This post is Part 3 of a series about Alternative Paris. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, click to read Heading to Paris? Pack your Post-it notes, and part 2, Catacombs of Paris: Do I see Dead People? Then hurry back here to read about Alternative Paris-Jewish History.
I asked my dad a simple question while sitting at our suburban dinner table in St. Paul one early June evening in 1967.
“Dad, what’s a Jew?”
I was a history- and news junkie even way back then; a skinny Minnesota kid who loved to swim, hated to play ‘house’, dreamed of being an archaeologist, batted right (and was bitterly disappointed that I threw like a girl), but the 6-Day War between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria was making headlines and so, priority-wise, the war seemed a step above how to improve my softball toss. The simple question revealed my confusion. Was being a Jew about religion? Culture? Nationality?
After he finished chewing his grilled bratwurst, swallowing it along with the idea that his blonde, 9-year-old, barely-a-Lutheran daughter had stolen his morning paper before he’d had his first coffee of the day, and had read enough about the roiling mass that was the Middle East to ask about Jews at dinner, my father did a pretty good job of explaining that being a Jew could mean you were part of any or all of those things.
Not long after that conversation I read The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig, which told the story of Esther’s Polish family’s arrest by the Nazis, their deportation to Siberia, and the hardship they endured. As I devoured her book, I worked alongside Esther in the potato fields, hands and feet frozen, trying to ward off starvation. She and I were both clever, rather shy, and loved our grandmothers. I imagined myself harshly tested by weather, cultural hatred, isolation of exile, and the confusion of adolescent emotions. In Esther’s place, I envisioned myself as courageous and resourceful as she was. I was hooked. From that day forward, I read everything available to me about the Jews, the Holocaust and Israel. I badgered the librarians at school and at the Washington county library to track down more books. Leon Uris kept me awake, sheet pulled over my head, flashlight scanning every page of Mila 18 and Exodus. Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins gave me the gift of O Jerusalem. I began thinking that maybe I’d been a Jew in a previous life or (even more exciting) I had been given up for adoption by a Jewish couple escaping persecution in 1940’s Poland. Never mind that I wasn’t born until almost 20 years later. That was a minor detail and didn’t fit in with my newly discovered fascination for all things Jewish.
Eventually, I gave up on the idea of being a secret Jew but never lost my interest in Jewish culture and history.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, transport me to Paris and imagine my delight to discover a lively and history-rich Jewish Quarter, called the Pletzl (the Place) in Yiddish, nestled in an area called the Marais. The history of the Marais over the centuries has taken it from a royal center of mansions, to decline and one of Paris’s worst slums, to what is now a trendy spot of gentrification. Despite episodic expulsions by French Kings and Hitler, plus the current influx of hipsters, this has been the sight of one of largest Jewish communities in Paris. Many of the Ashkenazi Jews who settled here at the end of the 19th century were part of making the Marais district a clothing center. The religious community here is primarily Orthodox.
The Jewish Quarter in Paris centers around the Rue des Rosiers (street of roses). In a short hour or two, you can walk this mostly pedestrian area. Amidst the fashion stores creeping in,reducing the quarter to a smaller footprint as the years pass, check out the Jewish bakeries, delicatessens, falafel shops and butchers. Have lunch here and enjoy the sights and sounds of a genuine Paris neighborhood.
Once you have completed your walking tour along Rue des Rosiers, continue south to one of the more meaningful sites in Paris, the Mémorial de la Shoah. The memorial’s purpose is to pass on the history of the Jews in France and the lessons of the Shoah (Hebrew for ‘catastrophe’ and used in France to speak of what in the English-speaking world we know of as the Holocaust). 76,000 names of French Jews (including 11,000 children) who were deported during World War Two are etched in what is called The Wall of Names. If you are fortunate to visit on the second Sunday of each month, there is a guided tour in English. Admission to the Mémorial de la Shoah is free.
A final stop on my recommendations for Alternative Paris-Jewish History, is the small Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation (Memorial of Deportation), on the southeastern tip of the Ile de la Cité. Just east of the grand Notre Dame cathedral and down a short set of steps is this quiet, yet haunting memorial. Smooth stones line the floor, in honor of the Jewish tradition of placing a stone upon a grave. Poems are etched in the stone walls. This setting is a somber but calming place of remembrance; a spot in the heart of Paris yet completely apart from the rush and hustle that is just steps away.
Resources for visiting the Jewish Quarter and the memorials:
- Jewish Quarter of Paris centers on the rue des Rosiers, between rue Pavée and rue Vieille du Temple, in the Marais area, north of the river.
- Mémorial de la Shoah: Located on the Right Bank, north of Ile St. Louis. 17 rue Geoffroy l’Asnier. Closed Saturdays. Admission is free and a guided tour is available in English on the second Sunday of each month. http://www.memorialdelashoah.org/index.php/en/
- Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation (Memorial of Deportation): Square de l’Ile de France, just east of Notre Dame cathedral. Admission is free. http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/en/memorial-des-martyrs-de-la-deportation
- google map: https://firstname.lastname@example.org,2.3592578,17z