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Yesterday afternoon, after an excellent lunch at the Café de Paris, I went with my grandparents to the Mémorial de la Shoah: the Paris Holocaust Museum. (NB: pictures not mine.)

I was extremely unsettled by the museum, and not, I think, for the reasons a person should be unsettled by a Holocaust museum. I took a semester-long history elective in high school called Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and I think that it is a horror that needs a lot of space and time to be understood. There are so many key people, important events, difficult concepts and ideologies, that even working from August to December, we couldn’t cover everything, nor was it really possible to give us a final exam (I sang two songs from Simon Sargon’s cycle Ash un Flamen for my final project). The best Holocaust museums I’ve been to are just immense, with whole rooms devoted to single events, single countries, single groups of people who were targeted, which helps the visitor to at least come away with a sense of the enormity of the whole thing.

The trouble with the Mémorial de la Shoah is that there is no attempt to facilitate understanding. The whole museum–the whole of the Shoah, plus the history of anti-semitism in Europe and French Judaism–is compressed into three long rooms, with immense amounts of text and photographs on the walls on both sides. There was no particular order to things (I mean, okay, it was chronological, but because there was so much information in one room, unless you read every single word you were not going to get much of a sense of it). Grandpa asked if there was some kind of self-guided tour: negative. Most of the text was translated, but not all of it; Nanny pointed out a wonderful text by Edmond Fleg, but Grandpa couldn’t understand it because they hadn’t bothered to translate that one. It was this:

Je suis juif, parce que, né d’Israël, et l’ayant perdu, je l’ai senti revivre en moi, plus vivant que moi-même. Je suis juif, parce que, né d’Israël, et l’ayant retrouvé, je veux qu’il vive après moi, plus vivant qu`en moi-même. Je suis juif, parce que la foi d’Israël réclame, de mon cœur, toutes les abnégations. Je suis juif, parce qu’en tous lieux où pleure une souffrance, le Juif pleure. Je suis juif, parce qu’en tous temps où crie une désespérance, le Juif espère. Je suis juif, parce que la parole d’Israël est la plus ancienne et la plus nouvelle. Je suis juif, parce que la promesse d’Israël est la promesse universelle. Je suis juif, parce que, pour Israël, le monde n’est pas achevé : les hommes l’achèvent. Je suis juif, parce que, pour Israël, l’Homme n’est pas créé : les hommes le créent. Je suis juif, parce qu’au-dessus des nations et d’Israël, Israël place l’Homme et son Unité. Je suis juif, parce qu’au-dessus de l’Homme, image de la divine Unité, Israël place l’Unité divine, et sa divinité.

I am Jewish because, born of Israel and having lost it, I felt it revive in me, more alive than myself. I am Jewish because, born of Israel, and having found it again, I want it to continue to live after me, more alive than when it was in me. I am Jewish because the faith of Israel reclaims, in my heart, all sacrifices. I am Jewish because in all places where the suffering cry out, the Jew cries. I am Jewish because in all times when the hopeless cry out, the Jew hopes. I am Jewish because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest. I am Jewish because the promise of Israel is a universal promise. I am Jewish because, for Israel, the world is not achieved: men achieve it. I am Jewish because, for Israel, Man is not created: men create it. I am Jewish because above nations and Israel itself, Israel values Man and Unity. I am Jewish because above Man, the image of the divine Unity, Israel values the divine Unity and its divinity.

I find it frustrating that anybody who couldn’t read French wouldn’t have been able to understand that. And what of visitors who don’t read either French or English, or at least, not with enough fluency to move through a museum? I know it’s not possible to translate the materials into every possible language, but I’m positive that Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Holocaust museums in New York and Washington D.C. have materials in most languages; also, they are set up in such a way that you can have an incredibly powerful experience of understanding the Shoah without reading most of the text. In fact, in those museums, the most powerful exhibits are the ones with no text, like the pile of children’s shoes in Washington.

It’s also interesting to note that nobody knows where it is (when I asked the concierge at my grandparents’ hotel for a taxi to the Mémorial de la Shoah, he thought I wanted to go to the Eugene Delacroix museum…though it’s possible I may have mumbled); it’s very close to the river, and there is some signage on Rue de Rivoli to point you there, but I didn’t even know there was one in Paris until recently (when I stumbled upon it during the course of a long walk). I wonder how much of that has to do with the French attitude towards Judaism–I don’t mean anti-semitism, I mean the way French Jews perceive, and have historically perceived, themselves.

I did a bit of research on this a few years ago, for a musicology paper on Halévy’s opera La Juive, and one of the things that really stuck with me was the idea of French identity versus Jewish identity. There’s a famous story about Halévy, having won the Prix de Rome, finding himself in the Jewish ghetto of Rome (this is in the 1830s) and being utterly confused. In France, Jews were completely assimilated, they were as French as everybody else (having been emancipated in, I believe, 1791). It didn’t matter if you were Jewish in France: what mattered was that you were French. Halévy’s father (now I’m actually revisiting my paper–I’m not THAT great at quotation!) had a motto for his sons: “Tiens au pays et conserve ta foi.” Hold with your country and conserve your faith. In that order. Country first, faith second. But the trouble was that it made it harder for French Jews to identify with the wider Jewish community; Halévy couldn’t reconcile what he saw in the ghetto with what he considered to be his own Jewishness. Of course, this is not to say that there was no anti-semitism in France, just that nobody talked about it because French Jews were, above all, Frenchmen (sort of like France has always claimed that they don’t have any issues with race, because until recently there hasn’t been a dialogue about it).

Not to mention that France was most definitely complicit during World War II; the government ceded to the Germans at Vichy, and held a census to round up all of the Jews and deport them (from Drancy station, which is terrifying because it’s actually on a train line that I take all the time). So I can understand if they don’t want to publicize that too much by making a big deal out of the Holocaust museum. But I think you have to own your history. (I’m going to share this post with my friend Katie, who will be going to Vienna in the fall to study Austrian Holocaust memorials with an emphasis on collective memory–I’m curious to know what she thinks!)

The emotional punch in the gut of the Mémorial de la Shoah comes mainly from the saturation of images, I think, and not so much from any kind of effective curation. Because every wall is covered with photographs and text, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed and a little sick, and then at the end you come out into a little room where there are pictures of children who were deported, and it’s just too much. Interesting thought: I don’t think I saw the words “died” or “death” or “killed” anywhere in the museum. All the way up to the exhibit about the gas chambers and the Sonderkommandos, they only talked about people being deported “sans retour,” or being “exterminated” or “gassed.” Which are, of course, both accurate, if a little clinical. Throughout the museum there were individual portraits of people who survived to donate artifacts to the museum; but very little personal information about people who died. The Mur des Noms–the Wall of Names–at the front of the museum, is actually devoted not to people who perished at concentration camps, but to people who were deported from France. It’s hard to tell if the French are trying to wash their hands of what happened after that–“Oh, well, we just deported them, we had nothing to do with what came next”–or if there is just no way of knowing exactly what happened to the people who didn’t come back after the war. I like to think it’s the latter, but after all, we’re all only human, and nobody wants to take responsibility for something this horrific.

Anyway. I do think the Mémorial de la Shoah is worth a visit (it is, after all, free admission), even if it isn’t especially well-put-together.