“Nothing distinguished the gas chamber from an ordinary blockhouse,” writes Jean Cayrol in the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ iconic filmic meditation on the Shoah, Night and Fog (1956). “Inside, a fake shower room welcomed newcomers. The doors were closed. The newcomers were observed. The only sign—but you must know this (il faut le savoir)—is the ceiling worked over by fingernails. Even the concrete was torn.” At this point in the film, like an insistent investigative eye, the camera pans to the ceiling of the gas chamber, revealing the telltale scratch marks. The image of fingernails clawing into concrete in a desperate attempt for survival recurs in another work about Holocaust memory that we read this semester, Georges Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood (1975). Recalling an exhibit he had visited with his aunt shortly after the war—the same one, in fact, that led producers to ask Alain Resnais to create the film that would become Night and Fog—the child survivor narrator writes: “I remember photos showing the walls of the ovens, lacerated by the fingernails of those who had been gassed.”

“Il faut le savoir.” The phrase has haunted me throughout the semester. “You must know this.” Because it happened. Because many would deny that it did, depriving the victims of dignity and history of truth. Fingernail scratches in the crematoria walls of Auschwitz, asks the neo-Nazi website The Stormer? “Jewish mythology says ‘yes.’ Science says ‘no.’” You must know this, because soon there will be no more survivors, and those still alive often find it too painful, or shameful, to share their testimony, or else they have learned to suppress it so as not to trouble others. “No one wanted my memories,” writes Birkenau survivor Marceline Loridan-Ivens in But You Did Not Come Back. You must know this, because 2/3 of young Americans, according to a 2020 national poll, lack a rudimentary understanding of the Holocaust. “Where did the Holocaust happen?” educator Rhonda Fink-Whitman asks a Penn State student in her 2012 documentary, 94 Maidens. “I have no idea.” You must know this, as Cayrol writes in Night and Fog, because “war is sleeping, but with one eye always open.” As I write, genocide continues to be perpetuated against the Muslim Rohingya people by the military in Myanmar. “Who among us keeps watch from this strange watchtower to warn of the arrival of our new executioners?”

But to know—and this is a second meaning of “il faut le savoir”—one must be ‘in the know,’ know where to look, how to be on the lookout, how to decode the signs. You have to be tipped off to find the “Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation” (1962) tucked in a small square behind the behemoth of Notre-Dame Cathedral, just as you must be ‘in the know’ to be disturbed by the memorial’s identification of those deported from France as willing “martyrs” to a cause rather than victims of state persecution by both the Nazis and the Vichy regime. The French State headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain is nowhere mentioned in this memorial monument, yet it deported over 75,000 Jews from France to their deaths, along with, in smaller numbers, Roma, the disabled, Jehovah’s witnesses, gay men and lesbians, and other ‘undesirables.’ Stroll around to the main façade of Notre-Dame to contemplate the two female allegorical figures framing it; only if you’re ‘in the know’ about the anti-Semitic underpinnings of European Christianity through the mid-20th century will you understand that one figure represents the Church triumphant, while the other, with downward cast, blindfolded gaze and broken Torah tablets at her feet, symbolizes the Synagogue. As only one photograph of this event remains, you need to be on the lookout for the tiny plaque at the foot of a bustling Parisian office building marking the site of the former Vélodrome d’hiver, an indoor bicycle track where over 11,000 Jews, including over 4,000 children, were packed for several sweltering days in July 1942 before being herded to their deaths. “A peaceful landscape,” writes Cayrol, “an ordinary field with flights of crows, harvests, grass fires. An ordinary road where cars and peasants and lovers pass. An ordinary village for vacationers—with a marketplace and a steeple—can lead all too easily to a concentration camp.” Il faut le savoir.

“Every hour of every day,” writes Hélène Berr, a young upper-class French Jewish woman who survived a year in deportation before being beaten to death in Bergen-Belsen, “there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one I can fulfill. There are men who know and who close their eyes, and I’ll never manage to convince people of that kind, because they are hard and selfish, and I have no authority. But people who do not know and who might have sufficient heart to understand—on those people I must have an effect.” Let us, we who in Primo Levi’s words “live safe in [our] warm houses,” armed with all we have learned this semester, make the “painful effort to the tell the story” to all those who will listen, “those with sufficient heart to understand.” Because the world must know. Yes, il faut le savoir.

– Willa Z. Silverman (Malvin E. and Lea P. Bank Professor of French and Jewish Studies, Penn State University)