The Fight Over a Suitcase and the Memories It
New York Times – Art and Design
By ALAN RIDING
Published: September 16, 2006
PARIS, Sept. 15 — Old suitcases gathering dust in the homes of many second- or third-
generation immigrants around the world are mementoes of journeys that changed the lives
of parents or grandparents. No longer used or even useable, perhaps with yellowing stickers
recalling the names of long-deceased forebears, they survive as family relics.
Yet still more powerful symbols, not least for European Jews, are suitcases separated from
Jews rounded up in France during World War II, for instance, were frequently encouraged
to pack a suitcase, presumably to deceive them into believing that they were headed for
internment or labor camps, not death. Many photographs taken at the time show them
waiting patiently to board trains, suitcases in hand.
The French artist Christian Boltanski once evoked the one-way journeys of these deportees
in a touching installation of battered and antiquated suitcases. But with the suitcases
displayed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland — masses of them
piled high — there is no ambiguity: all once belonged to Holocaust victims.
This is the story of one such suitcase — and the memory it still carries.
After much hesitation, the Auschwitz museum agreed early last year to lend a suitcase from
its collection for a permanent exhibition called “The Fate of Jews From France During
World War II” at the Foundation for the Remembrance of the Shoah in Paris. At the time
the foundation pledged in writing to return it to the museum at the death camp by June 30,
Then, in February 2005, while visiting the Paris exhibition, Michel Lévi-Leleu, a 66-year-
old retired engineer, discovered that his father’s name — Pierre Lévi — was on the suitcase.
Its lid had disappeared, and its handle was broken, but it still carried the address of the
family’s last home in Paris on the Boulevard de la Villette, as well as Mr. Lévi’s prisoner
reference, “48 Gruppe 10.”
A part of the pile of suitcases displayed at the
Michel Lévi-Leleu, who discovered his father’s
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland.
suitcase at a Holocaust exhibition in Paris.
Julie Denesha for The New York Times
Julie Denesha for The New York Times
After the German occupation of France in 1940 set in motion a witch-hunt for Jews, Mr.
Lévi, a former diamond trader, found work as a farmhand near Avignon, while he hid his
wife and their two sons, Michel and Étienne, in Haute-Savoie and told them to use the
surname Leleu. He visited them in the fall of 1942 and was again on his way to Haute-
Savoie when he was arrested at the Avignon railroad station in April 1943.
There could be no doubt that the suitcase on display in Paris was the one that Mr. Lévi was
carrying at the time. And it was evidently still with him when he later passed through the
Orgeval and Drancy transit camps in France and when he finally arrived at Auschwitz on
July 31, 1943. After that his name disappeared from German records; it is not known how or
when he died.
Understandably shaken by the discovery of this precarious link to a father whom he last saw
when he was 3, Mr. Lévi-Leleu quickly decided that the suitcase should remain in France.
“I wanted it to stay here, not to put it in a cupboard at home, out of everyone’s sight, but so
it could be shown to everyone in Paris,” Mr. Lévi-Leleu explained in a recent interview with
Le Monde. “I didn’t want it to repeat the journey that it had already made to Auschwitz.”
(Reached by telephone this week, at his home outside Paris, Mr. Lévi-Leleu said he had
nothing to add to his interview with Le Monde.)
After he informed the French foundation of his resolution, it proposed to the Auschwitz
museum that the suitcase remain in Paris for a “long-term” period to allow time, in its
words, to “persuade the family into not demanding its restitution.”
The 25-member International Auschwitz Council agreed to extend the loan of the suitcase
until January 2006. But one month before the new deadline, Mr. Lévi-Leleu obtained a
court order preventing its return to Poland pending a final court decision on his ownership
claim. The court in Paris is expected to rule next year, and, in the meantime, the suitcase
remains on view in the French foundation.
The Auschwitz museum was upset. Noting in a statement that it had never before been
sued, it said that “it certainly understands, most profoundly, the feelings of the families of
victims of the Shoah.” But it argued that, with the passage of time, it had become all the
more important to preserve physical remnants of the death camp to safeguard the memory
of the genocide. It also won support for its position from the Polish government.
Mr. Lévi-Leleu, though, has stood his ground. “I am not trying to empty the Auschwitz
museum,” Mr. Lévi-Leleu told Le Monde. “And I regret what’s happening. It’s lamentable
that, after what happened to the father, the son should have to fight for the suitcase to
remain in France.”
So now, in a sense, this painful dispute has come down to the competing claims of
individual and collective memory.
On the one hand, it seems heartless to deny Mr. Lévi-Leleu repossession of this poignant
relic, one that might help him to assuage a loss suffered more than six decades ago. On the
other hand, the collective memory of the Holocaust has been partly constructed in
Auschwitz through personal effects — clothing, shoes, combs and hairbrushes, eyeglasses,
razors and buttons, as well as suitcases — left by victims.
Similar arguments have been mobilized in the case of seven watercolor portraits of Gypsy
prisoners that now hang in the Auschwitz museum. They were painted in 1943 by another
prisoner, a young Czechoslovak Jew, Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, now 83 and living in
California, who wants to recover them. But the museum has refused, saying the portraits
serve “important documentary and educational functions” by testifying to the genocide of
Who owns memory? Or, perhaps more pertinently, who selects memory?
History, it was once said, is what countries try to remember and try to forget. But for
humanity that is hardly an adequate formula. The horrors that people would like to forget —
not only the Holocaust, but also Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and scores of other tragedies —
are often those that they should remember. For many individual memory is easier to handle
than collective memory.
And Pierre Lévi’s suitcase? Well, in a sense, by fighting to secure his own memory, Mr. Lévi-
Leleu has reinforced the collective memory. He wants to recover his father’s suitcase but, in
the process, he has also drawn attention to all the other suitcases — in Auschwitz and
beyond — whose owners will never be known.