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Cardiff University historian curates high-profile exhibition on the Parisian exodus

27 February 2020

Professor Hanna Diamond
Professor Hanna Diamond

The stories of Parisians who left the French capital during the Second World War are the focus of a major exhibition.

Professor Hanna Diamond of Cardiff University worked with Dr Sylvie Zaidman, chief curator and director at the Museum of the Liberation of Paris – Museum of General Leclerc – Jean Moulin Museum to curate the new museum’s first exhibition which opens on February 27.

It has been nearly 80 years since two million men, women and children fled Paris in just a few days, after word spread that the Germans were advancing on the French capital. They joined six million other refugees already on the road. This unprecedented flight of people to the south and west of the country became known as the exodus.

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Using extensive archive material – including film, photographs, written recollections and children’s drawings – the exhibition shines a light on the personal experiences of people who lived through this time.

Professor Diamond, based at the University’s School of Modern Languages, said: “This is the first exhibition to focus on what was a harrowing period of French history, the trauma of which still reverberates with families today. Nearly 80 years on, I hope the stories we’ve gathered here will go some way towards informing the public about a key moment in the war that has been overlooked until now."

The exodus, May-June 1940
The exodus, May-June 1940 © LAPI/Roger-Viollet

On 3 September 1939, the United Kingdom and France declared war on Nazi Germany. The first few months were a time of waiting; there were few large-scale operations during what is known as the ‘phoney war’. The German offensive was launched on 10 May 1940.

On 3 June 1940, Paris was bombed for the first time. A week later the government discreetly left Paris, leaving the inhabitants to take their lives into their own hands.

Between 3 and 14 June, panic quickly spread among Parisians. Three quarters of the population grabbed whatever possessions they could and left their homes. Roads were filled with cars, bicycles and carts. Many simply left on foot.

Professor Diamond said: “Panicked parents whose children were getting tired handed them to passing vehicles, thinking they’d be able to meet in the next town. But in the chaos that followed, 90,000 children were displaced from their families. It took months to reunite them all.

“Visitors to the exhibition will be able to immerse themselves in this period to learn about the people who experienced these unimaginably frightening events."

It is important that these stories are remembered as it was a key chapter to what followed later in the war and helps us to understand France today.

Professor Hanna Diamond Professor of French History

Sylvie Zaidman, chief curator and director of the Museum of the Liberation of Paris – Museum of General Leclerc – Jean Moulin Museum said: “Our exhibition focuses on this decisive moment in French history. The 80th anniversary of the events is a timely moment to reflect on this huge flight of civilians that has been virtually overlooked until now. Hanna Diamond’s research has allowed us to bring together a variety of archival materials to tell the story of this traumatic experience that had a potent impact on individual, collective and European memories.”

Professor Diamond is the only British historian to be brought on to the museum’s Conseil Scientifique, an advisory board of eminent historians, curators and archivists. Her research focuses on the ways French men and women experienced the Second World War. Personal testimony, both oral and written, is key to her work and she is currently publishing on the ways in which its use informs public understandings of the past.

Focusing on Second World War heroes Philippe de Hauteclocque and Jean Moulin, as well as other key individuals, the museum is based at the eighteenth-century Ledoux pavilions at Place Denfert-Rochereau, above the former headquarters of the Parisian Resistance. More than 300 objects, original documents and photographs, as well as archival videos from eyewitnesses retrace key events around this period. Visitors can also tour the key command post of the French Resistance located 100 steps beneath the building, which has been faithfully and accurately restored.

The exhibition runs until August 30.

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