In Paris at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Jacques Rossi still wrote his Parisian address book in secret code. Jacques feared, above all, that any indiscretion could harm friends who were still alive. I, on the other hand, was demanding absolute transparency. His first reflex was, therefore, to refuse, to rebel, to treat me as an interrogating officer, in other words, as a torturer. And then, suddenly, he would reveal things that, in turn, shed light on other things.
For me it was like detective work.
Testimony, while it is always reconstructed to a greater or lesser degree, has to meet standards of accuracy. Of truth.
Zefzaf currently teaches in a high-school in Casablanca. Antoni Libera. Adam, etc. Chez Paul Ollendorff, Paris. Je sais ce que je lui dois!
This is what we discovered together while writing the book. He had no right to lie, even by omission. He had a duty to bear witness on behalf of the millions of companions who disappeared in the Gulag. To tell the truth of his experience was also to speak on behalf of his dead comrades. An enormous responsibility. A witness, especially when he or she has had to wait a long time before speaking, engages in a work of memory rather than of history. He exercised it like a muscle, not only when he was a secret agent, but also when he was in the Gulag where nothing could be written down and kept.
Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday. It is he who determines, when recounting the past, which parts to delete and which to retain. Above all, the witness has a point of view on his story, while the historian is supposed not to have a stance. On the one hand, he had been a committed communist who religiously believed in the cause of the proletariat and social justice.
On the other hand, in this soviet concentration camp system inherited from the tsarist House of the Dead, this cultivated man of Franco-Polish origin was a foreigner. This ardent communist was not a Soviet by culture, even though he spoke Russian perfectly. In a way, therefore, he looked at the soviet concentration camp system with fresh eyes. He was perhaps more sensitive than the Russians to the absurdity of the system. For example, he recognized that he seldom encountered pure sadism among the individuals implementing the system, such as guards, officers, or even the secret police torturers.
Quite simply, these men were obeying orders, orders that would probably turn them as well into victims of the same system in the not-too-distant future. Being a foreigner also helped Rossi, as his fellow prisoners trusted him more than they would have trusted another Soviet. And it also helped his fellow prisoners to confide in him, which would later facilitate his work of passing on the story. How beautiful was that utopia.
Here is an example:. When Rossi was a Comintern agent, he had to carry secret documents on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean with a fake Swedish passport. On boarding the ship, he learned that there was another Swede on board. He was seized with panic at the idea that he would be unmasked by a real Swede.
And so he pretended to be sick and missed out on the whole of this beautiful voyage. This story he told Rudy, a prisoner who, between two interrogations, has just arrived in his miserable cell. He did so in order to distract his prison mate from the torture he had just undergone.
Rudy, a Pole like Rossi, listened to the story and smiled:. Another advantage for this particular zek was that he had been a scholar of fine arts and languages. For this gifted linguist who spoke more than ten languages, studying the language spoken in the Gulag became a springboard to constructing a work that is not just a work of memory, but also a work of history.
History is distinguished from memory by its objective, or at least its intersubjective nature. And this is the case here. It is in the name of thousands of witnesses that Rossi speaks. And it is no longer a matter of one individual point of view on the Gulag.
It is an academic type of research based on primary sources as well as references to archives, documents, and statistics. This is what allows for as accurate a reconstruction as possible of the reality of the Gulag. Jacques Rossi did not content himself with passing on the memory of a first-hand witness. He wanted to leave behind a legitimate, historical record by constructing his monumental Gulag Handbook. After all, there have been so many testimonies. His originality is that he became the historian of his own history by giving it a universal dimension.
That is why knowledge of the Gulag is fundamental to the study of the communist totalitarian regime. Unfortunately, no sovietologist ever did the apprenticeship there. As we have seen, for years and years, Rossi listened to fellow prisoners who confided in him. They were very diverse. All these Soviets spoke to him, in their individual jargon, the Gulag slang, a specific language born of a specific culture. Rossi was multilingual and passionate about languages. He had a remarkable memory, which he used during his time as an undercover communist.
That same memory would retain hundreds and thousands of Gulag expressions that were not part of the Russian language proper. It was a composite language, consisting of the accumulation and sedimentation of several linguistic strata, the slang of the ordinary prisoners, the legal language of the penitentiary administration, the specific vocabulary of the political prisoners, and words from pre-revolutionary Russian penal colonies.
He used it to describe and indeed explain the concentration camp universe from which it sprang. There are words and there are testimonies. The first step was, therefore, to assemble the facts.
But, when Rossi undertook this Dantean task, he was no quiet researcher in the Library of Congress. He was a zek who had been held in the Gulag, for years on end, who had not been allowed to take any notes, and who was subjected to regular searches, even in the most intimate places. Nevertheless, he managed to write and keep records. He also made sketches of what he saw, which were confiscated How did he manage this?
He refused to reveal it to me, to avoid betraying a secret that could be of use against other detainees. The second step was to take place in communist Poland, after Rossi had left the Gulag, and had started, thanks to his still fresh memories and his secret records full of recollections, to set up a gigantic file. But here, too, he was not living in a country with freedom of expression. And so, to transfer his work to the west, he had to use the diplomatic bag of the French embassy, where he had some contacts. The third step is of particular interest to you and to me.
Upon leaving Poland, Rossi set off for the United States at the invitation of a former Polish student and, in Washington, met Father Bradley, Dean of the College, who invited him to take advantage of the freedom of expression and make use of the library at Georgetown. So it is here that he completed his work on primary sources, which he gathered through patient, detailed, encyclopedic research, and wrote a book on all aspects of the soviet concentration camp system. The result is, first of all, a fascinating linguistic investigation of an unknown idiom, the language of the Gulag: several thousand entries in the original Russian edition, published in London in In this manner, the subjective witness gave way to the intersubjective historian and drew closer to the challenging goal of objectivity.