François Le Lionnais

Painting at Dora

Fifteen Years Before Cofounding the Oulipo, a French Chemical Engineer Made It Through His Internment at Dora-Mittelbau by Mentally Re-Creating His Favorite Works of Art in Exquisite Detail

Discussed: The Expressive Superiority of the Vernacular, Blessed Inexperience of One’s Craft, Tragically Interlaced Diagonals, Mary Magdalene’s Dress, Mechanical Leprosy, Hovering Barriers of Potential, Radioactivity of the Imagination, Functions Without Derivatives

François Le Lionnais, born in Paris in 1901, was a chemical engineer, chess enthusiast, and unrelenting polymath. He mounted a remarkable career in the public service of science and mathematics, working in various capacities for UNESCO, Musées Nationaux de France, and France’s national public broadcasting service, and writing or editing several publications on contemporary mathematical thought. In 1960, with his friend Raymond Queneau, Le Lionnais founded the Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), of which he served as president until his death, in 1984.

In 1944, for his participation in the French Resistance throughout the early 1940s, Le Lionnais was arrested, tortured, and deported to Dora-Mittelbau, via Buchenwald, where he spent several months building guidance systems for V2 missiles—often faultily. Shortly before the camp was liberated by the U.S. army, he and three others escaped the Nazi death marches and fled to the neighboring town of Seesen, where they spent the following weeks helping to organize shelter, medical care, and repatriation services for their fellow inmates. Le Lionnais also oversaw the production of a journal called Revivre!—“To live again!”—of which a single issue was printed on a commandeered German printing press.

The following memoir of Le Lionnais’s time at Dora first appeared in the Lyons-based journal Confluences in 1946. This is, as far as I know, its first English translation, and it is presented humbly, with all its author’s original rights reserved.

—Daniel Levin Becker

For Henri Seeliger,
recalling the joy of being reunited

It happened one morning during a routine assembly. We were some thousands of prisoners, idling at the calling point while they went about a general inspection.

My gaze fell reflexively upon the hill that rose beside the infirmary, where autumn was finishing its own occupation. Without warning, the great bare trees dissolved before me and carried me away with them. All at once the Hell of Dora mutated into a Brueghel, for me alone. Encouraged, no doubt, by the mental and physical exhaustion all of us felt, an intense rapture took hold of me: the sense of escaping, as a wisp of smoke could have, from under the watch of my idiot wardens. The euphoria did not last long.

It was long enough, however, to allow me to withstand the volley of slaps and blows (another example of the expressive superiority of the vernacular over academic language: wallops is the correct word) I received when my turn came to be searched.

I knew then that I was being summoned once more by the call of a bygone passion. I had to relearn it, though. It was in my block that my reeducation would take place.

Our blocks were decorated here and there with paintworks by some talented detainees. This was less a matter of entertaining ourselves than of embellishing the small corner of our jail reserved for our block chiefs, our powerful potentates. The paintings were for the most part uninteresting, wavering between the crude local flavor of the Foire aux Croûtes and the antiquated opulence of the Salon des Artistes Français.

There was one, however, that fascinated me. It depicted a stream in southern Germany, or the Tyrol (at least I suppose it did). Emerging from the bottom of the tableau, the river rushed at the viewer, its current at once effervescent and perfectly still. Firmly planted on a raft, a forester steered with a bundle of wood. Thanks to a total and blessed inexperience with his craft, the painter had rendered the raft slightly larger than the stream. The work could have held its own with dignity in the Popular Realist Painters Exposition, where I had spent some time in 1937, or at the recent Self-Taught Painters Exposition. I would have liked to take the small panel of colored wood with me, but the Nazis forced us to evacuate Dora a few days before the Liberation.

In the camp I had made the acquaintance of two or three painters, but I saw little of them due to the difficulties inherent in the occupation of detainee, and in any case I did not seek out their company. We did not have the same manner of understanding and loving painting. I preferred to discuss the subject with my best friend there, a young man to whom I became attached as one can only in such cases, and who would not, alas, leave this awful adventure alive. His name was Jean Gaillard.

Intelligent as he was sensitive, Jean was keen on all things concerning the spirit. Together we passed all the time we could surveying the spheres of human knowledge, making a sort of inventory of all the world’s civilizations had managed to build. I retraced for my friend the history of number theory, which we soon broadened to a more general history of mathematics. Next we explored electricity, optics, and chemistry. We veered toward philosophy and reconstituted its trajectory from the primitive theogonies through existentialism and Marxism. When the day came for painting, Jean asked me to share what I knew and thought about the matter.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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