The Presence of the Past

In my Paris neighborhood, I am discovering France’s historic fear of outsiders. Indifference to the fate of those not inside their circle is the underside of the French passion for privacy, for la discretion. A country that has experienced multiple invasions and a catastrophic loss of life in World War I has low expectations of humanity – and an understandable fear of les etrangers – strangers. “C’est normale,” accompanied by a gallic shrug, is an expression I hear often. Even death in mid-life is deemed “normale,” something to accept and live with. In New York, death is not “normale.” It is a shocking intrusion into life – a failure. No one in hyperactive Manhattan wants to be reminded of mortality.

Here in Paris, every block tells a tale, and cautions the visitor against undo optimism. The past – and death – is so present in Paris because every neighborhood has some sort of a monument to the two million men – two out of every nine – lost in World War I. Every step forward is followed by one backward – the ancient stones of my neighborhood seem to say. I am reminded of that as I sit in Le Café Metro, on the place Maubert. Léon Blum, elected Prime Minister in 1936 was the first Jew to hold that office. He was driving through place Maubert, where I am sipping my café au lait, when a group of right wing thugs tried to overturn his car. Did anyone sitting on this terrace move to intercede? Blum was arrested by the Gestapo. He survived Auschwitz, but his brother René did not.

What would have happened to Paris had its citizens resisted the Germans more forcefully? Would it have shared Budapest’s fate – with every major building and monument bombed? It’s a devastating thought: Notre Dame pulverized like Coventry’s cathedral? Still, Vichy is a name uttered with shame and as rarely as possible by the French.

My reverie is interrupted by a young man with a shaved head who leans over from the next table at the Café Metro to ask, “Can you recommend a good sushi place nearby?” He has an unmistakable Hungarian accent, so I answer in Hungarian. Again, I circle back to the scene a Parc Monceau. Will this exposure to the Other—a Hungarian skinhead looking for sushi in Paris—be enough to douse the next eruption of hate?

Posted on August 31, 2012

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