When the lights came back on, Monday May 24, at the Utrillo de Stains high school in Seine-Saint-Denis, there was a silence such as a class room has never known: total, heavy, overpowering. The same degree of attention, without any snickering or whispering, had been shown the screening of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, which came before. Subject: "the process of execution at Treblinka." The same serenity again while the filmmaker answered at length the questions of a hundred or so juniors and seniors. "What did they do with the ladies' hair?" ; "Why don't you mention the gypsies?" ; "What does 'Shoah' mean?"The 9-3 refers to the department number (93) for Seine-Saint-Denis (metropolitan Paris, for example, is 75 and all Paris license plates begin with that number). To be a "9-3" is often how hot-headed youths announce they're bad-asses. The students in this article will have been in large majority Arabs, many of whom, prior to seeing this film, could easily have participated in discussions like this one.
Standing opposite the students for nearly two hours, Claude Lanzmann had chosen a school with a bad reputation in which to speak to these students, most of whom are the children of immigrants, "because of what's going on." But at no point was there talk of "what's going on," of the renewal of anti-Semitism, of the importation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not that the students had been selected in advance, obviously, or that their questions bad been screened. But viewing the film, which is "stabbing"(*), to repeat the pretty slip of the tongue made by a teary-eyed girl, and the presence of this impressive man with a grave voice who said he was moved and "honored" to be present, imposed not a submissive silence but absolute respect.
"When you see that nazi, you know it's true. When you see that barber who worked in the gas chambers, you know it will haunt him his whole life," said Djoudi, 17. So is it possible to teach the Shoah in the "9-3" serenely? "When I get to this subject in class, I hear some students say that the Jews were asking for it or that, because they suffered this, they're imposing the same fate on the Palestinians," says one of the history teachers who organized the event. "Some of those who made these statements were present for the screening. But I think the power of the film 'stabbed' them." The educational edition of the DVD of Shoah that Jack Lang had produced when he was Education minister "is sleeping in the drawers," laments the filmmaker, who, delighted, left Utrillo high school, repeating: "You have to talk to the students. You have to go talk to them."
• PUBLISHED IN THE 26.05.04 EDITION
[(*) The slip of the tongue doesn't work in English. The verb poignarder, "to stab," gives the gerundive poignardant, which is close to "poignant."]
UPDATE: W. emails to say that "'le 9-3' [neuf-trois] is now being referred to as the 'neuf-cube' [as in '9 to the third power' or '9 cubes'] by the 93 kids themselves. Must be the ones that got a high school diploma or something." Thanks, Mr. W.