Category Archives: Museums

A Quiet Place in Paris

Ile de la Cité, May 2018. Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra.

There are few truly quiet places in the middle of a city, especially one as large and accommodating to tourism as Paris. But such a place exists there, and it exists to provide a warning.

One of my favorite places in the city on my extremely brief (as in one day) visit back in 1990 is the park behind the apse of Notre-dame, which I now know is named Square Jean XIII. On my visit this year, I couldn’t help but notice that much has changed in France since that long-ago stop. There is much less smoking, for one. I could breathe at Charles De Gaulle airport this time. The train ride into the city revealed a much larger population with roots in other countries to the south and east. The euro has replaced the franc, of course. Tourism from around the world has increased dramatically—the Chinese move in groups of sixty. And security throughout the city is very much in evidence. The guns the soldiers carry are substantial and conspicuous, and we all know why.

This time around, I was delighted to find that the little park had not changed at all, save that a few more tourists seemed to have discovered it. While hundreds queue up on the other side of the cathedral, Square Jean XIII provides a measure of quiet, a needed dose of shade (of this the French make certain when planting their trees—the Jardin de Luxembourg is another example) and a chance to catch one’s breath. In 1990 I sat down on a bench and only a couple of mothers with prams occupied the place, with a local or two walking through from time to time. Even though I was a month earlier in the calendar this time (late May), I had more company, most, like me, from elsewhere.

But this is not the quiet place to which I refer.

That place is next to this one, at the very tip of Ile de la Cité, and I did not know it existed back then. It is the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, and since 1962 it has occupied this spot on the Seine in the heart of Paris.

It is easy to miss, situated as it is between a hedge and the river. You descend down into a commemorative underworld full of symbols and dread. The music and bustle from the street is quickly sealed off, and in its tomblike inner chamber, thousands of illuminated pebbles keep the memory of the deported alive. An exhibition space, burrowed even deeper into the island, contains reproductions of artifacts related to life and death in the camps. An artist’s sketch, made using whatever materials that might work, recording the horror in hopes that someone would see it someday. The color-coded list of undesirables—Jews, homosexuals, and on and on—identities fixed as inferior and therefore worthy of death. A photograph of a survivor not only of the camps but of sickening medical experiments. All this and more is shown in a dark tunnel, with the exhibits small and lit individually. Much of it is well-known to anyone who has paid attention to the Holocaust at all, but the point is to make sure we do not forget.

Between 1942 and 1944 during the occupation the French police helped round up 76,000 Parisian Jews on behalf of Germany, sending them on to the horrors of the camps. 200,000 French prisoners died in places like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen—the names of all 15 camps are a significant part of the memorial, repeated in various incantatory ways, all in an effort to not forget.

Across the Seine in the old Jewish Quarter in Le Marais, we find a museum, the Mémorial de la Shoah, along with a wall of names listing the 76,000. There is also a remarkable wall memorial, the Mur des Justes, commemorating the French people who aided Jews during the war. Research on this list began at about the time of the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. The first names went up in 1964.

The quiet place, the deportation memorial, does not call attention to itself. But it occupies a symbolic place—Ile de la Cité is where Paris began, and nearby Notre-dame is as important and iconic a structure as you will find in any city. Here the French acknowledge a terrible wrong done at a terrible time. They were remembering this publicly within two decades.

Two thoughts: the United States is showing belated signs of acknowledgement for past wrongs. Private entities have recently opened a slavery museum at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and a lynching memorial in Alabama. There is even a new National Historic Site on Reconstruction. That’s progress, and having visited the Whitney, I can attest to its power. Speaking as a public historian, I am disappointed at the tardiness but encouraged by the effort. But it is 2018, and there is much more to acknowledge in public spaces, to say nothing of a needed debate about reparations that is not likely to get traction any time soon.

Second, I emerged back into a lovely Parisian evening from the deportation memorial pondering the nationalism that fed World War II, with its emphasis on drawing racial and ethnic lines, determining who was a real citizen and who not, and who by the fact of their existence—not because of anything they had actually done or said—were deemed unworthy of life. The Third Reich had no problem making the lines clear. In the case of France, they could take advantage of fault lines already present in that society—note the Dreyfus Affair.

There is much criticism from the right in the United States today concerning identity politics, but it is the lines drawn by those in power that have left groups reliant upon their identities for succor and strength in the face of inequality. It doesn’t matter what form of protest used—whether taking a knee during the anthem at a football game, marching in the streets, or calling loudly for assistance in a natural disaster—those who draw the lines will not be supportive. They will change the subject, they will ignore the cause, they will go on pretending and they will continue to kill.

The Brittany coast from Mont-Saint-Michel, May 2018. Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra

We last heard the catchphrase “America First” back in 1939. President Roosevelt and the architects of the US involvement in World War II and after such as George Marshall believed in American power but also in international cooperation. It is true that the liberal institutions they and their successors helped create—the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, NATO, the European Union—helped stabilize much of the postwar/postcolonial world. But there were costs as well, not only in far flung places but back home where free trade and globalization has left plenty of people behind not only in the US but in Britain, Italy, and France, through whose countryside I rolled on my way to Mont-Saint-Michel. I reminded myself that Brittany is Le Pen country, and indeed it looked less prosperous than I might have expected. Parts of it reminded me of small towns in Illinois and Missouri whose Main Streets have been decrepit for decades. And I remembered my own part of the world—indeed my own block—struggling with the homelessness that income inequality has fueled to a crisis point.

I certainly don’t have answers for these seemingly intractable geopolitical problems, and I take no joy in pondering them and trotting out my half-baked musings. Despite the rolling rail strikes in France in response to President Macron’s proposed reforms, I didn’t miss any trains and life goes on. But the memorial, the quiet place, pointed me back to nationalism. If that is indeed the best answer we can come up with, I fear for us all.

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