Mon, Sep 19, 2005 - Page 6 News List

France opens doors of Gestapo's Paris headquarters to public for first time

AFP , PARIS

"I am afraid," one prisoner awaiting interrogation and almost certain death at the hands of the Gestapo scrawled on the walls of his Paris prison cell.

"Never confess," reads another defiant message etched into the plaster nearby.

Heart-rending words transformed by history into epitaphs, these and other messages on long-forgotten walls in the Gestapo's World War II Paris headquarters went on exhibit for the first time ever over the weekend, part of France's annual heritage day.

More than 15,000 sites normally closed to the public, ranging from the national archives to the finance ministry, opened their doors to some 10 million visitors on Saturday and yesterday.

Most of the rooms at 11, rue de Saussaies in the 8th arrondissement were renovated after the French interior ministry took possession of this notorious address where hundreds, if not thousands, of resistance fighters and other hapless victims of the Nazi occupation were tortured and condemned to die.

It was as if France's post-war leaders were eager to turn a page.

But a few prison cells were left untouched, and the plaintiff expressions of fear and foreboding, patriotism and pride, preserved on their walls stand today as a moving testament of Gestapo cruelty and human defiance.

"Frankreich ueber alles" -- "France above all" -- reads on inscription with biting irony, a play on words transforming the title of the German national anthem.

"Believing in yourself gives one the power to resist despite the bathtub and all the rest," reads another, a dark allusion to a preferred technique of torture practiced by the Gestapo.

"Don't talk," commands another, as if to give courage.

Most of the unfortunates interrogated and tortured here were later executed or deported to camps, historians say.

The few rooms that remain from that era have been left intact: the ceiling lamp that still casts a wan, sinister light over the room; the thick metal ring attached to the wall, to which prisoners were chained; the barred window with a view of the interrogation chambers on the other side of the courtyard.

The prisoner graffiti -- written with bits of lead or pencils hidden in shirt collars, or simply carved with any sharp object at hand -- is today protected by glass barriers.

Many of those detained here had no illusions as to their destiny. "Julien. 20 years old. Headed for the post," reads one, referring to the wooden poles to which prisoners were attached before being executed by firing squad.

"Labiscotte. Arrived June 8, 1944. For liberty of for death?" reads another, still daring to hope.

And yet another: "Honored to be condemned by the Bosh. Goodbye forever to France and my loved one," it says, using a common name for Germans during the war.

Some inscriptions are like diary entries: "Marcel is thinking of Simone and Kiki"; "Guillaume loves Marianne"; "I cannot sleep for thinking about my parents and my beloved Louisette."

Other parts of the walls are like bulletin boards, with messages the authors hoped would, somehow, find their way to intended recipients. "Roger: your father, your cousin and Colette's father came through here 24-5-44."

There are even expressions of optimism -- "We will be free by Christmas 1944" -- and philosophical resignation: "Life is beautiful."

United in their misery, one finds the hammer-and-sickle emblem of communism next to Christian prayers. "My God I want, All that you want, Because you want it, As you want it, As much as you want it," reads one.

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