City of the Mute

To visit Drancy is to confront dark and unsettled questions of who is remembered, who is heard, who can speak, and why.

October 23, 2019
Erica X Eisen’s works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Guardian, Slate, The Paris Review Daily, The Baffler, The Threepenny Review, Current...

Illustration by Tasha Gray.

The wind blows south over Drancy. It blows south along the horseshoe of boxlike buildings, south through the dark cluster of trees they enclose. It blows south as it musses the hair and scarves of the residents of Drancy as they make their way to and from the towers in which they live, and it blows south until it strikes the strange structure that has been erected in the center of the ring: a repurposed cattle car, at the base of which is a plaque that reads, “The French Republic in hommage to the victims of racist and antisemitic persicutions and the crimes against humanity commited on the authority of the de facto ‘Government of the French State.’” [sic]

Most of the Parisian friends I tell about my plans to visit Drancy have never heard of the place: hugging close to Charles de Gaulle Airport, some hour and a half outside of the centre-ville, it’s a suburb both geographically and psychically at Paris’s perimeter, out of sight and out of mind, a place where you wouldn't wind up without a very specific reason for going there. Though Paris’s subway system is so extensive that its maps resemble a plate of spaghetti, Drancy is not hooked up to it; to get to where I need to go—a modest housing development known as la Cité de la Muette—requires a commuter train journey followed by a mile of walking.

Now home to low-income residents primarily from France’s former colonies in the Middle East and North Africa, the tower blocks that make up Drancy’s Cité de la Muette constitute France’s cheapest social housing, and some of its least desirable. But at its inception almost a century ago, the complex was intended to be a shining model of salubrious modern design, a haven to which Parisians tired of the cramped and crowded central city might retreat by choice, not by last resort. Between its origins as a starry architectural project and its current fate as a graying banlieu of which most city residents are scarcely aware lies one of the darkest phases of France’s history: that of its wholesale collaboration with the Nazi occupation, during which time Drancy would imprison between 67,000 and 74,000 Jews, many of whom would die either within the complex’s walls or upon their transportation to concentration camps in the east. As such, to visit Drancy is to confront dark and unsettled questions—in France and elsewhere—of who is remembered, who is heard, who can speak, and why.


En route to la Cité from the rail station, it strikes me that the urban planning of the surrounding area seems in many ways an apologia for the history it plasters over. There’s a Rue Charles Fourrier, a misspelt tribute to the eighteenth-century French thinker whose proto-socialist ideas about utopian communities would collectively be known as Fourierism (note the one r). Farther along, there’s another street named after Paul Lossing, a member of the French Resistance who was shot by the Nazis in 1943. There’s a Rue Dr. Albert Schweitzer and a Rue Nelson Mandela and a Rue Sacco et Vanzetti. Elsewhere in the district, the street names morph from homages to freedom-fighters, radicals, and humanitarians into simple prayers for social good: Rue de l’Harmonie, Rue de la Prospérité, Rue de la Liberté.

Yet as I walk through the area it is impossible not to note—or perhaps, given that I am psychologically primed, to project—a certain aura of death. I see multiple funeral homes, multiple gravestone sellers with their wares parked out front like Toyota Camrys at a used car dealership. My route passes through a walled cemetery, packed with graves and deeply ugly especially in comparison with the stately central Parisian necropoles of Père Lachaise and Montmartre. Placed on several of the graves are plaques by the National Federation of Deported and Imprisoned Resistance Fighters and Patriots, in memory of the death of one of their members. It was a blistering day: I see few people about, hear few voices. There is no grass for the breeze to rustle. The name Cité de la Muette means the silent city, the city of the mute.

Describing the slum he lived in during the late 1920s in Down and out in Paris and London, George Orwell recalled rooms so mite-infested that residents had resorted to burning sulfur as a bug repellant; the street itself, he wrote, was a “ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had been frozen in the act of collapse…and packed to the tiles with lodgers.” The opening of the book memorably sketches the nerve-jangling din that characterized everyday life in that place: “quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing orange-peel over the cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse carts, made up the atmosphere of the street.” If life in the city’s most overcrowded and unhealthy districts was marked first and foremost by incessant, calm-shattering noise, the Silent City stood apart as something new, modern, clean, and above all quiet. With its generously sized lodgings, quality ventilation, and signature peaceful atmosphere, the development contrasted sharply with much of the housing stock that would have been available to most Parisians at the time. This combined with its broad central green and large-windowed apartments that let in plentiful light created a sense of utopia, a serene oasis at the edge of the city. It seemed to point a way forward, to a future in which all could afford to live in the kind of serenity that had previously been the preserve of the wealthy.

The large-scale development was composed of several buildings: an exclamation-mark suite of five fifteen-storey towers accompanied by long, low buildings, and then, at the end, a final building in the shape of a U. Constructed using exposed concrete and an iron armature, the buildings were avant-garde both in style and execution. What’s more, the fifteen-story highrises were Paris’s first skyscrapers: eager tourists bought up Drancy postcards and attended guided tours of the site. In 1939, seven years after construction had begun, Drancy’s design was showcased as part of Houses and Housing: Industrial Art, an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that aimed to showcase the best of public housing around the world. At the MoMA show, Drancy was placed on par with contributions from the likes of Alvar Aalto, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. Its designers, Eugène Beaudouin and Marcel Lods, envisioned copycat colonies springing up as more and more people were won over by the concept of the decentralized, green “garden city” approach to urbanism.

That vision was never realized: on May 10, 1940, the Germans launched the invasion of France; by the beginning of June, they had begun an assault on Paris; and by June 24, the French government officially surrendered. Hitler inspected the broad Haussmannienne boulevards, walked the plaza over which arched the bowed base of the Eiffel Tower, visited Napoleon’s tomb, and left after only three hours. Arrests of Jews began that year.

At this time the apartment blocks that had once been postcard fodder for eager visitors were in a sad state of half-construction. The economic difficulties of the Great Depression had put construction on ice: beginning in 1939, the as-yet-unfinished buildings were put to use by the French government to intern communists (the Communist Party having been officially outlawed that year). Following France’s surrender to the Germans, the Nazis originally converted the site into a prison camp for French and British POWs. But when the major roundups of French Jews began in Paris, Nazi officials decided to put the buildings to a different purpose.

Other aspects of the location made it attractive to the Nazi administrators as well: the horseshoe-shaped block, designed to curb the flow of the wind, was easy to close off with barbed wire and the addition of a couple guard towers. Once that was done, the open central green—which the designers had once envisioned as a place of afternoon strolls and weekend relaxation—became instead a place where Jewish internees could be kept and easily monitored. Elements that had been intended as building blocks for utopian design were put to use for dystopian purposes with amazing ease and speed: the distance between the two poles, in the end, proved frighteningly small. Camp conditions quickly deteriorated—Drancy was at one point filled to ten times the buildings’ maximum capacity, and woefully inadequate nutrition combined with squalid conditions to produce rampant and deadly disease outbreaks. In a sardonic twist on the development’s earlier life as an ideal dwelling place, internees referred to the latrines (located in one building put up in the courtyard, as the apartments’ plumbing installation had never been completed) as the “chateau” (a reference, said one internee in a later interview, to the idea that wealthy prisoners had swallowed their diamonds rather than letting them be seized). In other moments, internees were forced to ape a paradise they did not know: of the five extant sets of photographs taken when the Drancy camp was in operation, four of them were staged propaganda shoots, either for French newspapers or to hoodwink the Red Cross. And in the meantime, except for these visits, the camp was sealed off; roundup after roundup of Jewish prisoners was forced to live in conditions that were increasingly squalid, and beginning in 1942, trainful after trainful were sent to the east. Those outside of Drancy said nothing at the disappearance of their neighbors; those inside it could not speak, or if they could, would not be heard. This was a silence of a different kind.


“I’m not at ease at Drancy,” says Jacques Saurel. “They hurt me, these buildings.”

I’m listening to recordings of Drancy survivors at the Shoah Memorial of Drancy, a museum located just across the street from what used to be the outer walls of the camp. Marked by minimalist restraint of design, the building is easy to walk past even if you are looking for it. On its north façade, floor-to-ceiling windows turn their unblinking gaze at the site, a request for contemplation that is direct yet unspoken.

The archive, library, and galleries that comprise the Shoah Memorial represents perhaps the deepest of the many attempts to commemorate the tragedy of Drancy: if the site itself is marked by a kind of silencing, its monuments constitute a visual argument of styles and opinions. The first was Shelomo Seligman’s 1976 modernist sculpture, whose title, The Gates of Hell, references Rodin’s famous work. The sculpture is composed of three parts, all rendered in pinkish stone: two bracket-like monoliths (upon which a dedicatory inscription has been carved) and a central sculpture of writhing and oddly suggestive masses. The red lettering, the rough-hewn style of the sculpture, the reach upwards—all of these are visual cues that on paper should sum to something. But in person they repel more than they provoke, producing neither an articulate statement nor a plain surface upon which to project one’s own. The train car standing not far off––which viewers approach by walking along a train track—is a more scrutable memorial, an obvious emblem of the fate that so many of Drancy’s internees eventually suffered.

As well as these installations, however, there is the ever-present question of whether or not the entirety of the site should constitute a memorial to itself. In the years following the end of the war and the eventual liberation of Drancy, Paris faced a massive housing crisis. The former camp buildings that had until recently served as a temporary waystation between life and death were unceremoniously put into use as social housing. Drancy became a no-frills, no-luxury, no illusions home of last resort in which people were billetted because they had nowhere else to go. Drancy’s transformation into an undesirable housing block also mirrored a larger demographic shift in Paris’s urban geography whereby the periphery became the province of the poor—and increasingly the ethnic minority—mired in low-wage work that had left them unable to afford the skyrocketing prices of the central arrondissements.

The Shoah Memorial’s archive of interviews with Drancy’s survivors reveal contradictory attitudes about what should be done with the site. Henri Gotainer, who was taken to Drancy in 1942 at the age of 11, said he had been back only once, for the inauguration of the train car memorial, though he has visited Auschwitz (where he was never interned) several times. For Gotainer, the need for people and place to move on is not only natural but essential to survival: “If I lived permanently in these memories,” he said, “It would be intolerable.” For others, however, the question is more complicated. Jacques Saurel, who was taken from Drancy to Bergen-Belsen, describes “coming out of [his] muteness” about the war after reading that a memorial for those who died at Bergen-Belsen would be erected at Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Shortly thereafter, he says, something took hold of him: he got in his car and drove to Drancy. “It was history that accompanied me,” he said of the journey, which he had never thought of making before. But though Saurel has since returned, the place remains indelibly associated with the pain and suffering he witnessed there. Sometimes, Saurel says towards the end of his interview, he thinks it would be better after all to turn the whole place into a museum: “It’s a question I haven’t found the answer to.” Saurel’s uncertainty and discomfort point to one of the central tensions of Drancy: that even if one accepts that life must go on in places of tragedy, the degree to which normal life is contingent upon a certain degree of forgetting makes it seem somehow deeply wrong.

Today, the majority of Drancy’s residents are Muslim immigrants from former French colonies in the Middle East and Africa. The fact that many of these low-income residents lack the means to move elsewhere renders the question of whether or not they would prefer to live in a place with a less gruesome past something of a moot point. This particular lack of freedom points to the ways in which those who are marginalized today are forced to live with the ghosts of history, the places haunted by deaths at the hands of people whose ancestors now quietly choose to look away. Given Drancy’s current demographic makeup, the question of memorialization becomes a fraught one: razing the entire site or converting to whole area into an open-air museum would render homeless residents who had no part in the historic wrongs committed there. As Katherine Fleming writes in “What Remains? Sites of Deportation in Contemporary European Daily Life: The Case of Drancy,” Drancy plays host to some of the most difficult problems in modern French public discourse, including “questions relating to the memory of the Holocaust in contemporary France, on the one hand, and the place of (largely Muslim) immigrants, on the other. In many ways, these debates are two different historical instantiations of the same ‘problem,’ the ‘problem’ of the outsider. In Drancy, they collide.” These residents, too, have been silenced. This is the defining characteristic of Drancy, its ability to swallow all sound like freshly fallen snow.


Of Drancy’s many silences, perhaps the most pointed one is that of the question of French complicity. A Parisian Jewish friend of mine once posed the following question to me: how many Jews did the Germans deport from France? The answer: none—because the French were so willing to lend a helping hand and do it themselves. One of the reasons Alain Resnais’s seminal Holocaust documentary Night and Fog was banned in its director’s native country until almost a decade after it was made is that one of the shots of deportation trains being loaded with people shows a French gendarme on the station platform, overseeing what was effectively the administration of a mass death sentence.

This was the rule for Drancy as well: though the site was planned by Nazi overseers, the entire camp was largely run—and its prisoners supplied—by French police and government bureaucrats who proved more than willing to collaborate. French officers conducted the round-ups; French officers stripped Jews of their possessions upon arrival; French officers profiteered from Drancy’s black market. But the 1976 tear-down of all but the Cité’s U-complex marked the irreparable destruction of physical evidence of the French guards who had been billetted in the adjoining tower blocks.

The fight over the acknowledgment of French culpability cannot be understood without a full acknowledgment of France’s antisemitism, which is not a confined historical phenomenon but a living strain of thought that continues to draw blood in the present. It was not until 1995 that the French government (then headed by Jacques Chirac) admitted to culpability in the Holocaust, but more recent statements by politicians on the far right—most notably Marine Le Pen during her unsuccessful presidential bid in 2017—have rejected the idea that France was in any way to blame for the deaths of over 70,000 of its Jews. Such hand-washing statements come against a backdrop of increasing antisemitic violence across the country. In March of 2018, two assailants broke into Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll’s Paris apartment, stabbed her to death, and then set her body on fire, allegedly under the assumption that because she was Jewish she would have money to steal. Knoll’s funeral attracted thousands of mourner-protesters. Hers is only the latest in a string of murders motivated by antisemitism that have collectively contributed to what the president of the European Jewish Council has described as an “increasing sense of emergency.”

As a site of confrontation with France’s collaborationist past, Drancy is not unique: many major French urban areas were affixed with “silent cities” of their own, internment and transportation camps created on their outskirts of which even locals today are largely ignorant. Near Toulouse, there is Saint-Sulpice-La-Point and Recebedou; near Pau, there is Gurs; near Aix-en-Provence, there is the Camp des Milles. But none of these are comparable to Drancy when it comes to the fact that at the latter the living of the present occupy the exact same space as the murdered of the past and lead lives whose normalcy depends, at least in part, upon the mental shelving of this fact. Drancy was not a purpose-built containment site for evil; it was a normal place in which horrific things occurred. This too is not unique: the most infamous of France’s wartime roundups took place at a bicycle track. Transport to camps was often undertaken using requisitioned public buses. There is no kind of space that cannot play host to the crimes of history, just as there is no human heart in which evil will not roost.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about visiting the Cité de la Muette is the disjuncture between my knowledge of what happened there and how little of this I would be able to glean on my own had I stumbled upon this place ignorant of what it was. People commonly speak of “energies” or “auras” exuded by certain places, of a permanent eeriness or chill left by the ghastly events of the past, but in truth as I circumambulated the courtyard I could feel nothing of this kind. Views of the indoor entryways often revealed peeling paint or dirty stairwells, but the exterior walk was swept clean, the doors painted a cheery pink. There is a center for the elderly; there is a maternal health clinic; there is a wooded park, though no one is there. It is comforting to think of places of great evil as perceptibly, palpably marked out; the truth, that time is capable of rendering invisible even the most horrible of crimes to the naked eye, is far more frightening. Drancy is not, candidly, a beautiful place, but nor is it scarred by the kind of ugliness that its moral history would merit. Had I come to this place not knowing what it was—and were it not for the memorials there to teach me—I might even have found the place pleasant.

Erica X Eisen’s works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Guardian, Slate, The Paris Review Daily, The Baffler, The Threepenny Review, Current Affairs, The Nation, Electric Literature, Ploughshares Blog, The Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first novel. Her portfolio can be found at