Textes critiques

Nigel Saint

University of Leeds


This article examines the contemporary French artist Pascal Convert’s (b. 1957) projects relating to a forgotten leader of the French Resistance, Joseph Epstein, who was Polish, Jewish and a Communist. Convert had included Epstein among the 1006 French and foreign men commemorated on his 2002 monument at Mont-Valérien, but his realisation of Epstein’s importance came later and led to a documentary, a biography and sculptures of Epstein and his son, Georges Duffau. First, the documentary and biography are discussed in terms of Epstein’s case as a forgotten Resistance hero. Second, the historiography and form of both works are seen as keys to Convert’s contribution to accounts of this contested period. Last, it is argued that the sculptures of Epstein and other related artworks complete Convert’s engagement with the question of the transmission of memory. We see how Convert’s Epstein works represent an unparalleled triple intervention in documentary film, biography and the plastic arts.

Keywords : art, biography, documentary, Pascal Convert, Joseph Epstein, forgetting, French Resistance, memory


Pascal Convert is a French artist, documentary filmmaker and historian. He is especially known for the 2002 Monument à la mémoire des résistants et otages fusillés au Mont-Valérien (1941−1944), in the form of a bronze bell inscribed with the 1006 names of the French and foreign men executed at Mont-Valérien Fort near Paris during the German Occupation of France. The monument can be seen inside Mont-Valérien, which is the site of the national memorial to ‘La France combattante’ inaugurated by de Gaulle in 1960. Among many other works, Convert has also produced three wax sculptures devoted to scenes of lamentation and terror from contemporary political conflicts in the Balkans, Algeria and Gaza, based on photographs and video footage: Pietà du Kosovo (1999−2000), Madone de Bentalha (2001−2) and Mort de Mohamed Al Dura (2002−3).1 These works engage with the political and aesthetic dimensions of representing the suffering body in sculpture, photography and the media, examining rites of mourning and lamentation, as well as narratives of commemoration. Meanwhile, his work as a historian has led to two books, the first on Joseph Epstein (1911−44), a forgotten French Resistance leader who was executed at Mont-Valérien, the second on Raymond Aubrac (1914−2012), the celebrated co-founder of the Resistance movement Libération-Sud (Convert, 2007b, 2011b).2

This article will focus on the biography, documentary and sculptures that Convert has devoted to Epstein, who was largely forgotten for 60 years after his death and who constitutes an example of what could be called ‘oubli malheureux’, in contrast to Paul Ricoeur’s notion of ‘oubli heureux’ (2000: 562). The three different media used to honour Epstein correspond to the three vectors of transmission established by Henry Rousso in Le Syndrome de Vichy (1990: 251−308): historiography, film and commemoration. In his use of textual and filmic narrative and in his work in sculpture, Convert explores the relationship between history and various categories of memory – individual, family and collective – and between memory and forgetting. Epstein’s story is one of resistance against European fascism from the late 1920s until his death in 1944, while Convert’s exhumation of him in 2007−9 resists dominant narratives of the Resistance and the disappearance of images and memories of him.

The lives and deaths of Joseph Epstein

We begin with some key facts and dates taken from Convert’s biography of Epstein. Born in the same street of Zamosc in Poland as Rosa Luxemburg, but 40 years later in 1911, Jozef Epsztejn was from a middle-class Jewish background. After leaving Poland aged 20 (he had been arrested for his Communist activities), he was a law student and party activist in Tours and Bordeaux in the early to mid 1930s, took part in the Spanish Civil War as part of the International Brigades fighting at Irun and later at the Battle of the Ebro, and was then interned at Gurs when he returned to France in 1939. From his time in Bordeaux, Epstein was known by his friends to be interested in military strategy and linked to the Communist International but also very discreet about his origins. Convert considers him to have been primarily an insurgent and Resistance fighter rather than a secret agent, despite links to André Tollet, Georges Mercader and Octave and Maria Rabaté.3 Alongside many others, Epstein had to endure what Marc Bloch called ‘les invraisemblables contradictions du communisme’ (1957: 185) following the Nazi−Soviet pact in August 1939. He was briefly in the Polish army, which he left because of anti-Semitism, and then in the French Foreign Legion, he was involved in the unsuccessful defence of Soissons in June 1940, and finally, after escaping from Stalag IV-B in Mühlberg, he joined the Communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans Français (FTPF) in Paris in 1942−3. In the FTPF he took part in sabotage actions and made important advances in urban guerrilla warfare tactics, judged by Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont (1914−2006) to have been a crucial development in the preparation of the insurrection of Paris in 1944 (see Convert, 2007b: 257−9). He led the FTPF in the Paris region from May 1943 until his arrest in November of that year. Interrogated and tortured, he was executed at Mont-Valérien in April 1944.

As one would expect, identities are multiple in the context of clandestine wartime activity. Epstein used many different names: Jurek, Jacek, Joseph Andrej, Joseph Estain and Joseph or André Duffau. In the FTPF he was known as Colonel Gilles, the name used – followed by ‘Joseph’ – on the souvenir postcard produced in the immediate post-war period, one of thousands of commemorative photographs of Resistance martyrs produced by the PCF and veterans’ associations.4 In 1941 he had his son registered under the name Duffau, his wife Paula’s surname from her first marriage (a marriage of convenience arranged for her to acquire French nationality). Convert nevertheless detects a desire to display, privately but also for the record, his paternity in the gesture of holding his son up in a photograph taken in 1943 in the French countryside, at Grandchamp west of Auxerre, where his wife and son kept out of sight (Figure 1). The will Epstein drew up in February 1943 also suggested a fear that his identity would be challenged after his death.

Joseph Epstein and Georges

Figure 1. Joseph Epstein and Georges at Grandchamp. Rights reserved.

From 1944 to 2005 he was indeed largely forgotten, for it seems that Epstein concealed his true identity so well that his interrogators never learnt his real name. Albert Ouzoulias, leader of the ‘Bataillons de Jeunesse’ and then FTPF Head of Military Operations in 1944, stated in 1989 that he was alive only because Epstein had not broken under torture (Convert, 2007a). Epstein was arrested on 16 November 1943 with Missak Manouchian, leader of the ‘Main-d’oeuvre immigrée’ (MOI) Resistance group, at Évry-Petit-Bourg station, when they arrived for one of their regular meetings. However, the fact that Epstein did not feature in ‘L’Affiche rouge’, the propaganda poster of 23 members of Manouchian’s group produced by the authorities in Paris in preparation for their trial, indicates that during the interrogation sessions the French police did not discover his real importance (although they knew of his involvement in the FTPF), nor did they learn his real identity or even nationality, since they thought he was French, placed the name ‘Estain’ on his identity photo (Figure 2) and executed him with a group of French prisoners.

Identity photographs

Figure 2. Identity photographs of Joseph Epstein taken on 18 November 1943, reproduced on the front and back covers of Pascal Convert, Joseph Epstein: bon pour la légende − lettre au fils (Biarritz: Atlantica-Séguier, 2007). Rights reserved.

After the failures of the Spanish Civil War and the ‘drôle de guerre’, Epstein wanted to succeed against the German occupiers, he wanted, as would almost certainly be necessary, to die for France and its Republic, and he wanted to die as a Frenchman (Convert, 2007c). Yet his success at dissimulation meant that he did not become famous when Aragon celebrated the ‘Affiche rouge’ group in his poem ‘Strophes pour se souvenir’ of 1955 (sung by Léo Ferré in 1959), which included the refrain ‘La mort n’éblouit pas les yeux des Partisans’ (Aragon, 1955; Ferré, 1959).5 While the post-war souvenir postcard recording Colonel Gilles as a FTPF leader is evidence of his commemoration, this was one of hundreds of such images and the name Epstein was not used. More mainstream, official commemoration of the Resistance, both Gaullist and Communist, played down the role of foreign help, both within and outside France, so that Epstein’s trajectory from rebellious Polish student to involvement with the International Brigades in Spain and his leading role in the FTPF’s preparation of the liberation of Paris was only known to a small group of specialists and survivors. He remained hidden behind the twin figures of Manouchian and Henri Rol- Tanguy, the latter a French metalworker and the FTPF leader who succeeded Epstein and allied the FTPF with the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI).6 Then from 1964 at least until the trial of Klaus Barbie in 1987, Gaullist historiography was preoccupied with the establishment of Jean Moulin as opposed to Pierre Brossolette as the emblematic national Resistance hero and to this end the relevant archives were instrumentalised and exploited (Piketty, 2000: 330−2).

A complex set of circumstances therefore nearly led Epstein to be forgotten in histories of the French Resistance. Hence Convert’s documentary about Epstein is right to state that Epstein was killed twice, first by the Nazis and, second, by being forgotten after the war. In the film, superimposed on a view of the doors to the vault at Mont-Valérien, with RF (Répubique Française) on one of the doors and the flame of the Resistance burning, we see Epstein’s photograph burning from top left to bottom right. First we hear Convert’s narrator and then an extract from de Gaulle’s ‘Paris outragé, Paris brisé’ speech of 25 August 1944, which is cut off mid-sentence by the return of the voiceover. The burning image conveys the destruction and the desecration, but also suggests the elimination of Epstein’s energy, courage and suffering. The photo is seen to burn as the evidence is eliminated, but Epstein’s photo was to have an afterlife.7

There are further details regarding the historiographical context to bear in mind. Convert’s monument at Mont-Valérien, commissioned by the French Senate following Senator Robert Badinter’s proposal that the names of the men executed there should be officially recorded, helped to mark the specificity of the site as the place of execution (Badinter, 1997).8 The guided tour of de Gaulle’s memorial to French military conflicts is today more focused on this story and there are two exhibition spaces devoted to it. Mont-Valérien is also now one of six ‘Hauts Lieux de Mémoire’ in France (Ministère de la Défense, 2012). At the inauguration of Convert’s monument in 2003, Epstein’s son approached Convert and asked him why he had not mentioned his father during the ceremony. Thanks to Convert, Georges Duffau and certain historians whose help is acknowledged – Jacques Baynac, Claude Pennetier, Daniel Peschanski, Axel Porin, Jean-Pierre Ravery and Serge Wolikow – the story of the retrieval of the names honoured on the bronze bell has been continued with the example of the rescue of Epstein from archives and memories, building on one short biography and an account of his Resistance activities by Ouzoulias (see Zalcman, 1984; Ouzoulias, 1975: 346−63). There are mentions, too, mostly brief, in works focusing on Communists and foreigners in the Resistance, but on the one hand Epstein’s foreignness largely kept him out of Communist memory and on the other his independence from the specifically foreign groups meant he was not given special attention by their historians; his group of middle-class Polish expatriates saw themselves as part of the international anti-fascist struggle rather than as a discrete foreign group like Manouchian’s MOI (Convert, 2007b: 44−5). Nevertheless, the pages devoted to Epstein by Courtois, Peschanski and Rayski in Le Sang de l’étranger: les immigrants de la MOI dans la résistance (1989) represent a significant contribution to the recognition of Epstein’s activities.9

Although Epstein was Manouchian’s superior during the summer of 1943 (a critical period following the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad in February and with the expectation of an Allied invasion from the autumn onwards), these three historians, at the time of the publication of Le Sang de l’étranger at least, refer to Epstein as a ‘furtive’ figure in their understanding of the period; they were unsure of Epstein’s significance in relation to the competing Resistance visions of insurrection through urban guerrilla warfare or on the basis of a more political project of national recruitment and unity (Courtois et al., 1989: 327, 331−3). In his investigation into all aspects of Epstein’s activities, it is telling that Convert makes more frequent reference to the personal archives of his historical advisors, as well as to his conversations with them, than he does to their publications. Meanwhile, there are no references to Epstein in the general, mainstream histories in French and English published in the last 15 years by Azéma and Wieviorka (2009), Burrin (1995), Jackson (2000), Ousby (1997) and Cobb (2009), and, in the English language context, it will probably be necessary to wait for the next generation of studies for the inclusion of Epstein in the Resistance narrative.

On 11 April 2005 the small Place Joseph Epstein in Paris’s twentieth arrondissement was inaugurated, following a campaign by Léon Landini, former MOI member in Lyon, Pierre Mansat, Communist city councillor in Paris, and Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë.10 At the same time, I would underline that it is Convert’s artistic and biographical interventions that have been altering perceptions of the role and status of Epstein. In 2007 came Convert’s life of Epstein and his documentary, followed by sculptures and a silkscreen print in 2009. The artworks were exhibited in Convert’s temporary solo exhibition ‘Joseph Epstein’ at Galerie Éric Dupont, Paris, in 2009, and Le Temps scellé: Joseph Epstein et son fils (2009) was acquired by the Musée National d’Art Moderne (Centre Pompidou) in Paris the same year (Figure 6). In 2007−8, Epstein featured in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France exhibition ‘Héros: D’Achille à Zidane’ alongside Moulin and de Gaulle in the Resistance Heroes section in the form of the ‘Colonel Gilles – Joseph’ souvenir postcard, the photograph of him holding up his son and the final letter written in prison (Faliu and Tourret, 2007: 151, 158−9). This exhibition in the national library represents a striking moment of semi-official recognition, albeit as ‘le héros occulté’. As a result of the reception of Convert’s film and biography, which was aided by his prior connection with Mont-Valérien, President Nicolas Sarkozy specifically honoured Joseph Epstein, alongside the naval officer Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves and the prison chaplain Abbé Stock, in a significant speech at Mont-Valérien on 23 February 2008.11 There are now several mentions of Epstein during the guided tour of Mont- Valérien, notably in the chapel (see also Cameron, 2008: 244−7). Finally, in 2008 Georges Duffau was given official permission call himself Georges Duffau-Epstein.

Joseph Epstein: bon pour la légende – documentary and biography12

A film relating to the Occupation of France in 1940−44 comes in a tradition – just to mention documentaries – that includes Marcel Ophüls’s Le Chagrin et la pitié (1969) and Hôtel Terminus (1988), André Halimi’s Chantons sous l’Occupation (1976) and Claude Chabrol’s L’OEil de Vichy (1993), as well as television documentaries such as Mosco Boucault’s Des ‘Terroristes’ à la retraite (Antenne 2, 1983), Philippe Constantini’s Les Résistants de la première heure (France 2, 2003) and Serge de Sampigny’s Pétain: Un héros si populaire (France 3, 2010). In contrast to Hôtel Terminus, Ophüls’s film about Klaus Barbie, and to Sampigny’s about Pétain, Convert’s film Joseph Epstein: bon pour la légende (2007a) praises its subject as a hero and rather than dwell at length on an indictment of a man, his regime and his supporters, we see Convert retrieving Epstein from near oblivion.

In terms of the four categories for documentary film set out and analysed by Bill Nichols (1991), there are elements of all of them in Joseph Epstein: bon pour la légende: the expository, the observational, the participatory or interactive and the reflexive. The voiceover presents the key biographical information, accompanied by visits to the relevant sites in Poland (Zamosc) and France (Grandchamp), interviews, photographs and newsreels. At the beginning Convert is seen very briefly at work filming the 65-year-old Duffau, which is the only time we see Convert, and an assistant takes several photographs of Duffau as well. When we see Convert, we see his camera and we see through the viewfinder; he holds his finger in the air (ironically anticipating the close-up later of Hitler’s hand caught in a sunlit salute during a motorcade), the camera shoots Duffau from all angles as he is rotated in his chair, and we see computer-generated images of his head and the use of the 3D laser technique to create a sculpture.

At the beginning of the film, therefore, Convert draws attention to the mediation at work and to the process of making sculpture; in his view this inclusion of up-to-date technology helps the figure of Epstein to emerge in the present (2006: 13). The voiceover refers to his role as ‘sculpteur d’histoire’, although I would stress that this is nearly the last we hear or see of sculpture (we later see photos being taken of Duffau in front of the wax sculpture of Epstein holding him up), focusing for the rest of the documentary on overcoming sculpture’s literal silence by including voices and faces in order to do justice to the memory of Epstein, since a documentary film permits Convert to be an ‘archéologue de la mémoire’ in addition to a sculptor (2007b: 40). Therefore the opening sequence offers an example of expository style, with some participation and reflexivity on Convert’s part.

Other examples of interaction indicate that this mode is integral to the approach adopted by Convert. The most striking device is the combination of second- and third-person narratives. The film is presented in the first few minutes as a collaboration with Duffau himself, while the biography’s second subtitle is ‘Lettre au fils’. The voiceover utters ‘tu’, addressing Duffau, and notes his willingness to embark on an unknown journey and to risk the encounter with his father. Another case of second-person usage occurs when one of the interviewees, Lise London (1916−2012), a veteran of the International Brigades, survivor of Ravensbrück and stalwart of other documentaries, says ‘ton père’, at which point we realise that she is addressing Duffau, who must be there with Convert. The critic Mieke Bal, in her analysis of second-person narrative in film and fiction, noted how the device also implicates the reader or spectator, avoiding a third-person ‘objectifying mode of mastery’ (2001: 233). Bal also argued that the use of the second person jolts the reader or spectator into a renewed attention to the process of reconstruction in a text or film and a realisation that this reconstruction is inscribed in time instead of being ‘timeless’ (2001: 233).

One can imagine that this ‘interactive’ process is far from easy for the subject addressed. When Duffau is recollecting his time at Grandchamp during the war, the camera lingers on his hand and after a while he smiles briefly at the camera and at us. He never speaks. The contemporary shots of him in the film always involve his face, with the rotation in the chair, computer imaging, and then the cast and sculpted head. When discussing a point of disagreement between historians in the book, Convert acknowledges that writing a biography requires ‘une estime proche de l’amitié’ (2007b: 239) and that it is difficult not to embellish the account. Nevertheless the mood in the Epstein projects is not solemn, nor is the approach hagiographical, in view of the emphasis on details, controversies and Epstein’s continuing resistance in the face of several defeats. Esther Gorintin (1913−2010), who achieved some celebrity as an actress in her last decade, remarks that she was less interested in Epstein for his politics than for his ‘personne’ (‘il était très bien constitué’), at which point we clearly hear Convert laugh.

Whereas Marcel Ophüls’s critique of interpretations of the past worked in part through montage, ironically juxtaposing contrasting viewpoints, Convert uses an intimate, collaborative and intergenerational approach.13 A black background is used for the interviews with Maurice Kriegel- Valrimont, Joseph Minc, Raymond and Lucie Aubrac, and Esther Gorintin; in the case of Albert Ouzoulias, Henriette Béranger and Lise London, the setting is a private home. We hear their responses and imagine the question or request from Convert prior to their contributions. The interviews are close-up and intimate, but also concerned with political questions. The content of the answers contributes directly to the narrative and argument – for example, Kriegel-Valrimont’s comments on individual and collective action during wars (‘les peuples règlent dans la guerre le sort du monde’), as well as the contributions of Raymond Aubrac, Béranger, London and Ouzoulias. Despite claims by Convert that he is not a historian, we see that the reinterpretation of the archive is indeed crucial. However, unlike in Le Chagrin et la pitié or Hôtel Terminus, there are no Nazis, no collaborators, no politicians and no amnesiac billiard players – only résistants.

We may ask whether there are moments in the film Joseph Epstein: bon pour la légende as powerful as the contributions of Christian de la Mazière, the Grave brothers or Madame Solange in Le Chagrin et la pitié or the smiling and weeping Simone Lagrange, the former résistante Lise Lesèvre and the ex-SS officer Wolfgang Gustmann looking at the camera in Hôtel Terminus.14 Despite the relatively modest scale of Convert’s film, we still have a privileged snapshot of Resistance history, with a mixture of well-known and less recognisable figures. We see Minc’s face, the oldest participant (1908−2011) during filming in 2006−7, Kriegel-Valrimont speaking about history and courage, and Esther Gorintin’s playful reminiscences. The first time Minc appears in the film he does not speak, while the voiceover mentions the names of those in Epstein’s circle of friends in France in the mid 1930s. There is a strong sense of alterity as in Levinas’s discussion of the face, but there is also evidence of continuing vitality despite the extreme aging process, as Georges Didi-Huberman has explored in relation to the photographic series Faces (1985−6) by Philippe Bazin (Levinas, 1983, cited in Didi-Huberman 2009). In the Epstein project, historical research, filmmaking and sculpture are the means of the transmission of Resistance experience that challenges both political consensus and individual fragility.

The documentary contributes both male and female voices. In the case of Le Chagrin et la pitié, Siân Reynolds noted that only one out of 36 interviewees was a woman (1990: 151). The gender balance in Convert’s film is 50:50 (R. Aubrac, Landini, Minc, Ouzoulias; L. Aubrac, Béranger, Gorintin, London), due to a renewed sense of accuracy regarding the period in general and the Epstein story in particular.15 These participants are represented as both single agents and couples in action, and the memory of the events is stored and recounted in families through albums, letters, recollections and legends. Family histories in turn become a way of thinking about the way contacts were made via the structure of relations in place and the way family memory does not necessarily coincide with official history (cf. Pollard, 1997: 146). The space given to interview statements in the biography indicates that it is also in part oral history. Written as a letter to Epstein’s son, the style combines less formal presentation – with some very short paragraphs and one main, very long chapter (93−277) – and oral history with family history, a sustained analysis of historical contexts and exhaustive archival research.

The archives used provide vital biographical information and images. The picture Convert starts with is hazy, enigmatic, nearly lost except to a few specialists. In the documentary, as well as the burning photo there is the image of a torn photo submerged in shifting water. Bringing Epstein out of this uncertain ‘bain révélateur’ requires Convert to consult an impressive range of sources. Gradually each phase of Epstein’s life is reconstructed, based upon publications and archives, both public and private, whether for dissident Jews in Poland in the 1920s, political activity in Bordeaux in the 1930s and during the Occupation, regional resistance or the police interrogations of political prisoners in Paris. Epstein’s biography is also built upon a series of mini-biographies, whether several pages or just a few lines, often developing the entries in Jean Maitron’s Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français (1981) (for Epstein, see Maitron and Pennetier, 1986: 50). In the documentary, newsreel archives are used in an original manner for focusing on Hitler’s hand (as mentioned) or for highlighting the presence of the ‘Ligue internationale contre l’anti-sémitisme’ banner at the 14 July 1935 Popular Front rally in Paris. Public and private photographs help to portray Epstein and also show him prominently positioned, for example at political meetings during the Spanish Civil War, in close proximity to André Marty or Dolores Ibárruri (‘La Pasionaria’). Later on there are of course fewer photographs as Epstein is operating secretly, but once he is caught, he is photographed, as we have seen in the emblematic ‘anonymous’ police identity shot used on the cover of Convert’s book (Figure 2).16

In explicitly recalling that 80 per cent of the 1006 Resistance fighters executed at Mont-Valérien were foreign or Communist or Jewish (sometimes all three), Convert is contributing to what Julian Jackson has called the ‘less Gaullist’ inflection given to the site today (Tillier, 2012: 78; Jackson, 2011: 225).17 As we saw above, the voiceover in Convert’s documentary cuts across de Gaulle’s ‘Paris outragé, Paris brisé’ speech, counteracting de Gaulle’s attempt to dissolve past differences. By the time of the Epstein documentary, this point is being specifically deployed as part of the explanation as to how Epstein could have slipped from view. Epstein is in fact seen to be both part of a collective and a leader, since opening up the Epstein archive leads to Minc and the rest of the group of friends. Convert later discussed the pitfall of seeing historical events in terms of main and supporting actors:

Dans l’histoire, il y a les héros et puis il y a les figurants, un peu comme au cinéma. Les yeux sont focalisés sur les héros, les figurants disparaissent … Je crois que ce qu’il ne faut pas faire en histoire, c’est dissocier. Il n’y a pas d’acteurs principaux et d’acteurs secondaires. Pour comprendre les acteurs ‘principaux’, il faut s’intéresser aux acteurs ‘secondaires’. L’acteur secondaire est absolument central. (Constant, 2011)

At Mont-Valérien Convert reassembled both left and right, both the celebrated and the forgotten heroes, since all are part of the commemoration project announced by Badinter. Nathan Bracher has noted the common humanity of the résistants interviewed in the documentary and the way their stories are related by Convert to the everyday lives of ordinary French people (2007: 64). In the terms of the debate, and gradual meeting of minds, between Pierre Nora (2011: 405−18) and Paul Ricoeur (2000: 522−35) about the relationship between commemoration and history, Convert’s projects address both the symbolic and the archive, through his sculptures and his engagement with historiographical perspectives. He also attends to both the political engagements of Epstein and the cultural context of the memory of the 1936−45 period, seeking to establish a legitimate balance.

What is Convert’s point in adopting the genre of biography, which is not always considered from different political perspectives to be serious history? As Serge Wolikow notes in the preface, biography was suspected of distracting from the workers’ collective action (Convert, 2007b: 12). Nevertheless Stalin endorsed biographies of great men (including his own by Henri Barbusse), since they represented an efficient way to learn about best practice (Barbusse, 1935). Concerning the relationship between biography and the writing of history, one innovation was masterminded by Maitron in his monumental biographical dictionary. In the Foreword to the fourth part of the project, running from 1914 to 1939, Maitron underlines the political motivation for giving attention to the 60,000 lives recounted in his dictionary: ‘Nous considérons le mouvement ouvrier comme essentiel et moteur de l’histoire de nos sociétés depuis deux siècles’ (1981: 17). The aim is to allow broader socio-historical questions to return via the collective understanding of imbricated lives. Convert also emphasises the work of Epstein as a militant union activist, drawing together the PCF, union Resistance groups and Soviet contacts (2007b: 203−4). In addition to the politics, Convert depicts the military credentials and outlook of Epstein, from his desire to join the Polish army in the late 1920s to his study of military treatises in the 1930s and development of urban guerrilla tactics, when Epstein looks beyond the policy of sabotage and small-scale terrorist acts (2007b: 70, 88, 152).18 The military genius of Epstein is integral to the independence Convert attributes to him in relation to the Communist International, demonstrated by the boldness of the report he submitted in June 1941.19 It required a reassessment of received views of Epstein and a return to the archives to bring out all the complexity of his actions and of his lack of prominence in post-war accounts of the French Resistance. We now turn finally to how Convert’s use of sculpture engages with the case of Epstein.

Sculptures and other artworks

We note that in Convert’s sculptures in wax, the human figures are pressed into the wax, so that they seem half-buried, between memory and oblivion, constituting withdrawn, restrained representations. These figurative sculptures resemble their real-life models, as they are the result of the study of photographs and a process of positive and negative impressions using clay, plaster cast and elastomer counter-cast. The importance of the process involved and the effect of the imprinted wax represent an interiorisation of experience, a reflection on the passage of time and the record of this on the body.20 For the first sculpture of Epstein, Convert worked with one of the photographs of Epstein holding up his son for the camera: Lettre au fils: Joseph Epstein et son fils Georges Duffau-Epstein (Figures 1 and 3). Convert has referred to his interest in the Roman gesture of holding up a child to reinforce the paternity of the father and the legitimacy of the son, which was particularly relevant in the context of 1942−3 (Convert, 2009; cf. Didi-Huberman, 2000: 69−82). In Convert’s version, Epstein no longer faces the spectator (the person taking the photo) and his eyes are closed, while Georges’s are still open; all four hands are drawn closer together; Epstein’s left elbow is much less bent, increasing the proximity and unity of the figures.

Lettre au fils

Figure 3. Pascal Convert, Lettre au fils: Joseph Epstein et son fils Georges Duffau-Epstein (detail), 2009, wax, 133 ×120 × 20 cm. Private collection. Paris, Galerie Éric Dupont. Photo: P. Convert. © P. Convert.

As he notes in the documentary, Convert can avoid historical judgement in the sculptures, and he can also work with the face differently. Georges Duffau’s collaboration with Convert on the book and film projects leads to a series of wax sculptures of him, showing him preserving the memory of his father (Figure 4: wax preparatory model, plain fused crystal and black crystal).21 Now it is the face of Epstein’s son that is presented from the front, while a figure resembling Epstein appears in the back of the hollow head. The effect is both mysterious and unsettling, as when we see Epstein from behind, but at the same time there is intimacy and an emphasis on inheritance and transmission: Georges is now old enough to be Joseph’s father and therefore seems responsible for him. But these heads also have a vulnerable quality; they are not ‘full enough’ to qualify as busts. There is a hollowing-out, a cut to the inside, an exposure and a separation from any plinth. In his Epstein project outline, Convert stated his explicit intention to refer to the particularly barbaric method of torture used on Epstein: the leather mask that turned his face to an unrecognisable mass of flesh, blood and bone (2006: 14). A contrast is envisaged between the plain and black versions, with the former being arguably easier to look at closely and naturally less sombre, while the latter seem more durable.

negative and positive portraits

Figure 4. Pascal Convert, Three negative and positive portraits of Joseph Epstein and his son Georges Duffau-Epstein, 2009, wax preparatory model, crystal and black crystal, each 29 × 17.5 × 18 cm. Private collection. Paris, Galerie Éric Dupont. Photo: P. Convert. © P. Convert.

Georges Duffau

Figure 5. Georges Duffau in front of Pascal Convert, Lettre au fils: Joseph Epstein et son fils Georges Duffau-Epstein. Photo: P. Convert. © P. Convert.

The relationship to time or memory may be invoked: the figure that appears behind is fragile, while the whole piece is threatened by the encroachment of oblivion. Our act of perception is not flawless, nor is the face a complete guide to the subject, but the modesty of scale of all the Convert works devoted to Epstein enhances the aims of the historiographical project.22 The question of threatened oblivion and the involvement of Georges Duffau in these projects after years of his father being neglected suggest a link with the work of the critic Marianne Hirsch on ‘postmemory’. Duffau was not yet two years old when he saw his father for the last time, but he can remember the smell of the onions his father ate on visits to Grandchamp (Convert, 2007b: 37). According to Hirsch’s findings, this memory is likely to be particularly influential because it concerns both a period before the trauma of separation and when the child’s consciousness was not yet fully formed in language (Hirsch, 2012: 173). Working with Convert has enabled him to retrace his father’s political activities and to contribute to their commemoration in the face of oblivion and at the risk of uncovering difficult truths about his militant activities and political allegiances (Figure 5).

To date the most prominent museum piece by Convert is probably Le Temps scellé: Joseph Epstein et son fils (broken crystal and plaster cast, 2009), in the Centre Pompidou in Paris (Figure. 6).23 Here the father and son are again caught up in the turbulence of their time, but on this occasion the broken glass – the breakage occurred during the manufacture of the glass work – emphasises the drama and miraculous courage of a father who would do everything to protect his son’s identity, hindering the unfriendly observer. We still see the plaster cast mould in low-relief that was being used to create the impressed glass form, but instead of being removed, the plaster cast is still there, visible under the broken glass, both elements encased and exhibited in the metal and polystyrene ‘oven’ in which the sculpture was being created (apart from the lid). As Convert has put it, ‘C’est une sorte d’anti-monument. Les corps sont allongés et non érigés, comme noyés dans une mer de glace brisée’ (Tillier, 2012: 81). Father and son stand out while also being distorted by the glass, which acquired a different density and depth, seeming to form its own tectonic sections that are both transparent and opaque. Joseph seems to recede but the figures seem closer together in places since the opaque sections of glass link the mouth and left eye of Joseph to the arm and shoulder of Georges. In the Centre Pompidou the ‘accidental’ breakage will probably seem intentional to visitors, which is not far from the truth of the matter since what was known to be a risky production process duly went wrong. The ‘accidental’ form of the work has been accepted as the symbolic focus of the work’s reflection on transmission and oblivion.

Joseph Epstein et son fils

Figure 6. Pascal Convert, Le Temps scellé: Joseph Epstein et son fils, 2009, crystal and plaster cast mould, 59 × 170 × 160 cm. Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou. Photo: P. Convert. © P. Convert.

The past keeps providing new inspiration and future projects: a new work by Convert has been on display since February 2013 at the Archives Nationales de France site at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, north of Saint-Denis (Figure 7). It consists of 100 slabs of glass (35 × 35 cm), fixed on the ground in two sections (30 × 17 and 30 × 12 m). The faces of 20 French figures are represented in five different degrees of ‘focus’, with noticeable differences between the five versions (which are difficult to photograph). Twelve figures are named, eight are anonymous, the gender balance is 11−9, and the 20 were chosen by Convert and Archives staff. There are no heads of state; the named figures include Moulin, Michelet, Louise Michel, Marie Curie and Georges Mandel; besides Moulin, four of the named figures were in the Resistance and died during the Occupation (Jacques Bingen, Pierre Brossolette, Louis Marchandise and Jean-Pierre Timbaud).24 Convert has referred to the political and historical charge of the work:

Dans sa lutte quotidienne contre l’oubli, le chercheur fait oeuvre historique bien sûr mais aussi politique : l’oubli étant ce qui ouvre à la répétition des erreurs. Et la première des erreurs serait de dissocier l’archive du contexte de sa naissance comme celui de son interprétation. (2011a: 3)

In the case of this mosaic of ‘portraits’, therefore, Convert is reassessing the national archive, symbolically reconciling men caught up in the power struggles of the French Resistance (Moulin, Brossolette and Bingen), bringing secondary figures into the picture again and giving attention to ‘unknown’ figures. I am arguing that this reflects precisely the outward-looking, critically inclined and civically ecumenical work identified by Didi-Huberman in Convert’s work during the last decade (2013: 26−7).

Anonymous female figure

Figure 7. Pascal Convert, Anonymous female figure, 2012, 35 × 35 cm, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, Archives Nationales de France. Image: P. Convert. © P. Convert.

The work of transmission (as in the work of mourning) occurs via the children, as Convert clearly reminds us. In the 2011 exhibition Enfance et histoire, Convert persists with the Resistance lineage and develops projects with the children of activists from the 1930s and 1940s (in the ‘Enfants de fusillés’ section, with its Communist echo of ‘Le Parti des fusillés’). His metal-framed silkscreens show members of the Resistance or union militants with one or more of their children, based on photographs from family archives.25 The children have been interviewed by Convert and excerpts from their memories of their parent(s) are included in the accompanying text; the exhibition also showed some of the filmed interviews. The project demonstrates intergenerational fidelity and transmission: as Convert points out at the end of his biography of Epstein, some communist children do not turn against their parents (2007b: 282).26 I would stress that the combination of memory and history, together with the determined yet pragmatic fight against neglect and oblivion, constitutes an act of resistance against depoliticised or communitarian accounts of the past.27

Both the Mont-Valérien and Archives Nationales commissions and the uncommissioned works allow Convert to open up the archive and engage his public with his findings. We can recall that in the Epstein film, with the camera pointing at the door to the crypt at Mont-Valérien, the voiceover comments: ‘La mémoire est une maison ouverte sur le vide, dont les portes et les fenêtres jusqu’aux tapisseries ont été arrachées par le passage du temps.’ Instead of André Breton’s aspiration to a glass house where anyone could see him at work every day, a differently exposed house is envisaged by Convert, in a clear echo of his earlier project devoted to three ruined villas on the coast south of Biarritz (Breton, 1964: 18−19; Convert, 2007d). But I would suggest that Convert’s multimedia inscriptions and interventions are to be read as a reflection on and a temporary barrage against the passing of time. The witnesses’ oral testimony, the mini-biographies of all the cast in Epstein’s story, Epstein’s actions and the legacies explored in recent projects, all counteract the abyss of emptiness and neglect surrounding the house of memory.

Convert has done justice to Joseph Epstein’s wartime achievements as a Communist militant, in particular regarding his development of urban guerrilla warfare tactics as a Resistance leader in Paris and his role as, in Landini’s words, ‘notre père à tous’ (Convert, 2007a). This process of retrieving Joseph Epstein from near oblivion contributes to the regular renewals of interest in the context of Resistance, while making for a striking contrast with the focus on collaboration and the grey areas of passivity in recent decades. Owing in particular to the hybridity of Convert’s approach, his Epstein projects have brought into relief unexplored potentialities and tensions in the fabric and fabrication of memory and commemoration. The biography, documentary and artworks devoted to Epstein are part of Convert’s ongoing and unique reflection on the transmission of repoliticised memory.


I would like to thank the following for their help: Margaret Atack, Tom Baldwin, Marie-Claire Barnet, Pascal Convert, Éric Dupont, Alison Fell, James Harris, Nick Hewitt, Jim House, Rod Kedward, Anne-Marie Pathé, David Platten, Max Silverman, Sarah Waters and the anonymous reader of the first version of this article.


1 See Pascal Convert’s website for full details (Convert, 2010). Pietà du Kosovo derives from a photo by Georges Mérillon (‘Veillée funèbre au Kosovo’, 29 January 1990), Madone de Bentalha from a photo by Hocine Zaouar taken on 23 September 1997 (‘Massacre à Bentalha’) and Mort de Mohammed Al Dura is based on footage shot on 30 September 2000 by the France 2 cameraman Talal Abou Rhameh.
2 The Aubrac biography of 2011 and the two films about him of 2011 and 2012 (Convert, 2012) are not discussed here as they would require a separate article.
3 André Tollet (1913−2001) was in Moscow in the mid 1930s as a Profintern (Communist international organisation of unions) delegate; then he coordinated links between the PCF and unions in 1942−4 and was president of the Comité parisien de la Libération in 1944−5. Georges Mercader (c. 1907−81) was the Spanish consul in Bordeaux during the Spanish Civil War, a Soviet agent and the brother of Ramon who assassinated Trotsky in 1940. Octave (1899−1964) and Maria (1900−85) Rabaté were both Communist activists − Octave, as secretary of the Amsterdam-Pleyel committee in 1935 and later, after the war, as editor of L’Humanité, Maria as organiser of the Comité mondial des femmes contre la guerre et le fascisme and, after the war, as députée for the Seine. Epstein met Tollet and the Rabatés in Tours in 1932 and Mercader in Bordeaux, probably in 1935.
4 The postcard is included in Convert (2007b) and in Faliu and Tourret (2007: 159).
5 Mont-Valérien makes a surprising appearance in Jacques Brel’s Vesoul (1968), where it joins a parodic list of tourist sites.
6 See Convert (2007b: 51). On the orchestration of forgetfulness by de Gaulle and the French Communist Party, see Nora (1992).
7 On the destruction of images, see Didi-Huberman (2006).
8 Part of Badinter’s speech in the Senate and an interview with him are included in Convert’s documentary, Mont-Valérien, aux noms des fusillés 1940-1944 (2003).
9 See also Courtois (1980: 359); Courtois and Lazar (1995: 150); and Courtois et al. (1989: 326−33, 349−54). Epstein is mentioned in Henri Amouroux’s 10-volume Grande Histoire des Français sous l’Occupation, but only on account of his June 1941 report to the Communist International (1988: 424−6). Meanwhile he is included in Denis Peschanski’s overview of the period (1997: 124).
10 See Mansat’s blog for his speech about Epstein (2007). In 1994 a Place Joseph Epstein was named in Bobigny, to the north-east of Paris.
11 Eleven years before, in the Senate bill, Estienne d’Orves was also named by Badinter, along with the more established and recognisable figures of Gabriel Péri, the Communist journalist and politician, and Manouchian. Nevertheless Badinter knew about Epstein’s case and mentioned him to Convert during a conversation about the projected monument (Convert, 2006: 1−2). Sarkozy’s speech in 2008 led the historian Julian Jackson to mention Epstein in his recent assessment of commemorations of the 18 June anniversary of the ‘Appel de Londres’ (Jackson, 2011: 229−30). On the Abbé Franz Stock (1904−48), ‘l’aumônier de l’enfer’, see Cameron (2008: 249−51). Stock was chaplain at the prisons of La Santé, Cherche-Midi and Fresnes, from where he managed to pass messages to the families of prisoners. After the Liberation he was imprisoned and then allowed to work with German prisoners of war at Orléans and Chartres in 1945−7 (Mémoire et création numérique, 2007; Amis de Franz Stock, 2009).
12 We note the ambiguity of the subtitle ‘Bon pour la légende’ since it means ‘worthy of legendary status’, but can also be taken ironically to mean ‘only good for’ as in the expression ‘bon pour la benne’, when something should be thrown in the bin, here consigned and restricted to legend without further investigation. Convert has noted in an interview (Tillier, 2012: 81) that the subtitle is partly taken from a sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998), where the phrase is indeed ironic (see ‘Chapitre 1a: Toutes les histoires’, at 45 mins 37 secs). As noted, Convert’s film is accessible on his website (2007a).
13 See the discussion of the link between montage and historiography in Bowles (2008).
14 Regarding Mazière’s contribution to Le Chagrin et la Pitié, the ex-police officer and historian Jacques Delarue dismissed it as ‘cinematic spectacle’ rather than real history, which seems to underestimate the role of images and to simplify our fascination with witnesses (Rousso, 1984).
15 Convert notes the influence of Rosa Luxemburg and the context of women’s emancipation in shaping the possibilities for the women in the Epsteins’ Polish expatriate group, who all got married in France: Perla Grynfeld (Paula Epstein), Marthe Bronieslawa (Wolikow), Henia Fajtlowicz (Wajeberg), Matha Lipsciz (Marie Bucquet), Frejda Strykowska (Tollet), Esther de Grodno (Gorintin) and Lisa Bogacz (Minc) (Convert, 2007b: 82).
16 There may not be astonishing revelations lying in waiting, but nevertheless there remains the question of Russian police archives, which were only opened briefly during the glasnost era. The Joseph Epstein file there does not seem to relate to our Joseph Epstein. The historian Serge Wolikow (son of Max and Marthe Wolikow), whose preface to Convert’s book examines some of the contexts for a life of Epstein, argues that there are a number of cases where personal, financial and military information is still not available, although in general there have been improvements in access to archives (Convert, 2007b: 13, 50).
17 Convert’s monument also reflects Jay Winter’s interest in transnational memory and mourning (2006: 34).
18 Regarding the debate between Ouzoulias and Roger Bourderon about whether Epstein or Rol-Tanguy introduced the new method of larger-scale urban guerrilla attacks, Convert argues that there is evidence of the new approach being instigated by Epstein before Rol-Tanguy took over (2007b: 239). Léon Landini’s contribution to the documentary confirms this view.
19 Printed in full as an appendix in Convert (2007b: 287−91).
20 See my discussion of the Pietà du Kosovo wax sculpture of 1999−2000 (Saint, 2007: 156−8).
21 Part of this series was shown at the Galerie Éric Dupont solo exhibition in 2009.
22 On the spectator’s perception of faces in documentaries see Cooper (2008: 16−17).
23 The work measures 59 × 165 × 174 cm and weighs 1386 kg. It occupies a small room also containing one of the silkscreen photographic portrait series, of Epstein on the left and Paula and Georges on the right, that featured in the 2011 exhibition Enfance et histoire (Galerie Éric Dupont, Paris).
24 Jacques Bingen (1908−44) was the Jewish owner of a shipping company, who joined the Free French in London, was parachuted into France in 1943 as de Gaulle’s representative in the Southern Zone, and helped set up the FFI in 1944. Pierre Brossolette (1903−44), mentioned above in relation to Gaullist historiography, was a prominent journalist, broadcaster and Socialist politician who was one of the leaders of the Resistance in the Occupied Zone and then lost out in a power struggle with Moulin. Louis Marchandise (1909−42) was a Communist mechanic and liaison agent between armed groups and Resistance committees in Paris. Jean-Pierre Timbaud (1904−41) was a CGT secretary who organised secret trade union committees and was executed at Châteaubriant alongside Guy Môquet.
25 See Jacques Baynac’s comment about the unexplored private archives of wartime photographs: ‘Personne ne s’est intéressé aux photos’ (Adler, 2011).
26 Joseph Minc’s case may be considered an exception to this political continuity, since he was the father of Alain Minc (b. 1949), the economist, advisor to big business and prolific essayist who was an enthusiast for globalisation in the 1990s and more recently an ardent supporter of European federalism.
27 On politicised representations of the French Resistance, see Atack (1999: 102−22).


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Author biography

Nigel Saint is Lecturer in French in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Leeds. He is the author of Marguerite Yourcenar: Reading the Visual (2000) and co-editor of Robert Desnos: Surrealism in the Twenty-First Century (2006) and Modern French Visual Theory: A Critical Reader (2013). He has written articles on Georges Perec, Pierre Lecuire, Louis Marin, Pascal Convert and Sophie Calle. He is currently working on Georges Didi-Huberman.