History is the Life of YouIndividuals are often lost in the immensity of events, sometimes rehabilitated in vestiges of memory, but just as likely to become anonymous among the suffering faces. Even with the number of memoirs and biographies that are produced, the Holocaust often fails to find its significance without reference to the numbers of lives it ended. But as Timothy Burke recently pointed out (here, too), it can be as difficult to bring the actors of history to full light as it is to make the faceless masses interesting to the general reader.
That's what makes this story interesting: a French man's confrontation with the last traces of his parents in a museum.
The evocation of this 'incredible moment' begins with a long silence. Michael Lévi-Leleu searches for the right words. "It was February, 2005," he said softly. "I took the train with my daughter to see the exposition presented at the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris. I walked quickly past a suitcase displayed behind a window. Claire stopped. Then she called me back to show me that there was an identification tag, on which was written Pierre Lévi, which was my father's name. We did not know what to do."Confronted with this artifact from his own past, Lévi-Leleu is suing the Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau to keep the suitcase in France.
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Recently, a woman came to public attention for suing the Museum for paintings she made of Gypsies for Mengele (see also Barista). The Museum claims that the paintings, by virtue of being "commissioned," are not personal property, and nonetheless, they belong to the common experience of the Holocaust. But because of the relationship of the painter to Mengele (she painted under threat of death), the normal conditions of ownership should not apply, and the paintings should be return to her.
The Museum has responded likewise to Attempting to recover the suitcase is part of the process of recovering memory for Lévi-Leleu:
It is part of the history of Auschwitz, and it is proof of the Shoah; a proof of an emotional, but above all, documentary character. It presence in our permanent exposition, visited every year by millions of people from around the world, has an exceptional importance.
The Lévi-Leleu case is different: although the suitcase could be seen as personal property, it belongs as well to (in)humanity. Yet Lévi-Leleu does not want the suitcase returned for himself. He wants to bring it closer and keep it on display. His desire reflects, on the one hand, his drive to recover memories, and on the other, his inability to do so through the usual sources:
For Michael Lévi-Leleu, there were a thousand reasons why [the suitcase] should remain in France. After living his entire adult life ... under the identity Michel Leleu, he underwent the procedure to retake his original name, "to reappropriate [his] past."Proximity to the suitcase would end his alienation, but he cannot take it out of context. The tension reveals something of the nature of the event itself: turning the individual into the faceless, forever linking them. It points the dissatisfactions that can come from both the social and the individual perspectives of history.
He read the books of Primo Levi, watched the documentaries ..., even Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. "I could not stay to the end. It was too sad," he murmured. For a short time, he spent a dark period consumed with his personal history. "I am not a fighter nor am I outraged," he says. "But I saw in the suitcase some kind of sign. I wanted it to remain there, not bring it home and keep it out of sight, but so that it could be shown to all Paris. I could not see it taking the same path that it had to Auschwitz."