Lessons on Hope from Geneviève de Gaulle

By Magdalena Macinska (Poland)

On 27th January during the commemoration ceremony of the 70th anniversary of  the liberation of the concentration camp in Auschwitz I had the privilege to hear  the voice of the survivors. Their figures might have looked frail and delicate, but when they spoke their voices were strong and vibrant. They spoke of the pain, death and suffering but also about hope  and love. Right then I thought of the person who had survived the concentration camps and have a lot to say about hope.

From the resistance movement to Noisy le Grand

The French writer George Bernanos wrote that “Hope has to be conquered. Hope is obtained at a price of great efforts and with lots of patience. To reach hope one needs to go to the bottom of despair. To see the first light of the dawn, you need to see the end of the night” (1). I cannot imagine a darker night than that of a concentration camp. Geneviève de Gaulle, the long-standing president of the ATD Fourth World Movement, as a young woman went through the camp of Ravensbrück. She was caught in action as a member of the French resistance movement. After the liberation, she engaged herself as a member and later  as the president of the  Association of the Deported and Exiled of the Resistance Movement ADIR (Association des Deportées et Internées de la Résistance). She explains the sense of this commitment in the following way: “As the survivors we came back telling ourselves that we would try to transmit our experience. Human experience is something of intransmissible, but  what we  say  is enough to raise awareness and to show the spirit of solidarity between us. What always amazes people from the outside, is the love they see between us, even when we have not seen one another for  a  very long time.” (2)

Little did she know, however, that she would find herself in another place which would once again bring vivid memories from the camp. In  1958 she met Father Joseph Wresinski. He invited her to visit the  camp for evicted  families in Noisy Le Grand where he was working as a chaplain. This is how she recalls her first visit: “I entered this big camp and as we were walking down this long path with no lamplights to guide our way, I thought of Ravensbrück. Of course there were no guards, no SS guns pointed at us and no barbed wire. But this landscape of low roofs, with a bit of grey smoke coming out here looked like totally isolated separated from life. And the inhabitants bore the same look of despair that I knew so well and used to be mine.” (3)

Finding hope in the midst of despair

Yet Geneviève de Gaulle also noticed the kindness and moments of happiness among the habitants of Noisy le Grand. She saw the seeds of hope in the midst of despair, just like in Ravensbrück: “In Noisy despite the hardships, relationships between people grew. There were fights and screams, but also signs of solidarity. I could not help but think of the spirit of brotherhood that we experienced among the prisoners. Here love shines through small gestures. Sometimes a family will take in another family with no roof over their head, even though they had so little place themselves. Or a mother will wash the clothes of a family whose mother went into labour. (…) There are also happy moments. Christmas celebrations, birthday celebrations with cake.”

She  joined the fight of the families and the emerging association ATD Fourth World  (ATD Quart Monde) for the next  decades.  To be available to the Movement and her family, she renounced a prestigious job at the cabinet of minister of culture André Malraux. She took on the role of the president of the  ATD Movement  from 1964 until 2001. In 1988 she became a member of the French Economic and Social Council, and for ten years fought for the adoption of a law against extreme poverty. Deferred in 1997 due to dissolution of the French National Assembly, her law was voted in  1998.

Hoping for great things

In her thought provoking and heart captivating book “Le secret de l’espérance” (“The Secret of Hope”) Geneviève de Gaulle records all those years of struggle from trying to relocate the families from Noisy le Grand to a decent housing to changing laws and bringing exclusion to politics.

She looked beyond their housing conditions and recognized the families deepest aspirations for culture and beauty. In her book she made an analogy to the time she spent at the camp: “In Ravensbrück we discovered that a book was more precious than a piece of bread”, she says.  Knowing what hunger and the lack of perspectives can do to a dignity of a person, she stresses that is about the most basic rights: “I knew what it was like to go hungry, but I also knew what it was like to be refused of all rights. (…) Obviously, there was no decree that would denounce the extermination of the poor. Yet every single day  in the camp of Noisy le Grand, and in other places, men, women, children and whole families did not have access to basic rights. For example the right to housing. You couldn’t call a barrack planted in the mud in the middle of nowhere a house…”
Hope seems to be at the  very heart of her commitment. She shares how she learned hope from the other volunteers who joined Father Joseph and the families themselves: “During each visit in the camp I keep on meeting those “crazy people”, who are so passionate about what they are doing and who see their modest fidelity to the poorest as a way of life, their life.  (…) I find Francine who came from Belgium and decided to stay in Noisy after the funeral of her two young daughters..(…) She finds the hope in the most vulnerable, this hope that all human beings have inside, but which can be buried so deeply, which is so hard to be reconciled with the reality, that the only way out is to have someone who believes even more than themselves.” The image of other people  who share the struggle (the other volunteers and the families themselves) as a source of hope for Geneviève resonates strongly in her book. She writes: “Father Joseph, Francine, Bernadette are the guards of hope. They will continue to look for it in the families who should not actually have any.”

She also sees hope as something that can shape the human being from the inside. It is an attitude towards life. “We need to change our perspective not only on the poorest, but also on our profession, our convictions, our world and let us be changed little by little.” Later on  in the book she adds: “I need to be fully conscious that this is “for life”. Even if I am tempted to turn my eyes away from what the poor are suffering, it is their hope that puts me right back on the track. I am not only fighting for them but for all humans. The revolution must start with myself. This story will not have an end until justice will prevail.”

The secret of hope

She ends her book with describing the day the law against poverty was adopted. At that moment she is ready to step down from her function as the president of ATD. This is a completion of an important stage, yet she is already looking the challenges lying ahead in assuring the full inclusion of the people suffering from poverty. Here Geneviève reveals what she considers to be the secret, or rather the essence, of hope. It is the secret of brotherhood – fraternité (4): “On the evening of July 9th, I look back at everything that the poorest have taught me. We went through the most difficult times together and drew from the same source. It is to them that I owe the ability to understand that the secret of hope is the secret of brotherhood. This brotherhood, “the response to absolute evil”, as Malraux would say, is in our hands. It is up to each one of us to be weaving the threads of brotherhood relentlessly.”

Learning from hope

What can we therefore learn from Geneviève de Gaulle about hope? Hope is something to be discovered and learned. Paradoxically, the more desperate the circumstances are, the more we should look for hope. Hope is profoundly linked to our sense of humanity and solidarity with others. To hope for a better life is not only to hope for oneself but also for others who are suffering.  In this way it is very personal, because to hope is to challenge oneself, to let oneself be changed profoundly. At the same time the more we link hope to others and share it, the stronger it becomes. There are no limits to hope. Hope is audacious and generous. Changing the world comes in small steps and through many struggles but what we hope for in the end is greater than we could imagine.

Hope seventy years after the war

On 27th May 2015  Geneviève de Gaulle was interred in a symbolic funeral  at the Pantheon, a mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens, together with Germaine Tillon. These two women were honoured for their involvement in the resistance movement. To the ATD Movement this is also a way to commemorate Geneviève de Gaulle’s commitment to social justice. This occasion, especially in the context of this year’s  anniversary of the end of the war and liberation of concentration camps, reminds me about the strength of the human spirit. Reading the testimony of Geneviève de Gaulle, who had suffered the atrocities of war,  and yet did not back out at the sight of more horrors, but to use her own words was “relentless” in finding sources of hope, I feel compelled to be a hopeful person.

The audacity of hope

Hope is not an easy thing. Geneviève de Gaulle shows hope as a kind of a lifetime commitment. Just like Father Joseph Wresinski, she encourages anybody who wants to fight poverty to turn their eyes towards people experiencing poverty and let them be the source of hope. This also means carrying the weight of everything they hope for to change. When the law against poverty was adopted, she immediately asked herself what it would change in the life of the poorest. She paraphrases the quote from George Bernanos: “The dawn is coming. The sky is still dark. But the sun will rise. We mustn’t lose hope.” We need the courage to continue walking towards the daylight.

Sources: Geneviève de Gaulle  “Le secret de l’esperance”, Fayard Editions Quart Monde, 2001

Articles available at the website  ATD Fourth World France devoted to Geneviève de Gaulle : https://www.atd-quartmonde.fr/qui-sommes-nous/notre-histoire/60-genevieve-de-gaulle-anthonioz

(1) : Quoted in Genevieve de Gaulle Anthonioz  “Le secret de l’esperance”, Fayard Editions Quart Monde, 2001
(2) : This quote comes from the article by Véronique Soulé ”Geneviève de Gaulle Anthonioz, une vie de résistances” (available at: https://www.atd-quartmonde.fr/genevieve-de-gaulle-anthonioz-refuser-linacceptable/genevieve-de-gaulle-anthonioz-une-vie-de-resistances)
(3) : All the subsequent quotes from Geneviève de Gaulle come from her book “Le secret de l’esperance”, Fayard Editions Quart Monde, 2001. Translations from French are mine.
(4) : It is interesting to note that the French word “fraternité” has a stronger overtone than the English “brotherhood”. As a part of the French national tri-motto it is closely linked to the notion of “egalité” (equality) and  liberté (freedom). Therefore, it is a very important  concept  to the social activists in France.

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