A Paris gallery is showing a photo exhibit which reveals the World War II use of its building: It was a Nazi work camp.
Between July 1943 and August 1944, the old building on St. Martin St. was confiscated by the Nazis and used as a work camp for Jews who eventually would be sent to their deaths at Auschwitz or other camps.
These Jews, selected from the Drancy detention center — a major transit point for those captured by the Nazis — would sort through material confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish apartments in Paris and pack them into boxes. The belongings were sent to Germany.
One of three small work camps in Paris, it housed 800 to 1,000 people.
Today, the building houses the Passage du Desir gallery and the fashionable BETC Euro RSCG advertising and marketing agency.
On April 18, the gallery opened a monthlong exhibit of photographs on the work camp in the building.
Sarah Gensburger, a researcher at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies and a specialist in historic sociology, collected the photos for the exhibit. She had co-authored a book in 2003 about the work camps project.
As the work camps were kept secret and few of the survivors spoke about them, the project remained unknown for many years, even in the neighborhood.
In 1998, however, some of the detainees and their descendants set up an association and on their initiative, Gensburger and another young historian, Jean-Marc Dreyfus, recounted the history of the camps in their book.
Following the publication of “Des Camps Dans Paris,” or “Of the Camps in Paris,” the Euro RSCG agency placed a plaque on the building to recall what happened during the war.
During this project, the agency contacted Gensburger and together they came up with the idea for the photo exhibit.
“When researching at the German archives on the subject of the camps inside Paris, I found a photo album containing 85 pictures,” Gensburger recalled. “The photos were taken by German soldiers present at these working camps. American soldiers who found the pictures at the end of the war collected them into an album. They wanted to use the photos in order to identify the stolen belongings as part of the ‘collecting points’ the U.S. set up after the war.”
Gensburger said the articles could not be identified, as most of them belonged to poor people and were of no commercial value.
She proposed to the agency that the photos tell their own story. Her idea was to transform the visitors into detectives by orienting them toward details in the photos and offering her own historical point of view.
Gensburger said she decided to create two types of exhibits.
“In the first show room we project the photos on the walls followed by small texts, historical references and testimonies,” she said. “In the second show room, the smaller one, we present 28 photos — 14 photos I chose amongst the 85 in the photo album, followed by 14 pictures we have taken at the exact same locations in Paris. Visitors are invited to express their own reactions to our way of retracing history.”
Most of the photos show the arrival of crates and the piles of objects — china, clothing and toys. The detainees are seen stacking, classifying and repairing the material. Nazi inspectors pick out objects for themselves.
“We think it is important that these photos be exhibited in the very place where they were taken,” Gensburger said.
She said the exhibit also unveils to the neighborhood a project that had been so carefully concealed — or what it had not wanted to see — during these years.
Gensburger also said “the exhibit raises fascinating questions about the role of the image, and particularly the photo, in our knowledge and perception of the past.”