Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation: Stone Walls, Black Iron and the Seine

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Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation: Stone Walls, Black Iron and the Seine
Consider the current state of the world.Anti Semitism and antipathy towards Muslims, immigrants, refugees and others have become more blatant both on the streets and in the halls of government. Violence against minorities is growing. In recent news, we read of the herding of gay men into a concentration camp in Chechnya, the killing of the first female Muslim judge in the U.S., and young toughs pulling hijabs off Muslim women. It is important to reflect on where such hatred can lead when unchecked. Memorials dedicated to the Holocaust have been built all over the world to encourage such reflection – and one of the most unusual and moving of such memorials– the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation— sits along a piece of the Seine just behind Notre Dame in Paris. The Holocaust was real and it was horrible, but we would all like to just think of it as ancient history. No one really wants to be reminded of barbed wire, gaunt faces, and the spiraling smoke of burning bodies emanating from Hitler’s death camps. However, as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel pointed out so often, the only way that we can both honor the dead and make sure such an atrocity can never happen again is to not forget that ordinary citizens in what was considered a modern and civilized society somehow looked the other way or collaborated while incremental steps were taken against their neighbors. Millions of Jews and other minorities were first deprived of their rights by laws denying to them such things as the right to hold certain jobs. In successive steps, they were then forced to live in only prescribed areas; became accustomed to verbal and physical violence without remedy; had their properties confiscated and their businesses destroyed; and, finally, were rounded up and deported to be interned in camps and put to death for no other reason than that they were not Aryans and therefore not entitled to live. In Vichy France, 200,000 people were deported to concentration camps. The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is dedicated to those 200,000 souls. “For the dead and the living…… We must bear witness.” “To forget a holocaust is to kill twice.” “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” — Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor What a society permits can start with small things and grow almost unnoticed. “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” — Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor Hence, the memorials have been built to permit us to visit and mourn – and also to remember and learn. One such memorial is the Shoah Museum in Paris which houses extensive exhibits, both permanent and temporary. Although the Mémorial de la Déportation is a lesser known Paris Memorial, I believe it is more effective than others in its emotional content and in providing the opportunity to simply stop and quietly reflect in an atmosphere of stone and water and iron. This striking stone edifice, inaugurated by Charles de Gaulle in 1962, is a small building in the shape of a ship’s prow sitting primarily below street level along the Seine and accessed by climbing down a narrow stone staircase onto a stone square surrounded by high walls – an area that is bare except for the walls surrounding it, a narrow entrance into the interior rooms, and a metal portcullis through which you can see a smidge of the flowing waters of the Seine. I had passed by this Memorial numerous times over the years before I discovered its existence by reading about it in Thirza Vallois’ Around and About Paris (volume 1). It is a bit easier to find now because a small entrance structure and a metal wall were constructed at street level over the last couple of years, for security purposes. The stated intention of the Memorial’s architect was to create a feeling of claustrophobia and, according to the audiotape guide available for rental at the street level entrance, the configuration of the descent via that narrow stairway is to carry you down to where the urban landscape progressively disappears and noises fade away so that you are forced to feel a kind of isolation and momentary imprisonment, a loss of the sense of time with only air and water and stone surrounding you. According to author Thirza Vallois, the spear-like motifs of the portcullis at the river side of the courtyard are shaped out of black iron to evoke the memory of those whose flesh was lacerated by the Nazi torturers. Gazing at just a bit of the Seine through those bars, you do shudder for a moment. But you also feel, along with the sense of isolation, a concurrent sense of harmony, simplicity, and silence, permitting you to reflect and quiet your busy brain. Thirza Vallois describes the interior as follows: “Respectfully austere, the bare, raw stone walls honour the bare, raw wounds inflicted upon the victims. There is no superfluous pathos in this place, just a few lines engraved on the stone walls”. Entering the dimly lit crypt through a very narrow doorway opposite the portcullis, you enter a hexagonal rotunda containing the tomb of an unknown deportee killed at the Neustadt camp – on which sits a ‘flame of eternal hope.” Just opposite the entrance is a window through which you view a long narrow gallery lit by 200,000 glass crystals set in the walls (one for each deportee), at the far end of which there sits a single bright light. Small rooms…

Lead photo credit : Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. Photo: James Evans/ Flickr

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Michele is a corporate lawyer and writer who visits France often and is convinced she must have been French in an earlier life -probably hanging around with Ernest Hemingway during what she calls his "cute" stage, living on Cardinal Lemoine and writing on rue Descartes - which just happens to be be her usual stomping ground. From her first time in Paris and that first feeling of familiarity she has returned often as if it is her second home. Now the hotels are Airbnb apartments and she enjoys being a short-term local and shopping at the market, cooking her own meals. Sitting on her own Paris balcony , a wineglass or morning coffee in hand, she writes her journal, describing her walks around town as the proverbial flâneur and taking notes for the future’s stories and travel pieces.


  • Michele Kurlander
    2017-04-22 06:02:51
    Michele Kurlander
    Thank you Nina. I discovered the memorial a few years ago by accident because I was sitting behind Notre Dame perusing the Vallois book to see more about the history of the area. I had to look up and across the street in surprise when I read that I was looking towards a memorial that I didnt know existed even though I had walked by often. I.started telling people about it after that, and I have gone back a number of times- feeling moved each time.


  • Marcia Severson
    2017-04-21 17:42:45
    Marcia Severson
    Great article. We visited the memorial last fall. Even though we knew it was right behind Notre Dame it was a bit difficult to find. Once we figured out where to go and saw the small office we were met by two very polite young men. We got the (free) English audioguide and were very moved by the whole memorial. Thank you.


  • Nina Fabri
    2017-04-20 14:22:00
    Nina Fabri
    The article on The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is very touching. I think this monument is one of the most significant and unforgettable memorials. So few people visit it, it is almost unknown. I always recommend it to people who visit Paris and few take the time. So unfortunate. Thank you for bringing it to the fore and enticing people to visit. "Pardonne, n'oublie pas" Nina Fabri Je ne peux pas m'imaginer avoir faire le moindre commentaire similaire, car c'est la première fois que j'écris quelque chose a Bonjour Paris!!!