Annette Wieviorka is a major French historian of the Holocaust. She is the granddaughter of Yiddish writer Wolf Wieviorka (1898-1945), who perished on the death march from Auschwitz. After an original commitment to Maoism and a teaching stint in China, Annette Wieviorka began her study of the specificity of the Shoah in the context of Nazi and Vichy crime generally. She has analyzed the tendency in recent decades to privilege testimony and memory over history. Annette Wieviorka has served on a government commission on the seizing of Jewish property during the German occupation of France. Her work includes well-received book on a French general-interest topic: a detailed biography of French communist leaders Maurice and Jeannette Thorez.
Annette Wieviorka, born in Paris on January 10, 1948, is one of the premier French historians of the Holocaust born after World War II. Not only is she the author of a significant number of scholarly books and articles; she is often quoted in and has contributed to the Parisian daily Le Monde.
The Wieviorkas: An Illustrious Jewish Family
Annette Wieviorka’s grandfather Wolf Wieviorka, born in 1898 in Żyrardów, Poland (44 km WSW of Warsaw), was a Yiddish writer active in Paris from the time of his settling there in 1923; he published short stories and literary criticism in Der Parizer Haynt (Paris Today) and Di Parizer Bleter (Paris Pages) in the French capital; Di Folkstsaytung (The People’s Newspaper) of Warsaw; Forverts (The Jewish Daily Forward) in New York, and Di Prese (The Press) in Buenos Aires. During the German occupation, he fled to Nice with Anette’s grandmother Gitele. They were ultimately arrested by the French militia in 1943 and deported by the Germans to Auschwitz. Wolf died in January 1945 on the death march from Auschwitz. Annette’s father Abraham (better known as Aby, 1921–1991) and her uncle Mennerem (i.e., Menahem, better known as Méni, 1923-2009) survived in a Swiss camp for aliens. Her mother, Rachel (b. Paris 1925), hid under a false identity in Grenoble from 1942 to 1944.
Family notables also include Wolf Wieviorka’s brother Avrom (1887–1935), who had emigrated to Russia, where he fought on the side of the Bolsheviks and became a Yiddish writer close to the régime. Articles by Annette’s brothers, sociologist Michel (b. 1946) and historian Olivier (b. 1960), also often appear in many scholarly publications and French press organs: Michel is best-known for his work on racism and minorities generally in France; Olivier achieved repute for having interviewed President François Mitterrand at a time when his connections with the Vichy regime underwent renewed scrutiny. Annette’s sister Sylvie—now married to Alain Geismar, a Jew who, like Dany Cohn-Bendit, was a leader of the French student movement of 1968—is the author of a study on drug addiction.
Annette Wieviorka grew up in Belleville, a Parisian neighborhood that in those years was home to many Yiddish-speaking Jews and their children. There she attended French public schools. Married and divorced twice, Annette Wieviorka has a son, Nicolas Trotignon, from her first marriage to Roland Trotignon, and a daughter, Mathilde Raczymow, from her second marriage, to French Jewish writer Henri Raczymow (b. 1948).
Wieviorka’s Chinese Period
Annette Wieviorka’s original commitment was also to leftist politics, as she recounts in her first work, a memoir of her troubled years (1974-1976) during her first marriage, when she went to teach French in China out of a desire to immerse herself in the Maoist universe. Her disillusionment, which went as far as a significant suicide attempt, is recounted in L’Écureuil de Chine or The Squirrel of China—a title that plays upon the meaning of the word wiewiorka (sic) in Polish as “squirrel.” In 2021, over forty years later, she returned to that period of her life in her book Mes années chinoises (My Chinese Years).
Research Focus: Jews and Non-Jews During the Shoah
Back in France after her Maoist period, Annette Wieviorka completed her doctorate in history at the University of Paris-Nanterre in 1991, until the direction of Annie Kriegel. She has made a great impact through her works, which analyze and combat a widespread tendency in French society, even among its intelligentsia: the inability to face the full extent of antisemitic persecutions in occupied France. French patriotism and forgetfulness of collaborationism initially led many writers—including Jews—to focus on the heroism and repression of the French Resistance generally, with short shrift given to the far greater percentage of fatalities among Jews deported to German camps than among French political (e.g. Communist and Gaullist) adversaries of Nazism in the same situation. Jewish suffering in occupied France was further relativized by two contradictory attitudes: an insensitivity, born of hostility, to the murder of Jews, and a universalistic desire not to single out Jews as victims but to see them primarily as human casualties of German terror and Vichy perfidy in France.
These points are made with exceptional force in Annette’s Wieviorka’s doctoral dissertation, Déportation et génocide (Deportation and Genocide), which continues to sell well in paperback. In an article that translates part of her thesis into English, we may read her analysis of some of the first accounts of the death camps published in France, written by Jews:
In Julien Unger’s work, Le Sang et l’or (Blood and Gold), the word “Jew” is virtually absent. Throughout Unger’s account, the reader does not know whether the author is a Jew or not. … In the account by Unger, who was a Jew deported from Drancy, the process and the extent of extermination are described in full, but the fact that the victims were Jews is completely erased.
Louise Alcan’s work reflects a clear awareness that Jews were being exterminated, yet her preface, written in 1947 at the time of publication, stresses that thirty thousand have returned from the camps. She makes no distinction there between concentration camps, to which the Resistance and hostages were deported, and the extermination camps, to which Jews were sent. Yet of some sixty-three thousand Resistants and hostages deported, thirty-seven thousand survived; of the seventy-five thousand Jews deported from France, only two thousand and five hundred returned. (“Jewish Identity in the First Accounts by Extermination Camp Survivors from France” 139)
This passage points to the other major focus of Annette Wieviorka’s work, evident in her L’Ère du témoin (translated into English as The Era of the Witness). This book analyzes how survivors’ testimony has become, as it were, the preferred mode of discourse concerning the Holocaust, over and beyond historical research, with its careful cross-checking of written and oral documentation.
Annette Wieviorka’s focus on testimony goes back to her first historical work, written before her dissertation. Les Livres du souvenir (Memorial Books) was composed in collaboration with Yitskhok Niborski (b. 1947), who after Rachel Ertel is the most significant scholar of Yiddish in France. This book was the first major study in France of the yizker-bikher produced by survivors of Eastern European Jewish communities destroyed by the Germans.
Annette Wieviorka’s institutional affiliations have included teaching history at lycées in Paris (1976–1990), appointment as a research fellow (1990–1992) and research director (starting 1992) at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique; membership (starting 1993) on the Conseil scientifique (scholarly council) of the Mémorial de Caen (a World War II museum in Normandy) and (starting 1997) on the Mission Mattéoli, officially the Mission auprès du Premier Ministre sur la spoliation des biens des Juifs (the Prime Minister’s Study Group on the Spoliation of Jewish Property). Her role on that commission led her in 2000 to publish two detailed studies of the seizing of Jewish belongings under the German occupation: Les Biens des internés des camps de Drancy, Pithiviers et Beaune-la-Rolande (The Belongings of the Internees in the Drancy, Pithiviers and Beaune-la- Rolande Camps) and Le Pillage des appartements et son indemnisation (Spoliation and Compensation of Jewish-Inhabited Apartments, in collaboration with Florence Azoulay).
Twenty-First Century Research
In 2010, Annette Wieviorka branched out to a more general-interest topic in France, publishing a meticulously referenced but lively biography of two major personalities in the French communist party: Maurice et Jeannette: Biographie du couple Thorez (Maurice and Jeannette: Biography of the Thorez Couple). The review in Le Monde Diplomatique, a far left-wing organ translated worldwide, hailed it as “a profound, deep and serene book,” whose author kept a distance from both enthrallment with her subjects and cheap shots at their political commitments.
Selected Works by Annette Wieviorka
Mes années chinoises. Paris: Stock, 2021.
Maurice et Jeannette: Biographie du couple Thorez (Maurice and Jeannette: Biography of the Thorez Couple). Paris : Fayard, 2010. 2d ed. Paris: Tempus Perrin, 2016.
Les Biens des internés des camps de Drancy, Pithiviers et Beaune-la-Rolande (The Belongings of Internees in the Drancy, Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande Camps). Paris: La Documentation française, 2000.
with Floriane Azoulay. Le Pillage des appartements et son indemnisation (Spoliation and Compensation of Jewish-Inhabited Apartments). Paris: La Documentation française, 2000.
Rapport générale de synthèse: mission Mattéoli (Final Report of the Mattéoli Study Group). Paris: La documentation française, 2000.
with Claude Mouchard, eds. La Shoah: Témoignages, savoirs, oeuvres (The Shoah: Testimony, Scholarly Approaches, Publications). Orléans: Presses Universitaires deVincennes, 1999.
Auschwitz expliqué à ma fille (Auschwitz Explained to My Daughter) Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1999.
L’Ère du témoin. Paris: Plon, 1998. 2d ed., 2002 (The Era of the Witness. Trans. Jared Stark. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).
with Jean-Jacques Becker. Les Juifs de France: de la Révolution française à nos jours (The Jews of France: From the French Revolution to Our Time). Paris: Levi, 1998.
with Serge Barcellini. Passant, souviens-toi! Les Lieux du souvenir de la Seconde Guerre mondiale en France (Passerby, Remember! World War II Places of Memory in France). Paris: Plon, 1995. 2d ed., 1999.
ed. Les Procès de Nuremberg et de Tokyo (The Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials). Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1996.
Le Procès de Nuremberg (The Nuremberg Trial). Rennes and Caen: Mémorial, 1995.
with Stéphane Courtois, eds. L’État du monde en 1945 (The State of the World in 1945). Paris: La Découverte, 1994.
Déportation et génocide: Entre la mémoire et l’oubli (Deportation and Genocide: Between Memory and Forgetting). Paris: Plon, 1992. 2d ed., 1995. 3d ed., 2003.
Le Procès Eichmann: 1961 (The Eichmann Trial: 1961). Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1989.
Ils étaient juifs, résistants, communistes (They Were Jews, Members of the Resistance, Communists). Paris: Denoël, 1986; rev. ed. Paris: Perrin, 2018.
“Jewish Identity in the First Accounts by Extermination Camp Survivors from France.” Trans. Françoise Rosset. Yale French Studies 94 (1985): 135–151.
with Yitskhok Niborski. Les Livres du souvenir: Mémoriaux juifs de Pologne (Memorial Books: Memorials of Polish Jews). Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1983.
L’Écureuil de Chine (The Chinese Squirrel). Paris: Presses d’aujourd’hui, 1979.