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?
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.