Be Deported…and Bear Witness! Psychoanalysing, Bearing Witness: A Double Bind?
Gilles Cohen dedicates his work to Wolf, his grand-father: ‘In front of us, there were eight people, including a woman, all over sixty (…), six teenagers sitting on the floor (…), who initiated this? They started talking, telling what happened. The ‘past’… An hour, two hours? How long could this last? I don’t remember leaving the flat. Or even saying ‘goodbye’’. Gilles Cohen belongs to the third generation. And yet, he never left, he does not remember leaving the flat. Leaving that place.
Now, imagine a four or five-year-old boy, of the second generation. His mother and a friend have tea together, on a regular basis. Under the table, on a regular basis, the little boy plays, between his mother’s pretty legs and the friend’s very shiny black boots. The friend is an Auschwitz survivor. The two women chat: women’s talk, family affairs, camp stories. The little one under the table takes it all in, directly. And later on, it will end up… under his skin. I call this parenteral transmission. ((Translator’s note: Parenteral translates the neologism ‘parentéral’, my guess is that it is a portmanteau word combining parental and colateral. )) All the people born afterwards have been affected by the seemingly anatomic fallout of Nazism and the camps. No need for that to have been a Jewish child. Yet, little Jews were injected a higher dose all the same. As for the rare Jewish babies of the time, ‘hidden children’ or, rather, the children of for ever hidden parents, the effect was not so much under their skin as injuncted ((Translator’s note: I opted for a literal translation of the French term ‘injoncté’ which is equally non idiomatic and, in fact, does not exist, though it implies the implementation of a formal imperative. )) into the very core of their bodies. Whether we want it or not, this parenteral transmission took place. Psychoanalysts come across its consequences in their patients, in the maddest mostly and the most somatising, in their other patients too. Often it is incomprehensible to them. (What do black boots make you think about, Doctor?) Some acting-out occurs as a result, some acting in the public sphere.
In 1979–1989, in the same public sphere, the rise of negationism was noticeable. As a deportee, I at once sought the help of my fellow psychoanalysts. But they failed to grasp the urgency of the situation. Lacan was already on his way out. And the others could not see that a lock—an ethical lock—was being broken. We all now know what rushed into that breach. One day, I was complaining about that deafness to my friend and fellow-deportee Louise Alcan, then the Secretary of the Auschwitz Association. She handed me a book – ‘Here, that’ll cheer you up!’ It was the Auschwitz Album, still in the English edition, an album that had belonged to a Czech deportee named Lili Jacob. I leafed through it eagerly. ‘You already know all these photos’, Louise said, ‘on Auschwitz, these are the only ones in circulation’. True, but I had never seen them all at once like this, a facsimile tied together with a fine cord, a true family album! One photo stood out for me. In it, a winding line could be seen, made up of already selected people – elderly people, women, children. It first ran alongside the tracks, continued on the ramp, then turned at a right angle across the tracks, then back to its original direction, towards the crematorium. At that point, the line went past a low barrack. A pot of geraniums sitting on the outside sill of a window could be made out, barely. I told Louise: ‘I was there, behind that window’. (The only reason I was able see the pot of geraniums on the photo is because I knew it was there.)—’So what,’ Louise replied, ‘it sounds as if you wanted to provide evidence, there would be so much more to prove!’ I indeed wanted to provide evidence. I could prove to my fellow psychoanalysts that this concerned them, how this concerned them.