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The Ends of Memory

I write now from from Knoxville, as students have returned home or continued their travels elsewhere. Normandy Scholars has concluded for 2024. Thank you for following along with our journey. If you would like to be a part of this special experience in the future, stay tuned for for information on next year’s program, coming soon!

One of the driving ideas behind this year’s program was the concept of “multidirectional memory,” developed by Holocaust Studies scholar Michael Rothberg. Multidirectional memory describes social forms of remembrance that are not competitive, as though commemorating one historical event meant excluding another. Studying multidirectional memory means identifying ways memories of one event mediate remembrances of other. Rothberg in particular studies the links between French social memory of the Holocaust and of the decolonization of the French empire in the decades after the Second World War.

It was this notion of multirectionality that took us across France and Morocco, across two national histories entwined both by World War II and by the history of the French Protectorate in Morocco from 1912 to 1956. We invented our own path of memory, which spanned World War II sites and memorials from the beaches of Operation Torch to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, the War’s global political context in the French empire, and beyond, digging into complex local histories and their interactions with worldwide events. At the same time, we observed the ways that the sites we visited may be experienced as connected or disconnected, depending on who visits them, in what capacity, and for what purposes.

We walked amid the dense memorial landscape of Paris, where nearly every street, square, and metro stop bears the name of a historical person or place. Iconic monuments like Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower stand beside memorials to victims of the Holocaust and of colonial repression. We pondered what the course of everyday life in a big city makes of plaques that hang over doorways and on street corners to commemorate individuals, families, and communities of Jews, resistance fighters, and other deportees to concentration camps.

In Strasbourg, we experienced the multifaceted French, German, and local heritage of the Alsace region, which manifest in celebrations of cultural particularity in architecture, cuisine, and language, as well as in heavy burdens of memory around the region’s annexation to Nazi Germany and the atrocities perpetrated at the Struthof camp and the Nazi-run university.

In Morocco, we learned how the Vichy government and Allied liberation in 1942 interacted with a burgeoning anticolonial nationalist movement and a Moroccan king, Mohammed V, increasingly able to assert himself against the French Protectorate. WWII gave Moroccans opportunities to gain leverage over the French that would lead to independence in 1956.

From Casablanca to Fez, we visited sites associated with the Moroccan Jewish community, numbering several hundred thousand during WWII but dwindling over the following decades to only a few thousand today. While Moroccan Jews were spared deportation to Nazi Europe, they still faced Vichy’s antisemitic legislation, even though Mohammed V’s intervention on behalf of his Jewish subjects attenuated their suffering to a degree.

In these places, we found many different phenomena of memory: living sites of active commemoration, sites overshadowed by the city life around them; sites forgotten or disregarded; sites intended for locals, some for tourists; some grassroots, some state-driven; some humble, some spectacular; some top-down, some open-ended.

There is the way we find things, and then there is what we do with them. Throughout, we made our own memories. In so doing, we participated in the social forms of remembrance that we encountered. Even more so, we changed them in small ways, creating new and unforeseen directions for memory of the Second World War. Our journey has ended, but our memories, like the memories we have studied and experienced, will go on.