A Tribute to Maurice Halbwachs

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by Tim Widowfield

Maurice Halbwachs
Maurice Halbwachs, French Sociologist, 1877-1945

In a recent post on memory theory, I erroneously stated that of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective) was published posthumously in 1941. In actuality, Halbwachs died 70 years ago on this date in 1945, in the German death camp called Buchenwald. His health had failed, and he did not survive to see the Allies free the camp just 19 days later on 4 April.

And sadly, that date as posted on Wikipedia — 16 March — is probably not correct. According to The American Journal of Sociology (see Vol. LI, No. 6), it happened back in February, and that may be right. On the other hand, the official death report from the Buchenwald archives (transcribed here) says it happened on the 15th of March.

On the day he died, his one-time student, Jorge Semprún, had the terrible job of erasing the memory of Maurice Halbwachs, his friend and teacher. At the camp office, he explained the ritual that represented the annihilation of a person.

I took out the index card with Maurice Halbwachs’s name on it, and I erased that name: a living person would now be able to take the dead man’s place. By a living person, I mean: a future corpse. I did everything necessary. I carefully erased his family name, Halbwachs, and his first name, Maurice—all signs of identity. I held the rectangular index card in the palm of my hand. It had become blank and white once more, ready for another life to be written on it, and a new death. (Semprún, Literature or Life, 1998, p. 43)

Months earlier, Halbwachs’s Jewish parents-in-law, Victor and Ilona Basch, had been taken out and murdered in the street by the milice (Vichy French para-military forces). Incensed, Maurice and his sons protested the action, only to have the Gestapo ship the lot of them to the forced labor camp.

The moving tribute to Halbwachs penned by George Friedmann and published by The American Journal of Sociology the following May saluted those who resisted in the occupied territories — “superior in character, wisdom, and loyalty who, in eagerly continuing the struggle, thereby themselves became marked men.”

We are too often unaware of the stories of the real people whose works we read today. On this late winter day seven decades after his tragic death, I wish to pause briefly and mark the passage of a great man, worth remembering not only for his work but for his life.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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