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We walked into Fort Queleu in Metz and the first thing we stumbled upon was a monument (pictured below) for the Resistance, which contained the ashes of a prisoner from the camp. During this visit to the fort, I was inspired by the area and what it stood for. Though conditions were horrible for the hundreds of prisoners who were held there and tortured, to me, the fort, and especially the monument, stands for hope and resilience. The fort, sometimes called the “Hell of Queleu” (Enfer de Queleu) was not a concentration camp, but rather an interrogation center for captured or arrested members of the French Resistance. Between October 1943 and August 1944, between 1500 and 1800 prisoners were interrogated, tortured, and kept blindfolded with their hands and feet tied in horrible conditions before being sent to concentration camps or prison or sentenced to death. Thirty six people died in the camp while four managed to escape.
I am Jewish, I grew up with all my family being Jewish, and I was always taught by my grandparents that we live to remember so that events like the Holocaust and World War II never happen again. It is the same way that the people of Metz can and will never forget the suffering endured and the consequences of the two periods that were involved with this fort, the war of 1870 between Germany and France and the Nazi internment camp during World War II. The reason I mention hope, though, is because living through this time period in Metz and being mentally and physically tortured by other humans in an enclosed camp underground would force anyone to lose all hope, but the French Resistance were politically and morally uplifting for the entire country of France. The Resistance planned, coordinated, and executed acts of sabotage against the Nazi German occupation of France, giving the country an inspiring example of what patriotism looked like so that others would join the fight against the SS and other Nazi organizations.
As we were walking into the fort (pictured below) for our tour that early morning, I noticed many runners and bikers passing by. I remember at first how strange it seemed to me that such a seemingly historically significant place, an interrogation camp where the Nazis held prisoners just down the road from our dorms, was being turned into a running and biking path. At the time, a couple weeks ago, it seemed shocking to me to hide the story of the fort and turn the area into a fitness course. But recently, as I’ve been researching the subject more and as I’ve come to appreciate the history in this area a lot more, my feelings on the subject have softened a little bit. I still wouldn’t say I’m completely comfortable running a lap or two around the camp but I think I understand why people do in some way.
Part of the problem, first of all, seems to be funding. Everywhere you look, every corner you turn in this part of the world, there is another WWII historical site, another Roman ruin. We don’t have that problem to such an extent in the United States because of our comparatively shorter and less extensive history, but with so many historical sites, funding will eventually run out and only so many places will be preserved. The other problem is the memory, the memory of a scarred region. I mentioned earlier that, like the Jewish people, the French people will never be able to forget the horrors and suffering that people endured because of the German regime, but in many ways, people wish they could. I understand that feeling. They want to forget that once again, France collapsed under the pressure of a more powerful Germany. They don’t want to think about the people tortured and killed right across the street from their house. And that feeling is completely understandable, like I said. But obviously some wanted and needed to remember. The volunteers that are now running the association that keeps the fort up and safe (and doing so for free, taking care of the funding issue) are those that needed to remember because the association was formed by those who lived through the terror of imprisonment at Fort de Queuleu. They lived through the interrogation, were sent to a concentration camp and lived to return. They needed to remember because they couldn’t forget. And now their families and friends have carried on the memory after them.
Just like the French survivors remember the brutalities of this time period and pass it on to others through tours of the fort and other teaching opportunities, Americans also remember the heroic sacrifices of our troops, from Normandy to the Battle of Bulge. And we congratulate ourselves for the important role we played in the liberation of France and concentration camps and the defeat of Germany in World War II. What almost no one in America will remember, though, is the role that the French Resistance played in these liberations. The French Resistance was very important to not only the liberation of France, but also the original Western Allied landings. They transmitted information to the active Western Allies which was crucial and required tons of bravery and coordination to gather. Americans automatically believe that had Germany occupied the United States, nearly everyone would have joined an armed resistance to the Nazis. That’s definitely what I thought too. Until I did my research on what it meant to be a part of the French Resistance. It seems like a very naïve way to think about what it meant to stand up against an armed power like the German Nazis. It has been calculated that, among the French, only about 2% became involved in resistance activity, and 1% actively collaborated with the Germans, while all the others kept their heads down and waited for liberation to come. This was mostly because of the dangers that came with helping the Resistance.
The French Resistance began 1,000 acts of sabotage immediately in the hours after the Normandy invasion began, and the damage they caused on railroads and other communications played such an important role in preventing Germans from arriving quickly into France. Even Eisenhower said, “Without their great assistance, the liberation of France and the defeat of the enemy in Western Europe would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves”. But resistance didn’t have to only be achieved through violence. Resistance activity involved symbolic gestures as well, like painting “V’ signes on buildings or peaceful protests around France. Once again, though, the risk was high as several French students were arrested when marching along the Champs-Elysees in 1940 and threated with execution. Resistance also involved rescuing people who were being persecuted, especially Jews, hiding them with families or in hidden communities. This became especially important when German authorities began to round up Jews to take them away to concentration camps. At this time, networks of these French Resistance helped to get them across the border to Spain or Switzerland.
So the question then becomes: would I have been a resistor, a collaborator, or done nothing at all? As citizens and as humans, we believe that we would have made the right decision during World War II given what we know about the horrors and suffering that occurred. I imagine that had I been in France in 1940, I would have been involved in moments of activism, but not so as to threaten my studies, my family, or to risk arrest or my life. Today, we are living in a world where the possibility of resistance is here again. We haven’t been invaded or taken over by any other countries or forces, but there has been a huge growth in populist politics, criticizing politicians and experts, and a rise of nationalism and xenophobia.
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