It is now one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Paris. The history of La Marais is layered of course, just like any other old district in any other old city in Europe. But I am Jewish, so for me, this place was already alive in the layers of my heart, even though I didn’t think I knew anything about it.
I had been given a message to prepare for visiting the streets of the pletzl. “Remember you are walking on what was occupied territory”. Thank you Guides, I will.
Before I left for Paris, I tried to do some research, but I was consumed with preparing my workshops for my new clients.
And anyway, we can’t prepare with our minds for what we are going to experience with our hearts and souls. We can know the facts about a place and be completely ignorant of what is most real about it.
L. and I arrived off the metro with only enough time to grab a bite before we were due at the home of a friend where the workshop would be held. We thought maybe we’d have a falafel but quickly dismissed that idea as it was Saturday and very few stands were open, so the lines were long. We found ourselves in a tiny intersection standing in front of Florence Kahn’s bistro.
We had pastrami, perogi, and a knish-type of thing made with thin sheets of pastry (like you would find in spanokopita or baklava) filled with a light cheese filling. The waiter served us what I thought was challah, but turned out to be a bagel. And like all the other dishes, it was the most elegant incarnation of its type I had ever had. The pastrami was tender as pasta and had notes of cumin at the top. Forgive me even for using the word “notes” but I’m sorry, that’s what they were. The bagel was like the fashion model of bagels. Light, fluffy, almost sweet.
But it was the strudel that made me tear up. The waiter had been told I was American when I asked via L. if I could take pictures of the food for my mother. He responded in a flash, that of course I could. He had an extremely kind disposition and was amused and flattered by my interest with no trace of snobbery. When he served us the strudel and coffeel, he was expectant, hovering until I took the first bite, to see my reaction.
Even having had the extraordinary strudel of my grandmother, I was overcome.
I had already cried over dinner the night before. Saucissons and bread. Foie gras ravioli with black truffles, in a butter sauce. Pork shoulder with more foie gras. Polenta. Vegetables. Cheese board. Fruit in chocolate sauce. Meringue with chestnut cream. More wine than I had ever had at a meal in my life. Crying because….the menu at La Gran Pan had been chosen in my honor. Crying because I was in Paris. Crying because the love of the meal was so present. To experience a meal that is culturally valued as much as it is prepared lovingly…and of course crying because I had just done five readings and a three-hour workshop with such lovely women, and it had been a success.
But these tears were different. I couldn’t talk. I just looked up at him.
“Please Mademoiselle, don’t cry,” he said, and everyone around us laughed.
I said, “Well it’s either deal with my tears or the disposal of my body, because I am going to die of pleasure right here on the spot”. I was in a kind of ecstasy, but it was bittersweet.
Outwardly, I attempted to be charming, self-effacing. To play it with a light comic touch.
But the strudel made me so very sad as well. I was missing my grandmother, and then I could feel it happening, the passing through the present, moving through the door to the spirit side, being received by the guides there. They are guardian spirits who are holding the memories of La Marais. Ready to show those who are able to bear witness.
There is a kind of screaming and keening that emanates from the walls. It is the stored emotion of all the sounds that could not be made by Jews in hiding. The streets still hold the intense stomping pressure of aggression. I see German soldiers jauntily cruising the empty streets and joking, smoking as they go along. My sudden terror is in complete contrast to their laughter, their banter. As if they are on holiday. Across the street there are resistance workers sneaking in through what I can only describe as a door within a door– to make the initial “lift” of a “package”…..a young woman stands by my right side and tells me to watch and she will explain….the families have to be separated and moved constantly in order to increase the chances of survival. The longer a Jew is hidden, the greater the chances of betrayal or discovery. I watch her rescue partner move through the buildings at dusk to a passage in the walls where a family with a baby is waiting to go. My heart is racing in panic, how will they keep the baby quiet?
La Marais, she told me, is a district of sitting ducks. By the time they know they are trapped, they are totally stuck. The ones who have money can get a little food while they wait, but they are all starving. If someone dies, we have to get the body out quickly so it doesn’t put them all at risk. There are other Jews in the other areas, not as orthodox, not as obvious. Those are the ones who have a chance to become refugees. The Germans didn’t have to wall off La Marais, she says. “Cleaning it up” would be quick and easy. But it is so watched all the time, it makes our work harder.
She is a skinny little thing. Her skin is ashen but she has pretty, lively eyes. She is a teenager, she is too young to be out here on her own. She doesn’t know how brave she is, this is normal for her, plus she has that teenager thing where she doesn’t think she will get caught. Plus she is exceptionally bright. She has one set of clothes that are not warm enough, her head is covered with a summer scarf. She tells me she can’t even wear it most of the time because it stands out. She has been in the resistance since she was 13, with her parents and her older brother. Her brother left school when it was closed and fled into the countryside to fight. Her parents had worked for the resistance in the city. They had almost been exposed so they fled Paris two years before, and worked the border regions, separately. She had received one letter, but many months ago. The family would reunite in perhaps Spain that summer. She would stay with her unit for a few months more, to finish the rescue of a particularly large family in hiding. She was waiting to leave. She looked at me, full of joy that I was a free Jew, eating strudel in the exact spot where she had been discovered and shot. Thank you, she said. Thank you for being a Jew in France.
Forgive me, Monsieur, but my tears are absolutely essential. My feelings here in public, for all to see, are a gift to the memory of those that had to hide. To those that died in an awful prison of silence. To all those who dare not feel, who, even if they survived, forgot how?
Next: The workshop that transcended language.