Paris May 1968


Source: Viriginie Linhart, Le Jour où mon père s’est tu. Seuil Paris, 2008;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

The enormous role played by Jews in the events of May 1968 in Paris and their aftermath is striking. All currents of the far left, anarchist, Trotskyist, Maoist had Jews among their primary leaders. Alain Geismar, Alain Krivine, Pierre Victor (né Benny Lévy), Henri Weber, Roland Castro, André Glucksmann, and of course, Daniel Cohn-Bendit: so many of the most familiar faces and names were those of Jews. Though they did not act as Jews, that they were Jews, and occupied a particular place in post-war French society because of this, cannot but have weighed in their participation. And indeed the Jewish presence on the French left was a long standing one. Communists were an important part of the pre-World War II Jewish community, and the Jewish role in the Resistance was out of all proportion to their place in the nation, notably through the armed fighters FTP-MOI and its most famous avatar, the Manouchian Group. But Jews had also played a large role in groups farther to the left, in particular among Trotskyists. In the sixties, added to the Trotskyist Jews were the Jewish Maoists who had grown out of the classes given by the Communist philosopher Louis Althusser at the École Normale Supérieure. Among them was Robert Linhart, leader at the time of the uprising of the Union de la Jeunesse Communiste Marxiste Leniniste (UJCML). The UJCML, in die hard Maoist fashion, had under-estimated the significance of the student uprising, missing the boat entirely. Bitterly attacked by the members of the group for their failure, Linhart had a nervous breakdown and was replaced by Pierre Victor, as the group reformed as the Gauche Prolétarienne (GP). Linhart was, like other members of the GP, to work in a factory, a period in his life that produced one of the political masterpieces of the era, “L’Etabli.” Linhart’s daughter, Virginie, in her book “Le jour où mon père s’est tu” (The Day My Father Went Silent) attempted to explain the reasons behind the massive Jewish presence in the movement.

In the somber story of assimilated Jews , who had made it without having accepted this fact, I suddenly glimpsed what ’68 could have that was luminous, shining, salavific, so different from what constituted the quotidian, what was allowed at home, which in truth was pretty much nothing aside from work and family. I asked Claudia [Senik, another child of veterans of ’68], in her opinion, why were there so many Jewish participants in the movement of ’68? “The war against Nazism having been won by the USSR, the Jews were necessarily attracted to the Communist Party. My father told me that when he was seven he asked himself how you could be communist and internationalist at the same time... Stalin’s victory over Hitler was to allow him to bury himself in his ideals, and there were many like him. It took a while for the Jews to realize the ravages of communism. As for ’68, I think that the Jews wanted to change, they didn’t want to melt into the order of the Pompidou era: they were in situation; they were there, they were ready. Afterwards... I thought of something: to be a Jew after the war, without ’68, would have been too sad. When I was a child I went on vacation to Jewish communist camps; I remember all those little Jews on the train platforms. In fact, we are survivors, my grand-parents, my parents and me, we’re survivors! And there you have it. It’s true, you can live that way. But ’68 was for those who didn’t want to remain in that life of the survivors; it was for those who wanted to pass over to the other side, the side of life. ’68 meant leaving behind survival for life. Survival means having to try not to die. Life is when you’re sure of living and have to decide how to live, what you choose as a life, and who with. And ’68 is the explosion of life, rather than survival. When I think of the Jews who didn’t do ’68, they did serious things: law, medicine... They’re sad, turned towards the past; it’s still the shteltl. While ’68, that’s a clean slate. And making a clean slate of the past that defines us as survivors means choosing freedom, speech, sexuality, exuberance. It means screwing around, living contrary to your parents. My grand-parents never had fun, never spent a penny more than necessary, never had affairs, never dressed well, never went on vacation with their children, and always kept their money in their pockets. Nothing could be further from their way of life than that of my parents; always on vacation, music all the time, bodies all the time, parties all the time. And I am the heir to that. We know where we come from, and we don’t want to stay there!”

’68 as the way for Jewish escapees to leave behind their status as survivors, to affirm their belonging to the world of the living. I look at my father in his black and white childhood photos, the serious and sad air he had when he was a little boy. I know the familial and anguished silence about the Shoah that accompanied him: a generation later it pursued me too. I imagine then how exalting it must have been at 19 to enter the École Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm, to escape himself, to discover that everything could be said, thought; that the future wasn’t just being the best in your class and earning a living, but re-making the world the way you dreamed it to be. Dreaming meant leaving behind your condition as a survivor. Fighting meant this, and politics, too. And above all, speaking. Survivors don’t talk. My grand-parents didn’t talk, my father too, later on; and me, too for a long time and in a different way. I suddenly see again all those people I met over the course of my life, how they loved to tell me how my father was a fascinating orator, the best, the strongest; unbeatable on the rhetorical level. You could never interrupt him; you couldn’t get the last word. It was painful to listen to them. I now understand that in the years around ’68 my father lived fully in the world of the living, and that it was good, that it was droll, and that it was exciting. I think now that at that time my father spoke as no one in his family had ever allowed himself to speak. That it must have been great to speak so much, to get drunk on words when he had been raised in silence. But then his status as a survivor caught up with him and literally closed his mouth. And ours with it.