Opinion | A Tombstone in a Paris Cemetery

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By Gerard Leval

During a visit to Paris not long ago, 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 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 that caught my eye: It was a Star of David with a large cross engraved on top of it. 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 tragedy represented by this grave. Following the war and the deportation of members of this family, one of the survivors had elected to convert to Catholicism. In spite of this choice, the survivor 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 ensuring 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 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 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 another faith.

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. Under applicable French law, even a “perpetual concession” in a municipal cemetery is only an assurance of a right to the grave as long as officially recognized direct descendants 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 distanced from prior generations, many Jewish graves are being removed. A significant number of the disappearing graves contain inscriptions to the memory of victims of the Holocaust, placed there by grieving survivors. 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 nothing 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.

3 COMMENTS

  1. When I was looking for tombstones of my own R.C. ancestors in a French cemetery, I was told by locals that I might not find much because, unlike our practice in America, gravestones aren’t permanent in France. They are only put in place on a rental basis, and are replaced when that rental period is terminated.

    I could be mistaken, but my understanding is that when a rental ends, and is not renewed, someone else gets an opportunity to put their own gravestone there. It’s like parking spaces. I don’t know what is done about the bodies.

  2. I had not read the paragraph about “maintenance fees” when I wrote my previous message. I am so sorry for the desecration of the remains/memories of Jews. I share your frustration/resentment.

  3. No one will have any burden about my grave. My parents did not get a grave in Auschwitz, and I won’t get one in Havertown either. I willed my body to the University of Pennsylvania to train surgeons to save lives.

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