Now that I live part-time in Paris, I explore the city’s complex and sometimes disturbing relationship to toward its Jewish citizens—which given my own Jewish heritage, feels personal to me. In Paris: A Love Story, I probe this aspect of the city which most tourists miss.
In Paris, life and death, beauty and violence are forever colliding. I take the rue de Poissy, a picturesque, cobblestoned street with stunning windowboxes that spill over with geraniums, toward my home. At number 5, I pass the Ecole Maternelle. Like all French schools, it flies the French flag. But this nursery school also features a gold lettered, black marble tablet, which stops me in my tracks. “To the memory of the children – students of this school,” it states, “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.”
Facing the Ecole Maternelle is a recently renovated Benedictine monastery, which occupies most of the block. It is spacious, airy and well scrubbed. I wonder now, did the monks inside the beautiful monastery hear the bleat of the siren that signaled the approach of the Gestapo to collect the children from the school across the street? Did they see the black uniformed SS and their Vichy agents lead the children from the nursery school to the waiting van? Why didn’t the monks hide the children in that cavernous Abbey? I hesitate to knock on the school’s massive front door, though I’d like to know more about the children.
I return in the late afternoon. A teacher is leading a group of students into the monastery on a school field trip. Across the street, mothers are picking up their children from the nursery school. The front door is ajar. I walk in. Inside the vestibule, there is another black marble tablet. “Eight boys,” it says, “from this school were exterminated in the Nazi death camps. Albert Aronowicz, age 7, was the youngest, and Baruch Tuchbard, age 16, the eldest.” Did the school call the parents’ of Albert and Baruch and the others, to inform them they weren’t coming home that evening? Or had the parents already made the same journey themselves?
As I continue my deeper exploration of Paris, I am suddenly aware of these black marble plaques, and their sad message. There are over three hundred of them in the city, most of them erected since 2000.
For a long time, the French blamed the Nazis for what happened to French Jews. And yet, as early as 1940, the French Vichy government defined Jewish status, barring Jews from all state jobs, including teaching. Vichy France published 168 laws governing Jewish life.
During the 1998 World Cup finals, I learned what a tender subject race is in France. France’s victory set off an explosion of celebrations in Paris, with wildly exuberant crowds pouring into the streets , kissing strangers, and honking their horns until the early morning. It was unlike anything I have ever witnessed in New York. “How wonderful,” I enthused to my French brother-in-law, “to see this multicultural team.” For, indeed, the French soccer team, led by the legendary ethnic Algerian center field player, Zinedine Zidane, was the very portrait of a rainbow coalition., “We do not remark on such things,” my brother-in-law chided me. “They are all French.” This is national policy and you will not find official French statistics on race or immigration. It would run counter to the founding principle of la Republique: the doctrine of assimilation. From the time of the Revolution, Protestants were given equal status in Catholic France, as were Jews and the children of immigrants. Of course, the black marble plaques tell a different narrative.
Albert Einstein may have been the most famous Jew of the 20th century. His biographer Walter Isaacson described that “when he arrived in New York in April, , he was greeted by adoring throngs as the world’s first scientific celebrity, one who also happened to be a gentle icon of humanist values and a living patron saint for Jews.” Over the course of his lifetime, Einstein became a committed Jew and a Zionist, a commitment that resulted in his being offered the presidency of Israel, an honor that he declined. In 1955 he stated near the end of his life, he stated, “My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human tie.” Einstein explained his route to Jewishness in his popular 1934 book, The World As I See It: “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence – these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.” He went on to note, “In the philosophical sense there is, in my opinion, no specific Jewish outlook. Judaism seems to me to be concerned almost exclusively with the moral attitude in life and to life. I look upon it as the essence of an attitude to life which is incarnate in the Jewish people rather than the essence of laws laid down in the Torah and interpreted in the Talmud.” Einstein was quite emphatic that his Jewish identity was not religiously motivated. In 1921, he told the rabbis of Berlin who had urged him to become a dues-paying member of the Jewish religious community, “I notice that the word Jew is ambiguous in that it refers (1) to nationality and origin, (2) to the faith. I am a Jew in the first sense, not the second.”
So Einstein highlighted several of the features that foster Jewish identity – nationality (or race or group membership), the culture emanating from group membership, and shared religious belief. In the United States, religion remains a powerful force in Jewish identity, as do an inner commitment to being Jewish and significant Jewish friendship ties. The National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001 observed, “Most American Jewish adults observe in some way the High Holidays, Passover and Hanukkah. Majorities also read a Jewish newspaper or magazine or books with Jewish content, regard being Jewish as very important, and report that half or more of their close friends are Jewish.”
Einstein believed that anti-Semitism was a major force in promoting affiliation to the Jewish community as when he wrote, “It may be thanks to anti-Semitism that we are able to preserve our race.” Yet, the writers of the American Jewish Yearbook 2007 have shown that anti-Semitism is simply not present at levels where it would serve as a threat and cohesive force, noting, “The American Jewish community in the U.S. – the largest concentration of Jews in the world outside Israel – experienced remarkably low levels of expression of anti-Semitic expression, both behavioral and attitudinal in 2006. This followed a 50-year pattern that reflected the strengths of a pluralistic society, even as intergroup tensions in general continued to concern political leaders and social analysts.” This has translated into a different set of feelings about being Jewish in the United States with most contemporary American Jews viewing themselves as Einstein did — both assimilated and Jewish.