Drive half an hour in any direction from my house in Eastern France and you’ll come upon a sign of World War II: a tomb, a memorial to deported children, a statue to the fallen, so common as to be almost invisible. My region, the Rhône-Alpes, was at the heart of the French Résistance, the movement that fought the invading Nazis.
One of those is the Maison d’Izieu, a sturdy country house in which French humanitarians hid Jewish children until 6 April 1944, when the Gestapo swept in and kidnapped 45 children and seven adults, all of whom were eventually shot or sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. Today the house is an extraordinary museum, a sensitive reminder of the war and its consequences.
My region is remarkably good at keeping the immediate past alive. The memorials it erects and the museums in which it invests are a required rite of passage for local schoolchildren who obediently file by on field trips. They are, after all, looking at a history that probably involved their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends of the family. The names are mostly local, often with more than one from a single family.
In the early years of the war, the Nazis were held back from the alpine city of Grenoble by the city’s inhabitants, who resisted fiercely. The maquis – the name given to clandestine members of the Résistance – fought the invaders and hid in France’s mountains, using guerrilla tactics to harass the Nazi occupation forces and help Jews and downed Allied pilots escape. The rugged terrain was isolated, it was rough, and there were plenty of places to hide, often in remote villages and farms who were friendly to the Résistance.
While many in this region were against the Nazis, that didn’t stop anti-Jewish laws from being applied, as in this newspaper sales ad for a confiscated Jewish building.
The first maquis was probably formed around 1942 in the Vercors, the jagged mountain range that rings Grenoble, hence its nickname, ‘capital of the maquis’, so it makes sense that much of the war’s history as enacted here is movingly captured at the Grenoble’s Museum of Résistance and Deportation.
The museum has an eclectic collection of photographs, objects and relics that range form the beginning of the Résistance, the maquis and its violent repression, local Jewish history, Liberation, and today’s totalitarianisms, evidence that the memories of last century’s Nazis haven’t just disappeared.
The exhibits remind us that many members of the maquis were women, and that many died after acts of enormous bravery in which they sacrificed their lives and their families to preserve the freedoms they saw as essential.
Such a broad panorama of history as seen through the local eyes of Grenoble send a clear message that no one, not ever, can claim they have forgotten, or they didn’t know.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- The Museum’s information is in French only, but the exhibits speak for themselves and are international.
- The Museum – just like the Museum of Peace in Gernika in Spain’s Basque country – supports a number of human rights activities, since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was a direct outcome of the lessons learned from WWII.
- For information on temporary exhibits, visit the museum’s website.