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Art of Triumph

May 18, 2011 By:
George Medovoy, Jewish Exponent Feature
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A kosher deli in the Pletzl, where a variety of foods is served, including delicatessen, falafel and pastries. Photos by George Medovoy

With the Philadelphia Museum of Art currently focusing on "Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle," what better time to go straight to the source and see the origins of what inspired the master artist.

The Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaisme sits behind the walls of the Hotel de Saint-Aignan, an aristocratic 17th-century mansion on what is now the Rue du Temple in the Third Arrondissement, or district, of Paris.

These mansions were not hotels as we know them today, but rather "hotels particuliers," or private homes, with lovely courtyards and gardens.

As passersby navigate a clutter of motorbikes on the tiny street, a flag flutters in the wind outside the museum, calling attention to "Chagall and the Bible," a wonderful exhibit of the artist's drawings, which continues until June 5.

Before getting to the exhibit, you first walk into the mansion's broad courtyard and come face to face with a statue of Alfred Dreyfus, the French army captain court-martialed in 1894 after being falsely accused of treason.

Dreyfus, who looks utterly defeated with his broken sword, stripped of his honor, became a symbol of the stain of anti-Semitism in France.

The statue was created by Louis Mitelberg, a well-known political cartoonist and sculptor, and the original is located at the Boulevard Raspail Metro station.

In the courtyard, my wife and I are greeted by Anne Helene Hoog, the museum's curator, who explains that the decision to have a Jewish museum in Paris, supported by the city and the Ministry of Culture, was taken in 1988.

Of course, the mansion was in terrible condition, owing to the fact that it had been taken over by the Paris underclasses in the 19th century, including poor workers and beggars, who used it as their place of work and lodging.

The Chagall exhibit, with its joyful celebration of the major figures of the Torah, stands in marked contrast to the sad figure of Dreyfus in the courtyard.

An Inspirational Journey

Before beginning these biblical works, Chagall set sail in 1931 for Palestine, which provided him with so much of the inspiration for what eventually transpired on paper.

We lost ourselves in the exhibit -- in its fantastic imagery and color -- and although the illustrated stories are well-known, Chagall redefined them as only he could with a new reality.

For example, there is Abraham ready to sacrifice his son, but the Jewish patriarch appears so tiny as he looks up at the angel above him.

There is Rachel's Tomb, with a splash of pink across the bottom of the tomb. What can it mean?

One sees so many fantastic figures we seem to know -- Moses receiving the tablets, Rebecca and Eliezer, the Hebrews adoring the golden calf, and on and on.

The exhibit is on loan from the Marc Chagall National Museum in Nice, so don't miss it if you're in Paris.

From the exultation of the Chagall paintings, we move to a permanent exhibit of an entirely different world -- Jewish life in Paris, including World War II Vichy France on the eve of deportations to the concentration camps.

One photo that sticks in my mind is of a dapper fellow in a suit and hat, pipe in hand, but wearing a yellow star, which the French authorities required of all Jews beginning on June 7, 1942.

There is a very moving alphabetical list of Jews who were rounded up, and I wonder about some of them randomly -- like a woman named Rachel-Haya Hager, who was arrested in her house and deported in Convoy No. 9 on July 22, 1942, to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

During the round-ups, many of which were carried out by the Vichy police, Jews were also arrested in the mansion now housing the museum, since it continued to be divided up into workshops and cheap apartments occupied in many cases by impoverished immigrant Jews.

The museum also includes an exhibit by Christian Boltanski with the names of the Jews who lived in the mansion before the deportations.

On the subject of round-ups, it is important to recall that there were also many non-Jews who carried out individual acts of heroism, rescuing Jews at great peril to themselves.

After we leave the museum, we walk to the "Pletzl," the Jewish quarter in the Fourth Arrondissement with its kosher restaurants and falafel eateries, synagogues and bookstores. We notice a plaque in honor of Joseph Migneret, who had been principal of the Hospitalier St. Gervais School during the war.

Migneret -- recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem -- saved many Jewish children and their parents from certain death by getting them false papers, and even sheltering one family in his house.

These days, a steady gentrification is taking place in the Pletzl, which is Yiddish for "small place," so you're just as likely to rub shoulders with someone wearing a black coat and a kipah as you are a 20-something window-shopping at a trendy new boutique.

Goldenberg's, the famous nonkosher deli on Rue des Rosiers, has since closed down, but the Goldenberg name has been retained on the front of the new store, which sells clothing.

Perhaps the most famous synagogue in the Pletzl is the tall Agoudas Hakehilos, more commonly known as the Synagogue de la Rue Pavée, at 10 Rue Pavée.

It was built in 1913, dynamited on Yom Kippur 1941 by the Nazis, and later restored.

Its architect, Hector Guimard, also created the lovely Art Nouveau entrances for the Paris Métro, like the one on îIe de la Cité in the Seine, near the old Roman road where a community of Jews lived as early as the fifth century.

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