The Bitter Taste of Vengeance

Maurice Papon, the French bureaucrat supreme whose signature

is on transportation orders that sent 1,690 Jews (including 223 children) to

their deaths in Nazi extermination camps, is now 90 years old. The bearer of a

pacemaker, survivor of triple-bypass surgery, he was imprisoned only a year or

so ago because he managed to evade capture, using legal appeal after appeal

(falling through loopholes, a trapeze artist, manipulator of systems, friend of

those in high places) to avoid conviction for more than a decade. His aborted

escape to Switzerland and subsequent extradition resulted in his present placement

in La Santé prison, where he resides in fragile health. We are told that his

appeals to the European Court of Human Rights for pardon have stirred a sharp

debate, pouring a sea’s worth of salt into some old wounds. Mr. Papon’s wartime

role as a Vichy official responsible for Jewish affairs in the Bordeaux region

from 1942-44 led to a successful postwar career. He became budget minister and

later chief of police in Paris under de Gaulle, where it seems likely that he

ordered the reprisal murder, in 1961, of several dozen Algerians whose bodies

were then dumped into the Seine.

Today, a cadre of supporters write letters on Mr. Papon’s

behalf. They argue that the punishment for crimes against humanity is not

another crime, the persecution of the elderly, the withholding of compassion

for one whose deeds were done in another atmosphere, under pressure of the

conqueror’s will, far back in the mists of history.

Granted, this is not a man most of us would invite to

dinner. However, the argument now is not over his innocence or guilt, nor over

the indecency of the Vichy rule, but rather the degree and kind of justice the

victims can ever hope to achieve by putting this old man in a cell almost 60

years after his crime. The argument now turns on either the bitter taste of

vengeance that presents itself as justice, or the equally bitter taste of mercy

which, while it might bring Mr. Papon back into the sunlight for his remaining

days, will not seem merciful to the memories of those he packed into cattle


The first thing to be said is that no one alive today can

forgive this man his cruelty or his murderous, opportunistic collaboration. But

his victims are gone and cannot excuse his acts or encourage his release, and

no one else can forgive him in their place. But because he cannot be forgiven

does not mean that he must stay in prison until death comes for him, too, as it

will soon.

The argument being made in Paris is that he is so old and

harmless that it serves no purpose to deprive him of the comforts of his home

in his last days. There is also attached to this argument-holding it up like a

flagpole-the sense that the collaborators in France were so numerous, the guilt

thereby spread so thinly, that it is unfair to assign it to a single face, a

mere signature on a transportation paper. Mr. Papon’s supporters do not want to

be tarred with the Holocaust responsibility, which in fact belongs to so many

among the anti-Semitic French population.

After the war, it seemed like everyone in France was a

member of the Resistance. Only slowly did we discover how many profited from

their German neighbors’ brief visit, how many agreed with the anti-Semitism

that ran riot in the newspapers, universities, cafés and clubs. Only gradually

did we understand that the French had been liberated of their Jews by the

Germans and then liberated from the Germans by the Americans. The difference

between Eichmann and Papon can be measured in numbers but not in kind.

The counterargument is that we cannot release every old

prisoner. Ax murderers, con men, rapists grow old but not better of character,

not deserving of freedom. If Mr. Papon hadn’t delayed justice by doing so many

somersaults through the system, he would have been imprisoned earlier and

perhaps released by now. The other counterargument is that the crime of

rounding up Jewish children hidden in homes around Bordeaux is too ugly to be

swept under the rug with statements like “Those were different days” or “Who

knew who would win the war?”

The Papon story brings us right to the dilemma of Holocaust

justice: It can’t be achieved. It has eluded us. So many vicious men survived,

having been funneled through various underground railways, absorbed into

offices and governments that needed them for industry’s sake, for anti-Communist reasons-so many men who,

with their own hands or through their own orders, arranged for the deaths of

millions of innocents and went on with their lives. It may make us shake our

fists at the sky, but there is nothing to be done. We cannot begin to count the

numbers of war criminals who have lived among us. There will be no justice

after the Holocaust, which is part of the pain of it, a pain we cannot avoid.

There will be no revenge.

Whether he is released or not, Mr. Papon will die, content

that he got away with it for so long. Sometime in the near future, the Jews of

the contemporary world will have to accept that the Europeans will always admit

little, blame others. Guilt is a hard, unpleasant burden, and no group of

people wants it; no individual will bear it as long as one can distort the

past, and one’s role in it. And this is what will happen-has already happened.

There is Mr. Papon-old and shriveled, heart skipping beats-in a cell, but he’s

there too late, beyond punishment for his deeds. We are approaching the moment

when we will simply have to stop yearning for justice, for some apology that

will never come-certainly not in time to save a single soul. Can we even

protect ourselves from another round of persecution? Probably not. Certainly

not by fanning the flames of guilt.

So ultimately the facts of the Holocaust will recede into

history, another terrible story among many, and no one who suffered will be

around. Nor will anyone whose hands are bloodied. The books and photographs

will remain as a cautionary tale, probably ignored.

I would prefer that Mr. Papon breathe his last breath in

prison. I am not a good enough person to wish him a soft pillow in his own bed,

but I know that war criminals the world over-African generals, Afrikaaner

police officers, Serbian presidents-slip away and drink good wines served to

them on silver trays while sitting on terraces overlooking the bluest waters in

ports of call on every continent. So it is.

The Bitter Taste of Vengeance