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Culture

The Graffiti of Nazi Horror

During France's annual Heritage Day, Paris will open the doors of the infamous former Gestapo headquarters to allow the defiant and resigned words its former prisoners etched on its walls to tell their stories.

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The beginning of the nightmare: Hitler in Paris in 1940

"I am afraid," one prisoner awaiting interrogation and almost certain death at the hands of the Gestapo scrawled on the walls of his Paris prison cell. "Never confess," reads another defiant message etched into the plaster nearby.

Heart-rending words transformed by history into epitaphs, these and other messages on long-forgotten walls in the Gestapo's World War II Paris headquarters will go on exhibit for the first time ever this weekend, part of France's annual Heritage Day festivities.

More than 15,000 sites normally closed to the public, ranging from the national archives to the finance ministry, will open their doors to some 10 million visitors on Saturday and Sunday.

House of horrors

Most of the rooms were renovated after the French interior ministry took possession of this notorious building, where hundreds, if not thousands, of resistance fighters and other hapless victims of the Nazi occupation were tortured and condemned to die.

It was as if France's post-war leaders were eager to turn a page.

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But a few prison cells were left untouched, and the plaintiff expressions of fear and foreboding, patriotism and pride, preserved on their walls stand today as a moving testament of Gestapo cruelty and human defiance.

"Frankreich über alles" -- "France above all" -- reads on inscription with biting irony, a play on words transforming the title of the German national anthem.

"Believing in yourself gives one the power to resist despite the bathtub and all the rest," reads another, a dark allusion to a preferred technique of torture practiced by the Gestapo. "Don't talk," commands another, as if to give courage.

Most of the unfortunates interrogated and tortured here were later executed or deported to camps, historians say.

Few illusio n s

The few rooms that remain from that era have been left intact: the ceiling lamp that still casts a wan, sinister light over the room; the thick metal ring attached to the wall, to which prisoners were chained; the barred window with a view of the interrogation chambers on the other side of the courtyard.

The prisoner graffiti -- written with bits of lead or pencils hidden in shirt collars, or simply carved with any sharp object at hand -- is today protected by glass barriers.

Many of those detained here had no illusions as to their destiny.

Frankreich befreit

A few survived to liberation

"Julien. 20 years old. Headed for the post," reads one, referring to the wooden poles to which prisoners were attached before being executed by firing squad. "Labiscotte. Arrived June 8, 1944. For liberty of for death?" reads another, still daring to hope. And yet another: "Honored to be condemned by the Bosh. Goodbye forever to France and my loved one," it says, using a common epithet for Germans during the war.

Some inscriptions are like diary entries: "Marcel is thinking of Simone and Kiki;" "Guillaume loves Marianne;" "I cannot sleep for thinking about by parents and my beloved Louisette."

Messages of goodbye

Other parts of the walls are like bulletin boards, with messages the authors hoped would, somehow, find their way to intended recipients. "Roger: your father, your cousin and Colette's father came through here 24-5-44."

There are even expressions of optimism -- "We will be free by Christmas 1944" -- and philosophical resignation: "Life is beautiful."

The walls were also common ground for the barely literate and the highly cultivated, such as Yvette Marie-Jo Wilbort who dared not to imagine that she would live to see the war's end. She quoted from memory, an epitaph for herself, a verse from a poem by Alfred de Vigny.

"Wailing, pleading, crying -- these are the coward's call," she wrote. "Assume your heavy and onerous burden, the one that fate has cast your way. And then, like me, suffer and die in silence."

Wilbort was one of the few that survived.

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