Witnessing Another Side of ParisPosted on February 11, 2011
As we approached the doors of the memorial, I noticed that they were locked, requiring you to push a buzzer in order to be admitted. My husband immediately whispered to me, “What’s with the hyper security?” I didn’t answer him but just felt saddened that so much security was necessary even before passing through the ubiquitous metal detectors.
We were in Paris on our honeymoon and a visit I felt compelled to make was to the city’s Memorial de la Shoah. Although I had no personal connection to the Holocaust, I have nonetheless been a “student” of it since I was a little girl reading numerous children’s books written by concentration camp survivors. I hadn’t been to the far reaches of Eastern Europe but was still determined to seek out places connected to the Holocaust wherever I did travel, since Hitler left few countries on the continent unscathed. The memorial was located in the city’s Marais district, home to the pletzel, a Yiddish name for the old 13th century Jewish quarter found in the district. Although there still exists today a small Jewish population in the Marais, mainly those of the Orthodox sect, the district was never the same following the mass deportation of Paris Jews in the 1940s.
As we made our way out into the courtyard, I was struck by how eerily quiet it was. Although it was after all a memorial, and visitors were asked for silence in respect of the dead, we were still standing outside in the center of Paris, a city of over ten million people. It always amazes me when traveling to a major city that somehow you still manage to find a quiet hamlet somewhere, right in the middle of it all. (I thought this especially when I studied in Seoul, South Korea, a city even more populated than Paris, and yet I still came across Buddhist temples right in the downtown. I found them to offer calming sanctuary from the chaotic everyday madness all around).
Located in the courtyard were massive pillars inscribed with all the names of the French Holocaust victims, arranged by the year in which they died at the hands of the Nazis, all 76,000 of them. Unlike in the countries of the former Soviet Union where chaos often ensued, resulting in family members never discovering the final whereabouts of a loved one, the Vichy government (the French government that collaborated with the Nazis) kept meticulous records of all the Jews of France. And so the name of every last victim is recorded on the pillars. The year1944 contained the most names as this was when Hitler’s infamous final solution plan was being carried out all across Europe, a final attempt to wipe out all the Jews in a mass, frenzied event.
Whenever I see the names of people who have died tragically, it makes the circumstances of their death all the more poignant, and real. I was reminded of the time I saw the musical Titanic in New York as a child. I still remember how inside the theatre on the wall above the box office were the names of all those who had perished when the famous ship went under. Statistics seem cold and impersonal. But Esther Solomon, Sam Blum, those names mean something because they were something. They were someone’s wife, mother, brother, father. On a couple of pillars there were names that looked as though they had been erased, permanently removed from the wall of victims. I asked my husband if he thought it was because a person who had once been thought dead was in fact discovered to be alive. He said perhaps, but wanting to be positive, I hoped that was indeed the case.
When I entered the room that contained nothing but police records of arrested Jews, box after box of them on display behind glass, you momentarily can’t believe that here among the city’s most iconic and beautiful sights, French citizens were forced to wear the Star of David on their lapels, their houses of worship were desecrated, and families were ripped apart in the middle of the night, when a member was arrested never to be seen again. And yet it all did happen, in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs Elysees; 76,000 French Jews were deported, 11,000 of them children. Less than 3,000 survived.
The final room in the museum is perhaps the most difficult to visit and yet perhaps that is the point. You are confronted with the enormity of one man’s madness, the devastation that he was responsible for sowing across an entire continent. As you enter the room you are completely surrounded by the faces of all the French children who perished in the Holocaust. Each picture identifies the child, the year they were born, and the year in which they died. Some victims looked no more than five years old while others pictures showed young teenagers around the age Anne Frank was when she died. It was arranged in exactly the same manner as one of the exhibits at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., a walkthrough spanning two floors that contains nothing but the photographs of a lost shtetl (Yiddish for little town), a town whose Jewish origins spanned 900 years. Today no Jews remain.
As we exited the museum, I simply asked my husband, ça va (okay?) to which he responded with a oui, ça va. We didn’t say anything else but simply took hands and strolled back across the Seine to Il St. Louis, where the memory of all France’s Holocaust victims remained with us.