The other day my mind played a trick on me. While fully conscious, I suddenly saw myself standing staring at a poster on a wall in a Paris street in 1944. The experience was most odd and, because of the poster, very moving. The feeling was quite different from the experience I get when my mind conjures up scenes in a dream or when I drift off in a daydream. Somehow I know that these dreams are all ‘in my head’ and are detached from any outside reality. By contrast, my Paris street all seemed very real, indeed tangible.
It all happened on our last day in Paris a week or so ago. My wife and I were visiting an exhibition at the National Archives on ‘La Collaboration: 1940-45’. We were there more by default than by design, as we had hoped to go to the Indigo exhibition at the Forney Library. But it was a Monday and like many Paris institutions, the library was closed. Luckily, the nearby Archives were open. My experience there was unforgettable.
Packed tight on every wall in every room were displays of material from Paris during the German occupation. There were photos, films, sound recordings, letters, diaries, books, booklets and posters accompanied by expert commentary. The aim of the curators was to reveal the extensive links – the collaboration – forged between the French and the Germans, particularly exposing the cynical and inhuman behaviour of people in authority on both sides, and of ordinary people too.
In the process of learning French I have become increasingly familiar with life in Paris during the occupation, but the exhibition brought home to me the true horrors of those times. I already knew about the systematic arrest and deportation of Jews and others, and the work of the political and military wings of the French resistance. One event in particular had struck me very forcefully. On 21 February 1944 the occupying forces put up posters on the walls all over Paris showing the photos of 10 captured and soon-to-be-executed resistance fighters. Each was named and amongst them was a certain Missak Manouchian, who was the leader of a very effective resistance cell. He was an Armenian who went on to become a French hero for his bravery. The wording on the posters read, “Des Libérateurs? La libération par l’armée du crime!” (“Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime!”) and was designed to undermine the resistance by portraying them, in effect, as foreign terrorists. The poster, which was mainly red, has become known as the Affiche Rouge.
The campaign backfired as, within no time flowers were placed under the posters, and they were soon embellished with words such as ‘Oui, l’armée de la resistance‘, ‘Martyrs‘ and ‘Morts pour La France‘. I had seen copies of this iconic poster in books and even on computer screens, but it had never felt quite real.
I had visited two rooms and was walking down a long, darkly lit corridor when suddenly, in front of me on the wall, was an original of the Affiche Rouge itself. It was much bigger, and the red more blood-like, than I had imagined. I stared at it, overwhelmed, and suddenly felt myself transported back to 1944, standing alone in front of the poster in a Paris street at dusk with rain beginning to fall. My imaginary journey probably lasted no more than a few seconds but that was enough to fill me with terrific sadness.
After that experience the rest of the exhibition felt rather flat and the incident itself all rather puzzling. But as I walked to a friend’s house a few days later when back home in England the mechanism for my time transportation became clear. Near his house, in a hollow at the base of a tree on the side of the pavement, was a carefully arranged set of little plastic and china figures next to a makeshift tiny house of stones and pieces of wood. Some little person, a girl I suppose, had painstakingly made this secret grotto and would, I imagine, visit it from time to time and make-believe about being inside.
Standing in front of the poster my mind took it upon itself to be child-like again. Faced with a real scene, just like the child and her grotto in a hollowed-out tree, I was transported into it. For all sorts of reasons, this was an extraordinary make-believe journey, an unexpected visit that had a very powerful effect upon me.
Image: “Affiche rouge” by Vichy administration in France – Copie d’affiche datant de l’occupation allemande. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons