Friday, June 8, 2012

Visit to Memorial A La Shoah

Thursday, June 7, 2012
Paris, France


Lecture on '14-18: La Grande Guerre' by Annette Becker:
We were all rather apprehensive about finding the IHTP (Institut Histoire du Temps Present) which is tucked away on the northwestern edge of Paris. In my case, commuting from Cite-Universitaire, it involved three changes in the metro. I, therefore, gave myself adequate time to get there in the midst of peak-hour commuters. What's worse is that after alighting at the Guy Moquet metro station, one is required to walk about 12 minutes to reach it!

Well, as it turned out, those of us who were living in venues other than the CISP campus where most of the other participants are based, reached well in time. The CISP group trooped in ten minutes late--which meant that our session with renowned French historian Annette Becker began late. Annette cut a fashionable French figure in her tightly curled thick tresses that fanned around her head like a halo. She spoke in English, presenting a short introduction on the need to remember the Great War with sensitivity. She also spoke about Freud's concept of 'displaced mourning' with which I am familiar through my own book on 'The Politics of Mourning' and posited the notion that for the descendants of veterans of World War I and II, the mourning is not yet complete.

An Introduction to the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Peronne:
Becker then used Powerpoint to illustrate the work she collaborated in doing to put together the museum of World War I called The Historial de la Grande Guerre which is situated in Peronne on the Somme and which we will be visiting on a field-trip on Saturday. It was a brilliant summary of the logic and intellect that went into the scouting, selection, acquisition and placement of objects to be found in the museum as well as the architectural mindset that created the building. I was excited by her speech and am now looking forward to a very rewarding visit--only hope the weather holds out.

Trekking to the Memorial de La Shoah:
Talking of which, it was pouring by the time we left the IHTP for the trek back to the Brochant metro station. One of my colleagues was kind enough to share her umbrella with me for I had been foolish enough not to put one in my bag. The 15 minute walk soaked my left sleeve but, surprisingly, it was only just damp by the time we reached Saint-Paul where we descended for lunch.

Lunch at L'As de Falafel in The Marais:
I suppose it was fitting that we treat ourselves to a Middle Eastern speciality--Falafel--at the spot in Paris best known for it--L'As de Falafel (don't even attempt to translate it!) for we were spending the afternoon at the Memorial De La Shoah (The Holocaust Memorial) in the Marais. Every guide book advertises it as 'the' place to tuck into falafel: which are simply ground chick pea croquettes served in a pita bread pocket with salad and tahini--which is a sesame sauce. I usually do not care much for them as I find them rather bland. The rock singer Lenny Kravitz apparently so raves about this place that a prominent endorsement from him is found on the menu board outside.

The restaurant was packed and we thought that finding a table for six would be well-nigh impossible. Well, one presented itself in 2 minutes--so inside we trooped, sat ourselves down at the table and were ready to order: falafel for us all! Less than 10 minutes later, our lunch appeared, gigantic and bursting over with salad and stewed eggplant which was really delicious. It was worth every cent of the 7. 50 euros that it cost us (8 with tip). The falafel was so good that if time permits, I would love to return there for the chicken shwarma which is one of my favorite Middle Eastern dishes. Only goes to show that if something is prepared well, you will toss your pre-conceived notions aside and enjoy. And that I did! Indeed it was well worth trekking off in the rain to find the eatery.

The Memorial De La Shoah:
Paris' Holocaust Memorial is located in the heart of what used to be (and, in some senses, still is), its Jewish Quarter. In the days before the extermination of the Jews, the place buzzed with Jewish immigrants from all over the world who had made France their haven. Today, the Marais (meaning 'marshland' for that was what it once was) is only a shadow of its Jewish self: there are a few synagogues, a few Yeshivas, many kosher delis and restaurants and bakeries and several upscale stores that have taken over the area.

Lecture on the Holocaust Memorial by Claude Singer:
Our visit began at 2. 45 pm with a lecture in French by the Directeur de Pedagogie, Claude Singer, up in a quiet conference room in which tea, coffee, jus d'orange and cookies were available to warm us up a little. I have to say that not being as fluent in French as the rest of my colleagues, I ws proud of the fact that I got about 95 % of the lecture. Singer spoke about the reason for creating a Holocaust Memorial in Paris, the manner in which state support and funds were raised to create it, a comparison between similar memorials around the world and public attitudes towards them. It was passionate and interesting and led to many questions.

Visiting the Holocaust Memorial:
Right after the lecture-discussion (which lasted about 2 hours), we were left to our own resources. I decided to tour the premises on my own, quietly, reverentially, absorbing as much of it as I could in French. So I was relieved to find that all plaques and text were translated into English--which made for a very satisfying visit indeed. The visitor enters through a stone courtyard in which a large symbolic cauldron stands engraved with the names of all the major Concentration camps. Just past that are the Memorial Walls engraved with the names of all the French Jews who were interred in, died in or survived the camps. The large stone tablets containing the names just go on and on and on--it is simply heartwrenching to think of how many Jews were destroyed in the Holocaust.

Once you enter the building, you see an eternal memorial flame to the lost dead that burns constantly in a vast empty room that resembles a synagogue. An inscription in Hebrew from the Torah surrounds it. It has the desired solemnizing effect and I felt quite overcome. Right next to the flame is a room containing Police Files on all of France's Jews--the ones that were maintained to locate them, round them up and then deport them to the concentration camps. It consists of shelves and shelves and shelves of material closely documented on cards: a really great resource, I would imagine, for anyone doing research related to French Jews during the Holocaust.

The lower floors of the museum are a showcase of the history of the Jews in France from their very beginnings to the present day. Using mainly photographs, the display is a thoroughly well documented attempt at enlightening visitors on the role, contribution and  culture of French Jews, past and present. Needless to say, the portion that is most moving concerns the fate of the Jews during World War II with special reference to the role played by France's General Petain in collaborating with the Germans during the Occupation in what comes to be known as the phenomenon of Vichy France.

Even though I have visited the German concentration camp of Dachau and the Polish Concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau and there is never anything new to learn about what happened to the Jews and other dissidents in the camps, I always find it compelling and moving to watch footage or visual images that relate to the Holocaust.

One of the more unusual objects was a large wooden bin  that I saw for the very first time. It was used to gather up the ashes of the victims after they had been gassed and cremated. The wheeled cart was then used to scatter their ashes in the fields as fertilizer. This was for me the most horrific of the items on display.

Surprize on the Siene--Church of St. Gervais-St. Protais:
Deeply subdued by the extraordinary monument to loss, grief and resolution, I walked out into the Parisian sunshine--for yes, surprise, surprise, the sun had emerged and shone golden, if not warmly. I resolved to take a bus back to my digs rather than the Metro so that I could enjoy the city as I had once done on the red buses in London.

Never having taken a bus in Paris before, there was a learning curve involved. But by reading the bus map and the city map, I was able to figure out that No. 67 went from Rue de Rivoli to my lodgings. As I walked towards Rue de Rivoli, however, I passed by an ancient church and, of course, could not resist the temptation to poke my head in--that's what I most love about ancient cities like London, Paris or Istanbul: they have a surprize tucked into every crevice.

Well, it happened to be the Church of St. Gervais-St. Protais, two Roman martyrs. This remarkable church dates from the 6th century and now houses a Roman Catholic order of monastic priests who retain the vows of monkhood. When I entered, Evening Prayer was in progress. The church was fragrant with incense and melodious with the sonnorous sounds of the organ. A group of monks and nuns were seated close to the altar from where the priest was reciting prayers in French. I sat there for a while to take in the fantastic Gothic heights of the church, its fan vaulting, the paintings and frescoes on its walls and thought:  "I have never even heard of this church and yet look how fascinating it is." Outside, I took a picture of its three-tiered facade composed of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns--the oldest Classical facade in Paris.

Taking the Bus for the First Time:
Then, I walked to the Rue de Rivoli to discover that it was a one-way street. Making inquiries of a passer-by, I discovered that the bus I wanted ran from the banks of the Seine--I walked there, found my bus-stop, waited about 12 minutes, hopped on the bus and enjoyed a lovely 30 minute tour of the city past the Ile St. Louis. I was thrilled because I now know how to use the Parisian bus system! I can see myself using my Navigo pass in idle moments to traverse the city and discover it through the glass windows of the buses.

When I got off the bus, I saw a large Franprix right there--so in I went to buy a few groceries and armed with my bags, I made my way home for one stop on the tram. You see?  I have learned how to switch from bus to tram as well! That should give my poor feet some rest.

Tomorrow, I have a field-trip planned with my colleagues to Mont-Valerian which is the cemetery of those killed by the Germans in Paris during World War II. It promises to be another sobering experience, so I shall stayed rested in my apartment all morning before leaving for the Center in the afternoon--from where our coach shall leave for the venue.

Since it is almost Midnight in Paris, as the film titles it, I shall say...

A demain!

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