She Was an Avid Maoist Student in Paris. Then She Visited China

Admired Holocaust historian Annette Wieviorka's visit to China in the 1970s turned her world upside down. 'We saw trucks carrying people with shaved heads, bent over, eyes downcast'

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Annette Wieviorka
Annette Wieviorka. 'I sank into depression and tried to kill myself. I didn’t succeed, so I began a new chapter in my life.'Credit: Patrice Normand
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

“My parents were liberal socialists but they didn’t talk much about the Holocaust at home,” says Annette Wieviorka, one of the most important historians of the Holocaust. Her grandparents were Polish Jews who emigrated to France in 1923. They were arrested by the French militia in Nice and sent to Auschwitz, where they died.

'I strongly felt the betrayal of having joined a totalitarian movement, and remembered my grandparents, the victims of another totalitarianism'

Many people compare Wieviorka to philosopher Hannah Arendt, not only because of her two books about Adolf Eichmann – about the hunt and the trial – but also because of her philosophical take on Jewish history. Her book “Auschwitz Explained to My Child” was published in Hebrew by Yedioth Books. She was the research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research, and a member of the Matteoli Commission appointed by the French government to discuss the restoration of property the Nazis stole from French Jews.

Maoist students demonstrate at the Sorbonne University, in 1968.Credit: AFP

Until now the Chinese chapter of her life has remained a secret. Her new book, “My Chinese Years,” was published in France as part of a series on women and power edited by feminist writer Laure Adler. The book is fascinating not only as testimony to what was going on in China in the 1970s, but also in its description of the ardent Maoist who had forsaken her Jewish roots and who later became a prominent Holocaust scholar.

“In May ’68 I was 20 years old, studying literature and law, a member of the Union of Marxist–Leninist Communist Youth,” she says. “By chance I met a childhood friend who convinced me to join the ‘Maoist sect.’ We had a small booth on the right side of the Sorbonne courtyard that was ‘occupied’ by the students, and we distributed flyers and a very slim movement newspaper. We wore jackets with a ‘Mao collar,’ slept with the Little Red Book under our pillows and quoted the leader at every opportunity. We searched for profound, hidden meaning in his ordinary statements, such as ‘In order to know the taste of a pear you have to eat it.’

'We saw trucks carrying people with the words ‘Traitor’ or ‘Subverter of the revolutionary effort’ hanging around their necks'

“Director Jean Luc Godard directed his ‘Chinese’ film [“La Chinoise”], in which he described, with a certain humor, the atmosphere among the Maoist students in Paris. One day we decided to march from the Sorbonne courtyard to Seguin Island on the Seine, where the Communist workers in the Renault plant were striking. We naively decided to bring them our movement flag and cooperate with them, but they looked at us indifferently, and continued playing cards.”

Praise from De Beauvoir

After the student uprising, her Chinese dream became a project. “During that period there was a great longing for Communist China,” she recalls. “Intellectuals like Phillippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes expressed their support for Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Even earlier, upon her return from a trip to China in 1957, Simone de Beauvoir published ‘The Long March,’ a book of praise describing her impressions of the new country. She refused to see the totalitarian regime. Even the newspaper Le Monde supported Mao at the time.”

What were the circumstances that led you to decide to spend an extended period of time in China?

A statue of late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong is seen outside a railway station in Dandong, China, this year.Credit: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/ REUTERS

“I met Roland, the man who later became my husband, a member of the Franco-Chinese Friendship Association. He was also a Maoist, and at our first meeting he brought me all of Mao’s writings in Chinese as a present. We received an offer to work in China for two years and teach French to young people who to us symbolized the ‘new man,’ in other words, a soldier-farmer-worker-student.

'On the first day we traveled to the city and were shocked by the poverty, the misery, the scarcity'

'We traveled with our young son Nicholas. According to the Maoist idea, we had to ‘serve the system,’ to become a part of the Chinese people. For me it was the way to be a part of the history of the new era. Toward the end of the Chinese revolution there was a small opening to the West, and we traveled as ‘foreign experts.’”

What were your first impressions of China?

Hannah Arendt in 1969.Credit: AP

“At first we lived in a pleasant and pretty comfortable hotel, but even on the first day we traveled to the city and were shocked by the poverty, the misery, the scarcity. A few days later we were transferred to permanent housing in a suburb of Canton [Guangzhou] in conditions that were miserable compared to our life in France, but in comparison to the lives of the Chinese were considered greatly comfortable. We lived in one room. Inside the apartment there was only one water source with the bathroom, and there was no hot water in the shower.

“I taught French in a special laboratory. I sat in a raised cubicle and communicated through a microphone with every one of the students sitting in separate cubicles in front of me with headphones and practicing the new words. I was surprised to discover that when asked ‘What is your name?’ each of them replied in turn with an identical answer, ‘Ling Yan.’ When I asked, ‘How old are you?’ the answer was always 20. When I asked, ‘What work do you do?’ they all answered ‘farmer.’

'As time passes the Holocaust is undergoing a process of banalization that I strongly oppose'

“I realized that the Chinese education system is geared to a uniform identity, doesn’t nurture initiatives, aspires to integrate the individual into a homogeneous mass. I couldn’t get close to the students. They didn’t turn to me. There was a clear political barrier between us. Over time I understood that I was touching Chinese society only on the surface, only what the government is interested in showing. It was impossible to touch what was concealed beneath the surface. I couldn’t get to know the real China.”

People holding posters of Mao as they celebrate the anniversary of his birth in his hometown of Shaoshan, in 2014.Credit: Reuters

Did you have an opportunity to see the Cultural Revolution from up close?

“When we moved to the campus of Canton University we could take short bike rides outside the city. Several times we saw trucks carrying people with shaved heads, bent over, eyes downcast, and with the word ‘Traitor,’ ‘Adulterer’ or ‘Subverter of the revolutionary effort’ hanging around their necks. At a certain point I wrote to a French friend from the Franco-Chinese Friendship Association about what was going on, and he answered, ‘Don’t look at one tree, you have to see the entire forest.’ I wanted to reply that the forest is composed of many trees, but mail wasn’t a recommended means of communication.”

How did the Chinese dream end?

“After one shock followed another, we realized that the ‘laboratory for the new man’ is an expression of absolute totalitarianism. I saw men and women giving in to the fear, surrendering to it, tens of thousand of crushed, broken intellectuals. I started to feel guilty as a collaborator with the silence, with the demagogic discourse, with the distance between the regime’s slogans and reality. I was deceived by the fascist propaganda.

‘The Chinese ideal was erased. I tried to kill myself. I didn’t succeed, so I started a new chapter in my life’

“The return to France was difficult, I was eaten up by feelings of guilt because the totalitarianism was concrete, spread before my eyes, but I refused to see it. It was as if I had a policeman in my head who forbade me from reading the situation. The China inside me died, the Chinese ideal was erased. I sank into depression and tried to kill myself. I didn’t succeed, so I began a new chapter in my life.”

Protected from criticism

The cover of Wieviorka's "The Chinese Years."Credit: Les ditions Stock

Upon her return from China, Wieviorka wrote the book “The Squirrel of China,” published in 1979. However, for a long time she denied its existence. “After its publication I thought that I wrote the ‘Squirrel’ (wieviorka in Polish) in too personal a tone, without perspective,” she now explains. “At the end of a two-year stay I felt like a squirrel endlessly walking in circles in its round cage. I wrote in the book that one morning I discovered that I had no more strength and couldn’t go on. I lived in China, I participated in something powerful whose nature I didn’t understand at the time. My existence was erased. In the end, I included parts of it in my new book.”

How were you transformed from a passionate Maoist into an admired Holocaust historian?

“After Mao’s death I returned to China in 1977 as the guide of a group of tourists. I arrived at a mass gathering in honor of Deng Xiaoping, the new prime minister and the chairman of the Communist Party. In the middle of an ocean of people, a huge mass that almost swallowed me up, I suddenly thought, ‘What am I doing among them?’ I strongly felt the betrayal of having joined a totalitarian movement, and I remembered my grandparents, the victims of another totalitarianism. I had betrayed my Jewish roots and the ashes piled up on my Jewish past. I read many books about the power of the 20th century human masses and it was clear to me that the Nazis and the Communists had used them as tools for operating their totalitarian regime.”

How was your Jewish identity expressed?

'I started to feel guilty as a collaborator with the distance between the regime’s slogans and reality. I was deceived by the fascist propaganda'

“From my parents I inherited the silent memory of the wanderings and the crematoria. I belonged to what is called ‘the generation of the burden,’ the third generation of the Holocaust that carried the weight of memory on its back. At home we didn’t observe tradition. My parents were secular. My Judaism flickered from time to time, for instance during the Six-Day War, when I went to the Israeli Embassy to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. During my childhood and youth I lived in a Paris suburb, where there were no other Jews. Had I lived in the city, I would probably have registered for some youth group, immigrated to Israel and gone to a kibbutz.

“In 1977 I started my doctoral studies. My thesis was on the subject of expulsion and the Holocaust, forgetting and memory. The Jews of France, 1943-1948. Afterward I wrote many books about Jews during the war, such as ‘They were Jews, Resistance Fighters, Communists,’ ‘The Nuremberg Trials,’ and ‘The Jews of France,’ as well as books of testimony that in my opinion are the most important of all.

“The generation of witnesses is gradually disappearing. Today’s grandchildren were born to a generation that was born after the war. My oldest grandchild is 21 years old and knew his four grandparents. That wasn’t my experience.”

Chinese protesters hold up portraits of Mao and books of his sayings in a demonstration in Beijing, 1966.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Is the Holocaust still a subject of discussion in France today?

“As time passes the Holocaust is undergoing a process of banalization that I strongly oppose. Last year they posted a series on Instagram, the diary of Eva Heyman, a Jewish girl from Hungary who died in the Holocaust. That was presumably done to make the Holocaust accessible to teenagers. In my eyes it’s a disgrace. I also saw a book that said on the cover, ‘Everything you wanted to know about sex in the camps.’

“We have to take into account the rise of populist regimes as in Hungary or Poland, in which any mention of a connection between antisemitic acts against Jews perpetrated by Poles during and after the Holocaust is legally prohibited. That’s why I consider the testimonies of supreme importance. I devoted the book ‘History, Memory, Testimony’ to that. There are antisemitic phenomena in France but they are frequently directed against Jews for being Zionists. The rise of populism in the world only intensifies acts of ‘pure’ antisemitism.”

Why is it that even today, with the Chinese borders relatively open, there is almost no direct testimony about the criminal acts of Mao’s regime and the Cultural Revolution?

“In 1971, Sinologist Simon Leys published a book that was critical of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, called ‘President Mao’s New Clothes,’ but at the time nobody wanted to believe him. After the Tiananmen events there was testimony in the West, but mainly of the exiles who managed to flee. There is still a tough regime there, and the major economic interests of the Western countries carry great weight. That’s why everyone refrains from overt criticism. The protest is reflected in films and comic books, but it’s implied, not direct.”

Blatant attacks by Chinese diplomats on opponents of the regime have recently been exposed in France. These opponents were vilified on social media and banned from entering China. Raphael Glucksmann, a member of the European Parliament who fought against the persecution of the Uighur population, was banned from entering the country.

“Preserving human rights is not a sacred value in China,” Wieviorka concludes.

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