May 3, 2024

SCHWARZ | The Magic of Paris and Dark Side  of Paris

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I have just returned from a visit to four cities in Europe — Madrid, Barcelona, Paris (where we stayed almost twice as long as we did in the other cities) and London. In all four cities, my visits were informed by the pleasure of past visits, but it is memories of Paris and knowledge of French history that haunt my mind. Over multiple visits in my lifetime I have spent probably about seven months there.

The Magic of Paris

When I think of the magic of Paris, I recall hours spent in the Louvre, D’Orsay, Pompidou, L’Orangerie, the Guimet and other major museums and exhibits; dinners in Paris at some of favorite mid-price restaurants, including L’Ardoise, La Regalade, Les Jalles and La Robe et le Palais; and walking various neighborhoods on the both the Left and Right Banks of the Seine. I not only recall occasional ballet, opera and theatre performances as well as the French Open tennis tournament which I attended twice in one visit, but specific shops — such as the Macht Foundation art gallery at 42 rue du Bac (one of my favorite streets) — where I purchased a beloved lithograph that hangs in our dining room. While I can read French reasonably well and muddle through speaking French with a New York City accent, I have watched Paris evolve into a city where one does not have to speak French to get waited on. Ethnic diversity and economic disparity do bring tensions such as the populist Yellow Vest Movement which drew from the far Left and far Right.

View of Paris from Pompidou. Marcia Jacobsen.

For me Paris is the city of lights not because it was the first city to use gas lighting and, before that, because Louis XIV in the 17th century installed streetlights to avoid lawlessness. For me it is the city of lights because each of many visits becomes part of my personal and intellectual maturation and growth. I think I discovered in Paris some of who I was as a twenty-year old and found the resources within myself to begin the journey to whom I wanted to be.

My memories of Paris reach back to my 1961-1962 junior when I met my first wife on a student ship to Europe and visited her many times in Paris while studying in Edinburgh. On occasion, we stayed up very late, sampled jazz clubs, and ended up having French onion soup in Pigalle at the foot of Montmartre watching the sun come up. With a strong dollar, we could sample bistros  and experience, a little of Paris night life. What enthralled me even  then were the wonderful art museums which contained many of the very paintings that I was studying in my art history course at Edinburgh. Every day we explored a new site — Notre Dame, Saint-Germain-des-Pres (the oldest church in Paris which has remained a favorite), the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, the Bastille — or neighborhoods such as Montparnasse with its artistic heritage; the Marais, once the Jewish district; or the Latin Quarter, where the bookstore Shakespeare and Company owned by Sylvia Beach published Ulysses.

On later Paris visits alone and beginning in the late 1990s with my second wife, I revisited changing neighborhoods and returned to beloved museums. I visited newer museums such as the Branly focusing on the  indigenous art and cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas as well as the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism which opened in 1998. I have watched the Louvre become more inclusive in terms of non-Western objects.

African art from the Louvre. Marcia Jacobsen.

What a wonderful surprise on this past visit to see the large Johnson Museum Daubigny Les champs au mois de juin almost dominating a room in the splendid “1874” D’Orsay exhibit about the beginnings of Impressionism. In the prior room is a much smaller Monet that looks with its red poppies as if Monet were paying homage to the Daubigny.

Marcia Jacobsen

The Dark Side: History Speaks

I have continued to expand my understanding of what happened during the 1940-1944 German Occupation of Paris, a subject that has become a focus of my research. In my first visits to Paris in 1961-1962, I knew little about French collaboration and France’s  complicity in the Holocaust and accepted the myth encouraged in the popular press that somehow France was on the winning side of WWII. I absorbed the false narrative so prevalent in France that most of France was on the side of de Gaulle and the Resistance. After all, France controlled a part of Germany, including Berlin, after the war as if France were a victor because she joined the Allies in August 1944.

In fact, in 1961-62, I explored Paris in the historical context of a France in turmoil. In large part to end the Algerian War which was tearing France apart — see the 1966 historically-based fictional film The Battle of Algiers — de Gaulle was appointed Prime Minister in 1958 by then President René Coty. Later under a New Constitution he became President. In 1961-1962 there was still major right-wing resistance to Algerian independence. On April 22, 1961, unsympathetic with de Gaulle’s plan to give Algeria its freedom, several Generals launched an unsuccessful putsch in Algiers. The effects of the putsch and the threat of another attempt lingered during the entirety of my year visiting Paris frequently from September 1961 to mid-August 1962.

The far-right paramilitary organization OAS (Organisation armée secrète) used targeted car bombs and assassinations in Paris to disrupt the process of giving Algeria independence and these efforts left about 2,000 people dead. The word that appeared most frequently in the headlines of the French press was “plastique” to denote a bomb made of a clay-like plastic substance. I was in Paris on October 17, 1961, when the French Police beat Algerians and threw them into the Seine. The OAS was behind several attempts to assassinate de Gaulle.  

As the years passed, I began to explore an even darker side of French history. After World War II the French persisted with what can only be called fake history or national amnesia in which their collaboration during the 1940-1944 German Occupation and the outrages of the Vichy Government under Marshall Phillippe Pétain were suppressed if not forgotten. Paris was very slow to understand that it lost stature after WWII because of its complicity and collaboration during the Occupation and that the center of the art world had shifted to New York to which many artists and dealers — many of whom were Jews —  had emigrated in response to French behavior during the Occupation.

In April 1962 then President Charles de Gaulle dedicated the Martyrs of the Deportation (Mémorial des martyrs de la déportation) which memorialized 200,000 people — including not only Jews but also Romani, homosexuals, the disabled, Poles and other Eastern Europeans — who were deported from France during the Second World War. Located behind Notre-Dame de Paris on the Île de la Cité, the memorial homogenized the 200,000 deportees and did not speak to the fact that only Jews — following the Nazi’s credo that Jews were an inferior race — were deported for racial reasons.

After failing for half a century to mention Jews as major victims in the years of German Occupation and Vichy Collaboration (1940-1944), this Deportation Memorial now stresses the Holocaust as it affected France’s Jews. The reconfigured Memorial now contains a great deal of information about the Nazi concentration and death camps throughout Europe and the French role in deporting Jews to these camps.

In 2005 French President Jacques Chirac dedicated theMémorial de la Shoah — on the site of Memorial of the Unknown Jewish Martyr, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1953 — as the official Holocaust Museum in France. Fittingly this memorial is in the Marais, a district which had a large Jewish population before the Occupation and now has a significant but much reduced Jewish presence. The Shoah Memorial Museum, with free admission, is an important educational site that opens doors and windows into the place of Jews in France’s history.

As late as on a 2019 visit to Paris, I noticed for the first time, in a small park near the Louvre, a striking monument which contains a plaque that specifically mentions French collaboration with the Nazis and memorializes the transport of 11,000 French children to concentration and death camps. Only five of these children are recognized by name. For me, the anonymity of the others became a metonymy for the French indifference to this collective atrocity.

Also, in 2019 the Pompidou Centre supplemented its fabulous 20th Century art holdings with an exhibit that called attention to the collaborative behavior of some of the French art establishment during and even before the German Occupation. The exhibit stressed how we now regard non-representational Modern art including such major figures as Picasso, Matisse and Miro as central to “The School of Paris.” But before WWII the term “Modern” was often used as a disparaging term to describe foreign artists, some of whom were Jews like Chagall, Soutine and Modigliani. These painters had emigrated to Paris from other countries and were considered by some French critics and artists to be a threat to the purity of French art.

Two transformative documentaries, namely Alain Resnais’ film Night and Fog (1955) and Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), began the process of awakening France to its past. 

The powerful 72-episode television series A French Village (2009-2017) is the climax of a teleology in which French cultural production, including fictional films byFrançois Truffaut — The Last Metro (1980) —and Louise Malle— Lacombe, Lucien (1974) and Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) transformed French history of the Occupation. In 2009, when the series began, the mythology among ordinary people of France’s protecting Jews persisted, and almost every family believed its ancestors belonged to the Resistance. 

France’s role in deporting Jews during the German Occupation needs to be understood in the context of pervasive anti-Semitism in France dating back long before the Dreyfus affair of 1894-1906 to the Middle Ages. When we discuss French participation in the Holocaust, we need to recall that Jew-baiting in France dates to early Christianity when Jews were accused of being Christ-killers and were targeted by bizarre conspiracy theories such as the blood libel, that is, the claim that Jews kill Christian children for blood supposedly  necessary to make Passover matzahs.

When you travel and pay attention, you often intersect with history. While aware of how history always speaks if one listens,  I still find a particular joy in my days in Paris, a city in which my personal life and my historical knowledge evoke rich and complex feelings. In my mind’s eye, I see the puzzling smile of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and the provocative scene in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe.

Marcia Jacobsen

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