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How Grenoble, Capital of the Maquis, Holds on to History

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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.

Monument to Izieu, Belley

Memorial to children of Izieu in nearby Belley (Photo Benoit Prieur via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Announcement of Jewish property for sale in France during WWII

Sales of Jewish property in war-torn France

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.

Grenoble Resistance Museum

Doors of Gestapo prisoner cells (Photo Milky via Wikimedia Commons)

Gestapo cell walls

Copies of what prisoners wrote on their cell walls during their imprisonment

Passport making in WWII

The museum houses dozens of exhibits, including paraphernalia designed to make false identity papers for people trying to escape

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.

10 Comments

  1. Sheila Archer on March 5, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    Wonderful article. I had no idea about this museum. thanks yet again for your informative blog.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on March 5, 2014 at 8:12 pm

      Absolutely worth it! It has some re-creations of rooms and settings and it’s easy to visualize how the members of the maquis would have lived during the war.

  2. Andi on October 6, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    While I was living in l’Ain I had the opportunity to visit Grenoble a few times. Despite its ups and downs with banlieu violence it is a very nice city and worth a visit!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 7, 2014 at 8:23 pm

      I agree. I stayed away for a while for the same reasons – and the few times I went I couldn’t get ‘into it’ but then I started learning about its history and the role it played in the Resistance and I was carried away… and now I know it better and there is a lot of beauty and culture there.

  3. Megan {Country Cleaver} on October 7, 2014 at 4:57 am

    Wow, what a powerful exhibit. It looks absolutely worth every second to see that history and what those people left behind for us to reflect upon.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 7, 2014 at 8:16 pm

      Thanks Megan – I thought so too!

  4. Rachelle on October 9, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    How fascinating! I love history, and I love bizarre museums. This would be right up my alley.

  5. Heather Tallman on October 13, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    What an interesting piece of history. What an interesting trip!

  6. Amanda on October 13, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    Fascinating and powerful. Would love to visit this museum.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 13, 2014 at 7:39 pm

      It was! I was only going to stay an hour and spent most of the afternoon there. I was quite humbled and chastened as I left, I usually am after visiting museums that remind me of how horrible humanity can be, and how immensely beautiful and courageous. Our human paradox…

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