Wednesday, February 18, 2009


It was a moment 70 years in the making. On Monday, nearly three quarters of a century after the Vichy government helped to deport tens of thousands of its Jewish citizens to concentration camps, France's top judicial body officially recognized France's role in the Holocaust. Though we tend to associate France with such lighthearted ideas as art, romance and fresh morning croissants, it's still a country that, like so many others, cannot ignore its grave past mistakes. In 1995, Jacques Chirac became the first French president to publicly admit France's role in La Shoah. With Monday's ruling by the Conseil d'Etat, his symbolic gesture is now a legal one as well.

Official statistics regarding religious groups in France do not exist, as it is against French law to take a census based on such ideas as race and religion, but estimates put France's Jewish community at approximately 500,000, making it the largest Jewish population of any Western European country. Those who wish to experience Jewish culture in Paris need look no further than the neighborhood known as Le Marais. Wander the rue des Rosiers where you can snack on Jewish pastries, eat at a kosher restaurant, and peruse a Jewish bookstore. The area becomes massively crowded on weekends, so a weekday visit would be best. Also nearby is The Museum of Jewish Art and History, the Musée Picasso, and Paris' oldest square, the Place des Vosges. Visisting Le Marais, with its countless boutiques, art galleries and historic sites, could keep you busy for weeks.

Can't make it to Paris to experience Jewish culture? Pick up a copy of Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky. I recently included her unfinished work in a list of my favorite France-related books. A Ukrainian Jew who had written her way into France's literary circles, Ms. Némirovsky composed Suite Francaise, a novel detailing life in France during the German invasion, as the war was swirling around her. The book remains unfinished because she was arrested by the French police and sent to her death at Auschwitz before she could tell us how the story ended. Readers are left with a heartbreakingly realistic protrayal of life under attack during WWII. The courageous and just annoucement that came out of Paris on Monday sounds like the perfect occasion for rereading, and recontemplating, what was and what could have been.

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