It does not seem to me, Austerlitz added, that we understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision.
― W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
I don’t know who said, “The past is always with us,” but nothing could be truer than in the Marais, the historic Jewish Quarter in Paris. It is one of those Old World locations where the past and the present converge, where one’s sense of self is challenged by being forced to weigh one’s life against the events that made the present possible. I and two friends rented an apartment in the Marais earlier this year, on Rue Chapon which dates from 1292, a street originally called Street of the Cock, not for the bird but a name of derision given to a synagogue there under the reign of Philip IV, La Maison de la Société des Capons. One of the oldest structures in Paris, in fact, was one street over, the Nicholas Flamel house built in 1407 on Rue Montmorency. Somewhere beneath Chapon are the bones of Carmelite nuns whose convent was founded there in 1617.
Although the apartment had been thoroughly modernized, it retained the original massive, unpainted ceiling beams. Many of the buildings in that section date from the seventeenth century and were abandoned by the nobility for the more upscale Faubourg St. Germain area when Louis XIV moved the royal court from the Louvre to Versailles in 1682. A steady decline continued into the nineteenth century. The grandest old Marais residences became museums and hotels, the rest were subdivided into apartments like ours on Rue Chapon. With affordable housing, the Marais soon became a commercial district, attracting artisans and the working poor and, later, waves of immigrant Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and central Europe.
Today, Rue Chapon is primarily known, as it has been known for over two hundred years, for its wholesale purse trade. In a travel book published in 1842 titled How to Enjoy Paris, the author mentions a M. Langlais-Quignolot, No. 10, Rue Chapon, who “executes orders for London on a most extensive scale for net gloves, purses and reticules…. [and] has lately brought into vogue some most beautiful little purses called Rebecca, being exactly in the form of the pitcher with which she is represented at the well; their appearance is most ornamental, and although very small they distend so as to hold as much as most ladies would like to lose in an evening at cards.” Today, the street is home to several Chinese purse wholesalers, their small windows displaying vogue designs in colored and natural leathers.
But on this trip, I was not interested in shopping; I was interested in the area’s history, particularly during World War II. I had just read two books about this period, Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel Sarah’s Key about the Vel d’Hive roundup of Jews in Paris on August 16 and 17, 1942, and The Journal of Hélène Berr, begun at age 21 when she was a student of Russian and English literature at the Sorbonne and ending with her and her parents’ arrest on March 8, 1944. During my stay on Rue Chapon, I never entered the door at street level and walked up the three flights of worn stairs without trying to imagine the Jewish families who might have lived in the building during that dark period.
The plaque stated, in rough translation, that “on August 14, 1944, a meeting was held in this building between Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, the regional chief of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior), and the French police and the decision made for the entry of the police in the insurrectional struggle for the liberation of Paris.” The FFI was the formal name of the resistance fighters who lead the insurrection five days later which culminated on August 25 with the arrival of American troops.
It’s hard to imagine the City of Light during those six days, to think that tanks flanked the entrance to Notre Dame and that explosives were wired to the Cathedral towers as well as ancient bridges and other major sites such as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc d’Triomphe, and the Louvre. Hitler had given orders to destroy Paris, but Gen. Choltitz, the commander of the German forces, officially the military governor of Paris, refused to reduce five thousand years of history to rubble. In a 1964 interview, Choltitz explained, “If for the first time I had disobeyed, it was because I knew that Hitler was insane.”
It is harder still to imagine Paris during the four years of German occupation. When Berr began her journal in the spring of ‘42, the occupiers, to her, seemed little more than background noise. Her academic and social patterns continued for a few months unbroken—she attended classes and lectures, met friends in the library and courtyard of the Sorbonne, attended concerts at the Trocadero, accepted and extended invitations to teas, played violin in a small group of talented musicians. She was falling in love. But by summer increasingly flagrant acts of oppression made the reality all too clear. While her friends and their families and members of her own immediate family were fleeing to the free zone in southern France, Berr chose to stay with her parents and grandmother. Quickly, her world shrunk as more and more liberties were forbidden.
On July 16 and 17, 13,152 Jewish men, women, and children were arrested and taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor winter sports arena, and held there for five days before being deported to internment camps such as Drancy and then on to extermination camps. On July 15, Berr wrote in her journal, “Something tragic is about to happen.” On July 18th she wrote: “Some of the children they took had to be dragged along the floor. In Montmartre there were so many arrests that the streets were jammed. Faubourg Saint-Denis has nearly been emptied. Mothers have been separated from their children…. In one neighborhood, a whole family, the father, the mother, and five children, gassed themselves to escape the roundup. One woman threw herself out of a window. Apparently several policemen have been shot for warning people so they could escape. They were threatened with the concentration camp if they failed to obey.”
A Paris publication reported: “The Vél d’hiv looked like a scene from hell. Eight thousand Jews were camping there, living literally in their excrement, with nothing to eat or drink for three days. Men died. Women gave birth. The clamor raised prevented the neighborhood’s residents from sleeping for three nights.” There were also suicides.
Berr immediately volunteered with the UGIF (Union Générale des Israélites de France, or General Organization of Jews in France) to help with the children allowed to leave under the protection of the UGIF. But the UGIF had facilities only large enough to hold 4-500 of the 4,000 children, placing them in homes, monasteries, and orphanages. Berr and her parents were arrested on March 8, 1944 and deported to Drancy. On March 27, her 23rd birthday, she was deported to Auschwitz. In November she was transferred to Bergen- Belsen where she died a year later, just 5 days before the camp was liberated. Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was published in 2008.
I was in Paris the summer of 2004 when the city was celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of its liberation. A photography exhibit of over 100 enlarged, framed, black and white portraits recounting the Normandy and Provence landings leading up to the liberation, the arrival of American troops in Paris, as well as the reconstruction of France was affixed to the iron fence surrounding the Luxembourg Gardens. The sidewalk was crowded, the people, many of them old enough to have experienced those historic events, many of them with teary eyes, moved slowly, quietly past that floodtide of giant images. Those images and those faces brought tears to my own eyes. I was reminded of something American novelist William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
This July 16, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, a new exhibit opened in Paris’ city hall. The exhibit, “The Vel d’Hiv Raid: the Police Archives,” is the first public opening of these historic documents. Berr’s journal, like Anne Frank’s diary, intentionally written to preserve history for future generations, is sure to have been a motivating factor behind this exhibit.
Walking along those winding, ancient streets in the Marais which press upon so many layers of historical sediment, I often felt that I was the ghost, a visitor from the future walking unseen among the dead, trying to learn the lessons they could teach me, especially how to find meaning in everyday experience. Berr found meaning even while living through horror. She wrote: “And then there’s the sympathy of people in the street, on the metro. People look at you with such goodness it fills your heart with inexpressible feeling…. As the misfortunes are heaped up, this connection deepens. Superficial distinctions of race, religion, social class are no longer the issue—I never thought they were—there is unity against evil, communion in suffering.” But it came at the expense of so much loss. And she also wrote, “The only people who can be happy must be those who do not know.” But if you could choose, would you choose happiness over not knowing? Sometimes, I think that the only way the dead see the living is when the living feel suffering across time. In the Marais, you will not come away untouched—by something, by someone—and it will feel like a gift.