Most Americans are aware that there’s a World War II American cemetery in Normandy, but until recently I didn’t know that there’s a smaller American military cemetery right outside Paris in the town of Surenses. It’s situated in a beautiful setting and is well worth a visit on a fine day.
My friend Donna and I took the 15-minute ride on the RER train from St. Lazare station to Surenses; the train ticket costs less than €5. We turned right out of the Surenses/Mont Valérien station, then left up a paved path with a green railing. Within a few blocks, we climbed some stone stairs and emerged onto a belvedere with a wide view across all of Paris. The view alone was worth the trip.
It was a sunny day, and the white of the cemetery’s marble crosses and Stars of David gleamed starkly against a perfect green lawn. (The grass was so inviting Donna took her shoes off.) This cemetery was created at the end of World War I, but it also houses the remains of 24 unknown soldiers of WWII. Stretching across the rear of the lawn is a classical marble monument to those buried there and to nearly a thousand still missing from the first war.
This is a peaceful haven where you won’t find hordes of tourists; in fact, Donna and I were the only people visiting that afternoon.
We were able to ask questions and learn a lot about Surenses from the gracious staff person Gabrielle Mihascu. She then directed us behind the American cemetery to the Parc du Mont Valérien, where the Mémorial de la France Combattante, an extraordinarily moving tribute to the French Resistance fighters of WWII, is located.
The park runs up the wooded hillside of Mont Valérien, with meandering paths and enticing benches (a great place for a picnic). In 1941, the Nazis occupied this area and used a nearby chapel to hold as many as 200 people at a time – those suspected of working for the Resistance — before executing them in the nearby trees. When Charles de Gaulle returned to Paris after the Liberation, he signed a decree creating this memorial. It was dedicated on June 18, 1960, and every president of France since has come here on June 18 to sign the book and honor the dead.
On the exterior walls of the memorial are a series of bas relief sculptures on the subject of war. They’re heartbreaking in their fierceness and compassion.
A crypt holding the bodies of sixteen people, symbolic of all those who died, is built into a high wall at the top of the hill. Although the crypt is only open for tours on Sunday afternoons, we asked at the memorial office if we could see it, and a young woman unlocked it for us. Inside, 16 people, symbolic of all those who died in the Resistance, are buried in unmarked caskets draped with the flag of France. A 17th remains empty for now; it’s being held for when the last Resistance fighter dies, whoever that will be.