Maël Le Noc lectures about Holocaust survivors' spatial experiences in Paris

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 6:50pm


“Geographies of Persecution in Occupied Paris: Place and Space in Survivors' Testimonies”

Maël Le Noc (PhD Candidate in Geography, Texas State University)

2019-2020 Margee and Douglas Greenberg Research Fellow

March 12, 2020


On March 12, 2020, the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research hosted its inaugural online lecture by Maël Le Noc, the Center’s 2019-2020 Margee and Douglas Research Fellow. Le Noc’s lecture, entitled “Geographies of Persecution in Occupied Paris: Place and Space in Survivors’ Testimonies,” focused on survivors’ spatial experiences in two neighborhoods in Paris during the Holocaust. The online lecture attracted a worldwide audience, with viewers coming from North America, Europe, and New Zealand.

Le Noc opened his lecture with a quotation from a diary by Jewish journalist Jacques Bielinky, who wrote in 1941 that a usually lively street in the Parisian neighborhood of Belleville was deserted, with stores closed. Le Noc pointed that this observation relates directly to what he hoped to address in the lecture: how the Holocaust affected geography - places where people lived, their very neighborhoods, and their very streets. He noted that most of the existing scholarly work on the geography of the Holocaust focuses on iconic places of the Holocaust, such as ghettos. However, France, for example, did not have ghettos. The first experiences of the Holocaust unfolded in and affected private homes. Le Noc thus argued that the Holocaust primarily affected private spaces.

In his research, Le Noc focuses on two specific neighborhoods in Paris -- the Arts-et-Metiers and Enfants-Rouges -- to determine how the persecution of Jews affected their spatial experiences and perceptions of their homes and neighborhoods. He explained that he chose to focus on these two neighborhoods for a couple of reasons. First, there is extensive archival material related to these neighborhoods that does not exist for other parts of Paris because archives for other neighborhoods had been destroyed after the war. Second, these neighborhoods are known as Jewish quarters with Jewish population that migrated to Paris primarily from Eastern Europe during the second half of the 19th century. Around 5% of the entire Jewish population of Paris lived in those neighborhoods.

Next, Le Noc turned to explaining his research methodology. He combined existing archival resources with spatial analysis and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in order to produce maps and analyze changes in the population in these two neighborhoods. In addition to these methods, Le Noc also used the testimonies housed in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (VHA) to examine survivor narratives about their spatial experiences during the Holocaust. In particular, he was interested to learn what survivors who lived in these two neighborhoods say about them and what they describe about their spatial practices and experiences.

He then turned to detailing his methodology of finding VHA testimonies of people who lived in the two neighborhoods in question. Le Noc noted that while he located over 4,000 testimonies in the archive during which survivors discuss Paris, the archive’s extensive indexing did not provide a way of zeroing in on these two neighborhoods specifically. Le Noc devised three ways of addressing this challenge and locating the narratives of interest to him. First, by taking names from his previous research about survivors, he searched for those known survivors in the archive. From other sources, Le Noc had located 50 people from those neighborhoods who survived, and he discovered that five of them have testimonies housed in the VHA. Second, he used names of households recorded in the 1940 census in Paris and searched for them in the VHA to determine whether any of them gave their testimony. However, this method did not prove fruitful because there are many people with the same name, and also because many names in the census were misspelled and did not return any results. Third, he started investigating testimonies during which survivors talk about Paris in both the prewar and the wartime period, with the assumption that they probably lived there at some point. By using this method, Le Noc located over 2,000 testimonies of survivors who had lived in Paris during this period. For this set of 2,000 interviews, he began searching through the Pre-Interview Questionnaires (PIQs) that were filled out by the USC Shoah Foundation interviewers before each interview. In the questionnaires, survivors provide information about themselves, including their pre-war address. It is through the questionnaires and the addresses documented there that Le Noc has located 37 VHA testimonies so far from survivors who lived in the two neighborhoods he studies.

Le Noc then turned his focus the comparative analysis of what he is discovering across his sources. The information revealed in testimonies sometimes confirms information from archival sources and sometimes testimonies can challenge archival sources. Le Noc provided compelling examples of this from the testimonies and archival sources for Marcel Jabelot (Jablonowicz), where information in both sources match, and the Stolak sisters, where they do not. Le Noc also described another type of analysis he is conducting, in which he is comparing what is said in testimonies with his quantitative data, such as, for example, the percentage of Jewish population in certain neighborhoods. He said that such data, when represented in maps, could suggest how many Jews lived in certain streets or buildings, or whether certain buildings had both Jewish and non-Jewish tenants. However, what maps cannot tell us, Le Noc pointed out, is how and whether Jews and non-Jews interacted. This information is present in testimonies, and it is testimonies that can provide us with a sense of what those two neighborhoods were like and how people perceived and experienced them. To illustrate his point, he offered evocative examples from the testimonies of Michel Kuna, Irene Robinson, Sarah Vieille.

Finally, Le Noc's focus in the testimonies was also on the way survivors talk about and perceive their experiences. In particular, he focused on the way in which the mandatory wearing of the yellow star for all Jews affected their spatial experience. He described how the introduction of the yellow star changed how Jews felt about being on the streets and how it affected their interaction with outside spaces. In addition, he focused on survivors' perceptions of their own safety, especially their perception of home, noting the complex relationship between safety and home. In concluding his lecture, Le Noc detailed other possible projects that could emerge from the use of the Pre Interview Questionnaires, including the creation of different maps and using those maps in comparison with others, or for educational and public purposes.

Le Noc's lecture was followed by a number of questions, including whether some survivors still lived in Paris at the time of giving their testimony; the type of software Le Noc used to make his maps; how to explain differences between survivors' perceptions about the demographics of their neighborhoods and the information found in archival sources, such as censuses; questions around archival access in Paris; whether there was a substantial concentration of Jews in certain parts of Paris in so-called Jewish or Yellow Star houses, which also existed in other European towns that did not have ghettos, like Budapest; whether the entire topography of Paris was affected by the persecution, in terms that Jews were only allowed to go to certain places; and whether he identified any specific themes in testimonies as regards to place.

Summary by Badema Pitic

Geographies of Persecution in Occupied Paris

In this talk, Maël Le Noc (PhD candidate, Texas State University, Geography) draws from testimonies and archival material related to anti-Jewish persecution in two Parisian neighborhoods, the Arts-et-Métiers and the Enfants-Rouges quarters, to discuss the ways in which antisemitic persecution affected urban life and changed familiar urban spaces into spaces of exclusion and genocide.

Badema Pitic