FONTAINE-DE-VAUCLUSE — It’s a modest building, set in a village better known as the swirling source of the Sorgue River, which bubbles up from an underground cave. But on the path to the river’s source, L’Appel de la Liberte, The Call of Freedom Museum, is worth a detour of a few hours.
The museum tells the story of France and particularly Provence from 1939 to 1945, not the Provence that was sometimes too ready to collaborate with the Nazis, one depicted at Camp des Milles near Aix-en-Provence, but the region that was often at the heart of the anti-Nazi French resistance.
The Call of Freedom and Camp des Milles in a way are historical bookends of World War II in France, both honest depictions but with different emphases. Where Camp des Milles celebrates some of the heroes who resisted the Nazis and their genocide, it shines a light on French complicity in the horrors of World War II and serves as a cautionary warning against ever forgetting why and how entire societies spin off the rails. And where the Call of Freedom Museum acknowledges the horrible things that happened in France, to Jews and others, it celebrates the courage of those men and women who fought back, with their words, with their weapons and too often with their lives.
Admission to the Call of Freedom, about $5 for most but just $2.20 for senior citizens and free for children under 12, includes an English language audio guide with some historical background for each of its three sections. The first covers the formation of the Vichy government in the southern part of France during Germany’s occupation in the North. The second traces the the growth of the French resistance and tells the stories of some of its heroes. The third chronicles the efforts of writers and artists to keep alive “freedom of the mind” during the years of fascism.
I was surprised to learn the extent of the hardships endured by all the French after Germany overran the country, leading to a lopsided “armistice” on June 22, 1940 that left Germany as occupier of the north and the authoritarian Vichy-based government of Marshal Phillipe Petain in the south. Under the terms of that armistice, 1.5 million French were sent as prisoners to Germany, where they would remain throughout the war. At home, the government of Petain grew systematically more repressive and throughout the divided country many French managed to survive only through a black market system that become known as “System D” (for debrouiller — to manage or wrangle), a term still used in the country today for off-the-books or under-the-table transactions.
While the museum emphasizes the hardships on all the French people, it doesn’t ignore the complicity of the Vichy government in the extermination of a fourth of France’s Jewish population, noting that “the genocide of 70,000 Jews … would not have been possible without the collaboration of the Vichy government.”
The museum’s second and third sections focus on those who resisted, in the south, the MUR, or Mouvement Unis de Resistance, a coalition of freedom fighters brought together by Charles de Gaulle’s emissary in France, Jean Moulin. Moulin would give his life to the cause of resistance; he was captured by the Nazis near Lyon in June 1943. But the resistance fought on, mining the tracks beneath German trains, identifying safe places for the allies to parachute behind enemy lines, joining the fight from rugged mountain regions around the countryside. Still, though Moulin’s name today can be found on street signs in countless cities and towns, the museum’s audio narrator notes, “in France, resistance [was] an exception to the rule.” Judging from the number who died, it was exceptionally dangerous as well.
Intellectual resistance, meanwhile, took three forms. Writers who legally published in France used coded language to give a different message than most people saw. Until the allies pushed into France in the summer of 1944, clandestine publications spread the words of French poets. There also were resistance publications published abroad.
The museum exhibits, which include a video, audio, photos and text, are based on some 10,000 documents acquired in 1981. It certainly whet our appetite to learn more. Today I copied the names of 18 books about the period off of Amazon and Kathy began reading one, titled, “Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape and a House in Marseille,” by Rosemary Sullivan. (Today marks my 100th blog here. But I’m a lot more impressed with the 10 or 12 books she’s consumed over the same time.)
The museum, officially known as the Jean Garcin History Museum, is open daily from April 1 until Nov. 1 except for Tuesdays.