Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

In a French television drama about World War II, seeing a contemporary American shame

I became absorbed in a French television series, in bits and binges, over the last couple of weeks. The show is well written, authentically acted and smartly directed. The story lines are compelling and intriguing; it’s one of those arresting period dramas that transport you convincingly to another time and place.

I did not expect to find Donald Trump in that place, but it was impossible not to think of him and his cruelest policy in Season 3, Episode 4.

“A French Village” is a series about a fictional town, Villeneuve, occupied by the German army during World War II. The program first aired in 2009 and ran for seven seasons in France. The New York Times declared it “the first major French television series seriously to address collaboration during the Nazi occupation.”

Available for streaming with English subtitles through MHz Choice (via Amazon Prime), the drama addresses the complex relationships, alliances and choices made by an array of villagers, their Nazi occupiers, the French police, the local Communists and other resistance groups.

One of the constant tensions, of course, is the Nazi obsession with Jews, and in Season 3, set in 1942, the Holocaust arrives by train. Families of Jewish refugees are ordered out of boxcars and into the town while the Nazis decide where they will go next. The families await their fate in the village school.

After a couple of days, the German commander tells the mayor of Villeneuve and the regional prefect that the Jewish children must be separated from their parents for the next stage of their journey. The two Frenchmen, disparate personalities in frequent conflict, react with identical horror. Their faces make instantly clear the cruelty of such an action.

The morally resolute mayor, played by Robin Renucci, and the collaborationist prefect, played by Cyril Couton, are equally repulsed at the Gestapo’s order and the local commander’s willingness to have it carried out.

Separate the children? Take them away from their parents? Who does such a thing?

The Nazis did, with the cooperation of the Vichy regime and the French police. Between 1941 and 1945, thousands of Jewish children were rounded up and deported. Only a small number survived, according to Serge Klarsfeld, Nazi hunter and chronicler of French children in the Holocaust.

The depictions in “Un Village Français” of children being pulled away from their parents — or their parents gently assuring them that all would soon be OK — were particularly hard to watch.

Of course, had I known about and watched this French television series when it first aired — Season 3 in 2011 — I never would have thought of child separation with respect to the United States of my lifetime. I never would have made a connection with something that happened here. I did not expect that a historical drama about occupied France would make me think of my country, except as the eventual liberator of France. Until now, I would not have compared anything on the modern American home front with the murderous Nazis of Hitler’s Germany.

And there still is no comparison.

Except when it comes to the intentional and official separation of child from parent.

Except for that.

The Trump administration, with its zero-tolerance immigration crackdown along the border with Mexico, brought “family separation” into the American consciousness and the annals of shame. Over the summer, after public outcry, the administration tried to ease the pain it had inflicted on hundreds of families by reuniting children with their parents. It’s not over. About 400 kids are still separated from their parents, and now the Department of Homeland Security wants to bypass a 20-year-old court settlement to allow indefinite detention of migrant children. It was impossible to watch scenes from “A French Village,” Season 3, Episode 4, without thinking about all that, about what our government, under Trump, has done in our name.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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