Whenever I travel in Europe, which is admittedly not very often, I can’t help but look up at those graceful, old buildings and wonder. I look at the small terraces, the tall windows, the ornate metal work. I marvel at the solid wood doors, so tall and large and heavy that often only part of it actually swings open. Sometimes, someone will enter or leave the building and I can catch a glimpse of what’s inside. Often it’s a large courtyard, other times a hallway with parquet floors, and wide stone staircases with elaborate railings. At night, when the lights come on, I peek inside the apartments and see high ceilings with crown moldings and chair railings and chandeliers.
I look at these buildings, some of which have been there for hundreds of years and I wonder about the people inside them. Not so much the people living there now, but the people who lived in them 90 and 80 and 70 years ago. I think about the joys and the hardships felt by the families in their homes, about the children and the kinds of rooms they slept in; I think about family arguments and meals, and weddings and births and deaths. Until a certain point, people felt safe in those buildings. And then, certain people didn’t. I envision urgent conversations between husbands and wives. Shall we stay? Shall we go? Go where? How will we live? What about the children? This is our homeland, our people, our country. It’s the only place we know.
I imagine being trapped in one of those apartments and listening to the shouting in the streets. Getting closer. Front doors bursting open. Heavy footsteps up the stairs. Banging. Dogs barking. Round-ups.
That was a time when those buildings were not a safe haven, when they could not protect the people inside them from the haters and murderers who came to tell them that no, this is not their home or their homeland or their country.
One week ago I found myself in a hotel in Paris on the Place de la Republique, minutes away from the previous day’s brutal islamo-terrorist act. While I waited for my husband to get back from work, I decided to go for a walk. In the plaza, the statue of the Republique was filled with the now familiar ‘Je suis Charlie’ signs, French Flags and pens, pencils, markers of all colors and types. I stood silently, watching the flickering memorial candles. I felt sorry for the victims, murdered in cold blood and I felt sorry for France, a country that seemed to me to be in great danger of slipping away.
I left the plaza and wandered the backstreets. Those European buildings really are so gracious and charming. Are there people inside who are having conversations similar to those of 70 years ago?
On Friday we toured the Eiffel Tower and strolled the Champs Elysees. It was a beautiful, brisk day in Paris and we were happy to be away and to be together. We were brought back to reality when we heard of the hostage situation at the kosher supermarket and subsequent bloodshed.
And I would think, conversations behind the closed doors of strong buildings that cannot protect their people.
I do not believe that I have the right to interfere in this conversation, to advise people to leave everything they know, to give up on their homeland and personal history. I think that they have the ability to decide for themselves what is right for them and their future.
But it is without a doubt that I am comforted by the fact that this time those people know that we are here, that we exist and that there is a place to go. Leaving would not be easy. It may take years before they can feel at home. But they will be welcomed should they decide to change their history, or to link it with the history and future of the Jewish people.
Still, as a citizen of the world, and of humanity, I cannot help but worry about France and her people. Because they have nowhere to run.