Jewish Paris

By Toni L. Kamins, June 2001

When you walk around Paris Jewish history is all around. Visitors already may be familiar with the Pletzl, the area of narrow streets on and around the rue des Rosiers. It’s a good place to begin, but look farther than that.

This neighborhood in Paris’ 4th arrondissement (district) has been Jewish on and off since the thirteenth century. Today, though gentrification has made this one of the city’s most fashionable quarters, it is still heavily Jewish and has been for nearly one hundred years.

At 10 rue Pavée, near the rue de Rivoli, is Agudath Hakehilot the largest synagogue in the Pletzl. Built in 1914, it was designed by Hector Guimard, the Art Nouveau architect famous for Paris Metro’s green vegetal archways. Guimard's American wife was Jewish and with the rise of Nazism they left France for the United States. On Yom Kippur 1940 the synagogue was dynamited by the Germans, but has since been restored and is now a national monument.

Walk up the rue Pavée to the rue des Rosiers, and turn left. Along this narrow, ancient street you will find kosher and Jewish style restaurants cheek by jowl with Jewish bookshops, synagogues, shtiebels, and kosher boulangeries and charcuteries.

Off the rue des Rosiers is the rue Ferdinand Duval, until 1900 the rue des Juifs. In the rear of the courtyard of number 20 is a sixteenth century Hotel Particulier (private house) known as the Hotel des Juifs. Now owned by an artist, it is a remnant of a Jewish community of the eighteenth century composed of Jews from Alsace, Lorraine, and Germany.

The next street off the rue des Rosiers is rue des Ecouffes – street of kites, a bird of prey and an archaic and derisive term for pawnbroker.

Nearby at 6, rue des Hospitalières-St.-Gervais is a plaque commemorating the 165 students and headmaster of this Jewish school who were deported to Auschwitz via the transit camp at Drancy. And at 17, rue Geoffroy-l'Asnier is the Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Marty with its invaluable archives of World War II documents.

The Jews of Paris and of France have the task of perpetuating Judaism while living with some very unpleasant and constant reminders of a history as outsiders that started way before the German occupation in the 1940s. For centuries the Jewish community lived within France at the sufferance of the king. Expulsions were common, as were all manner of physical, social, and economic degradations.

When you wander the ancient streets of the Pletzl, think about Jonathan, a Jewish moneylender in the thirteenth century. In 1290, Jonathan loaned money to a neighbor who gave her clothing as collateral. She repaid the loan, but spread rumors that he wouldn’t return her clothing unless she gave him the communion host from the local church. According to her story, she gave it to him and he hacked it with a knife until it bled. Then he threw it into a vat of boiling water, which turned red. According to the woman’s tale, the host rose out of the vat and hovered in the air. She told this to the entire neighborhood, and Jonathan was burnt at the stake. Later, a chapel was built on the site – now the Protestant church of Les Billettes (22-24 rue des Archives). Jonathan and his family were not the only ones to suffer in this incident – the whole Jewish community was accused along with him, and it could very well have contributed to the expulsion of all Jews from France in 1306.

Nearby, the Place de l’Hotel de Ville was once known as the Place de Grève. In 1240 an infamous trial of the Talmud took place there followed by the burning of some twenty-four cartloads of Jewish books two years later. So traumatic was this trial and its outcome that it has been ever since included in the roster of disasters that are recalled each year on Tisha B'Av.

Walk over to the Ile de la Cité. In the twelfth century a Jewish quarter was delineated by the present rue de la Cité (known then as the rue des Juifs), the Quai de la Corse, and the rue de Lutece. The synagogue was on Place Louis Lepine, the site of today’s Marché aux Fleurs.

Other than the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame is Paris’ most identifiable landmark. This symbol of French Catholicism also is emblematic of the centuries old conflict between Christianity and Judaism. On either side of the central portal, in tall niches, are two female figures – Ecclesia and Synagoga. On the left as you face it is Ecclesia – a beautiful woman wearing a crown. She represents the Roman Church. On the right is Synagoga – a woman blinded by a serpent around her eyes, with her head bowed, and her staff shattered; the tablets of the law slip from her hand. She represents Judaism. Variations of these figures are common in church architecture all over Europe and in medieval art as well.

In the 15th arrondissement, not far from the Bir-Hakeim Bridge, between Quai Branly and Quai de Grenelle is a memorial to a shameful chapter in French history – the Place des Martyrs Juifs du Vélodrome d’Hiver, dedicated in 1994. It was nearby, on the rue Nélaton, that the huge Vél d’Hiv was located. An indoor stadium used for six-day bicycle races, concerts, boxing matches and other events, it was from 1942 until its demolition in 1958, one of the most infamous places in all Paris. Early in the morning of July 16, 1942, the French police, acting under orders from the German Gestapo (headquartered at the Hotel Lutetia on the Blvd Raspail), wrenched over 13,000 Jewish men, women, and children from their beds and brought them here. Kept under horrendous conditions for days, they were shipped to the transit camp at Drancy (outside the city) and then to Auschwitz.

The courtyard of the Ecole Militaire (7th arrondissement) hosted the culmination of one of the most notorious incidents in modern French history. On January 5, 1895, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was publicly stripped of his rank and uniform following a sham trial in which he was convicted of treason based on forged evidence. Over the shouts of "mort aux Juifs" by the angry crowd, and anti-Jewish jeers by his fellow officers, Dreyfus continued to proclaim his innocence. Though he was eventually cleared, reinstated in the army, and promoted, his reinstatement ceremony didn’t get nearly as much press as the one at which he was dishonored – and it didn’t take place in the main courtyard. Who else trained at the Ecole Militaire? Moshe Dayan and Chaim Bar Lev.

By the way, Dreyfus is buried in Montparnasse cemetery. Ironically his grave is not far from the wife of Maréchal Phillipe Petain who actually did sell out France to the Germans just decades after Dreyfus was falsely accused. Pierre Laval, the former French premier who became an official in Petain’s Vichy government and who, as the head of the collaborationist government himself negotiated with Germany, also is buried nearby.

Toni L. Kamins is a Manhattan journalist and writer.  She is the author of the Complete Jewish Guide to France and the Complete Jewish Guide to Britain and Ireland, the first two books in a new series of Jewish travel guides she created.  They will be published in the fall by St. Martin s Press.

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