April 15, 2007

Yom HaShoah, part two: the monument in Paris

Posted in History, Musings, Religion at 5:11 pm by The Lizard Queen

Below is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for a travel writing workshop in the fall of 2005. It describes a portion of my trip to Paris the previous summer. Normally I’m not keen on including my own more creative writing in this blog, and my reasons largely boil down to the fact that I’m often rather paranoid, but this essay needs enough work before it’ll be publishable that I don’t mind. Beyond that, I felt like this section was appropriate to the day. I hope you enjoy it.


. . . My sister crossed over to the Left Bank, and I headed to the Holocaust memorial, located on the southeastern tip of the Île de la Cité. I’d never heard of it before, but it had been mentioned in my sister’s guidebook, and the book’s brief blurb made it seem worth checking out.

I crossed a street and went through a gate into a small park. It was quiet, populated by only a handful of people. I felt a world away from the crowded plaza in front of Notre Dame. The park was lined with trees, and along one edge were benches, their backs to the cathedral. Across a dirt path from the benches was a stretch of grass, in the center of which was a triangle of rose bushes. A few of the bushes still had vivid pink blooms. I could hear the Seine and the distant noises of the city. A woman ate her lunch on one of the benches. Overall, the scene was a peaceful one.

Beyond the grass, however, was a large cement slab, a sort of bunker. Slashed into the stone were numbers and letters, and the slashes were painted red, making it look as if the cuts had drawn blood from the stone. 1940 was on the left side, 1945 on the right. I read the words slowly: Aux deux cent mille martyrs Français morts dans les camps de la deportation. To the two hundred thousand French martyrs who died in concentration camps. Several steps from the monument was information: a basic explanation of the Holocaust, photos, maps depicting the locations where the “undesirables” were gathered before being deported. I looked it over, then stepped over to a wall to look out at the Seine. I was moved already, and I hadn’t even been inside yet.

I walked down a narrow flight of stairs cutting through the cement into the “bunker,” entering the monument proper. Iron spikes sticking out horizontally from a wall greeted me across a tiny courtyard; behind them was a grated window through which I could barely glimpse the river. I turned and stepped inside, into a small round cell, cut off by a metal gate, beyond which was what looked like a hallway. Small glowing crystals lined the hallway, one for each of the two hundred thousand martyrs. Above the gate was an inscription slashed into the wall: Pardonne, N’oublie pas… Forgive, don’t forget. There were wings to the left and right, each consisting of a small rectangle of space. Into the walls were carved triangles memorializing each of the concentration camps, along with quotes about humanity and the Holocaust.

I closed my eyes and pressed a palm to the wall. It was cool, hard, rough. I swallowed, willing away tears. A few other tourists roamed through the monument, murmuring to one another, reading the quotes, translating words for the non-French speakers or explaining what happened to those who hadn’t yet studied it in school. A tall young man in a navy blue kippah walked slowly around the monument’s perimeter, looking bereft.

The monument was unveiled in 1962, during Charles de Gaulle’s presidency. The main complaints about the monument are that it is so easily missed, and that it does not acknowledge that Jews made up the majority of the deportees. Given how desperately the de Gaulle administration wanted to put World War II and the Holocaust behind them, the skeptic in me thinks it’s lucky there’s a memorial at all. It frightens me, though, this attempt to deny what happened. One of my students the previous semester had told me that his high school history classes had barely mentioned the Nazis and the Holocaust. I’m sure he was exaggerating, but it made me think. If we don’t remember past genocides, if we don’t educate ourselves and our children about them, then how can we stop future ones from happening?


1 Comment »

  1. DavidD said,

    It so happens that a Star Trek Voyager episode addresses the question of whether to forget or not. It even involves an alien language, but not French.

    It was titled “Memorial”, episode 134, season 6, first aired February 2, 2000 (I’m sure I was busy at the time). It was about a memorial on a now uninhabitated planet where 300 years before the inhabitants were massacred for resisting relocation. The memorial causes those on passing spaceships to remember the massacre telepathically, complete with guilt, fear, and other qualities that make the experience seem real. The crew spent the episode figuring out where this was coming from, what the reality of it was, and whether they somehow did participate in the massacre under some sort of spell, before it was revealed to have happened 300 years earlier.

    In the end there are two schools of thought. Neelix and Captain Janeway want the memorial preserved out of respect for the massacre. Everyone else wants to disable it so as not to interfere with others again. The captain wins.

    Usually I’m with Chakotay on this show. I don’t have his facial tattoo, but I like his visions and pragmatism. He wants to disable the memorial. There are so many other reminders of how vicious human beings can be. There are, you know. If you miss Schindler’s List you might see The Killing Fields, where Pol Pot destroys the intellectual class in Cambodia, meaning anyone who wears glasses. It is a necessary lesson to learn what human beings are capable of, not just the charismatic maniacs in power, but all the educated and talented people who not only allow mass murder, but try to make it more efficient. There are still plenty of nuclear weapons on Earth to aid such an effort.

    How much does this lesson have to be driven home? I’m with Chakotay. There’s enough memory as it is. But I know I don’t have a deciding vote any more than Chakotay did. C’est la vie.

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