Forgive but not forget!
Christine Rault, the grand-daughter of Joseph Rault who died in the Sandbostel reception camp on May 19, 1945, gives insights into her family history and describes her positive attitude toward the dialogue between the descendants of persecutees and the descendants of Nazi perpetrators. Here you can read her answers to some questions I asked her regarding the main themes of the discussion that took place during the workshop „Dialogue between the descendants of former concentration camp prisoners and the descendants of Nazi perpetrators“ during the Forum „Future of Remembrance“ held at the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial on May 6, 2015.
How did you learn about what happened to your grand-father and father?
When I was a child I learnt about my grand-father’s and my father’s stories, only bit by bit and through exceptional situations. For instance, when we met one of his early friends who told us, with plenty of details, about his experience in the2nd DB, my father mentioned some memories of Germany at the end of the war. I also keep in memory that he had been sent to England where he learnt parachuting, and that he had taken to a “maquis” in Saône et Loire.
My grandmother’s house was a kind of museum, showing objects which had belonged to her beloved missing ones. I also remember that, in her drawing room, there was a photograph of my father in uniform with a real medal on the frame, and in her bedroom, there was a photograph of my grandfather with one (or two?) more medal(s).
My grandmother (on my father’s side) lived in a house at the crossing of a street named after my grandfather. When I was able to read and I asked her what “Dead for the country” meant, she never answered. They often spoke about “Grand Dad Jo”, but I hardly knew anything about his life, apart from the years of his birth and death.
My father never told me about his own story or his father’s story, before he died, in 2007. It is through his memoirs, written for his descendants, that I got more precise information about the commitment of his family in the Resistance. As concerns his own story, as he wrote his memoirs when he was already rather old, he omitted some details which would have helped understanding his process within the Resistance. I suppose he had kept reflexes acquired in “the Army of Shadows” and he was unable to write about the heroic side of his life. I began to do some research with the family papers I had access to, but it is only after my mother’s death, in October 2014, that, having to sort out things accumulated during 60 years, I found traces of my father’s life in the Resistance. Then, I entered the intimate life of a 20-year-old young man.
How did you manage (or not) to overcome the consequences of the perpetrators‘ deeds?
First of all, I was born on February 23rd 1957, just before the Rome treaty was signed, a key period for the rebuilding of Europe. I was conceived in a difficult period when the necessary steps were taken to bring my grandfather’s remains back to France. Moreover, my mother being a teacher, my parents had to find a solution to look after their three children. As we lived in Paris, near the “Alliance française”, we had several German or Austrian au-pair girls, who were content with the rather Spartan comfort of our flat, which was not the case with students coming from northern countries.
My father made this “second hand” choice of having “Germanic” students, saying that his father would have acted in the same way, without hatred, without ill-feeling or xenophobia. My grandmother also agreed to this proceeding. I remember some evenings, Christmas’ eves, when black and white films were shown on TV on remains of concentration camps, and we watched them with the au-pair girl. I was certainly guided – consciously and unconsciously – by this sentence which my grandmother sometimes said : “forgive but not forget”. I can’t explain how I overcame the acts of the perpetrators as I grew up in a tolerant and generous family, open to ideas and beings. I can’t deny, though, that I had a gasp when the husband of one of our au-pair girls showed his photo in a German army uniform. My mother told me that one of the other girls, whose father had been in the Waffen SS and had died on the Russian front, had never been feeling all right, even attempting suicide several times. Today, several of the au-pair girls are dead, and I feel more concerned with the state of health of those who are still alive – being more or less 80 now – than trying to know who their fathers were and what they might have done.
What will you pass on to your children?
My children are young adults nowadays. They know about my commitment to the Amicale de Neuengamme, without realizing exactly its basis, which is difficult to express. I think I transmitted what I received from my parents : being true to the values of tolerance, curiosity towards “foreigners”, remembering the actions of their grandfather and great-grandfather, trying to behave the most righteously as possible in all circumstances, not despising the most humble people. Symbolically, when I took my children to Germany (to Europa Park) for the first time, I was keen on stopping in Verdun and Douaumont. I explained to them that some German families also came here to turn their thoughts towards relatives who had died there.
What do you expect, or fear, from a dialogue between families of victims and families of perpetrators?
I don’t fear anything from the dialogue. Who are we today, we the descendants? Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and now the 3rd and 4th generations. We are a heterogeneous group, enriched by our different ages and what we have gone through, which remains personal whatever side we are, descendants of victims or of perpetrators. Listening to each other will be to everyone’s benefit. I think the more distant generation you are from the actors of that period, the easier the dialogue should be, the implicit assumptions being less compelling, thanks to the license of writing or speaking. What I fear is the distortion of the memory of the victims, it being “sweetened”, simplified, and its being exploited to support wrong causes by political opportunists.