On July 10th of 2018, FIU Honors students of France: Art, War, and Human Rights were led on an educational tour of le Mémorial National de la prison de Montluc. Following their experience at le Mémorial National de la prison de Montluc, students shared their voices and opinions through photographs and personal reflections.
It’s happening now.
Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandmas, grandpas.
Finding themselves stuck, in a home, that’s now confinement.
We’re sitting in restaurants, walking along roads, and riding along on metros and buses. History is breathing heavily right next to you, telling you to stay vigilant, warning you to take action. History is old, and history is slow, but listen to it. It’s telling you with wrinkled hands and a gentle pace that you can’t turn your back on the truth. You can’t turn your back on the children lost at the border, the mothers weeping for their safety, or the sting of leaders not giving a damn. You can’t turn your back on issues beyond our country lines, and even though they don’t compare to the severity of a mass genocide, it still matters. It still matters that gunfire is the first resort rather than the last resort. It still matters that an embassy opening provoked a rightful protest against those who have stolen homes, only to end in the death of 58 innocent civilians and harm to more than 1,000. If we can’t protest without risk of flying bullets, then what are we? Cattle herded in silence?
When Monsieur Bloch tells you how he lost his grandpa in a matter of minutes, you cry thinking about your own loss this year and how you didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye. For a man who risked his own safety to get his family out of a communist regime that slowly infiltrated the island, Abuelo was living proof of resistance against oppression. He huddled a two year old daughter and humble wife to a land scary with possibilities, and here I stand. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye, but he doesn’t deserve a goodbye when I can still see and hear him. I see his anger at Fidel Castro in my own anger at ignorant systems, and hear his cackle in my mother’s own laugh, and I know that history is much more than what has occurred. It’s what can take place and what will happen.
Have you ever been transported just by entering a room? That’s how I felt as I entered a cell in Montluc. I was transported to another time, another world, another body. I was no longer Nicole Hernandez, a young woman from Miami visiting a now empty prison in Lyon. I was a resistance fighter. I was a Jew. I was Jean Moulin and Claude Bloch and the 44 children of Izieu.
Entering the cell and standing there with eight of my classmates brought tears to my eyes. Not because of the short biography I was reading on the poster, but because I knew that I could just walk out if I wanted to. I knew that I was going to leave this prison and go back to my life. The people that had entered the same room I had were not that lucky. They did not have that choice. They could not just walk out as I did. They were trapped in these terrible living conditions. They were tortured, abused, and dehumanized. And unlike my classmates and I, when they finally walked out of the cells and the prison, they most likely never went back to their lives.
About 70 years ago, each of these doors had men, women, and children crammed up behind them. Montluc, previously a city prison for killers and thieves, turned into a waiting post for Jews and resistance fighters before they would be sent to Auschwitz. Each of these cells was meant to hold one person. In the summer, the heat was nauseating, and in each cell, only a tiny, book sized window for air and light. When the Germans took Lyon in 1940, they didn’t care about any of this. If the ‘final solution’ for Jews and resistance fighters was murder, it didn’t matter how many died in Montluc. So, they filled up each cell, and only allowed people to exit if they had to be interrogated (and beat) by Klaus Barbie.
Around Lyon, I saw many signs saying a few simple words:
These few simple words encompass a myriad of things that we must never let happen again.
Never forget what happens when you begin to dehumanize people. That people of different backgrounds are human beings with thoughts, dreams, and ideas just like you. Remember how easily nations let Germany rise to power, and that there was no guarantee the Allies would win. Treasure your life, and the privilege of not having to fight to preserve it the way those in Montluc had to. N’oublions jamais history.
Humans, a species unlike any other in the known universe. We have an incredibly interesting and detailed history of evolution. There are countless stories of humans committing great acts of heroism. Countless myths, legends, and true stories have been passed down from age to age detailing the incredible feats that people have achieved. Unfortunately, as we all know, humans are just as guilty of committing an inconceivable amount of atrocities against one another. I sometimes look at the world and I am left speechless, trying to stomach what history has shown me.
Walking down the halls of the prison known as Montluc reminded me once again, of something that is of absolute paramount importance. That is, the ability to learn from the mistakes of history. Because if we do not learn from those mistakes, then we are sure as hell doomed to repeat them. Humanity is already experiencing great and terrible hardships all around the world. We need to help each other, and hold one another up. We can’t afford to keep living with this divisive and combative world-view, because if we do, we’ve already lost. We’ve been warned that closing our doors, staying quiet, and constantly viewing others as “inferior” or as “the enemy” is how evil was able to come into power before.
I know that we, as members of a worldwide community, can in fact do better. Look at some of the great acts of kindness and generosity made by ordinary people. People can just as easily decide to not do anything good and worthwhile, but when they do, it makes a world of difference. We must do better than those who came before us, because we have the potential to to incredible things. We would be doing ourselves, and our fellow citizens of the world, a disservice by not taking that possibility for greatness, and really pushing it to the absolute fullest.
We must be persistent, vigilant, and ready to make our voices heard. We must learn from the mistakes of history, so that we can make this world we live in a truly better place going forward.
I write this letter to you today, because I don’t know when I will see you again. It’s been almost 73 years since I left Sweden.
I have had some trouble accepting your death, and for some time, I denied the truth.
I sit today in front of almost twenty people to share my story in Montluc. Not a day passes by where I do not think about you. I am going to tell them what I want to tell you.
I want to tell you that you gave me life three times. When you birthed me, when you told me to wear my long pants, and when you threw me violently away from you into the pile of grown men. How did you know it would save me? How did you know where we were going when I wore my winter pants? How did you know that when you pushed me away, it was the last time you would see me?
I miss you. I love you. I want to show you everything I have done with my life after the war, all of my accomplishments, all the messages and stories I have spread, and all of my family. I will be turning 90 soon.
Please take care of papa, grand-père, grand-mère, and my wife, who left me recently.
Maybe in a few years we will be reunited, but for now, I am going to say goodbye since I never got to.
FIU Honors France 2018 Student Gallery from le Mémorial National de la prison de Montluc
Isabella Marie Garcia