Katz Fellow in Genocide Studies Explores Jewish, Roma Experiences in French Internment Camps

Wed, 09/20/2023 - 2:25pm

In early September, Clara Dijkstra, a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Cambridge and the 2023-2024 USC Shoah Foundation Robert J. Katz Research Fellow in Genocide Studies, arrived for her monthlong residency at the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research (CAGR) to conduct research in the USC Shoah Foundation's Visual History Archive. In her doctoral research, she is exploring the experiences of Jewish and Roma families in the French internment camps of Drancy, Poitiers, and Montreuil-Bellay between 1940 and 1946, using mainly letters and oral testimonies as sources. 

The USC Shoah Foundation is sharing her interview with CAGR, during which she spoke about her academic history, her research project, her service to the profession, and how her research is going so far. 

What brought you to the field of Holocaust Studies?

I came to the field of the Holocaust a little bit late. During the last year of my undergraduate degree at Oxford, I took a class with Robert Gildea, who is a specialist on modern France and the Second World War. He taught a class that used a lot of first-person sources, such as diaries and memoirs, to communicate the experiences of French people during the War. This class changed everything for me; I found the methodology fascinating, particularly the use of personal stories. I applied to complete a master’s degree with him because I wanted to keep working with these same kinds of sources. In the end, I wrote my master’s thesis on motherhood in Drancy, a French transit camp south of Paris during the War, using the letters written by Jewish mothers.

How did you arrive at your current topic?

Initially, I was really interested in continuing the study of personal narratives in primary sources. Working with ego documents as the main body of sources for my master’s thesis inspired me to craft a Ph.D. project that allowed me to continue this work. The focus on gender was important to me because the current state of French historiography does not have a large focus on women or gender. These themes are coming quite late in the field of French studies, so I think that is why I initially wanted to write about women and motherhood. 

As my Ph.D. topic developed, I wanted to investigate the experiences of Roma and Jewish women in different French camps, but then realized there was a limitation on the available sources. Particularly if I wanted to write about the experiences of Roma women, then it would be almost impossible to only use sources created by Roma women.

One of the main issues I tackle is how to write a history of two different groups while using two very different sources for each group. So I decided to expand my PhD project to look at Jewish and Roma families and family units. This allows me to look at a wider range of sources and evaluate how we define a family in extreme conditions, such as internment camps. This framework allows me to look at the interactions between two groups and how people formed surrogate families with their friends.

We’ve spoken a lot about sources – what sources do you use for your research?

I have two main bodies of sources. So far, my research has been focused on letters. It has been challenging to find sources written by Roma families in these camps, for a lot of reasons, but mostly because of the postwar archival bias. There is a scattering of sources in regional archives and some in the French national archives. Eventually, I found a rich body of sources in the archives in Angers, France. These were letters written by individuals and families in French internment camps trying to petition for their freedom from French authorities. It is a very different type of letter than the familial correspondence I have previously studied. Roma families spoke about how they felt French and the ways they belonged to the nation. It remains a limited source compared to the bodies of sources I have on the Jewish experience.

Now, since arriving in Los Angeles, I am focused on oral testimonies. Especially when looking at Roma families, oral testimonies are some of the dominant sources that exist that were not created by perpetrators. There are very few testimonies from Roma voices in France in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, but there is at least one that I have found. Mainly, I have been enjoying the process of watching the testimonies from Jews and examining their perceptions of Roma families in Drancy, Poitiers, and Montreuil-Bellay. 

I am adjusting to the role of the interviewer in the curation of the testimonies. Interviewers direct the testimony whereas that doesn’t exist in letters. Testimonies are conversations. One of the recurring themes in the testimonies I have watched so far is the comparisons between internment camps in France and other concentration camps, particularly how these camps functioned. 

You recently organized a research symposium on your topic. Can you tell me more about it? 

I planned and hosted a symposium entitled “New Directions in the Study of the Roma Genocide” in May 2023. It took place at the Wiener Holocaust Library in London, UK. The aim was to provide a space for early career researchers in the topic of Roma genocide studies to come together and be in the same room to discuss these sensitive topics. It was a two-day event, and a lot of the discussion was about micro-historical approaches to the history of Roma genocide. 

It was wonderful. There were 30 speakers from across Europe, including people from France, Germany, Austria, and Belgium. Ari Joskowicz was our keynote speaker, which was amazing. We ended with a roundtable discussion of people further in their careers discussing the future of the field. The whole event felt like an exhibition on new research, and it was evident there were young researchers excited about the field. For me, that was great to see as a young researcher myself. 

I had a lot of fun organizing. I had never done anything like it – I had never been a person on committees or team captain. I always thought that responsibility would stress me out, but I loved it. It was great, and I had ownership over the entire event. It was a lot of pressure because everyone comes to you, but at the end, people were very thankful and grateful for organizing.

I didn’t present my own research. However, I was able to informally discuss my research, which is the benefit of events like these. The discussion did not end when the panels ended and being able to talk about research in relaxed environments is an incredibly valuable experience. 

I hope people enjoyed it. We are going to try and put together a publication out of it to keep the conversation going. It is a complicated process.

What do you see as the significance of your research?

Generally, the whole field of looking at the Roma genocide in France is relatively recent. There has been a lot more research being produced in the last two years which is amazing, but there is a perception that if you are looking at both Jews and Roma, then you are taking away from one or the other. I struggle with that idea because I understand where people are coming from, but I am not trying to write a comparative history. I’m not trying to make equivalences. It isn’t a question of who had it better or worse. There are facts that very few Roma were deported from France and that doesn’t compare to the number of Jews, and I am not trying to challenge that. I am trying to think about how this policy of internment affected families from different groups and see what it meant to these groups to be interned in the same spaces. 

I would love for the outcome of my research to be that it is no longer an issue to study the Roma and Jewish experiences side-by-side. I see their histories as interlinked or intertwined, and I want to focus on that rather than write two parallel histories that don’t have any overlap. For me, that means focusing on family experiences is a good anchor. 

Learn more about Clara Dijkstra here.

Learn more about her lecture and RSVP here.