Sweeping It Under the Rug

I love Paris. Maybe that’s just the shameless Francophile in me, but there’s something about the city that moves me. The architecture makes me feel like I’m walking through a scene from the Second Empire. The people wear slim, dark clothes that ooze all kinds of cool. And, of course, there are crêpes with Nutella available at every street corner. For me, this is about as good as it gets.

Toward the end of our time in Paris, I was chatting with my mom about the various things I enjoy about the city. Despite all my gushing, I let slip that it didn’t seem like there were a whole lot of noticeable remnants of WWII around the city. I knew it had avoided the worst of the War’s violence, so it made sense that there weren’t visible scars of destruction. But I got the sense that Parisians had no desire to talk up their experiences, even after the resistance and Liberation. At this point, my mom asked a very understandable question: “Why is Paris even on the trip?”

The answer was complicated, and didn’t come to me immediately. In fact, I’m still formulating an answer in my head, so this is more a stream of consciousness than a definitive decision. In any case, I should probably explain what I mean when I say that Paris’s War history is a bit hard to see. When we were in London, it seemed like there was some sort of monument, memorial, or museum to the War on every street. Frankly, it was kind of astounding how frequently we came across War-related stuff (see “Londoners Remember”).

Paris is not at all like that. Even in the places that are supposed to commemorate the War, one has to dig a bit to find any sort of meaning or emotion. The WWII exhibit at Les Invalides, for example, has a spectacular collection of uniforms and weapons from the War, and documents its history quite well. What it excludes (purposefully or not) is any comment on the intricacies of collaboration and resistance in Paris during the War, except to say that they existed.

Invalides wasn’t the only site to leave out pertinent details. The Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, heart wrenching and starkly beautiful as it was, never once mentioned that it was Paris’sJews who were ripped from their homes and sent to their deaths. Obviously, Jews weren’t the only group persecuted during the War. But one of the overwhelming legacies of the Vichy regime is the way it seemed all too happy to rid France of its Jewish population, without much of a push from Germany.

This all seemed off to me. Aren’t the French supposed to be outspoken in their beliefs and opinions? Aren’t they supposed to be the collective bastion of liberté? And if so, how could a whole city’s worth of museums and monuments completely lack a critical reading of Paris during the War?

Sure, things like the failure to mention the deportation of Jews might just be holdovers from the ideal of the Revolution: French people are French first, everything else second. Through this lens, it makes some sense that the memorial would commemorate French deportees, not Jewish ones (even though basically all French deportees were Jewish).

But I think Paris’s trepidation about the war goes deeper. I think the city’s ashamed of itself. Yes, some of its residents resisted the occupation valiantly and successfully. Not all Parisians were collaborators or Jew-haters. But in the end, Paris still capitulated without much of a fight. Its leaders resigned themselves and their countrymen to a life of cooperation with one of history’s most vile regimes. And the city sent a vibrant segment of its population to its death, all in the name of making the best of its situation.

What this means is that the inklings of War history that do exist in Paris are buried, and aren’t very profound. There doesn’t seem to be the same pride or nostalgia for the War in Paris as there is in London. I get the impression that Parisians would rather move on with their lives than focus on what can only be called a blemish on the city’s fascinating history.

I’m glad Paris was part of this trip, because I think the War nostalgia it lacks speaks louder than the memories it does choose to display. For me, this particular visit to Paris was dedicated to preserving the memory of the city during the War. If a Paris is willing to sweep years of collaboration and complicity under the rug, then I/we have to make sure that we don’t forget. Otherwise, we’re just modern collaborators, standing idly and letting intolerance and hate run wild.

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