Monday, July 7, 2014

Museum Tour: Mémorial de la Shoah

Located just a stone's throw from Le Marais, Paris' traditionally Jewish quarter, is a quiet, unassuming building. Partially hidden behind steel bars, it's easy to miss. But those who have visited know that the Mémorial de la Shoah represents an important, if extremely unpleasant, period of French -- and, in fact, global -- history.

Origins of the Memorial

The site now known as le Mémorial de la Shoah began almost sixty years ago as the tombeau du martyr juif inconnu ("Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyr"). This monument, erected in 1956, was among the first of its kind and has since served as a model for other Holocaust memorials. Although the memorial was not constructed until a decade after the end of World War II, the seeds of the project were sewn in the early 1940s in the city of Grenoble, when French rabbi Isaac Schneersohn secretly founded the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine ("Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation"), with the purpose of accumulating information and personal testimonies. After the war, the CDJC moved to Paris and the tombeau du martyr juif inconnu was constructed. In 1997, it was decided that the two sites would be combined ... and the Mémorial de la Shoah was born.

If you're at all interested in the history of the memorial, I found a really great newspaper article from October 30, 1956, that documents the opening of the memorial. You can read the entire article (entitled "World Memorial for 6,000,000 Jewish Martyrs Dedicated in Paris") here.
"The World Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Martyr, a symbol commemorating the six million European Jews exterminated by the Nazi regime, was formally dedicated here today ... More than 1,000 persons gathered at the site of the memorial, behind the Paris City Hall in the oldest part of the city, where Jews have been living continuously since the Middle Ages. 
... M. Godart declared that the 'memorial is not a call to hatred, for the crime itself will be its own eternal curse. It is rather a call never to permit the faith and spirit of any man to undergo a similar ordeal.'"
The Sites of Commemoration

Before reaching the permanent exhibits of the museum, visitors to the Mémorial first walk through several commemorative sites that made up the original site, called le tombeau du martyr juif inconnu. (If you'd like to learn more, you can read all about the various commemorative sites within the Mémorial here.) Unfortunately, some tents set up in the parvis prevented me from getting photos of the front of the museum ... so in order to give you a better sense of what this part of the memorial looks like, I've borrowed some from around the internet!

The parvis, where ceremonies related to the Shoah often take place, is featured in the photo below. To the left, you can see the massive bronze column on which are inscribed the names of all the Nazi death camps. To the right, you can catch a glimpse of the bas-relief sculptures depicting scenes of Jewish persecution, which were added to the memorial in the 1980s.

In the back of the photo is the fourteen-meter stone pediment that makes up the facade of the building. You can't see it in this photo, but the wall features inscriptions in Hebrew and French. The Hebrew citation is a quotation adapted from Deuteronomy by a famous Jewish poet; it reads: "Remember what Amalek did unto our Generation exterminating 600 myriad bodies and souls, in the absence of war." The French citation belongs to Justin Godard, the Honorary President of the Committee for the Unknown Jewish Martyr; it translates to: "Before the Unknown Jewish Martyr, incline your head in piety and respect for all the martyrs; incline your thoughts to accompany them along their path of sorrow. They will lead you to the highest pinnacle of justice and truth."

To the left of all this is le Mur des noms, or Wall of Names. Constructed in 2004 during the renovation of the site, it features the names of the approximately 76,000 French Jews deported during World War II. Names are listed alphabetically and organized by the year of deportation.

After passing through the Wall of Names, visitors finally enter the building itself. The first stop, before entering the museum exhibits, is the crypt. It is located just under the parvis and is also a frequent location for commemorative events.

These photos show a relatively well-lit room, but during my visit, the crypt was dark, chilly, and eerily quiet. An eternal flame -- called ner tamid in Hebrew -- burns in the center of a black marble tombstone, shaped like the Star of David. The flame is encircled by six cylindrical urns; each contains ashes, collected from the death camps (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Mauthausen) as well as the Warsaw Ghetto. The ashes, which are buried in dirt taken from Israel, were installed in the crypt in 1957. On the back wall, written in Hebrew: "Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. Young and old, our sons and daughters were cut down by the sword."

Just past the crypt is the fichier juif. This room, whose contents are on permanent loan to the museum from the Archives Nationales, contains all the remaining police files compiled by the Vichy government between 1941 and 1944. The plaques on the wall are not shy in reminding visitors that it was not just the Nazis, but also the fonctionnaires du gouvernement de Vichy, who compiled these documents and sent 80,000 French Jews to their deaths.


The Permanent Exposition

The permanent exhibition, located below the crypt in the building's sub-basement, is a new addition to the Mémorial. The permanent exposition opens with a brief explanation of Judaism and a history of antisemitism in Europe. A short video (presented, like all of the museum's videos, in French without subtitles) traces the origins of antisemitism and negative Jewish stereotypes.

Although the permanent exhibition includes information about the persecution of Jews throughout Europe, it does focus in particular detail on the treatment of Jews in France.

The picture on the left features photos and documents related to the exclusion of Jews and the creation of the first internment camps in France. In the picture on the right, photos display examples of French antisemitism, propagated by both the Germans and the Vichy government. (You can click on the photos to enlarge them, although I can't promise great quality.)

Given my research focus on museums and memory, I found the top photo particularly interesting. The photo depicts a 1941 exposition held at the Palais Berlitz called Le Juif et la France. (You can see a larger, color version of the poster in the photo here. Our tour guide explained some of the artist's subtle techniques, like the contrasting font choice used for "LE JUIF" and "LA FRANCE.") The exhibit was financed by the German occupation, who wanted to deepen existing antisemitic sentiment in France. It was inspired by the "scientific" "research" of George Montandon, a French "anthropologist." (Is my skepticism evident enough...?) Montandon had previously published a pamphlet that claimed to explain Comment reconnaître le Juif ? ("How to recognize a Jew?") and it was this racist, pseudo-scientific theme that the exhibit embraced. In case you were wondering, the exhibit was a big hit in Paris ... more than 250,000 people visited it within a few months.

The exhibition addresses a variety of other topics, from the fate of French Jews deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau to the pillaging of their belongings by the Germans and French alike (covered in the photo, below on the left) to the stories of Jewish children hidden during the war.


One particularly interesting section addresses the role of the Resistance in the fate of France's Jews, explaining that "pour tous les résistants, la priorité est de concentrer ses forces pour abattre l'Allemagne nazie et libérer la France et les Francais. L'indignation et la répobration face a la persecution des Juifs se lisent rarement ou occupent une place mineure dans la presse clandestine de la Résistance." ("For all Resistants, the priority was to concentrate their forces on the fight against Nazi Germany and to liberate France and the French. Indignation against the persecution of Jews was rarely found, or occupied a minor place, in the Resistance clandestine press.")

The section also addresses the Jews who participated in clandestine or resistant activities, reminding visitors that for every day they survived, Jewish concentration camp prisoners committed an act of resistance.

I was particularly moved by the section of the exhibit dedicated to les Justes parmi les Nations. Known as the Righteous Among the Nations in English (or the חסידי אומות העולם in Hebrew, in case that clears things up for you), these people are non-Jews who have been recognized by the State of Israel for their actions during the Holocaust. With 3,654 such awards, France is among the most-recognized countries. (However, our guide estimated that these represent less than twenty-five percent of the total number of French citizens whose actions merited the title.) The museum includes video interviews with nearly a dozen now-elderly French men and women, all of whom risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. Listening to their stories, and reading about other such men and women around Europe, I found myself close to tears a couple of times. I always find myself asking, "Would I have been able to do that? Would I have been willing to do the right thing, if it meant taking such a great risk?"

Unfortunately, the permanent exposition ends on a particularly heartbreaking note. A back-lit features photos of the Shoah's youngest victims, the deported (and, in almost all cases, murdered) children. There are two many faces to count...

My tour group was informed by our guide that, since the opening of the exposition, photos and information about approximately a thousand more children have surfaced and been added. However, the current display -- which features four thousand photos -- still only represents ONE THIRD of the victims.

Our guide also pointed out that, at this point in the museum, the false ceiling recedes, revealing an unexpected expanse of bare wall. This space, he told us, is for the other children. Museum curators know that they will never be able to track down photos of every Jewish child deported from France; in many cases, their fates are uncertain. (Nazi concentration camp officials did not record the arrival, nor the ultimate fate, of those deportees deemed "unfit for labor" -- a category that included all children under fifteen.) However, this poignant feature ensures that their absence does not go unnoticed.


While I don't consider myself desensitized to the violence and horror of WWII and the Holocaust, I have been to a lot of museums. I've read first-hand accounts, listened to dozens of témoignages, and seen truly shocking photos and videos. Some of it has been repetitive; some of it has made me sick to my stomach. All that being said, I really wasn't sure what to expect from the Mémorial de la Shoah.

The site itself exceeded any and all of my expectations. I found the museum to be extremely informative and detailed, while remaining well-organized and accessible to all visitors. Most of all, I appreciated the show of restraint. The site has access to an incredible wealth of information -- photos, videos, documents -- and I am sure that they could fill rooms with stomach-turning depictions of violence and brutality. But that really isn't necessary ... not here, at least. This is not, as Justin Godart explained nearly sixty years ago at the site's dedication, "a call to hatred." Here, there are more powerful reminders of what was lost. The dark crypt in whose silence echoes peerless sorrow. The wall with its seemingly never-ending list of names. And, of course, the collection of photos -- of smiling, innocent, unknowing faces -- that will never, that can never be completed.

Plan Your Visit

ACCESSIBILITY. Situated just across the river from Notre-Dame and literally a stone's throw from the Hôtel de Ville, the Mémorial de la Shoah truly could not be more conveniently located. The building tends to blend into its surroundings, but is easy enough to find if you know where you're going!

The museum is closed on Saturdays and on some religious holidays. In addition to free daily admission, the museum offers free weekly tours in French (every Sunday at 15:00) and monthly tours in English. Visitors have access to permanent and temporary exhibitions and can also visit the site's center of documentation and library, which holds the world's largest collection of Holocaust-related literature. With the exception of the brief video clips, all of the museums' photos and exhibits are captioned in both French and English.

LE MEMORIAL DE LA SHOAH A DRANCY. Opened in 2012, this new center of education and remembrance is located at the site of one of France's most notorious internment camps. Intended before the war to be used as a modern housing project, the Cité de la Muette would become Drancy, an internment camp through which passed approximately 63,000 of the 78,000 Jews deported from France during World War II. The new memorial is accessible through public transport, but visitors can also benefit from a free shuttle to and from the site on Sunday afternoons. Find about more about the Memorial de la Shoah a Drancy here. You can also click here to find practical information and plan your visit.

MORE INFORMATION. The museum's official website offers a wealth of information in both French and English.


  1. Amazing! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Que dire? Ne jamais oublier...Merci pour toutes tes recherches.