paul bernhardt

Paris Holocaust Memorial

Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, Île de la Cité, Paris
Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, Île de la Cité, Paris


Statement


Quai de l'Archeveché, Île de la Cité, Paris

Just behind Notre Dame, on the eastern tip of the Île de la Cité, is a site. At ground level, the memorial looks like a low cement wall. Walking closer, there is a narrow stairway leading down, toward the river, into a small plaza bounded on all sides by high cement walls. The sense of isolation is profound. Traffic, birds and the river just outside can all be heard. Quai de la Tournelle, filled with people taking a pleasant summer stroll, lies just across a short span of river. Iron bars span the window.

Every element of the memorial's architecture enacts imprisonment. I am enjoying freedom of movement and the luxury of travel. Experiencing simulated imprisonment in the middle of Paris gives me pause. This might not be much, but it is not nothing. The work is retrieved from brutalism by the contemplation visitors bring to it.

A very narrow passage perhaps two feet wide leads off the sunken plaza away from the river. Each of the two facing walls inside this passage is installed with a grid of 100,000 small points of light. This is the memorial to the estimated 200,000 Jews deported from France by the Nazis. Outside it's a busy day at the height of the tourist season during an unusually hot summer in France. The nearby Place du Parvis Notre Dame is jammed with visitors from around the world. Perhaps a dozen other people visited the memorial in the hour or so my wife and I spent there.
The site is not called the Paris Holocaust Memorial. I'd thought of it that way when I learned of its existence while researching our trip, but was surprised to see, upon reaching the place, that it is called the Mémorial aux Martyrs de la Déportation. To my ears there is a lot to unpack in that name. I wonder what resonances this name carries in France.
The memorial was dedicated in 1963 -- 18 years after the liberation of the death camps, 19 years after the liberation of Paris. Nearly every adult in the country could remember the Vichy regime. I suppose even those who refused to acknowledge what had happened knew what "deportation" referred to, but it still sounds euphemistic compared with "Holocaust."

More troubling is the word "martyr." In this historically predominantly Catholic country, does this word evoke the suffering of Christian saints? Is that narrative being imposed here? Of course the word is also used in a political and military context to mean someone who dies for a cause. Ten years earlier, George Goldberg and Alexandre Persitz's Tombeau du Martyr Juif Inconnu down the street in the fourth arrondissement also used the word. I remain curious about this word "martyrs" in French.

I am also curious about a number of things related to the creation of the memorial. This site on the Quai de l'Archeveché had been the location of the Paris morgue from 1864 until 1910. I wonder how that fact figured in the plans for the present memorial. The Seine rises every spring, and it doesn't have far to rise before it reaches the memorial's barred windows. It would be interesting to speak with its caretakers about practical matters such as how long the memorial is closed, how the electrical wiring is kept dry, how water leaves the site, and so forth. May it be visited for many years to come.

see also: the Shoah Memorial, which opens its doors today (January 27, 2005), next to the Tombeau du Martyr Juif Inconnu: 17 rue Geoffrey l'Asnier, 75004 Paris; http://memorialdelashoah.fr

flood of 1910: http://world.std.com/~swrs/library/no_bridge.htm

Paris morgue: http://www.prov.vic.gov.au/provenance/ no3/DeathDecencyDeadHouse1.htm