Academic journal article Australian Journal of French Studies

"Vivant De Dignité De Douleurs et D'alarmes": Personalism in André Ulmann's Poèmes Du Camp

Academic journal article Australian Journal of French Studies

"Vivant De Dignité De Douleurs et D'alarmes": Personalism in André Ulmann's Poèmes Du Camp

Article excerpt

Editorial note

This article is based on the winning entry for the 2017 ASFS/AJFS Postgraduate Prize, co-sponsored by AJFS and the Australian Society for French Studies, and offered annually.

Introduction

While Holocaust literature has been an active field of research for nearly four decades, the large body of French poetry written in the Nazi concentration camps by Resistants and Jews remains, surprisingly, very little studied. Today, archives and anthologies contain surviving works written by at least 112 French camp prisoners who composed poetry from 1943 to 1945. Among the most original and ambitious collections in this corpus are the poems of a French journalist and Resistant, André Ulmann. A seasoned social and political activist, closely involved in intellectual movements from the early 1930s onwards, Ulmann was mobilised in 1939 and subsequently captured on the capitulation of France in May 1940, spending the following three years in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Upon his release and repatriation to France at the beginning of 1943, he wasted no time in joining the Resistance, becoming one of four leaders of the newly formed Mouvement de résistance des prisonniers de guerre (MRPG), a Resistance network founded by Michel Cailliau (a nephew of de Gaulle). In September 1943, Ulmann was arrested for his Resistance activities and was deported to the concentration camp of Mauthausen, located in Austria, in March 1944. Thanks to his knowledge of German, he was appointed to an administrative position in the newly formed work-camp of Melk while remaining a prisoner. In this capacity, Ulmann had access to paper and writing materials, allowing him to continue to write poetry. During his captivity, he wrote twenty poems, dated between February 1944 and May 1945, when Mauthausen was liberated. These poems, which Ulmann managed to take back to France when he was repatriated, were published in 1969 under the title Poemes du camp} This extraordinary corpus not only provides a rare contemporary glimpse into the world of Mauthausen from the prisoner's perspective but throws light on Ulmann's efforts to remain a free and fully conscious agent despite his abject captivity. Intriguingly, it is the ongoing influence on Ulmann of personalism, an intellectual movement that originated in 1930s France, which emerges with particular clarity from these writings. Three components of Ulmann's personalist vision are evident in his poems: the need to confront reality courageously, the discovery of personal freedom, and the transforming effects of love and compassion.

A few words are necessary here to contextualise Ulmann's experiences within the wider phenomenon of deportations from France during the German occupation. Deportations from France under the German occupation occurred from 1942 to 1944. Over 160,000 people were deported from France to Nazi concentration camps during this period. Deported prisoners from occupied France fall into two main categories: Jewish individuals deported par mesure de persécution and others deported par mesure de répression; the latter group includes both Resistants (political prisoners) and other individuals arrested for various crimes or misdemeanours.2 French Jewish prisoners were almost always sent to death camps: the vast majority to one of the Auschwitz camps. Many of those sent to the extermination camps - particularly young children and the elderly or frail - were gassed upon arrival. It is important to keep in mind the difference between the destinies of Holocaust victims and political prisoners; the horrendous selection for the gas chambers was reserved for Jews. Moreover, the reality of French prisoners' experiences in the camps was, as Annette Wieviorka, the foremost French historian of the deportation and the Shoah, has pointed out, extremely diverse.3 Yet testimonies written by both Holocaust survivors and political prisoners provide, in general, equally valid and frequently converging outlooks on the death-ridden univers concentrationnaire, and for this reason, the academic field of Holocaust literature has generally been considered to encompass works by both Resistants and Holocaust survivors properly speaking. …

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