Paris holds a special place in my heart. A repeat offender, I’ve chosen to travel to Paris again and again, at the cost of experiencing places I’ve never been. The City of Lights has a magical pull on me. I never tire of its majestic architecture, historical buildings and artist stalls flanking the Seine.
We have a complicated relationship, Paris and I. In reality, I’ve read enough accounts of the Holocaust in France to dissuade me from visiting ever again, and the resurgence of anti-Semitism exacerbates that sentiment. An 85-year-old Holocaust survivor stabbed to death in her apartment, vandalism at a Jewish cemetery, an 8-year-old boy beaten for wearing a yarmulke, the word “Juden” splattered across a bagel shop. These hate crimes occurred recently – not during the 1940s. The Independent reports that “(a)ccording to French authorities, registered incidents of anti-Semitism rose to 541 (in 2018) from 311 in 2017, an increase of 74 percent.”
What would my family have to do in order to feel safe in Paris? No doubt I’d ask my son to remove, or discreetly tuck away, the silver Star of David he’s worn around his neck since his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. Surely I’d consider my family’s safety traveling with me – even my U.S. passport states that I was born in Israel.
Still, all logic, research and awareness of current events defy reason when it comes to my love of Paris. I pine for the museums, macarons and endless cups of café au lait while people watching in wicker chairs along the Left Bank. I treasure early morning strolls along deserted side streets, just as shopkeepers roll open iron screens and collect freshly filled breadbaskets. This intimate glimpse into ordinary Parisian life is filled with fantasies of my own apartment in the Latin Quarter and hours of uninterrupted writing. If only.
News of the Notre Dame fire hit me hard. Weren’t we just there eating ice cream outside the iconic cathedral? And wasn’t it just outside this magnificent monument that my then boyfriend now-husband and I experienced our first Jambon Beurre on our backpacking trip? When the news broke, I raced to my TV and watched in horror as the famous spire fell from its graceful perch atop one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. Construction of the cathedral began 856 years ago and its near destruction during Holy Week seems surreal. Notre Dame is arguably the world’s most recognizable church and this disaster, days before Easter, seems inconceivable to people of all walks of life and religious backgrounds.
As is my habit, I watched coverage of the inferno while toggling between two TV channels to dilute the impact of slanted news reporting. To my surprise, I repeatedly heard comments that Notre Dame “managed to survive the Nazis” only to fall prey to this horrific fire. Again and again newscasters invoked this concept that on its face may be technically true, but is historically and contextually inaccurate.
Notre Dame may have “survived” the Nazis, but so did virtually every other monument, cathedral and building in Paris. The survival of Notre Dame, and every other monument for all intents and purposes, was not due to serendipitous good fortune.
The Nazis invaded France and eventually marched into Paris to France’s humiliating defeat. The French government set up shop in Vichy and collaborated with the Nazis. While superior militarily, the Nazis required the French police’s direct involvement in keeping accurate records and rounding up Jews. On July 16, 1942 the French police rounded up 13,000 French Jewish citizens, and herded them into a large stadium known as the Velodrome d’Hiver (Vel d’Hiv, for short). They acted on Nazi orders, holding thousands of Jews without food, water or sanitary facilities before they were eventually deported to Auschwitz. French complicity in the torture and death of French Jews has long been a shameful stain on France’s history.
President Mitterrand commissioned a monument to commemorate the roundup. Two years later, President Chirac claimed France’s responsibility in a speech marking the anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup. The city’s glorious architecture remained virtually intact largely due to collaboration. So to claim that Notre Dame survived the Nazis by some divine or miraculous intervention, as some media outlets seemed to imply, is misleading.
Does it matter? It should.
Words matter. Accurate historical accounts matter. According to the Independent, two-thirds of American teens do not know what Auschwitz is. Too many also believe that the number of deaths reported is inflated, and Holocaust denial is alive and well, unlike millions of victims. When we whitewash history, for the sake of embellishing a news story, we run the risk not only of misreporting facts, but of forgetting the past and repeating ugly blights that should be used as lessons for future generations.
Notre Dame belongs to the world’s landscape, not just to Paris, as one of the planet’s most discernible and iconic cathedrals. We should rightfully mourn its near loss and the irreparable damage to the building and our collective psyches. I pray that the French government finds a way to rebuild and restore. The devastation is bad enough; the journalistic hyperbole? Gratuitous and damaging.