Passage du Désir
85-87 rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin
Métro Château d'eau (4) or Gare de l'est (4, 5, 7)
Tel: + 33 (1) 56 41 36 04
This exhibition offers its visitors an unusual experience: an exhibition whose subject is the exhibition venue itself, a moment of its history.
The building located on 85/87 rue du Faubourg St Martin, which now houses the Passage du Désir exhibition centre as well as the BETC advertising agency, had a special destiny during the last war. Between July 1943 and August 1944, the former Lévitan building "Aryanized" by the Nazis was used as a labour camp whose inmates, picked from the internees in the camp at Drancy, were forced to sort, repair and pack the furniture and objects looted by the Nazis from the apartments of Jewish families in Paris.
In a building confiscated from a Jew, Jews were made to sort objects taken from apartments left behind by Jews, most of whom were taken to extermination camps, and in this way every trace of their existence was made to disappear, while the invaders profited from these objects which were sent on to Germany: the building played its role in the implementation of a vast and precise project whose logic was implacable.
Because the seclusion of these detainees in the building was organised with great discretion, the neighbourhood has kept hardly any memory of what it was used for. And because, for complex reasons, very few of the surviving detainees spoke about it after the war, its history remained unknown for a long time.
Until 1998, when former internees and some of their descendants set up an association (Amicale Austerlitz, Lévitan, Bassano). In November 2003, on the association's initiative, two young historians, Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Sarah Gensburger, recounted the history of the camp and other places involved in the spoliation operation in a book published by Fayard and entitled "Des Camps dans Paris. Austerlitz, Lévitan, Bassano. July 1943-Août 1944".
In 2004, a small album of photos was identified in the German federal archives in Coblenz: probably taken by a German soldier for propaganda reasons, these 85 photos show all the places where the objects belonging to Jews were transported, stored and warehoused: Palais de Tokyo, Musée du Louvre, a town house on the rue Bassano, Gare du Nord, Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux d’Aubervilliers. But most of these photos were taken in the Lévitan building.
They show the arrival of crates in removal lorries, the piles of objects, the accumulations of different types of china, clothing, toys. We can see the detainees at work, stacking, classifying, repairing. It becomes clear that what is referred to as the "looting of Jewish property" did not just concern works of art and valuable paintings but also modest objects of daily life – shoes, light bulbs, saucepans, sheets. We can see Nazi worthies come to inspect the building and pick out objects for themselves, as if in an ideal shop where the finest pieces of furniture are tastefully displayed to catch the shopper's eye.
We think it is important that these photos be exhibited in the very place where they were taken.
The unexpected encounter between what the Lévitan building has become today: a place dedicated to modernity – avant-garde events, fashion, advertising, design – and its very dark past, now recognised, recalled and respected, is not the least interest of this exhibition: it also unveils in concrete fashion to the neighbourhood what had been so carefully concealed from it – or what it had not been able to or wanted to see – during these years. And it raises fascinating questions for the historian about the role of the image, and particularly the photo, in our knowledge and perception of the past.
Curator: Sarah Gensburger with the participation of Michèle Cohen, in collaboration with Jean-Marc Dreyfus
Exhibition organised by the BETC agency and the Passage du Désir with the backing of the Paris Municipality, the Caisse des Dépôts, Havas, Janvier, Partizan, and the Fondation Rothschild-Institut Alain de Rothschild in cooperation with the Amicale Austerlitz, Lévitan, Bassano.