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Icons and ghosts
The particularities of being Jewish(ish) in Paris
I hope you’re doing well and have had a good week.
Thank you if you wrote back to last week’s letter about French holiday leave and bank holidays. I love that we got from that theme to an elaborate discussion of Tina Turner’s greatest hits!
I’m delighted to hear that the first Pen Friend sponsors — those who have opted to become paying subscribers – have received the painted postcards I’ve sent to them. If you are able to and would like to join their illustrious ranks, I would be very touched and grateful! So much so that I will also send you your own postcard. By and by I will also roll out some more treats – I’m working out the details of that still. There’s a button below to upgrade if you’re interested.
Today I am going to dive right into writing to you about some thoughts I’ve had based on what I’ve been reading (usually I do that in the second half of our letters).
I have written before about how much I love Paris’s libraries. They are often, though certainly not always, in beautiful or interesting buildings and they are often the site of cultural events and community initiatives. It’s heartwarming stuff.
Last week I took a wander through one of my local libraries, Bibliotheque Vaclav Havel on the very eastern edge of the 18th arrondissement in the north of Paris.
It is part of the Halle Pajol complex, a converted former sorting office for parcels that came into Paris at Gare de l’Est. Today it’s home to an array of organisations, including Bob’s Bake Shop, a New York-style bagel restaurant where I meet a friend most weeks for what we call “Intentional Friday” breakfast, though Intentional Friday quite often takes place on a different day of the week. We both have Jewish heritage and thought this Sabbath-adjacent tradition would be a nice secular, and tasty, nod to our culture(s).
Today, Bibliothèque Vaclav Havel is in an attractive, modern building laid out across several bright and welcoming floors. The library, which also has a recreation area and computer area, really acts as a kind of sanctuary for locals in need. It offers not only free Wi-Fi, but also free French classes for beginners, workshops for help using digital tools and even an écrivain public (public writer), a service that has existed in Paris for hundreds of years, from the days when most of the population was illiterate. They help people to write official letters, understand letters they have received, write administrative emails etc.
A few years ago, I spent some months volunteering with an organisation called Solidarithé. They provided hot tea and coffee and information to asylum seekers living rough in the north of Paris around Porte de la Chapelle, near where this library is. Volunteers gave out maps translated in a number of languages, with places they could use and receive key services, like hot showers, food distributions, internet, but also French classes, legal advice and administrative support for their applications. Before I ever came to this library, I knew about it from the map.
During my recent visit, I found a new display of books on the ground floor near the reception desk, selected because they are about or set in the local neighbourhoods, like La Chapelle, and La Goutte d’Or. The latter was immortalsed by Emile Zola in L'Assommoir and has over the last 100+ years been home to newly arrived people coming from first the rest of France, then Italy, Spain, Portugal, Eastern Europe, North Africa, West Africa and most recently Sri Lanka and Ghana.
I was drawn to one book just for its title, which contained the names of two roads close to where I live . It’s called Rue Ordener, Rue Labat and is written by Sarah Kofman, who I have since discovered was a noted 20th-century philosopher. I began to read on the spot and discovered a beautifully written memoir describing the experience of a young Jewish girl during World War Two.
At the start of the book, Kofman describes her last memory of her father, a rabbi who emigrated to Paris from Warsaw, before being deported back to Poland, this time to Auschwitz, in 1942 and never returning. After the deportation, the remaining family has to leave their house on Rue Ordener and go into hiding to avoid the same fate. Sarah and her mother are taken in by a widowed French neighbour, who lives on Rue Labat. After reading the introduction at the library, I borrowed the book and read it to the end over the next day.
FR: “Le 16 juillet 1942, mon père savait qu’il allait être “ramassé” . Le bruit en avait couru, une grande rafle se préparait pour ce jour-là. Rabbin d’une petite synagogue de la rue Duc dans le XIIIe arrondissement, il était parti très tôt de la maison ameuter le plus de Juifs possible et les engager à se planquer au plus vite.
Puis il était rentré et attendait : s’il s’était lui-même caché, il le redoutait, sa femme et ses six enfants en bâs age (trois filles et trois garcons de deux à douze ans) auraienet été pris à sa place .
Nous ne revîmes, en effet, jamais mon père.”
EN: 16 July 1942, my father knew that he was going to be ‘picked up’. The word was going around, a big round-up was being planned for that day. Rabbi of a small synagogue on Rue Duc in the XVIII arrondissement, he left the house early to alert as many Jews as he could and convince them to go into hiding as quickly as possible.
Then he went home, and waited: if he hid himself, he feared that his wife and six young children (three girls and three boys between two and twelve) would have been taken in his place.
We never did see my father again.” - Chapters 2-3, Rue Orderner, Rue Labat by Sarah Kofman
It was grippingly horrifying to imagine the book’s sad and eerie events taking place on the streets I walk on every day. In Paris, the Holocaust has a palpable presence in a way it does not in London because, of course, Paris was occupied by the Nazis for four years, from the summer of 1940 to the end of the War. Across the city you’ll find plaques that document the deportation of Jewish people, many of these on the facade of primary schools, recording how many of the pupils were sent to death camps. Stopping to read them is always jarring and sobering.
One of the things I appreciate about Paris is how the architecture and monuments wear each layer of the city’s history — monarchy, revolution, more monarchy, more revolution etc. But the more I have learned about the city’s history, the more I know about the Occupation, too. For example, all the grand hotels like the Ritz and the Lutetia were requisitioned as headquarters for different divisions of the German army.
Those who actively resisted the Occupation are today celebrated, but some historical icons have a more dubious history. In particular, I think of Coco Chanel, who was known to have denounced her Jewish business partners to the Nazis, and also spent the Occupation living in the Ritz, a Nazi stronghold. There was some controversy around this after the War, and she went into exile for a time , but was largely rehabilitated even within her lifetime, and today is celebrated once more as a trailblazing hero.
The truth is, only a very small proportion were actively involved in the Resistance, many did nothing, and many seemingly ordinary folks actively denounced Jews to the German authorities. In her book, Kofman describes how “mémé”, the woman who housed and hid her and her mother, was nonetheless quite actively anti-semitic. She made the child stop speaking Yiddish and eating kosher and quite often made stereotyped pronouncements about Jews.
The book had quite an effect on me, and made me think about some of the darker thoughts that flash across my psyche from time to time. I am of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish origin on both sides; my mother’s mother was a Baghdadi Jew, born in Iraq and raised in India, and my father’s father was an Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jew, born in Cape Town to Lithuanian immigrants. My other two grandparents were from Lancashire/Cornwall and London/Dublin.
I hesitate to put my own experience into this narrative at all, partially because I’m not ‘fully’ Jewish, and also because neither of my Jewish grandparents were directly affected by the Holocaust. Nana was a young woman in Bombay (today, Mumbai), and my grandfather was in England, a young scientist working on radar technology for the British.
But on some visceral level, I feel connected to the ghosts of Paris’s past. They pop up at strange, almost comical times. For example, every time I use the shower at my gym; something about the impersonal, slightly grotty shower blocks makes me think of concentration camps. Just for a split second, my mind lurches to how I might feel if, when I pressed the button, instead of a lukewarm dribble of water, murderous gas came out. And then every time I go into the limestone cellars in my building, which we use to store an old vacuum cleaner and spare plant pots, , I always picture someone (me?) hiding here in the dingy, damp underbelly of the building. No doubt the image comes from films like The Pianist and Life is Beautiful. “Did people hide here?’, I ask myself, “were they found?”.
A couple of years ago I read an excellent book called House of Glass by writer Hadley Freeman, which traces the story of her grandmother and her three brothers during the Occupation. Like Kofman, the Jewish family had fled Poland following antisemitic pogroms and built a new life in Paris. Each sibling, according to their character, takes a different path in an attempt at survival. One brother stays in hiding in Paris, and Freeman describes how one neighbour attempts to denounce his Jewish identity via a note left on his apartment’s front door.
When I read this passage, it made me think of notes tacked up in different buildings I’ve lived in on more innocuous subjects (bins, bike storage, noise) – it’s a favoured way of communicating in apartment blocks here. Since then, there is always a little part of me that makes a little mental note of which neighbours, if transposed to that time, would have been likely to collaborate, or likely to resist. This may seem perverse, or wildly paranoid, and it probably is, but even today, there’s a small part of my psyche telling me not to write about being Jewish so publicly, so plainly in black or white – because Jewish history has taught us that neither assimilation nor modernity have fully protected Jewish people from harm or prejudice.
I’ll stress, again, it is only a small part of my psyche that thinks this way. A much more dominant, sunnier part, has come to appreciate, understand and enjoy my Jewish heritage more and more as I get older, especially as I have got to travel and meet more of my family around the world.
There are a lot of Jewish people (many/most? secular) and a lot of Jewish culture in Paris. In fact, until recently I didn’t know that France in fact has the largest Jewish population in Europe, and the third largest of any country in the world after Israel and the US.
There are dozens of synagogues in Paris and the near suburbs, including some striking Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings dating from the early 20th century when many Eastern European Jews arrived here. The most famous is the Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue on Rue Pavée in the Marais district, which was designed by Hector Guimard, the renowned architect also behind the original Art Nouveau metro entrances. In this area, you’ll also find lots of Jewish bakeries and delis, including the famous L'As du Fallafel, whose pita sandwiches are as delicious as the waiters are handsome (they must hire based on looks).
I also appreciate that there is more understanding here of non-European Jewish populations, as France’s colonisation brought the mainland culture into contact with North African Jews, in particular. Today, many French people have Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian Jewish heritage. There was a great exhibition at the Musée du Monde Arabe (Arab World Museum) last year called Juifs d’orient (Jews of the East), which traced the history of the Jewish diaspora across North Africa but also the Middle East and Western Asia, like my nana’s ancestors in Iraq.
In terms of museums, there is the thoughtfully curated Musée de la Shoah, which traces the horrors of the Holocaust, placing it in the context of 2000 years of rising and falling antisemitism in Europe; there are also temporary exhibitions that document other global examples of genocide, as well as other/additional groups affected by the Holocasut, such as the LGBTQ community, or the Traveller community. Meanwhile the MaHJ (Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme) chronicles and celebrates Jewish culture. Here you’ll find beautiful exhibits from menorahs to wedding garb – plus a fantastic bookshop with works by Jewish people, many French or with a connection to France, like philosophers Arthur Koestler and Hannah Arendt, or more contemporary intellectuals like Delphine Horvilleur– well known as France’s only third female rabbi, and the co-leader of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France.
The MaHJ It is a life-affirming space, just like the Vaclav Havel Library, where this train of thought started for me last week. With its community-oriented activities and thoughtful selection of books, it’s a place that encourages visitors to lean into their humanity, and I am grateful for it.
Thank you for reading this letter about my local library, the Occupation of Paris and the particularities of being Jewish(ish) in Paris. It was perhaps a little more serious and personal than some of my other letters. I hope you don’t mind that! It is quite likely things will be bouncier again next week.
As ever, please do share this letter with more friends if you liked it.
Hope you have a lovely week!