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A reply to a letter of farewell

Jean-Marie Vinclair knew nothing about his great-uncle Raymond Vinclair, who had been murdered by the National Socialists in July 1944. The family had kept the story a secret all those decades. It was a call from the historian Volker Issmer of Osnabrück that got the ball rolling. Now Jean-Marie Vinclair is shooting a film about his great-uncle’s fate. One place he carried out research for it was in the archive of the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen.

“I was afraid to face my family’s silence. But this story found its way to me without my asking for it. I have to tell it”, the filmmaker explains. His great-uncle, the Frenchman Raymond Vinclair, had been a forced labourer for the Reich railway in Osnabrück during World War II. He had helped prisoners of war escape and been caught and arrested. He was initially put in the Berlin-Plötzensee prison and then executed by guillotine in the Brandenburg-Görden jail. According to the execution report, his death took “eight seconds” – the seconds that give the documentary its title.

Jean-Marie Vinclair painstakingly reconstructed his great-uncle’s life. His research took the filmmaker to Caen, Osnabrück, Bad Arolsen, Berlin and Brandenburg-Görden. The guillotine once used to behead his great-uncle is still in the former prison there. In the ITS archive, there are a substantial number of documents pertaining to Raymond Vinclair’s arrest and murder. Yet the documentary is not just about facts, but also about motivation. “I assume Raymond acted out of a sense of idealism”, Jean-Marie Vinclair muses. “He believed in his political ideas and was actively involved in the left. Or perhaps he was just a humanist who paid for his vision with his life.”

Before the National Socialists murdered him, Raymond Vinclair wrote a farewell letter to his parents. “The film will be a kind of poetic reply to his letter, and a response to the fates of the many victims”, the filmmaker comments. “I often ask myself what I would have done in his place. It’s difficult to say. Reality is far more complex than good and evil.” The film, he added, is thus a way of recognizing and paying tribute to resistance. “It takes courage and self-confidence to resist.”

After his execution, Raymond Vinclair was initially buried in Berlin. In 1948, his remains were exhumed. Unbeknownst to his family, the member of the resistance was laid to rest in Rennes, France. One of his brothers contacted the ITS after the war and received information. He had said nothing to the other members of the family, however, who were uneasy about Raymond Vinclair’s left-wing views. “The research changed me”, Jean-Marie Vinclair acknowledges. “It’s important to me to lay a new foundation for the history of my family. Every family has questions to ask history. That’s what’s universal about the film.”

In view of growing nationalism and extremism in Europe, the filmmaker hopes his documentary will reach a broad public. “We’re a generation that grew up with the German-French friendship”, Jean-Marie Vinclair observes. “I’m married to a German and her family lives just eighty kilometres from where my great-uncle was once arrested. I think about it often. The film will help us understand what happened, and an understanding of the past can take us forward.”