April 15, 2007
Yom HaShoah, part two: the monument in Paris
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?