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Nov 2004 Journal

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Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité - et Vérité? (editorial)

France occupies a special place in the collective Jewish psyche. It does so for several positive, and one salient negative, reason: it was the post-revolutionary Convention (parliament) of 1790 that issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Decree of Jewish Emancipation. There too Heine and Börne found asylum, Meyerbeer and Offenbach gained more fame than in their native narrow-minded Germany, Sarah Bernhard became the world's first drama queen, and Léon Blum was the first ever (unbaptised) Jewish prime minister in Europe.

However, it was in the self-same France that during the Dreyfus trial Herzl encountered mobs baying for Jewish blood, and conceived of Zionism as the solution to the perennial Jewish problem. Dreyfus was eventually pardoned, but 40 years later French Nazi collaborators turned the grisly imaginings of the anti-Dreyfusard gutter into reality. Collaboration became France's most shameful secret after Liberation, and the country remained largely in denial until a remarkably frank admission of national guilt by President Chirac in 1997.

The latter also acted as patron to the establishment of a Jewish museum in a renovated 4th-arrondissement palace, in the courtyard of which stands an imposing statue of Captain Dreyfus, the jagged blade of his broken sword in hand. The enlarged photographs (ca. 1930) in the foyer are of Jewish-owned and -staffed workshops producing clothing and leather goods. The immigrants employed there can be seen on other photographs using their scant leisure time to relax or engage in left-wing political activity. (The last-mentioned was graphically evoked in the May Day 1937 chapter of Ilya Ehrenburg's The Fall of Paris). With the next exhibit the mood abruptly darkens. An eye-catching red Nazi placard of 1941 lists the names, and East European provenance, of two dozen executed Jewish resistance fighters. One of the walls in the courtyard, too, is inscribed with dozens of names of Shoah victims. With those two notable exceptions, all the exhibits illustrate the 'normal', chequered, but ultimately upward-spiralling millennial history of the Jews in France.

Nearby, the Place des Vosges, a beautiful colonnaded seventeenth-century square, is of special interest to former German refugees. Its centrepiece is an equestrian statue of Henry IV, the king who gave France freedom of conscience. When Germany's literary elite fled there early in 1933 Lion Feuchtwanger wrote Paris Gazette, a novel about an émigré anti-Nazi newspaper, Joseph Roth indulged his Habsburg nostalgia in Radelzkymarsch, and Heinrich Mann discharged his debt of gratitude to his country of asylum through a biography of Henry IV.

In 1940 the severely depressed Roth managed to drink himself to death just ahead of the Wehrmacht's entry into Paris; fleeing the country, Feuchtwanger had his traumatic experiences later recounted in The Devil in France; Werfel and the elderly Heinrich Mann trudged up the Pyrenees to escape into Spain - while Walter Benjamin found merciful release in suicide.

After such melancholy reflections the visitor seeks solace in the nearby heart of Jewish Paris, the Rue des Rosiers (aka dos Pletzl). Despite the nickname, alas, one barely hears Yiddish there. However, Sephardi-owned restaurants, butcher shops and the like display the notice 'Kasher, Beth Din', which is a sort of compensation.

Another, longer walk brings one across the river to the Left Bank. Ambling along the periphery of the Latin Quarter, the visitor might be intrigued by the street name Le Chat Qui Pêche. I first read Yolàn Földes's Die Strasse der fischenden Katze in 1937. It is the story of Hungarian economic migrants eking out a living in the eponymous street, where they live cheek by jowl with refugees from Lenin's Russia, Fascist Italy and Hitler's Germany. Földes painted a picture of a hard, yet vibrant refugee existence close to the edge of the despair, but hopeful against all the odds. The authoress was not in Paris when the Nazi tide engulfed it, or she would subsequently have withdrawn it from circulation as wildly over-optimistic.

However, fiction writers have a licence to inject feel-good tropes into their narrative which is not granted to historians. This was my reaction to the exhibition 'France in the Second World War', which occupies three floors of that overblown shrine to Napoleon, the Invalides. The exhibition focuses heavily on French resistance to Nazi occupation, but rather skirts round the - understandably sensitive - issue of French collaboration. Display items include proclamations of the Vichy government and photographs of Marshal Pétain addressing large crowds - but there is no pictorial, or any other, record of French policemen or uniformed miliciens rounding up Jews for despatch to Drancy.

Discomfort at these omissions does not mean one concurs in any way with Prime Minister Sharon's maladroit appeal to French Jews to make collective aliyah. Abroad Chirac may be the Palestinians' best friend, but at home French Jewry could not have a better friend in the Elysée Palace.

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