Album Bundesarchiv Koblenz, B 323/311
Beschlagnahmeaktionen in Paris. Transport- und Lageraufnahmen (Confiscations in Paris. Photographs of depots and transports, 1940–44), Album of eighty-five black-and-white photographs, Bundesarchiv Koblenz, B 323/311
Sarah Gensburger, Witnessing the Robbing of the Jews. A Photographic Album, Paris, 1940–1944 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015)
Louvre Museum—National Museum of Modern Art (Palais de Tokyo)— Mansion of the Cahen d’Anvers family—Lévitan department store (2007), Color photographs by Olivier Amsellem in cooperation with Sarah Gensburger and Michèle Cohen
The photographs were first displayed in the exhibition Retour sur les lieux. La Spoliation des Juifs à Paris in 2007. The exhibition was hosted by BETC whose offices were located in the former Lévitan internment camp, 85–87 rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement in Paris.
The Eiffel Tower as seen from Trocadéro (2017), Color photograph by Kevin Labourdette
Text by Sarah Gensburger, Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris
Translation from English by Ben Mohai
Copy-editing by Eva Wilson
With kind support from Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN
Looking at the Past, Witnessing History: The Koblenz Album
Having been the global capital of the art world before the war, the city of Paris greatly fueled Nazi greed during the German occupation of France. In Paris, the looting began with the arrival of German troops on June 14, 1940. The first objects to be targeted were artworks owned by Jewish collectors. However, far less known today, from 1942 onwards the looting of Parisian apartments “abandoned” by Jewish tenants was also systematically organized. Following the decision to implement the “Final Solution,” this operation was christened “Möbel-Aktion” (Operation Furniture). On March 25, 1942, a dedicated department was duly established in Paris: the “Dienststelle Westen” (Western Department). The closely entangled nature of the continuous expansion of the looting and the orchestration of genocide is made starkly clear by the fact that, just two days later, the first deportation convoy left France with 1,112 Jews on board. By August 1944, up to 38,000 Parisian homes would be emptied. Before being transported to Germany, everyday items such as furniture, cutlery, or toys were stored in several depots in Paris: the pianos at the Musée National d’Art Moderne (the present-day Palais de Tokyo); books and musical scores at the rue de Richelieu; furniture at 43 quai de la Gare (the Austerlitz warehouse); objects and clothes at 85–97 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin (the Lévitan department store); and fine items, such as china or lace, at 2 rue Bassano.
A Jewish workforce was assigned the task of packing these objects into crates, and consequently the Austerlitz warehouse, the Lévitan department store, and the depot at 2 rue Bassano became internment camps in the very center of Paris. At least 795 people were held at these camps between July 1943 and August 1944. Twenty percent of these prisoners were ultimately deported, mainly to Auschwitz. In August 1944, the remaining internees were liberated. Lévitan, Austerlitz, and Bassano are the names most commonly used to refer to these Parisian satellites of the Drancy assembly and detention camp. In 2003, together with the historian Jean-Marc Dreyfus, I wrote their story (Des camps dans Paris, Paris: Fayard 2003, English translation: Nazi labor camps in Paris, Oxford/New York: Berghahn Books 2011). The archives of the “Dienststelle Westen” had been destroyed at the end of the war, so our research was mainly based on a small number of other official archives, as well as personal letters, diaries, and oral testimonies given by former internees.
Some years later, the existence of a photographic album was brought to my attention. This album is preserved in the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive) in Koblenz under the shelfmark B 323/311.1 It contains eighty-five pictures mainly showing the three camps in Paris, but no captions, except for a note on the first page indicating that the album was created in 1948 by the Munich Central Collecting Point. When I first saw these images, I instinctively began to look at the people in the background, behind the objects themselves, to see if I could recognize any of the detainees whom I had previously either encountered in images in the archives or, in some cases, met personally. I immediately had the powerful impression that many of the pictures had been taken with the express intention of illustrating the accounts given in the former detainees’ interviews or in personal letters from that time, which they had kept and shared with me. The photographs seemed to me to possess a degree of efficiency and clarity that was missing from the textual and oral accounts. I decided to retrace my steps or, rather, to start my journey afresh in the opposite direction until I reached its beginning. Since I had already, so to speak, written this chapter of history before coming across the images that documented it, I found myself in a position to see just what these images were able to tell me that the historical account of the past alone could not. Recognizing this disparity involved taking into account the resonance that photographs necessarily have for the viewer today, as well as the many different gazes which all constitute different routes into the reality presented to our eyes. The inherently contradictory nature of the Holocaust, an experience that is described as impossible to relate, yet is simultaneously made visible in the many surviving photographs of the event, brings into particularly sharp focus the question of the contemporary use of images to create a narrative of the past.
1 Floriane Azoulay and Jean-Marc Dreyfus first made me aware of the existence of this album. I owe them my thanks.