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The Holocaust: Au Revoir

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There is such exhilaration in the heedless energy of the schoolboys

They tumble up and down stairs, stand on stilts for playground wars, eagerly study naughty postcards, read novels at night by flashlight, and are even merry as they pour into the cellars during an air raid. One of the foundations of Louis Malle's "Au revoir les enfants" (1987) is how naturally he evokes the daily life of a French boarding school in 1944. His central story shows young life hurtling forward; he knows, because he was there, that some of these lives will be exterminated.

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There is a moment in a child's life where an instant word or action they committed was something they would immediately regret but could never take back. The reason why these moments usually happen within our childhood is because when we are younger we aren't yet trained to think before we act. Unfortunately one of these instant actions would not only change a child's life forever but cost four people their lives. Au revoir les enfants which in English means Goodbye, Children is a heartbreaking true story directed by the great French director Louis Malle who based this story on his own painful childhood memories. It tells the story about a young 12 year old boy named Julien who is attending a wealthy provincial Catholic boarding school when one day a new student arrives named Jean. It is of course is natural that the other students pick on the newcomer and once in a while Julien decides to join in. They both learn that they love to read and the two of them begin to bond, but within time Julian learns that Jean is concealing a secret. Julien notices that Jean avoids answering certain questions about his families history, and that the teachers allow Jean to skip chore practice and not attend mass. When Julien decides to do a little investigating on his own he comes to the realization that Jean's isn't who he says he is, and that he is secretly a Jew. Julien is only 12 and doesn't quite know anything about Jews, and gentiles and so he asks his older brother what they are and why people in their country hate them. His brother answers:"They're smarter than we are, and they killed Jesus." [fsbProduct product_id='736' size='200' align='right']Au revoir les enfants is based on the events of director Louis Malle who at age 11 was attending a Roman boarding school near Fontainbleau, in which it was later discovered that his school staff and teachers were secretly taking in Jewish children and hiding them from the Nazis under assumed names. Malle never forgot the day when the Gestapo raided the school and arrested three of the Jewish students and a priest, in which they were rounded up in the courtyard and marched off the grounds; with the priest looking back at the children and saying, "Goodbye, Children." Malle later learned that the three boys died at Auschwitz and the priest died four weeks after the war ended. Legendary critic Roger Ebert attended the opening screening of Au revoir les enfants and the film was an emotional experience, not just for the audience members but for director Louis Malle himself. Roger Ebert says, "I was almost the first person he saw after the screening. I remember him weeping as he clasped my hands and said, 'This film is my story. Now it is told at last.'"

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The synthesis between “Au revoir les enfants” and the memoirs of Shaul Friedlander may cast light on the end of the film (when the children are handed over) and on the events that might have transpired had Father Jacques’ protégés survived. The two stories can perhaps serve as a foundation for an educational discussion on the issues they raise, including premature maturation, the relations between Jews and French people under Nazi occupation, local anti-Semitism, life with a double identity during the Holocaust, collaboration with the Nazis, and, of course, the rescue stories. We began our review with the true story of Lucien Bunel (Father Jacques) in order to anchor the film in its historical context; however, another possible message is that an attempted rescue should not be evaluated according to its outcome but according to its intentions. In other words, although it does not end with the survival of the persecuted, it still constitutes a human gesture of mercy, and sometimes even a personal and tragic act of sacrifice on the rescuer’s part. In his autobiography “Where Memory Leads," the historian and Holocaust researcher Shaul Friedlander describes his childhood in France during the Second World War. Friedlander’s family, who originally came from Czechoslovakia, migrated to France not long before it was also occupied by the Nazis. In an attempt to save their child, his parents decided to send him to a Christian residential school in the Vichy zone run by priests. The young boy was baptized and renamed Paul-Henri Marie Ferland (Louis Malle, 1988). Friedlander was required to learn the Christian prayers quickly and become familiar with the Christian way of life in order to blend in with his surroundings without arousing the suspicion of the other students or staff members who were not party to the secret. The inherent duality of a false identity and the need to maneuver between different identities, or to erase any memory of the old self, is the foundation for the distress and tragedy experienced by those who were hidden or who lived under an assumed identity

Friedlander’s longing and concern for his parents during this period may help us understand what the character of Jean Bonnet and many other children hidden under false identity experienced. Friedlander described the process he was forced to undergo (Lucien Lazare (ed.), 2003).

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As has been noted, the film makes it necessary to uncover trauma in the movie-watching experience of suspended reality

Safely in the dark in the movie theatre, we must be cognizant of more than our own silence. Rather, the silences involved in bearing witness to Jean’s fate, and in the viewing -- witnessing Julien as another kind of witness onscreen -- make a clear statement about the place of the corporeal in education, and the necessity to articulate the place of the individual body – that is, each child and his or her story. Bearing witness thus becomes an experience out of which we can mourn for bodily loss by violent ends, as often the body is the message, and stands in for that which cannot be safely be declared aloud.

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Lucien Lazare (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations – France, Yad Vashem, 2003, pp. 116-117 (series editor: Israel Gutman).

Louis Malle, Au revoir les enfants, Sifriya La’am, 1988, p. 79 [the Hebrew transcript of the film].

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