Paul-Adolphe Löffler on Paris and Antisemitism

In undated diary entries, Löffler writes about his favorite places in Paris – mostly places of the French Revolution and workers districts – , about his difficulties with the French language, and antisemitism in France.

Bend in River, Paris 1937 © Fred Stein Archive
Bend in River, Paris 1937 © Fred Stein Archive

[non-daté] Aujourd’hui, je suis allé au Louvre. Les statues grecques et romaines, même la Vénus de Milo, ne m’ont pas impressionné. Peut-être parce que dans les salles longues et étroites elles ont l’air d’être en prison. […] Mon « état d’âme » m’empêche d’être pris par tous ces tableaux, Jésus et Marie. En Hongrie, on tue tous les jours des ouvriers et des Juifs au nom du Christ. Après avoir quitté le Louvre, en traversant les Tuileries, je pense å la Grande Révolution. Ici, je me sens å l’aise, c’est ici un des théâtres de la Révolution. Au bout du jardin, c’est Concorde, Place où ils ont décapité la royauté.

Quand j ‚ai du temps libre, je me promène autour de la Bastille, de préférence. Là, je suis chez moi. Pas seulement parce qu’elle symbolise la fin de la féodalité, mais ici je croise des hommes simples, des travailleurs sympathiques. Et c’est là que commence le faubourg Saint-Antoine, quartier de l’artisanat du meuble, où de nombreux ébénistes hongrois gagnent leur pain quotidien. J’aime aussi les berges de la Seine, j’aime me balader au fil de son cours. Elle me rappelle le Danube, et je regrette qu’elle soit moins large que le Danube. Je fréquente avec ferveur les bouquinistes. Je m’arrête devant leurs caisses et je glane dans les revues. Je ne comprends pas tout, je devine plutôt ce qu’elles disent. […] C’est ainsi que j ‚apprends les mots que je n ‚apprendrais pas ailleurs. J’essaie de déchiffrer les affiches qui sont nombreuses sur les murs de Paris. Il y en a une partout, quelquefois en plusieurs exemplaires å la fois Elle est de petit format, il n’est même pas nécessaire de lire le texte, il ne le mérite même pas. C’est une tête, non, une gueule avec une barbe en broussaille, entre ses dents un grand couteau de cuisine. Je ne la prends même pas en considération, elle n’a pas d’importance. L’important est que le gouvernement français a reconnu l’Union Soviétique. Il y a une autre petite affiche significative. Elle n’est pas inquiétante ; elle est plutôt désagréable å voir en France. Je n’aurais jamais pensé que parmi les Français il y avait des antisémites ; Signe de stupidité. L’affaire Dreyfus appartient au passé oublié. Encore une autre affiche, assez grande, qui fait oublier les deux autres. Je la regarde avec émotion : le nom d’Anatole France est en bas. Il appelle la jeunesse soutenir le Parti communiste. Cette affiche a longtemps réchauffé mon cœur.

Je regarde les affiches des théâtres aussi, mais je n’ose pas aller au théâtre, je crains que le peu de mots que j’ai appris dans les journaux ne suffisent pas pour comprendre une pièce. Mais I ‚affiche du Théâtre de I’Œuvre me hante avec le nom de Bernard Shaw. Mon auteur préféré. Je suis allé voir « Sainte Jeanne »… Je n’ai rien compris aux paroles, mais j ‚ai saisi le sens de la pièce. Pitoéff et sa femme ont été merveilleux.

En général, je suis toujours dans la rue. J’observe les gens, leur comportement, leurs habitudes. J’entends un ou plusieurs mot dont je n’entends jamais plus que « nez ». Mais je vois qu’il ne s’agit pas du nez. C’est seulement après de longues observations que j’ai deviné qu’il s’agissait de : ve-nez, pre-nez, te-nez. Au commencement, j’étais surpris de voir, au bord des trottoirs, de petites voitures derrière lesquelles des femmes corpulentes criaient leurs marchandises. […] Ces petites voitures et les étalages sur le trottoir donnent un aspect oriental la rue. Je ne comprends pas que cela puisse exister å Paris. L’Extrême-Orient et I’extrême Occident qui se rencontrent.

Today I went to the Louvre. The Greek and Roman statues, even the Venus de Milo, did not impress me. Perhaps because in the long, narrow rooms they look like they are in prison. […] My “state of mind” prevents me from being caught by all these paintings, Jesus and Mary. In Hungary, workers and Jews are killed every day in the name of Christ. After leaving the Louvre, crossing the Tuileries, I think of the Great Revolution. I feel at ease here, this is one of the theaters of the Revolution. At the end of the garden is Concorde, the place where they beheaded the royalty.

When I have free time, I walk around the Bastille, preferably. There, I am at home. Not only because it symbolizes the end of feudalism, but here I meet simple men, friendly workers. And that’s where the faubourg Saint-Antoine, the furniture craft district, begins, where many Hungarian cabinetmakers earn their daily bread. I also love the banks of the Seine, I like to walk along its course. It reminds me of the Danube, and I regret that it is less wide than the Danube. I am a fervent friend of booksellers. I stop in front of their cash registers and I glean from the magazines. I don’t understand everything, I rather guess what they say. […] That’s how I learn words that I wouldn’t learn elsewhere. I try to decipher the posters that are numerous on the walls of Paris. There’s one everywhere, sometimes in several copies at once. It’s small in size, you don’t even have to read the text, it doesn’t even deserve it. It is a head, no, a face with a bushy beard, between its teeth a large kitchen knife. I don’t even consider it, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that the French government has recognized the Soviet Union. There is another small significant poster. It is not worrying; it is rather unpleasant to see in France. I would never have thought that among the French there were anti-Semites; a sign of stupidity. The Dreyfus affair belongs to the forgotten past. Yet another poster, quite large, which makes you forget the other two. I look at it with emotion: the name Anatole France is at the bottom. It calls on the youth to support the Communist Party. This poster has long warmed my heart.

I look at the theater posters too, but I don’t dare to go to the theater, I’m afraid that the few words I learned in the newspapers are not enough to understand a play. But the poster of the Theater of the Work haunts me with the name of Bernard Shaw. My favorite author. I went to see “Saint Joan” … I didn’t understand the words, but I understood the meaning of the play. Pitoéff and his wife were wonderful.

I’m usually still on the street. I observe people, their behavior, their habits. I hear one or more words that I never hear more than “nez” (nose). But I see that it is not the nose. It is only after long observations that I guessed that it was: ve-nose, pre-nose, t-nose. In the beginning, I was surprised to see, at the edge of the sidewalks, small cars behind which corpulent women were shouting their wares. […] These small cars and the displays on the sidewalk give the street an oriental look. I don’t understand how that can exist in Paris. The Far East and the Far West meeting.

The writer and journalist Paul-Adolphe Löffler (1901-1979) fled the fascist regime in Hungary to Paris in 1924. Löffler had joined the communist youth in 1918. After the overthrow of Béla Kun’s government, he lived for a short time in the uncertainty of a denunciation to Miklós Horthy’s police in Budapest. Löffler had had to leave his wife Ilonka and his son Michel behind in Budapest during his hasty escape – a neighbor had denounced him because of his proximity to communist circles; they moved to live with him in the French capital shortly afterwards. With low-paid, often odd jobs in a wide variety of industries, they made their way in Paris, which was marked by the uncertainties of the interwar period and the political-economic effects of the economic crisis. In 1938, he refers to the “fascist decree” issued by the French government stating that immigrants who will not be able to leave France in case of war will be arrested.

In his diary “Journal de Paris d’un exilé” (Parisian Diary of an Expatriate), Paul-Adolphe Löffler describes the daily hardships and worries, the recurring hopeless phases of unemployment, growing xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and the political and social exclusion of the many thousands of foreign workers in France. His membership in various organizations and writer’s circles is just as present. In 1934 he became a member of the French Communist Party and held various offices for the Hungarian diasporic movement “Mouvement du 1er septembre” (later “Mouvement pour la Paix et la Liberté”). Between 1930 and 1935, his life was marked by long phases of unemployment and therefore misery and depression. In the undated diary entries, he describes his favorite places in Paris: as a convinced communist, he is particularly enthusiastic about the sites of the French Revolution and the Parisian working-class districts. He also writes about his difficulties with the French language. Upon seeing an anti-semitic poster on the streets of Paris, Löffler, who is himself not Jewish, notes that he didn’t expect the French to be anti-semitic – “a sign of stupidity”.

In 1935, Löffler found a long-term job as a draftsman in Paris, which he continued to do until his retirement. In 1973 he published his diary, which is presumably based on Hungarian and French fragments from the period between 1924 and 1939 as well as memories added later, and was edited before publication. The diary ends in 1939, the year in which Löffler joined the Resistance against the German occupation of France, where he distributed the underground press and organized secret meetings in the Seine-et-Marne region. Paris as the “City of Light” and of the Enlightenment appears in Löffler’s diary as a dazzling place of longing, but it regularly disappoints him. As a refugee with a forged passport, he arrives by train at the Paris East Station, where the city immediately disappoints him: it seems less beautiful and sunny than expected, but he hopes that the next day will be better.

Löffler, Paul-Adolphe, 1974: Journal de Paris d’un exilé (1924-1939).

Photo published with kind permission by Peter Stein © Fred Stein Archiv

Translation by Minor Kontor

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