At the eastern tip of Ile de la Cite, just behind Notre Dame Cathedral, the overlooked Paris Deportation Memorial honors some 200,000 of France’s victims from World War II. This memorial is not for the soldiers, however, but other casualties of that war. It honors the men, women and children who were arrested, rounded up like cattle, and sent out of Paris to Nazi death camps.
France’s role in WWII was a complicated one. What follows is undoubtedly an over-simplification. My goal is not to bore you with too many details, but provide some basic background information.
In 1939, France had invaded Germany, but by May/June of 1940, Germany had defeated France and its Benelux neighbors (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg). To make matters worse, Italy had also invaded France from the south. The French had little choice but to seek peace.
Hitler carried a grudge over the way WWI had ended so poorly for Germany. If the French wanted peace, it would be only on his terms. He wanted to have an armistice (truce) signing with the French in the same exact place where his country conceded defeat to the Allies at the end of WWI. Needless to say, he wasn’t feeling particularly generous toward the French. One witness on that day reportedly said of Hitler, “I have seen that face many times at the great moments of his life. But today! It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.”
Among the terms of the Armistice of 1940: the Germans would occupy almost two-thirds of France (at France’s expense). Any German national who had sought asylum in France would be turned over for deportation to a concentration camp. And no French soldiers who were prisoners of war would be released under the armistice. As a result, one million of them spent the next five years in German POW camps.
Beginning in 1942, Jews in France faced deportation. Tragically, the French police actually aided in the effort to take these families out of their homes and turn them over to Nazi authorities. (Hard to imagine? I highly recommend a novel set in Paris during this time period: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.)
In all, around 200,000 people were deported from France and sent to 15 different Nazi death camps. I learned that the term “death camp” covers different places: concentration camps, special camps of the SS, killing centers, internment camps, regroupment camps for deportation, retaliation camps for prisoners of war, etc.
I also learned that it wasn’t just Jews who were deported – of the 200,000 roughly 76,000 were Jews. Sadly, 11,000 of those were children. Each prisoner sent to a death camp wore a blue and white striped uniform with a special insignia – a colored triangle patch – to indicate his offense. Political prisoners wore a red triangle, Gypsies brown, homosexuals pink, Jehovah’s Witnesses purple, and criminals green. Jews were additionally identified by a yellow triangle, sometimes combined with another one.
Built in the location of a former morgue, the Paris Deportation Memorial is, fittingly, underground. I found it cold, impersonal, cramped, and dark. Which is exactly as it should be, given what it represents. Quite the contrast after strolling past Notre Dame Cathedral and taking in views of the Seine River.
Approaching the memorial from the outside, you can’t help but notice that the lettering declaring its purpose is crude and harsh, all straight lines. It almost looks as if the detainees had carved the letters and numbers into the stone themselves.
Entering through a narrow stone walkway that leads down below the ground, you approach one of the memorial’s few open spaces.
Overall, the memorial is shaped like the prow of a ship. Gazing out at the Seine River through the barred window, you can easily feel like a prisoner. Just imagine having to leave all that you know behind for such a grim future.
The Paris Deportation Memorial
From the open area shown above, you pass through a narrow, almost claustrophobia-inducing passage to explore the inner, underground areas of the memorial.
A plaque on the floor of the underground chamber bears the inscription: “They descended into the mouth of the earth and they did not return.”
Inside the memorial crypt lies the Tomb of the Unknown Deportee. The remains placed in the tomb are those of an individual who died in the Neustadt concentration camp. Pebbles line a long corridor known as the Hall of Remembrance to represent the Jewish tradition of placing a stone on the grave of a loved one.
One area had a concrete wall with fifteen triangular niches cut into it. Each triangle bore the name of a death camp to which French citizens had been deported.
Each triangle contains soil and the ashes of the victims from the corresponding camp. Elsewhere, a map of France showed the total number of people deported from each region:
I have often written about places that are not enjoyable to see, but that I feel should be seen, such as the 9/11 Museum & Memorial in New York City. As a history geek, I have a keen appreciation for the adage “Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.” I encourage you, if you are in Paris, to take an hour or so to visit this stunning memorial.
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