Friday, June 8, 2012

Visit to Mont Valerian

Friday, June 8, 2012
Paris, France


I was a very good gal today and stuck fast to my resolution to preserve my foot health as long as I possibly can while still enjoying all the activities of our NEH seminar. After a cereal breakfast (oh, it felt so good to eat Jordan's Muesli after such a long time!) I spent time finishing up my laundry and bringing my blog up to date. Email, calls, twitter, took up due time and before I knew it, it was time to get dressed for our field trip to Mont Valerian.

Strike on the RER:
Well, what do you know? When I crossed the street and got to the RER station, it was shut tight. A notice said that the employees were on a Greve--strike! Befuddled at the absolute unexpectedness of it, and because I had to be at the CISP by 1. 30 pm (it was 12. 20 when I left home), I decided to take the tram to Porte D'Orleans and board a metro there to Denfert-Rochereau and then proceed as planned.

Hoping I would not keep the entire group waiting by my delay, I actually found myself right on schedule because all my connections were immediate. At the Bel Air metro station, I found my colleague Jen alighting from the same train and I was so grateful for her company on the 13 minute walk to the Center.

Off to Mont Valerian:
We set off by coach for Mont Valerian at 1. 45 pm. Within minutes, we were on the Peripherique (the Ring Road/Highway that encircles Paris). And that's where we crawled. It seemed that at all hours of the day, this highway is jammed. Mont Valerian is located in Suresnes, on the Northwestern edge of the city so it was a long ride. Our objective was to get to the spot which has a long and rich history but is most immediately associated with the destruction of thousands of French prisoners and hostages during World War II by the Nazis.

Visiting Mont Valerian:
It seems that Mont Valerian has been a place of Christian pilgrimage since Roman times. In more recent years, i.e. at the end of the 19th century, it developed into a fortification and was used during the Franco-Prussian War as a site for the defense of the city. Paris was lost, however, and the fortress was surrendered to the Germans then in exchange for the delivery of food to the starving city.

However, the site really came into its own during World War II when it was used as a prison to house political prisoners and dissidents under the Nazi regime. Although figures have been fudged, a few thousand French prisoners died here after facing German firing squads.

A tour of the memorial can only be arranged by groups and under the supervision of  a guide who accompanies the group throughout. Our tour was in French. Because I had done some research prior to the visit, I was better able to follow everything that was explained as we moved from one venue to the next.

We began by mounting the 'Esplanade' to get to the Eternal Flame which burns in memory of those who gave up their lives during World War II. A massive Cross of Lorraine dominates the venue just above the flaming altar. To get into the venue, the guide opens one of the doors in a wall with a key--rather neat as that's the only way you can get inside to the historic sites. You then enter into the very throes of the mountain, verdant with thick foliage and fragrant in the freshly fallen rain.

A very steep climb up a curving ramp took us to the top of the mountain. Our group of 16 American academics was accompanied by a group of elderly French men and women, probably representing a local pensioners club. At the crest of the hill, the guide stopped at a huge metal bell on which were engraved the names of all known men and women that were killed on the site between the years 1939-45. It was interesting to note that many of the names were those of 'etrangers', i.e. foreigners, indicating that a lot of the people who opposed Nazi policies were not necessarily of French stock alone--there were Russian, Hungarian, Arabic and even an Indian name (Arpen Rajmal)--probably recruited into French army ranks from the South Indian colony of Pondicherry.

After we were explained the significance of the bell, we moved into a newish structure that contains an exhibition that provided detailed information about the Nazi Occupation of France, the role of the Resistance and the numbers of dissidents killed, including at Mont Valerian. We could not spend too long reading all of the details as we had to move on to other venues.

Just besides the exhibition hall, is an ancient chapel which used to be employed as the holding place for prisoners condemned to die. It was in this chapel that they said their last prayers and had the opportunity to make their last confessions to the curate Fr. Franc Stock who went on to prepare thousands spiritually for the firing squad. The blue walls are the original walls of the structure. Much of the scribbles of the prisoners on the walls have been plastered over--it was not clear to me why this was done. Fr. Franc Stock survived the war and went on to become a prominent arbiter in normalizing Franco-German relations.

From the chapel, we moved along the crest of a hill along another path to the actual spot where the prisoners were placed against a wall to face the firing squads. Visitors can only see this site from a height as closer proximity to the wall is reserved only for the relatives of those who actually fell there. In 1958, President Charles de Gaulle declared the site a place of national mourning and a memorial to the fallen and a stone was set into the ground to denote its sanctity.

When we had received more commentary from the guide, we left this revered ground and made our way back to the Esplanade for a visit to the Crypt where we saw symbolic coffins draped with the 'bleu blanc rouge'--the French flag. There was also a sculpture of a flame to denote the gratitude of a nation to their unnamed fallen. As it is not clear where the Germans buried the ones they killed, there are no graves here--just a memorial. Outside, in a Visitors Book, the 1960 signature of Charles de Gaulle can be seen--based on his visit to the monument then.

The visit was interesting in that it brought home to me the number and variety of ways in which France remembers and immortalizes her war dead. In village after village that I have visited, through the years, in Normandy, Brittany, the Savoir, etc. I have seen memorial crosses to the heroes of the two World Wars. Here, however, it was clear that it was not just the Jews who perished in World War II, but so many other people representing a number of races, religions, nationalities. I am glad that their memory will be kept alive through these impeccably maintained sites of mourning.
The American Cemetery:
Just a few meters downhill is the superbly maintained American cemetery. While it may not necessarily be related to Mont Valerian, I would have loved to have stopped there. Indeed being that we are a group of American academics, I would imagine that we would find a great deal of interest in this venue. Row upon row of white crosses (as in the cemeteries of Normandy or the National Cemetery in Arlington near Washington DC) cover a few acres of pristinely maintained ground. I would suppose that each cross bears a name of the Americans who were killed on French soil. It brought to mind the lines from Rupert Brook's poem 'The Soldier':

"If I should die, think only this of me
That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England".

American, in this case, but still relevant. The US government is doing a brilliant job keeping the graveyard pristine and for that I am grateful.

Passing by Roland-Garros During French Open Tennis Matches:
In the bus, on the way back, we passed by what looked like rather exciting goings-on. As we skirted around the rather festive venue, it occured to me that we were at Roland-Garros! Right while the French Open Tennis matches were going on! You can imagine how excited I became as I had been thinking that I really ought to get out there and check out the event--even if I have no tickets to enter.

Well, I have to say that having been to Wimbledon at the height of the July tennis matches, this place was really subdued. Yes, there were crowds making their way inside the stadium and there were banners waving around the periphery of the venue, but there was not really any of the excitement, noise or festivity that one finds in London right from Wimbledon Tube Station and all the way up the hill to the courts when the matches are on.

The short introduction to Roland-Garros (albeit from a bus) was made more exciting by the fact that the Mixed Doubles Finals were won by India's Sania and Bhupati yesterday. I guess the French would not be as excited about that as I am!

Back Home to Relax:
Although my colleagues invited me to join them for dinner at Bercy Village and I would ordinarily have jumped at the opportunity to explore another part of Paris, I decided to pass as I wanted to remain a good gal and not tax my feet too much. At Porte D'Orleans, we hopped off the bus which was still crawling on the Peripherique on the way back. I did a bit of grocery shopping and then took the tram back home. I spent  the rest of the evening Skypeing with Llew and reading up on the Battle of the Somme as we will be visiting sites near Amiens associated with this dreadful phase of World War I tomorrow. After having climbed and walked about a bit today, I want to make sure I am in good foot health tomorrow.

I will now go off and make myself a nice plate for dinner--figs wrapped in proscuitto for starters...and then? Maybe some roasted chicken with a nice arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette.

A demain!

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