Letter from Paris: Holocaust Memorial Performs a Strained Balancing Act
PARIS — On Tuesday, French President Jacques Chirac inaugurated France’s official Holocaust Memorial and “renew[ed] our country’s promise never to forget what it proved unable to avoid.” The memorial’s patrons — the French government, a supporting foundation and the Jewish community, among others — intend the museum as “Europe’s institution of reference for the Holocaust,” a counterpart to “Washington’s Holocaust Museum and Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem.”
“This is the oldest Shoah-oriented organization in the world,” Eric de Rothschild, the financial baron who serves as the memorial’s president, said after a preview press conference last week, referring to the memorial’s origins as a documentation center established in Grenoble in 1943 by a Russian Jewish émigré named Isaac Schneerson. “In Israel, nothing of the sort had yet been done. In fact, the first Yad Vashem memorial looked very much like ours.”
The remark seemed to say more about the eagerness of the memorial’s representatives and members of the Jewish community to defend France — the France of today as well as of 60 years ago — than about the museum’s merits. Indeed, despite the memorial’s admirably ambitious intention to account for the continent’s complicity in the Holocaust, the exhibit and its advocates reveal the venture as more of a narrowly French endeavor, a strained balancing act that seeks equally to honor France’s Jewish dead as citizens of France and to reflect a Gaullist history of emphasizing resistance over collaboration.
At the entrance, the four panels of Jerusalem stone engraved with the names of the 76,000 Jews deported from France unwaveringly indict the French Vichy government that sent them to their slaughter. The mood is more conciliatory inside, however, where a section chronicling wartime French Jewish history takes care to begin with testaments to French resistance and shelter of Jews and Jewish ritual objects. It receives nearly as much space as things such as Marshall Petain and the concentration camps.
The result is occasionally unsettling for an American visitor, certainly because of the barbarity on display, but also because of the memorial’s euphemisms and evasions, which feel defensive of wartime France at best and apologist at worst. In attempting to commemorate the 76,000 Jews deported, the memorial reveals a great deal more about the contemporary French Jewish community’s desire to secure the solidarity of non-Jewish France at a time when it feels besieged by a resurgence of antisemitism. It makes room for a connection to Israel, but comes at the expense of the rest of Europe’s Jews, in whose name the memorial purports to speak.
“The memorial is in a neighborhood where most of the Jews were deported, so it is a sort of reparation,” said Emmanuel Weintraub, a member of the executive board of CRIF, the French-Jewish umbrella organization. “Given the current Jewish situation in France, Jewish people should be interested in going there and being grateful to President Chirac.”
Chirac’s unprecedented acknowledgment, in 1995, of French culpability in the Holocaust drew praise from the Jewish community. The government’s increased attention in the last two years to antisemitic attacks against the Jewish community, mostly by Arab Muslims, has reassured communal leaders, even though by some counts, the number of antisemitic incidents rose in 2004. During his speech, Chirac described antisemitism as a “perversion” that “has no place in France,” adding that “no resurgence can be tolerated.”
Chirac was not the only French President acknowledged by the ceremony.
“On August 25, 1944, after the liberation, de Gaulle made his famous speech,” Weintraub said. “‘Paris is liberated!’ By Parisians, with the help of all France. This Gaullist theory, that all France resisted, is dogma in France. It’s gospel. It would be too much now to go against it. The idea now is to think positive, to say that, after all, people helped.”
“The exhibit is focused both on victims and perpetrators,” de Rothschild said. “It also shows that in [wartime] France, with one of the most rabid antisemitic governments, two-thirds of the Jews were saved by the French population, who quite curiously weren’t that antisemitic.”
“Things were bad, but not as bad as some say,” Weintraub said. “What you have to see also, of these 76,000, there were 50,000 who were foreign Jews. French Jews of old stock were deported also, but the priority went to the foreign Jews.”
Considering that the memorial’s backers imagine it as a testament to European Jewry, Weintraub did not note the irony of his vindication of non-Jewish France at the expense of European Jews who shared Auschwitz-bound cattle cars with Jews from Paris.
The memorial acknowledges Israel with greater ease — the Jerusalem stone, the commingling of Auschwitz ashes with Jerusalem soil in a crypt — in a curious move that also seems more concerned with present solidarities than with past victims. The symbolism did not escape Chirac, who announced that the Holocaust “would alone justify — if any justification were needed — the need for a state whose existence is a guarantee that it will never happen again.” The troubling implication that only ethnic genocide could secure Israel’s legitimacy went unaddressed by both the president and the memorial.
The Jewish community justifiably views the memorial as a triumph. It’s thoughtful and moving in many ways, and the French government’s explicit endorsement is a welcome sign of support at a difficult time for the Jewish community. At the inauguration, several government ministers, the mayor of Paris and the head of an umbrella group of French Muslims joined its representatives. There was no one there to represent the rest of European Jewry.