Translation by Laurent Ditmann
"Today, we can see the river of memory flowing over the dams of silence."
"Papon, this man whose honors we piled up so high to hide such nothingness..."
To me, these two comments, excerpted from [plaintiffs' attorney] Mr. Bournazel's opening statement, appear as salient moments of the proceedings' first day.
The first question I ask myself is: What will remain of October 8, 1997 in France's collective memory? Will my children and grand-children some day celebrate this date? And if so, in what way?
Everything started around 1:00 pm when, having carried out the formalities which warrant our entrance in the Gironde Assizes court room, I find myself seated next to Nanou, Esther, Michel, and Jackie. In short, the whole family is here. First and foremost, this is a family gathering. Our family can be defined as Jewish only because of the suffering it experienced during the War. As such, we cannot escape the fact that our Jewishness is above all the result of a certain relationship to memory.
At the root of the accusation I brought against Papon is the memory of the dead as well as the much hoped-for closure I now feel is within reach, the recognition of Papon's guilt which will make mourning of the dead possible so that, unable to haunt the nation's memory, they can finally cease to haunt mine.
At 2:05 pm, [presiding magistrate] Castagnède enters the courtroom. Once press photographers have left, Papon himself enters, flanked by two police officers.
Judge Castagnède questions him: "State your name, first name, age." Papon interrupts him: "Papon, Maurice, age 87, retired."
A this point begins a long debate on a motion to release Papon on his own recognizance. [Papon's attorney] Mr. Varaut spends an hour making his case. When he mentions Mr. Papon's heart condition, two voices can be heard coming from the plaintiffs' side: "Is that a fact, he has a heart? I am telling, the man has a heart."
All in all, Mr. Varaut's argument seems a bit rambling. He is too gruff, repeats himself, even saying as many as three times that Papon has lived too long. He his unconvincing and perhaps unconvinced of the merits of his client's cause. Is he also the victim of the same syndrome as Papon's former lawyers, among whom former minister Pelletier, who gave up on his defense? In his hour-long opening statement, Mr. Varaut cites only one name, Matisson, and I admit freely that I do not understand why or to what effect. At one point, he utters these terrible words: "My client's life has been entirely predicated upon the principle of obedience to the law. For that reason, he is present here today, even though many here presume him guilty from the onset."
[Prosecutor] Descleaux responds, expressing his surprise that a criminal trial should start with a motion to release the accused: "It is not a government, even less so a city or a nation, which are one trial here today, but a man." On general principles, he firmly dismisses the motion, adding: "Mr. Papon must remain in custody in accordance with the charges and the penalty he faces, the most serious one according to the French penal code. I must therefore in all serenity protest the motion. The rule of law and exceptions thereto are rarely compatible. This case should be treated like any other. I would be shocked to find that an individual accused of crimes against humanity has been released as soon as his trial starts."
Is this a fair trial? This will depend on the judge's impartiality, on the chance of speaking out offered to the accused, and on the opportunity given him to have the last word. Raising his voice, Mr. Descleaux argues his reasons for objecting to Papon's questionable submission to police supervision imposed upon him. For instance Papon notified police authorities of an address where he did not actually reside. The obligations attached to police supervision were violated. Papon exhibited no interest for judicial decisions affecting his case. Mr. Descleaux adds that if custody were to put Papon's life in jeopardy, only then would he consent to remanding him to a penal hospital.
I find myself reassured by the prosecutor's attitude. At this point the plaintiffs' attorneys intervene. They are Mrs. Jacubowitz and Terquem, both representing [civil right organization] SOS-Racisme), Klarsfeld and Wetzer (representing the Association of the sons and daughters of the victims of deportation), as well as Mr. Charrière - Bournazel (representing [anti-defamation organization] LICRA). They discuss the threat posed by Papon's potential withdrawal from the trial--the phrase "procedural extortion" is used--, a strategy comparable to that adopted by [former Gestapo officer] Klaus Barbie during his Lyons trial. They argue that this exceptional trial must be conducted by normal means, that the jury is now being hoodwinked while Papon said only a day earlier that he was actually looking forward to facing jurors with utmost confidence. Then comes Mr. Varaut's rebuttal: he attacks Mr. Boulanger, saying that there are good plaintiffs and bad plaintiffs. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It is just like fifty years ago, when there were good jews and bad jews.
Papon intervenes: "Having served the law all of my life, I do not wish, at my age, to start betraying it. This hearing is emblematic of the whole trial. All of my life, I have served the law. With my single voice, I must confront twenty voices. I request the right to a level playing field so that, physically, psychologically, and morally, I can work with my attorneys without having to bear the horrible weight of detention."
After a long recess, Judge Castagnède announces that he wishes to delay his ruling on Papon's release and appoints two medical experts whose reports must be submitted to him before 2:00 pm on October 9. In any case, Papon will remain under police surveillance. The jury is then selected by lottery and empaneled: 5 men and 4 women, plus 5 women and five men chosen among the alternates. It is rumored that the average age is 40.
The Final Solution: How much did they know, and when did they know it?
One of the defense's argument is that Papon had no knowledge of the Final Solution. As if the deportation of parent-less children or old people by way of boxcars was not monstrous enough.
The following document is intended to show that if the executioners and their accomplices could pretend to know nothing about extermination programs, their victims had no doubt.
The last words of this letter, "We will never forget you," are overwhelming.
This is the text of a letter received by the Matisson family and sent from Drancy on the eve of a deportation operation:
My dearest father, mother, Lili, and Maurice:
We arrived here at 6:00 pm today and will depart again tomorrow. We do not know where we are going. If you do not receive this letter right away, don't worry. Our spirits are high. We will be very courageous. Take care of our darling children. Make sure they don't suffer too much in our absence.
With fond kisses...
We will never forget you...
Your loving children, Nénette and Henry