There is a jewel of a museum in the Marais district of Paris. It is the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme. It is housed in a beautiful mansion built in 1650, which was later turned into a hotel once inhabited by Jewish immigrants from Poland, Romania, and the Ukraine. For years, Marais has for years been the epicenter of Jewish life in France. It was largely depopulated during the Nazi occupation but has been rejuvenated in recent years by Jews who were escaping from persecution in the former French North Africa and returnees from Southern France who miraculously survived the Nazi collaborating Vichy government.
Inside the museum are documents, paintings, decorative arts, and other precious items related to the Jewish presence in France. Established in 1986, it was designed to educate and remind people of the Jewish community’s extraordinary contribution to the cultural life of France, despite the fact that their numbers were decimated during World War II.
The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme features numerous Jewish Nobel prize winners, artists, writers, musicians, politicians, scientists, business people, actors, designers and inventors who have helped make France a worldwide bastion of high culture and innovation. But there is one enlarged photograph in the museum that offers an unforgettable portrait of French collaboration with the Nazis during the occupation of France during World War II. It shows the French police moving a long line of French Jews through the Marais on their way to collection centers that would start their journey towards death in the gas ovens of the concentration camps.
Whether or not one is Jewish, it is impossible to look at this photograph without being stirred emotionally. Men, women, and children, neatly dressed, their eyes projecting their fears, are herded together by fellow French citizens at the bidding of Hitler’s Gestapo. Whenever I confront the atrocities being committed against Jewish citizens that photograph pops up in my mind.
In light of the horrific slaughter of journalists at Charlie Hebdo and citizens at the Jewish market in Le Marais, I am heartened by the massive displays of support for the principles of freedom and democracy but I cannot seem to get France’s history of Nazi collaboration out of my mind.
It is no mystery to me why many Jews want to leave France. Indeed, in the museum there is a space devoted to the famous Dreyfus case, encapsulating the stain of anti-Semitism that has often raised its ugly head in French history. Yet, there was a time immediately after World War II when the French, perhaps out of guilt for helping the Nazis, were more openhearted to their remaining Jewish citizens. Indeed, it was the French who provided the engineering and scientific expertise that helped Israel set up their nuclear facilities in Dimona. But that relationship has since greatly diminished with the French, out of political cowardice and persistent anti-Semitism, enlisting in favor of anti-Israel positions in the United Nations, an obvious and cynical ploy to curry political favor with their rapidly growing Muslim population, a fool’s errand in the light of recent events.
Will the French find ways to contain its now vast and growing issue of extremist terrorism and protect the future of a free and democratic France? Or will they by default, political correctness and fear allow innocent citizens to fall victim to a swamp of intolerance and fanaticism? Will they pay greater attention to the protection of a dwindling Jewish population, or yield to the blatant hatred of Islamic terrorism?
Like all people who love freedom and revere justice and equality, I wonder if the current display of solidarity to core democratic principles will make any difference to the twisted minds of bloodthirsty religious fanatics who seem to be growing unabated on the planet.
I wish I were more optimistic. The contribution of the comparatively small Jewish community of France, which represents less than one percent of the nation’s population, has hoisted France into one of the highest cultural orbits on the planet. In my opinion, the Jewish population, out of fear and self-preservation, will dwindle and move to more welcoming environments like Israel or the United States. Imagine how many of France’s potentially Nobel Prize winning intellectuals, scientists, and artists from the Jewish population will be lost, many who would go on to help advance the human race.
In my heart and soul I want to say “Vive La France, forever,” but I am very much afraid that forever is in jeopardy and that the future of France that I knew and love will ultimately disappear.