It was Shabbat and I was in Paris so I decided to go to the Grand Synagogue of Paris (also known Synagogue de la Victoire) with a family member.
The streets approaching the synagogue were narrow and I had to repeatedly stop and let the person going in the opposite direction pass.
Finally, we reached the building.
It was a tall Byzantine-inspired edifice.
A uniformed and armed man motioned for us to go around to the front.
We passed through a security post and entered the synagogue.
I opened the door and faced a huge sanctuary with high ceilings, stained glass windows and a wide, wrap around balcony..
The bimah was located about 2/3 into the room. Behind it was a long ascending stairway leading to the Aron Kodesh
The women were seated along the perimeter of the first floor.
I thought I’d try out my college French.
“Pardon madame, “I said to a friendly-looking woman, “Ou se trouve les siddurs?”
“Over there,” she said gesturing. “I’m an American,” she added.
I sat on a wooden pew and watched the service.
The Askenazi tunes were familiar.
A handsome young boy expertly read the morning prayers, then went on to read the torah and I soon realized that this was the day of his bar mitzvah.
A well trained male choir added much to the service.
The rabbi was energetic and friendly.
I watched the women in my section come and go.
They would kiss each other on both cheeks.
I wondered if the elderly ones had been child survivors of the Holocaust.
The First and Second Wars, I thought,, continue to hang heavily over the Parisian people, especially the Jews.
The boy stepped forward to deliver a speech.
His soft voice was lost in the cavernous interior of the Grand Synagogue.
Suddenly, he broke down, unable to go on.
I didn’t understand. He had done everything so expertly and confidently.
The Rabbi came up behind him, embraced him, smiled and whispered in his ear.
The boy struggled.
After a while, he began again.
The service concluded.
“Do you know what happened?”, I asked the American woman.
“His grandmother was killed in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh,” she said.
I stared at her.
“My husband and I were friends with his grandmother.”
We walked outside for kiddish.
Standing among the milling congregants, I looked up and noticed a series of floor to ceiling stone panels with hundreds of engraved names on the back wall. At the top of each plaque were the words “Morts Pour La France 1914-1918”.
“I know someone who lost an uncle in World War I,” I told my relative.
After a short search we found his name.
He had been 19.
His niece, now in her 90s, had told me that her grandfather had received a medal.
Just before the Germans occupied Paris, he removed it, lay down and died.