The blog post was written by Xavier Courouble for the Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s release from World War II internment camps.
A Concealed Reality: Léopold Sédar Senghor’s years in captivity
“Il faut longtemps, très longtemps, pour que resurgisse à la lumière ce qui a été effacé”
–Patrick Modiano, in Dora Bruder, 1997
In his second volume of poems, Hosties Noires, published in 1948, Léopold Sédar Senghor presented a series of poems based on his personal experience during the troubled and shameful period of the World War II occupation of France, most particularly his 19 months spent in internment camps for French colonial prisoners of war. The first-edition volume of poems was recently accessioned to the collection of the Smithsonian Libraries, and is held by the Warren M. Robbins Library at the National Museum of African Art.
The five poems written in Amiens and Poitiers appear, as stated by Abiola Irele, less as a sharp, plaintive documentation of the condition of the black man than as a profound, poetic meditation upon human folly and failures, a disillusionment with European civilization, and the faith in the moral values Senghor associates with Africa.
Janos Riesz argues that if one wants to learn more about Senghor’s true feelings during this time —about the depths of fear and despair into which the war plunged him— then one should not consult the narratives of his later life, which have quite a different aim than giving an accurate picture of the reality of war and prison life. Rather, one should study Senghor’s poems of that period, the “Hosties Noires, annales de la souffrance et du sacrifice,” as the poet Armand Guibert suggests.
In 2010, while researching internment camps for French colonial soldiers during WW2, Raffael Scheck identified an anonymous report dated June 27, 1942 and written by a Senegalese prisoner. The 7-page report , handed to the POW Camps Inspector General, Dr. Bonnaud, was written by Léopold Sédar Senghor, at the time the only associate professor of African origin teaching in a lycée near Paris. Instead of providing a mere account of the realities of the camps, as listed in the report, Senghors’ poems set themselves a more radical task: they testify, in a literary form, to a necessity, an absolute engagement, to tell about a degrading truth, as well as to convey, conscientiously and intellectually, an imperative sense of hope.
A couple of years ago, in Poitiers’ most recent urban development, a street has been named Léopold Sédar Senghor. The new residential infrastructure was built upon the exact location where Frontstalag 230, also known as Camp de la Chauvinerie, served as an internment camp for Senghor and his fellow “tirailleurs.”
The camp had two periods of occupation: from 1940 to 1942, under German military rule, approximately 7,000 French colonial POWs were kept under harsh conditions; then, in February 1945, German civilians (men, women, and children) were regrouped in the same barracks by the French authorities. The camp had to be closed in November 1945 after an investigation revealed the inhuman living conditions imposed by the corrupted French administration, resulting in the death of 265 internees. For the following seventy years, the memory of the camp and its prisoners has gradually vanished and all traces of its existence erased.
The decision to forget, as experienced in Poitiers, should be seen in the light of the shameful history of the Camp de la Chauvinerie, as well as the result of a strategy applied by the state to establish specific representations of the role of France in the war. De Gaulle was expedient to leave the story of the real resistance untold, for not to reveal the true level of collaboration, as he was obliged to include many high-level civil servants who had collaborated, in his own post-war administration.
The transition period, when it may have been best not to unlock the past with all its ghosts, has come to an end. The memories of local camps of interment can be spoken about more openly. Nowadays, associations, communities, and municipalities throughout the country have embarked in multiple initiatives to bring forward a painful recollection of their past, to transform these internment camps from transient places to sites of mourning, memory, and ultimately of commemoration. Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poems may capture the delicate but necessary balance between community insider and outsider the way the black character in Géricault’s painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” does. For this community, in the face of such alienation, poetry may prove to be the most extraordinary form to revisit its past and to redefine its identity.
What follows are excerpts from Senghor’s poems, in original French followed by English translations. To read the full poems in French, see Hosties noires, by Léopold Sédar Senghor (Collection Pierres Vives. Paris: Édition du Seuil, 1948). For English translations, explore The Collected Poetry, by Léopold Sédar Senghor (author) and Melvin Dixon (translator) (University of Virginia, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991). Here lines of Senghor’s poetry are accompanied by photographs of French Colonial Soldiers from World War II, courtesy of the blog post author’s (Xavier Courouble’s) collection.
CAMP 1940 : TO THE GUÉLOWÂR
Amiens Camp, September 1940
Nous t’avons écouté, nous t’avons entendu avec les oreilles de notre cœur.
Lumineuse, ta voix a éclaté dans la nuit de notre prison
Comme celle du Seigneur de la brousse, et quel frisson a parcouru l’onde de notre échine courbe !
We have listened to you, we have heard you
With the ears of our heart.
Your voice has burst radiantly through our prison night
Like the roar of the Lord of the bush, and what a thrill
Raced up the spines of our bent backs!
CAMP 1940 : TO ABDOULAYE LY
Saccagé le jardin des fiançailles en un soir soudain de tornade
Fauchés les lilas blancs, fané le parfum des muguets
Parties les fiancées pour les Isles de brise et pour les Rivières du Sud.
Un cri de désastre a traversé de part en part le pays frais des vins et des chansons
Comme un glaive de foudre dans son cœur, du Levant au Ponant.
A sudden evening storm has pillaged the garden of fiancés,
Cutting down the white lilacs, weakening the scent of lilies
The women have left for the breeze-swept Islands
And Rivers of the South. A cry of disaster
Has crossed from end to end this fresh land of wine and song
Like a sword of lightning piercing its heart from East to West.
CAMP 1940 : ASSASSINATIONS
Ils sont là étendus par les routes captives, le long des routes du désastre
Les sveltes peupliers, les statues des dieux sombres drapés dans leurs longs manteaux d’or
Les prisonniers sénégalais ténébreusement allongés sur la terre de France.
There they lie stretched out by the captive roads along the routes of disaster
Thin poplar trees, statues of dark gods draped with their long, gold coats
Senegalese prisoners lying gloomily on French soil.
CAMP 1940 : TAGA FOR MBAYE DYÔB
Mbaye Dyôb ! je veux dire ton nom et ton honneur.
Dyôb ! je veux hisser ton nom au haut mât du retour, sonner ton nom comme la cloche qui chante la victoire
Je veux chanter ton nom Dyôbène ! toi qui m’appelais ton maître et
Me réchauffais de ta ferveur aux soirs d’hiver autour du poêle rouge qui donnait froid.
Mbaye Dyôb! I want to say your name and your honor.
Dyôb! I want to hoist your name to the tall returning mast,
Sound your name like the bell clanging victory
I want to praise your name Dyôbène! You who called me
Your master and warmed me with your fervor those winter nights
Around the red stewpot growing cold.
CAMP 1940 : NDESSÉ
Mère, on m’écrit que tu blanchis comme la brousse à l’extrême hivernage
Quand je devais être ta fête, la fête gymnique de tes moissons
Ta saison belle avec sept fois neuf ans sans nuages et les greniers pleins à craquer de fin mil
Ton champion Kor-Sanou !
Mother, they write me that you are turning pale as the bush
At the end of the rainy season
when I should be your feast, the athletic feast of your harvests
Your beautiful season of seven times nine cloudless years
And with millet granaries full to overflowing
Your champion, Kor-Sanou !
Echenberg, Myron J. Colonial Conscripts : the Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa, 1857-1960. Portsmouth, N.H. : Heinemann ; London : J. Currey, 1991.
Guibert, Armand. “Léopold Sédar Senghor,” Poètes d’aujourd’hui 82. Paris: Pierre Seghers, 1969.
Irele, Abiola. “Léopold Sédar Senghor as Poet,” Odu. N.S. no. 1, April 1969, p. 3-27.
Riesz, Janos and Bjornson, Aija. “Senghor and the Germans,” Research in African Literatures 33 (4), 2002, p. 25-37.
Scheck, Raffael. French Colonial Soldiers in German Captivity during World War II. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Senghor, Léopold Sédar. “Hosties Noires,” Collection Pierres Vives. Paris: Édition du Seuil, 1948.
Senghor, Léopold Sédar. “The Collected Poetry,” translated and with an Introduction by Melvin Dixon. University of Virginia, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
Senghor, Léopold Sédar. “Selected Poems,” translated and Introduced by John Reed and Clive Wake. New York : Atheneum, 1964.
Vaillant, Janet. Black, French, and African : a Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1990.
Walsh, Kevin. “Collective Amnesia and the Mediation of Painful Pasts: the representation of France in the Second World War,” in International Journal of Heritage Studies, 7;1, p. 83-98, DOI: 10.1080/ 13527250120043366. Accessible here
“Histoire des Immigrations à Amiens et en Picardie”, exposition coordonnée et réalisée par le Groupe de recherche Achac (www.achac.com), dans le cadre du programme d’actions de la Maison de l’Égalité de la ville d’Amiens soutenu dans le cadre du projet Agir Interreg IV, sous la coordination d’Emmanuelle Collignon, la direction scientifique de Pascal Blanchard. Online exhibit accessible here
Hopquin, Benoît. “Un document inédit de Léopold Sédar Senghor”, Le Monde, June 17, 2011. Article accessible here
Leconte, Sonia, 2015/02/03. “Un camp d’internement de la seconde guerre mondiale près de Poitiers. Le Frontstalag 230 et le Centre de Séjour surveillé”, in Le sort des vaincus, Archéopages, archéologie et société, No. 39, Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives (INRAP), 2015. 112 p.. Abstract available on www.inrap.fr or here
Peschanski, Denis, 2009/02/18. “Les camps français d’internement (1938-1946)”. [facsimile hors ill. & cart., 2000, Thèse de Doctorat d’État en Histoire, direction Antoine Prost, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, 3 vol., 948 p., index. Numéro national de thèse 2000PA010665]. Thesis accessible here
Recham, Belkacem. “Les indigènes nord-africains prisonniers de guerre (1940-1945)”, in Guerres Mondiales et Conflits Contemporains 3/2006 (No. 223), p. 109-125. Abstract accessible here on CAIRN.INFO
Verger, Michel, 2015/06/01. “Les Tirailleurs Sénégalais”. Cercle National des Combattants. PDF file accessible here
All photographs are courtesy of the author.
 “It takes times for what has been erased to surface,” in The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin. London: Harvill, September 2000.
 After his capture on June 20th. 1940 at La Charité-sur-Loire, Senghor was transferred from camp to camp, successively in Amiens (Frontstalag 204), Romilly-sur-Seine, Troyes (Frontstalag 124), Poitiers (Frontstalag 230), and Saint Médard-en-Jalles (Frontstalag 221). In early spring 1942, he was finally released on health grounds.
 Senghor’s manuscripts, written during his internment at Frontstalag 230 (later called Camp de la Chauvinerie) were rescued by a German guard, Walter Pichl, who, while on leave, accepted to bring them to safety to Georges Pompidou in Paris.
 Note pour le cabinet, by Dr. Bonnaud, June 27, 1942, in AN, F9, 2345, with the appended report, as well as Compte-rendu de captivité établi par un prisonnier indigène récemment libéré, July 7, 1942, also in SHD, 2 P 70, Rapports de prisonniers de guerre rapatriés sur leur détention dans les camps 1941–1943, Dossier II: 1942–1943. The report was published in full in Jeune Afrique, 51, no. 2637, July 24, 2011, pp. 25–30.
 Les Montgorges is a new urban development that is today located between Poitiers’s historic town and the regional airport. Several new streets have been named following three distinctive themes: on the north-west, close to the airport, streets have been named after famous French aviators, surprisingly including the American woman aviator, Bessie Coleman! In the center, streets have been named after three famous writers of the Négritude movement: Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and Édouard Glissant. Finally, on the south-east side, towards the historical center of the city of Poitiers, streets have been named after the memories of the Second World War, including the French Résistance movement and commanders of the French Liberation Army.
 Frontstalags were internment camps opened outside the Reich by the Germans during WW2. They were mostly situated in France and in Poland. They were intended for prisoners from the French colonies, including North African, sub-Saharan African, Malagasy, West Indian, and Indochinese ‘tirailleurs.’ [http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/fr/les-frontstalags]
 In fall 2006, “Le Louvre has invited Toni Morrison, the most recent American Nobel Prize in Literature, to lead a ‘conversation’ among the arts around a theme of her choice. A result is ‘The Foreigner’s Home,’ a multidisciplinary program focused on the pain and rewards of displacement, immigration and exile. Ms. Morrison’s starting point is Géricault’s painting ‘the Raft of the Medusa’ (1819), which shows distraught survivors struggling to stay afloat after a shipwreck. For her it’s the perfect metaphor for those millions set adrift in search of new homes, wandering, as she put it, ‘like nomads between despair and hope, breath and death.'” [Alan Riding. “Rap and Film at the Louvre? What’s Up with That?” in New York Times, November 21, 2006.] NY Times article accessible here
 French women had agreed to serve as ‘marraines de guerre’ (‘war godmothers’) for many of the colonial soldiers. One of the poems of Hosties Noires, “Femmes de France” (“Women of France”), is dedicated to Jacqueline Cahour, Senghor’s own marraine and the sister-in-law of his friend Georges Pompidou, later the president of France (1969-1974). The poem deems the marraines “The only support during days of overwhelming presence / days of panic and despair.” [See Raffael Scheck]