Documenting the Unspeakable

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Barbara Barnett (left) in 1993 with “righteous gentile” Marie Brottes of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

Class of ’71 | Documentary filmmaker Barbara P. Barnett GEd’71 is already anticipating a question about her response to interviewing French Holocaust survivors.

“Tears?” she asks rhetorically. There were none, “not on either side.”

The survivors “were practiced at telling” their harrowing stories of deportation, beatings, starvation, and the murder of their families. Barnett, for her part, was trying to be professional. “I did not allow myself to give in to emotion,” she says. “Interviewing survivors,” she would later realize, “was one of the most enjoyable, satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in my life—so intimate.”

A longtime French teacher at the Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, Barnett has had an intertwined career as a documentary filmmaker. Her great subject has been the varieties of French experience during World War II, with a focus on Christian rescuers, Resistance fighters, Holocaust survivors, and historians of the period. Her films have served her pedagogy, involving her students not just as engaged viewers but as co-creators.

French Resistance leader Lucie Aubrac.
French Resistance leader Lucie Aubrac.

Barnett has interviewed Lucie Aubrac, whom French president Jacques Chirac eulogized in 2007 as a “shining light of the Resistance,” and Paris’s Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Catholic convert and church leader whose Polish Jewish mother died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. “He’s a very controversial figure, especially in Jewish circles,” says Barnett, who turns 69 this month. “But I chose to focus on his Jewishness, and how he wanted to remain Jewish to the end.”

Barnett’s six films, four of them student collaborations, have been shown in high-school and college classrooms and screened at the New York Jewish Film Festival. They have earned her numerous awards, including designation by the French Ministry of Education as a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palms Académiques. That’s a sort of scholarly knighthood, she explains.

Her most recent film, Dr. Henri Borland: Survivor and Witness, a 17-minute documentary about a retired physician who survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps, screened in March at Agnes Irwin. Catherine Wulff, a 2014 graduate of the all-girls private day school who now attends Wesleyan University, worked on the project. In introducing the film, Wulff said that Barnett had shown her “what it means to ardently pursue your passion.”

Barnett’s devotion to all things French has family origins. Her grandmother’s sister married a French Jew who had lost relatives in the Holocaust; other members of the family had survived in hiding. On visits to France, her cousins “would treat me like I was royalty, long-lost family, and I became very close to them.” (Barnett—whose maiden name is Perlman—is Jewish, too.)

Her husband, George R. Barnett III C’68 Gr’92, a history teacher at Agnes Irwin, helped fuel her interest in Vichy and Occupied France.

In 1993, Barnett was awarded a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct interviews in France.

“My primary concern as a teacher was to get material that I could share with my students,” she says. She was aided by a French archivist, Vidar Jacobson, who gave her a list of contacts.

Among Barnett’s stops was Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, the Protestant town in south-central France that famously helped shelter Jews during the war. The rescuers there believed that “if you have someone in danger, you help them,” Barnett says.

Her 30 interviews from that summer, conducted in French and videotaped by Toni Banet (whose father had been adopted by Barnett’s French family), have seeded Barnett’s subsequent films. With support from Agnes Irwin and local foundations, she has returned to France for additional interviews, scoured archives for photographs and film footage, and hired film editor Sharon Mullally.

Barnett’s original interviews antedated by about a year Steven Spielberg’s creation of what is now the USC Shoah Foundation. While his interviewers receive extensive training, “I just followed my instincts,” she says. “I am not an aggressive interviewer. I just took whatever they were willing to give me.” All of her subjects, she found, “have the same message—which is how important it is to not be a bystander, to treat people decently, to defend human rights.”

Though Barnett is clearly drawn to the heroic and the exceptional, her documentaries make clear that French anti-Semitism was a powerful force. In France Divided, for example, a Jewish woman, hidden on a farm as a young child, reports that the family starved her, beat her for stealing food, forced her to work, and constantly threatened to turn her over to the Germans.

“My conclusion is, you had your real heroes, and then you had your horrible perpetrators, but most people were just trying to get by,” Barnett says. “They wanted to feed their families.” The films suggest that by 1943, as the French increasingly saw their Jewish neighbors rounded up and deported, indifference began to give way to collective resistance.

A Philadelphia native, Barnett holds a bachelor’s degree in French from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s in French language and literature from Villanova University. But she credits Penn with inspiring her love of teaching.

Her supervisor at the Graduate School of Education, the late Sylvia Schenfeld G’56, was “an important mentor who convinced me that I could be a good teacher.”

French Holocaust survivor Marcel Jabelot.
French Holocaust survivor Marcel Jabelot.

At Agnes Irwin, where she has taught since 1972 and headed the school’s modern languages department for three decades, Barnett offers a six-week unit on “France Under the German Occupation” to her French IV Honors classes. Her guests have included Marcel Jabelot, the charismatic Holocaust survivor who was the subject of her first, hour-long documentary and an accompanying book.

Barnett chose to focus on Jabelot because “his French is really beautiful, and I knew that as a language teacher that would be important for the girls.” In addition, he was “a wonderful storyteller—like a French movie actor, very handsome.”

It was her students’ questions about Jabelot’s fate that inspired her to re-interview him and ask about his postwar life, which included a successful real-estate business, a happy marriage, and the study of history.

Though Barnett plans to retire from Agnes Irwin at the end of the academic year, her work as a speaker and documentarian will continue. She is completing a film on the ways that Louis Malle’s 1987 autobiographical featureabout a round-up of Jewish schoolchildren, Au Revoir Les Enfants, has been used to teach the Holocaust in both France and the United States. And, with a photographer friend, she is discussing the prospect of a documentary that would feature Holocaust survivors discussing anti-Semitism and terrorism in contemporary France.

—Julia M. Klein

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