Vichy remains a source of discomfort in modern France

Historians in the News

The tangled oak woods of the Château de l’Écluse are inhabited by a great silence.

The descendants of Fernand Plée, who purchased these grounds and this red-brick manor in central France in 1941, say they have nothing to hide. Their grandfather, they say, was a good man: a decorated veteran of the First World War, a willing partner to the Allies in the second, a man of generosity and courage.

But an otherwise ordinary legal battle between the nearby town of Salbris and Mr. Plée’s descendants, who inherited the estate after his death 40 years ago, has brought to light a somber chapter of the man’s past, and that of the Château de l’Écluse.

The property had once belonged to a Parisian entrepreneur, Émile Akar. In 1941, however, Mr. Akar being of Jewish descent, the wartime Vichy government confiscated the chateau. Fernand Plée then purchased it through the General Authority for Jewish Questions, the agency officially charged with France’s “Aryanization.”

Mr. Akar died well before war’s end, and any public memory of Mr. Plée’s act was apparently lost in the confusion and bliss and national forgetting of post-liberation France. He never returned the estate to the family of its rightful owner, despite laws obliging him to do so. It now falls to his descendants to confront that history.

President Jacques Chirac first officially acknowledged France’s “collective wrongdoing” during the Vichy years in 1995. Since then, the state has taken great pains to confront that dark era, compensating tens of thousands of victims and establishing the public memory of a long-repressed past. It is now widely felt, among Jews as among the general populace, that the nation has done everything in its power to right its past wrongs....

“The French Republic has done all it can,” said Tal Bruttmann, a noted French scholar of Vichy. “The Second World War is still here.”...

The family always assumed that Mr. Akar had leased the property. Despite some worldly success — he made a name for himself as co-founder of Amilcar, an early brand of automobile — he was known to be a mediocre bookkeeper and constantly in debt. But archival documents show that he purchased the chateau and its 1,940 acres in April 1936. He died in Marseille, having fled the Nazi-occupied north, on Nov. 16, 1940.

“What is important for us and our children is that this story be known,” said Jean-François Akar, 69, Émile’s great-nephew and adjunct mayor of Meudon, near Paris. “We’re not going to take revenge on these children for their parents’ errors,” he said, referring to the Plées. “One would not do justice in punishing the innocent.”...
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