By Gerard Leval
During a recent visit to Paris, I walked over to Place du Trocadéro, the large plaza so familiar to tourists seeking the best views of the Eiffel Tower. However, rather than view the Eiffel Tower, I walked a few steps to the south and ventured into the large Passy Cemetery to see the elaborate graves, including those of many noted figures in French history and culture.
I walked past the tombs of Claude Debussy, the great impressionist composer, and the painter Edouard Manet and his sister-in-law, Berthe Morisot. I noted the tombs of a former president of the French republic and of prominent authors, industrialists and military heroes of the last century.
But, my attention was drawn to a simple reddish granite tomb. At the top of the stone at the head of the grave there was a brief inscription in French, “To the memory of Isaac, Anna, Aline,” followed by a very Jewish surname. Just below the names were the words “who disappeared in 1942.” The words did not leave any doubt as to the circumstances of the deaths of the three individuals. They had been deported during the German occupation of France and murdered.
Such inscriptions are sadly not uncommon in Paris cemeteries, a silent tribute to the thousands of Jewish victims of the Nazis and their collaborators. But it was what appeared just below the inscription which caught my eye. Engraved under the names of the obviously Jewish victims of the Holocaust was a symbol, which appeared to be a cross. Upon close inspection it was actually a Star of David, over which was engraved a large cross. To the left of this symbol was the name of another deceased individual, also bearing the very Jewish surname of the Holocaust victims, an individual who had died relatively recently, in 2003.
Familiar as I am with the history of the post-World War II French community, I readily understood the significance and tragedy represented by this grave. It was evident to me that following the war and the deportation of members of this family, one of the survivors, probably a son and a brother, had elected to convert to Catholicism. He had chosen to abandon the faith and tradition of his family. In spite of this choice, he had felt an obligation to remember his relatives, but to do those from his new religious vantage point.
I do not purport to judge the actions of the survivor in his decision to leave his Jewish tradition and adopt the Catholic faith of the majority of French people. Perhaps it was the product of a religious revelation. Maybe it was the desire to leave the burdens of being Jewish behind and integrate into the fabric of France. Possibly it was the hope of insuring the safety of future generations — to inoculate them against the hatred that had deprived his relatives of life. Since I did not live through the persecution of the Holocaust, I am simply unwilling to judge those who did.
Nonetheless, the pain that I felt while standing over this grave arose from a sense that the ambiguous symbol was a desecration of the martyrdom that the three identified victims had assuredly experienced in 1942. They had been killed because they were Jews. It seemed so tragic that their memorial should try to dissimulate the true cause of their suffering or suggest that their suffering could be redeemed through adherence to a faith not their own.
The sight of that grave served to reinforce the reverberating effects of the Holocaust, as its consequences continue to echo through the years, and of some of the subtler ways in which there are still efforts to undermine and distort its lessons.
My encounter with this tombstone also served to reinforce one of my longtime concerns regarding Holocaust memory and respect for the Jewish dead: the steadily disappearing tombs in Jewish sections of Paris’ municipal cemeteries. Over the years, I have noted with increasing distress the removal of graves of Jews resulting from the apparent failure of families and their descendants to pay the require maintenance fees for those graves. Under applicable French law, even a “perpetual concession” in a municipal cemetery is only an assurance of a right to the grave for so long as officially recognized direct descendants of the purchaser of the grave continue to pay the very considerable annual maintenance fees.
And the authorities do not make it easy to establish ancestry and to make maintenance fee payments — as I can attest from my own lengthy and frustrating efforts to protect the grave of my grandparents.
With a diminishing Jewish population and families where either conversion away from Judaism or alienation from Jewish tradition has distanced them from prior generations, many Jewish graves do not benefit from the payment of maintenance fees and are being removed. A significant number of the disappearing graves contained inscriptions to the memory of victims of the Holocaust, placed there by grieving survivors after the war. The removal of those graves, erasing forever the memory of the victims whose names appeared on the gravestones, effectively commits a second destruction of the individuals who were so horribly deprived of life just two generations ago.
My efforts to alert Jewish religious authorities in France to take action to prevent these terrible acts of desecration have not resulted in any concrete results. Those authorities simply invoke French law and assert that there is nothing that can be done.
However, we Jews know that the act of caring for our dead is one of the most important mitzvahs, an obligation that is a broad and vital one. We must make certain that the dead are given a proper burial and that their place of burial is maintained. Symbolically, we all do this whenever we visit a Jewish grave and place small stones at the grave — echoing the very real obligation to protect graves from marauders in an earlier era. Preventing the wanton removal of Jewish graves and the exhumation of Jewish remains to be tossed into a collective public grave is equally an imperative.
It is not appropriate to be resigned to desecration.
Allowing Jewish martyrdom to become a kind of ecumenical statement through the conflating of the symbols of Judaism and Christianity seems very disrespectful. Allowing the destruction of Jewish graves and the removal of memorials to those of our brethren who were martyred and deprived of a proper burial is reprehensible.
My brief walk in the Passy Cemetery highlighted the continuing need to prevent the desecration of the memory of those Jews who were destroyed in the Holocaust and the urgency of protecting the remains of Jews whose descendants may have ceased or become unable to care for their last resting places.
Gerard Leval is a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm. He writes and lectures on topics of French and Jewish interest.