Memory of the Great War: the cemetery of the “brain disabled” comes out of oblivion

Chaïm Noudelmann had gone into exile in France to flee the pogroms in Russia. Enlisted in the French army in 1914, this second-hand dealer was the target of an attack with mustard gas at the end of the war. In the grip of paranoia attacks, he was interned at Sainte-Anne hospital, in Paris, then transferred to Cadillac, in Gironde.

“My grandfather died of starvation there in 1941, like 1184 other hospital patients during World War II, in what has been called the ‘madman’s death'”, says François Noudelmann. “They were victims of shortages and the leakage – theft of food and clothing by caregivers.”

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This French teacher working in New York found only a year ago the trace of his ancestor “Dead alone” : “The family, a little ashamed of his madness, had abandoned him, which fed his bad conscience. We only knew that he was buried near Langon. “ Thanks to the Friends of the Forgotten Cemetery association, François Noudelmann discovers that his grandfather was buried in a Cadillac mass grave. “His disappearance was total. I was therefore happy to see his name on the wall among those of the 3,000 civilians buried here who had no or no more graves. Although I am disappointed not to see him among those of the 160 veterans, which would have been an acknowledgment of his sacrifice. “

Around 4000 patients buried

The wall “out of oblivion” as well as the commemorative plaques tribute to former soldiers and explanatory panels, at the entrance to the cemetery, were inaugurated on September 19, 2020, as part of the rehabilitation of this cemetery founded one century ago.

Most of the 903 tombs there are simple iron crosses in the ground. They were rusting and some no longer had a name. The site was overgrown, and regularly flooded by rain. In short, this “cemetery of the forgotten”, so nicknamed because the municipality no longer maintained it and wanted to make a parking lot, almost was for good.

It is however one of the rare cemeteries of psychiatric hospital welcoming “ mutilated brain “, that today would be described as victims of post-traumatic stress, and the only one comprising a square of veterans. From 1920 to 1990, around 4,000 patients of twenty nationalities were buried there, after having been locked up sometimes for entire lives in Cadillac, as the work of archivist Michel Bénézech recalls.

Gravedigger’s House

With the Friends of the Forgotten Cemetery, this psychiatrist assigned to Cadillac for 10 years tore off the site’s inscription in 2010 as historical monuments, then its restoration. The Nouvelle-Aquitaine region is financing up to 70% of the one million euros budget for the project, which also includes the creation of a memorial space.

In the gravedigger’s house, objects (letters and drawings from patients, etc.) will be exhibited, videos showing the treatment of madness. Biographies of those buried will be presented on tablets. The site, led by Architecture Patrimoine, should begin in early 2021.

Michel Bénézech already welcomes the result: “There was a balance to be found. The simplicity, the emotion and the poverty of the place were respected. And it allows to transmit a very rare testimony, which with nothing, a little land and a few crosses, says a lot about the history of madness. “ And Cadillac, which has been welcoming the mentally ill since 1617.


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