here is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is hate that is not in us, it is outside of man. We cannot understand it, but we must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. • Primo Levi, from his 1946 book “If This is a Man”
There is a delightfully quirky feel about the spa town of Bagnoles-de-l’Orne. Its pond, cafés, and Disney-like houses are incongruous in the Normandy landscape, and seem to have leapt out of a nineteenth-century postcard.
My mother and I were in town for little more than a dermatologist appointment and a haircut. But as we pulled into the clinic parking lot, we noticed how close it was to a friend’s apartment, located in a converted hotel from the 1970s.
This friend, a ninety-seven-year-old woman named N., attended the same Catholic Latin Mass as we did, in the church of a nearby village. It would be a friendly thing to do, I suggested, if we paid her a visit.
So, after the first appointment, a snack in a bakery, and a leisurely walk, my mother and I returned and climbed the two flights up to N’s apartment. The stairway walls emitted a musty odor of tobacco which time had only mildly diminished.
We reached the second-floor landing and N promptly ushered us into her apartment with a warm smile.
I had been to N’s apartment before, and was struck by the history that was summarized in her hallway. Nicolas II, the last Russian czar in a portrait on the right, was a friend of N’s father, who fled to France in 1920s following the 1917 and 1918 Bolshevik revolutions. Although Russian Orthodox through her father, N was raised a Catholic upon the insistence of her French mother. Family pictures, tea sets, and Chinese artwork filled the living room. She took us directly to the table, where she had graciously laid out lunch. We were both touched by her hospitality, and looked forward to being regaled with stories from her past.
After the meal, though, something happened.
My mother, knowing the controversial nature of the topic, expressed dismay at the political undercurrents that seemed to flow beneath the Latin Mass today. Indeed, Saint-Michel’s Mass has attracted people from all walks of life, including some with extreme political views. As my mother spoke, my eyes fell on a book in N’s shelf by Eric Zemmour, the right-wing French presidential candidate in 2022. But the long-dead politician whose name my mother evoked a moment later put us instantly on thin ice.
His portrait was in the hallway. His name was Philippe Pétain.
A military hero during the First World War, Pétain’s reputation was cemented with the honorific Maréchal title and the nickname “le lion de Verdun” (“the lion of the Verdun battle”) when he became the leader of the Vichy government following the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. The armistice signed on June 18 of that year formalized the division of France into the Northern occupied zone and a “free zone” whose capital was the spa town of Vichy.
There is a certain nostalgia for Pétain among French traditionalist Catholics who, like N, are in their sixties and over. Ironically, there was very little that was Catholic about Pétain — he aligned himself with the Catholic Church to gain more legitimacy and power, and in that regard he was successful. As a result, this faction of Catholics, still quite strong today, lionizes Pétain for reinstating “Catholic values” in the country, namely by prohibiting divorce and birth control and executing the “faiseuses d’anges” (“angel-makers,” or women responsible for clandestine abortions). Pétain aimed to do away with “bolshevism” in the French government, all too quickly associated with Judaism; conveniently, Léon Blum, the leader of the socialist Popular Front, in power in France from 1936 to 1937, was Jewish.
Collaboration with Nazi Germany provided Pétain with a platform to do away with the Third Republic and implement his “Révolution nationale” program to set France on the right track, so to speak. Cooperation between the French and Nazi German governments was undeniable; it was highlighted when Hitler and Pétain shook hands in the town of Montoire, in October 1940, and the French motto shifted from “liberté, égalité, fraternité” to “travail, famille, patrie” (the translation of the Nazi creed “work, family, fatherland”).
After learning about the Second World War in primary and middle school, I had reached the same conclusion as many other people: that Maréchal Pétain was an unfortunate puppet, a senile old soldier who never should have been allowed near any governmental position. Several historians, however, fought for the truth to be known, including the trial lawyer and Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld.
In 2010, Klarsfeld uncovered a document dating from 1940, showing Pétain’s handwritten appendages to a statute against Jews. These additions, unsolicited by the German authorities, prohibited Jews from running for public office and barred an exemption for Jews whose ancestors had been naturalized before 1860. For decades it was believed that he had fought to spare French Jews from deportation; now, it is admitted that he agreed with Hitler’s racial ideology and played an active part in the Holocaust. 76,000 Jews were deported from France, including 13,000 alone during the roundup at Paris’ Vélodrome d’Hiver on July 16, 1942.
When my mother brought up his name, she and I both thought of our outrage when our organist had brought to church a magazine glorifying Pétain. His stance on Jews was none too unclear either — “the Jews killed Christ,” he said on one occasion. Both of us were curious to know N’s views on this figure, even though I hadn’t needed to look further.
My back turned to the conversation, I heard the silence from N’s end of the table, the plates now emptied.
“Nothing has really been proven about what he did or didn’t do.” I shuddered. What N was implying was that Pétain was a misunderstood figure, whose hatred of Jews was, at best, debatable, and at worst, nonexistent.
“In all good conscience,” my mother replied carefully, “I couldn’t admire a man who would have had myself, my son, and my husband deported.”
N’s answer merely confirmed the impasse the conversation had reached: “There is a difference between what history tells us and history as it really happened. I don’t think we should discuss this further.”
When we later tentatively broached the topic of antisemitism in today’s world, another impasse: “I think antisemitism is overemphasized nowadays,” she stated, almost on the same line as the widow of the British Union of Fascists’ leader Oswald Mosley, who said in an interview that the number of Jews exterminated in the camps was “exaggerated.”
Had I been more of a hothead, I would have walked out at that moment. Yet, I politely waited until it was time to leave this apartment which had taken on a horrific tinge.
Standing near the door with our coats on, my mother noticed Pétain’s portrait. A Vichy incentive during the Occupation urged French families to keep effigies of him in their homes, venerating him as a Christlike “savior” and “father” of France. This portrait was a remnant of that time.
“You really love him, don’t you?” my mother asked, unsettled.
“Yes,” N answered, “I do.” This statement was all the more unnerving coming from an elderly woman with likely few years left to live, who shared our religion, who had welcomed us into her home and offered us lunch, but whose aberrant views were so anchored that they could not be altered.