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Wooden Pen Made in a French Internment Camp

Handle for a dip-pen made by Isaac Shoenberg in Pithiviers Internment Camp
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of George Flaum Banet
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tags: belongings children & youth family hiding

type: Equipment

Georges Flaum was born on July 18, 1930, in a neighborhood of Paris with a large Jewish immigrant population. His parents, Charles and Thérèse, were Jews from Poland.1 On May 14, 1941, almost one year after the Nazi occupation of France began, German authorities and French collaborators organized a roundup of foreign Jews living in France. French police arrested Charles and sent him to the Pithiviers internment camp.2

Georges and his mother were permitted to visit Charles in Pithiviers in 1941.3 During this visit, he gave Georges this wooden dip-pen, along with a walking stick and a woodcut that also depicts life in the camp.4 Engraved on one side in French, an inscription reads: “To my dear son Georges, for his 12th birthday. From your papa, who loves you and thinks of you always.” The handle includes a photograph of Charles, framed by a heart. The other side of the handle reads: “Souvenir from Pithiviers, 1941–42.” A drawing on the pen depicts barracks of the Pithiviers, barbed wire fencing at its perimeters, and what appear to be French gendarmes who guarded the camp.

Charles purchased the pen from Isaac Schœnberg, a prisoner in Pithivers who was trained in fine arts.5 Schœnberg drew portraits in the camp, but soon it became difficult for him to find high quality paper. His engraved wooden handles for dip-pens became a popular gift that internees bought for loved ones; they may have also been sought after among prisoners at Pithiviers because letter-writing was an essential part of camp life. He charged 15 francs for the pens and at his busiest, he worked nonstop to make up to six per day.6 At other times, he was forced to stop due to the cold. His barrack, number 7, can be viewed in the depiction of Pithiviers on the wooden pen. It is possible that this was also Flaum’s barrack number.7 

Months after visiting his father in the camp in 1941, and just before his 12th birthday in July of 1942, Georges and his mother were arrested by French police in what is now known as the Vél d’Hiv roundup.8 Georges managed to escape. Shortly after the roundup, Thérèse Flaum was deported from the Drancy transit camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was murdered. In September 1942, both Isaac Schœnberg and Charles Flaum were also killed in Auschwitz.

For the next two years, Georges was hidden by several families in France, and he was able to attend school under a new identity. In the summer of 1944, he returned to Paris to live with his aunt and uncle. The city was liberated in August 1944. After the war, Georges changed his surname to Banet. He did not record an oral history or publicly discuss his experiences. Banet maintained that he did not remember much of World War II and the Holocaust because he had been so young. However, this pen, donated by Banet to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1999, preserves some fragments of this history that might otherwise have been lost. At once linking the stories of Georges and Charles with the artist Isaac Schœnberg, it points to the ways in which persecuted Jews sought to memorialize their experiences even as they were still unfolding.

Marlene Roberts Banet, "Letters from Paris: Presence of Absence," Hadassah Magazine (April/May 2010): 22. In this article, Georges’s wife recounts his revisiting his childhood home on 25 Rue Belfort in the 11th arrondissement of Paris and what he remembered and forgot. After the visit, Georges concluded, "I hoped to see it as it was. [...] But it isn’t like it was. It is like it is. My parents aren’t there, so how can it be the same?"

For information on the role of the Parisian police, see Laurent Joly, "The Parisian Police and the Holocaust: Control, Round-ups, Hunt, 1940–4," Journal of Contemporary History 55, no. 3 (2020): 557–78. Pithiviers is located south of Paris. Although extremely harsh, conditions in French-administered internment camps should be distinguished from those in German concentration camps. For example, before deportations from France began, prisoners in French camps were allowed to receive visitors and receive and send mail. For information on arrests of foreign Jews in roundups and conditions in Pithiviers, see Susan Zuccotti, The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 81–102; and Renée Poznanski, Jews in France During World War II, transl. Nathan Bracher (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Brandeis University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2001), 57–61.

By October 1941, prisoners were not allowed to receive visitors. See Poznanski, Jews in France, 58.

Dip-pens were common writing instruments for many at the time, offering a more affordable alternative to fountain pens. A small nib is placed in the tip of the pen and then dipped in ink before it is applied to the writing surface. Similar pens were made by other prisoners in Pithiviers.

Born in Alsace in 1907, Schœnberg had studied engraving, painting on silk, and miniatures at the Academy of Fine Arts in Frankfurt, Germany. Germany lost Alsace-Lorraine to France in the Treaty of Versailles after its defeat in World War I. In 1933, he moved to Paris but was arrested and transferred to Pithiviers just two days after Charles Flaum. Possessing neither French, nor Polish, nor German citizenship, French and German authorities considered him a "stateless" Jew.

Schœnberg sent by mail the money he made to his beloved, Chana Morgensztern, who also sent him art supplies. He also paid fellow prisoners to do his required camp chores, like peeling vegetables, so that he would have time to craft the pens. They created a covert system in which prisoners made trades and handled money in secret. However, French gendarmes did frequent searches and took away money and possessions of the Jewish prisoners, and Schœnberg had to surrender his money at least once. For more on his relationship with Chana, see Isaac Schoenberg, Lettres à Chana: camp de Pithiviers, mai 1941-24 juin 1942, ed. Serge Klarsfeld (Orléans: CERCIL, 1995). For more on letter-writing during the Holocaust, see the related collection in Experiencing History, Wartime Correspondence

According to Georges, his aunt Edmee was Christian. She helped Georges forge a false Christian identity under the name of his maternal grandmother, Banet. Georges also attended Catholic school under this assumed name during the war. 

For more on the roundup, see the Experiencing History item, Oral History with Marcelle Duval.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of George Flaum Banet
Accession Number 1999.170.1 a-b
Date Created
1941 to 1942
Dimensions Height: 9.875 inches (25.083 cm) - Width: 1.250 inches (3.175 cm) - Depth: 0.500 inches (1.27 cm)
Material Wood, metal, paint, ink, adhesive, gelatin silver print.
Maker / Creator
Isaac Schœnberg
Owner
Charles Flaum
Language(s)
French
Location
Pithiviers, France
Paris, France
Object Type Equipment
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