“To the memory of the children – students of this school deported from 1942 – 1944 because they were born Jewish. Victims of the Nazi barbarity with the active complicity of the Vichy government. They were exterminated in the death camps. Let us never forget them. October 5, 2002.”
“In memory of the young girls brought up in this establishment, formerly a sewing school in the city of Paris, deported and murdered from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jews, innocent victims of Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government. More than 11,400 children were deported from France including more than 500 living in the 3rd arrondissement in Paris. They were exterminated in the death camps. Simone Weill high school students will never forget them.”
I sit here in the Marais and type these words and the horror runs down my spine. As I walk the streets of the Marais, Paris’ Jewish quarter, I keep seeing these black plaques. I’ve seen at least a couple dozen and almost certainly have passed many more. If I have the numbers right, there are over 300 posted at various spots (often hotels and schools) around the city. To my shame, I have been in the Marais a few times before and never noticed. Linda spotted one and now we see them everywhere. They haunt.
Moving through the city over these past weeks, I can’t help noticing that there’s a lot going on a few floors down inside of me. Up at street level, I am struck by how rich and beautiful the city is. The shop windows, the architecture. The boucherie. The traiteur. The boulangerie. The cafes. The fashion you see everywhere. Modern Europe flowing past like some eternal river. But there’s a subterranean zone within me that got activated in this foreign country. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s about coming into contact with place and time and culture in a way that is beyond language, beyond words. Something is happening at the cell level. I am here, I am away from home; alert in a new way, primed for adventure, open (hopefully) to new input, new sensations—food, visual stimuli, people, stories, art. A new sense of self. What is this place? And who am I in this place? This is why we travel.
One recurring motif I have felt from the beginning here is a sense of the history of Paris. (Warning, I’m a poor historian.) My mind freezes at the juxtaposition of a city this beautiful, this cultured, this elegant, being occupied by Nazis. The city of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Monet, of Simone de Beauvoir and Apollinaire, of Atget and Andre Kertesz, of Edith Piaf and Degas, of Marcel Proust, and countless others. It’s too hideous, beyond imagining. But it happened and even worse, the French were complicit. Those plaques all over the city—every one of them says it—with the active complicity of the Vichy government. It’s not just a deeply uncomfortable story, it’s monstrous.
When the nightmare came, it came fast. It took just six weeks for France to fall. From my readings, the German forces were vastly superior on multiple levels. They launched a bold attack. The highly regarded French Army (and Allied forces) weren’t ready, weren’t fast enough, and got outflanked. A million and a half French soldiers were taken prisoner. Over 100,000 French soldiers died in the fighting. France’s Marshall Philippe Pétain, (a WWI hero) asked for a cessation of hostilities and then came this…
“The Franco- German Armistice of June 22, 1940. Surrender. Hitler insisted on signing the document of capitulation in the same railway carriage used when Germany had surrendered in 1918. The humiliation of France was complete.”
— From The Fall of France, by Dr Gary Sheffield
There are certainly hundreds, if not thousands of terrible stories about collaboration — and to this day, France is still dealing with all of this. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the French state accepted responsibility for the actions of the Vichy government and began to make amends.
I am fairly certain that I moved through this next story as we visited the Shoah Memorial Le Marais yesterday, but there was an astonishing amount to take in and I think I missed it. I’m talking about the most ghastly moment in the city’s history of complicity…this is the story of René Bousquet.
“Assassinated in 1993, before he could go to trial, Bousquet was accused of coordinating with the Gestapo to organize the largest round-up of Jews in Paris. In July 1942, 13,000 Jews (including 3,000 children) were gathered at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ bicycle stadium in the 15th Arrondisement, from which they were shipped to French transit camps, and from there to Auschwitz. Part of the public’s attention focused on the French justice system. The French press had reported Bousquet’s role in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ round-up as early as 1978, but it took twelve years for French courts to take up the case filed by French Jewish organizations.”
— From the Brookings Institute
Beyond Bousquet, two vile, notorious figures have achieved infamy in this tale. They are Pierre Laval, a politician, and Marshal Philippe Pétain, the aforementioned French hero of WWI. Between the two of them, they led the Vichy government and aided the Gestapo as they rounded up Jews by the thousands. Both were sentenced to death after the war. De Gaulle commuted the death sentence of Pétain, as a means of honoring his service to the nation in WWI. But after the war he spent the remainder of his life in prison.
This is all to say that we visited the Shoah Memorial Le Marais yesterday. It was an utterly profound and shattering experience. In the image below look at the name ESKENAZI and note how many were taken. As we moved through these carved names outside the Shoah Memorial every letter was the same. You’d see entire families, and extended families, listed.
“Is Paris burning?” This is what Hitler asked General Dietrich von Choltitz when the end finally came. It wasn’t. Hitler’s order to burn the place to the ground was ignored. (Choltitz ignored the order and had tried later to claim that he was largely responsible for Paris remaining intact. It’s a more complicated story and his role is not quite the noble moment he claims it is.)
So as I wind this down I just want to take a moment…I want to pay homage to those who suffered and to those who defeated the Nazis. As I walk the streets, as I take pictures, as I notice the historical markers on the way to coffee, as I peruse the work of photographer Jan Groover at the Henri Cartier Bresson Foundation, and as I visit the Shoa Memorial that tells of the horrors that took place here, I want to reflect and I want to remember. So many thousands of people known and unknown, famous and lost to history, took unimaginable risks and did what needed to be done to stop the madness. So all of us can walk these narrow and beautiful and crowded streets. So we can experience the wonder that is Paris.