseph] dunces.’ The picture shows him, his brother, three unidentified children and an adult – perhaps the farmer for whom he worked occasionally – looking at a sketchpad.

Klarsfeld tells us precisely and in mundane detail what happened at each small step of the French Holocaust. On 9 February, police acquire lists of children in the Rothschild Foundation; at 6.30 in the morning on 10 February, five inspectors break into a dormitory, wake 12 children and take them away; at one in the morning on 11 February, they come to take away four girls aged 15 and 16. But the coolness of this account modulates when we turn the page and see a picture of 19 children with pillowcases containing belongings on their backs leaving an orphanage in secret on their way to refuge with non-Jewish families. Klarsfeld’s point in this juxtaposition is not to redeem one history, or way of recounting a history, with another, happier one. The picture of the children saved and the snippet of a chronology of murder are both aides-mémoire. But the brilliance of this memorial doesn’t have to do with the effort to erect a barrier against amnesia or denial – nor is the book a plea for justice, despite the role Klarsfeld has played in bringing war criminals before the law – but with its insistence that private memories and a nearly bottomless record of evil become part of the public record. It is precisely by remembering in public that the past can become past – and that memory becomes survivable by entering history.