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Convenient yearly multiples serve commemorations well. On January 25th, the city of Paris began its tribute to the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and its French victims with Entre L’Ecoute et La Parole: Derniers Temoins (Between Listening and Telling: The Last Witnesses), an exposition instated in the Hôtel de Ville through March 12.
Realized by Paris resident Esther Shalev-Gerz and synchronized with the opening of the nearby Memorial de la Shoah (with which it is associated), Derniers Temoins aims to preserve a remnant of a remnant – the testimonies of some of the estimated 2,500 of the French Jews who somehow emerged from concentration camps during the war out of the approximately 76,000 who were taken in.
The installation introduces itself with a small panel-board display about the Auschwitz-Birkenau ordeal that sidles a larger set of color images of survivors and quotes from their interviews (all the panels and photos populate a free exhibition pamphlet). The visitor then proceeds to the denouement: sixty DVD players posed in a carefully plotted locus atop four long, undulant tables in the Hôtel’s great hall, each bearing the interviewed recollections of a different survivor. According to Shalev-Gerz, “The wavy design of the four long tables supporting the DVD players encourages the crossing of people’s eyes, thus making the viewing of the testimonies a shared experience with the neighboring person…” I’m not sure visitors will submit to this communalizing motif. Since the videos are rather lengthy and viewers may decide not to hear them out in their entirety, I rather suspect the DVDs will isolate their attentions instead.
In addition, a large, three-screen display in the back of the hall delivers “a succession of close-ups on the witnesses’ faces at the very moment of their remembering, captures [sic] the silence that precedes the actual act of speaking.” Again, this stream of noiseless, epiphanic hesitations doesn’t quite work, at least not for this visitor. I would venture that attendees busied with the DVD before them will hold fast to that focus and find themselves rarely looking up. A significant video excerpt of the screen display plays on the Paris Mairie site.
Americans should be advised that Derniers Temoins is staged entirely in French, as if meaning to instruct its indigenous visitors – Pay attention, dear citizens – this is for, and perhaps ultimately even about you.
On a different but not wholly disconnected note, the Bureau de Poste availed itself of a memorably round number all its own January 16 when it rolled out a stamp commemorating the 900th anniversary of the death of the great French rabbinical scholar, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhaki, perhaps better known as Rachi or Rashi, as per the American transliteration. Upheld as the preeminent commentator on the Torah and contributor of an integral gloss on the Talmud, works which continue to be studied in yeshivas and Jewish homes to this day, Rachi lived in the city of Troyes at a time when the lingua franca was old French. The stamp places a nameless tome in the rabbi’s hands, from which a profusion of Hebrew letters seems to spout. It took my landlady to observe that the letters seem to embody what is called Rachi script, a manner of Hebrew typography not coined by Rachi but associated with some editions of his work. The stamp’s green background appears to portray a vineyard, befitting Rachi’s vocation as wine producer. My New York acquaintances were much taken with the stamp, of which I purchased a few dozen and handed out as souvenirs. At 50 centimes a pop, I could afford to be a hero.
Derniers Temoins is located at 17 rue Geoffroy-l’Asiner, Metro: Saint-Paul or Hotel de Ville