In recent years, the French government has begun to recognize the shameful role the Vichy government played in the deportations of some 70,000 Jews and other people from occupied France to the concentration camps during World War II. Marble plaques have been placed on exterior walls of buildings – often on schools or residences – where the deportations took place. You see them most frequently in the Marais, which was the old Jewish quarter, but if you’re attentive, you can find them almost anywhere in the city.
On my last trip to Paris, I visited the Shoah Memorial, a museum and study center dedicated to the history of this time in France. You walk in through tight airport-like security, and the first thing you see are long walls inscribed with the names of those who were lost. It’s a very simple thing – just names – and yet overwhelming in its silent testimony. In the courtyard there’s a bronze cylinder – symbolizing the chimneys of the death camps – that bears the names of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Because this is a fairly new museum (it opened in 2005), there are lots of interactive displays, and much of the text is presented in both French and English. I was particularly interested in seeing the films clips and photography of everyday life before the war, and of the deportations and life and death in the camps. It’s not easy to take, but the material is beautifully presented. On a lower floor is an eternal flame, which sits across from the door of a barrack from one of the camps.
The memorial also contains the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation, which has reading rooms, an excellent bookstore and a café. There’s no entry charge, but voluntary donations are encouraged.
If you, like me, sometimes get your history through reading historical fiction, you might enjoy reading Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, a novel that contrasts the life of a contemporary Parisian woman and a young girl who was deported in the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiver roundup, when several thousand Jews were sent to the camps.
The Shoah Memorial is located at 17, rue Geoffroy l’Asnier in the 4th arrondisement. Metro: Saint-Paul, Hotel de Ville, Pont Marie. Open every day from 10am – 6pm except Saturday.