As the Second World War was approaching in 1939, France planned to keep up a defensive front. However, with so many allied troops fighting in Belgium, France was unable to keep up, and the German troops reached the English Channel on May 20th, 1940. The surrender of France came on June 20th, 1940, just six weeks after Germany’s first attack. The Vichy regime in France complied with German forces. They easily gave up Paris and the northern half of the country. The Vichy government implemented all of the laws the Nazi’s required, taking census after census of Jewish citizens, enforcing Nazi laws, conducting roundups, and running concentration camps, until the liberation.
There were approximately 300,000 Jews in France at the start of World War II, over half of them from eastern Europe, many coming in the years prior to the war due to the rising Nazi party. Many received French citizenship, but many others did not. During the years when most of the deportations happened, the “stateless” Jews, those without French citizenship, were the first to be deported. Arrests started in May of 1940, shortly after the Germans invaded France. The concentration camps in France would run until the summer of 1944, when France was liberated.
The eastern end of Île de la Cité, behind the Notre-Dame cathedral, houses a secluded memorial for the 200,000 French citizens deported from Vichy France during World War II. The memorial is an understated piece of architecture, designed by architect Georges-Henri Pingusson, and inaugurated by then President Charles de Gaulle on April 12th, 1962. The memorial is built into the island, designed like the prow of a ship. The memorial was even included in Architectural Digest’s list titled, “Ten Most Significant Memorial Buildings”.
The memorial contains earth and ashes from the camps where the citizens were taken. Thousands of small lights representing the deceased line the crypt-like hallway. It’s a somber place of reflection, unlike many other large ornate monuments across the city, for example the many arches throughout the city, and various courtyards decorated with intricate fountains and statues. The walls inside show poetry talking of tragedy, pain, loss, and the entrances are barred on both sides. The design of the memorial is symbolizing the dark, desolate, lonely walls of the camps that so many were sent to for their final days. This memorial is not as grand as so many other statues and places of remembrance across the city. It’s not large, ornate, or very well known to most tourists, sitting quietly behind Notre Dame.
The Holocaust, and World War as a whole, is often viewed as one of the darkest times in world history. Countries were torn apart, and the populations of citizens across so many countries were affected by the advances of the German troops and Hitler’s Nazi regime. The people memorialized at Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation were not war heroes, they are not being remembered for their role in the war. They were innocent citizens whose lives were taken from them for the heinous wants and goals of the German Nazis and the French Vichy Regime who complied with them, disregarding its own people.
Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation stays calm and quiet, a somewhat somber air to it. The lights in the halls representing those who were lost gleam bright in the dark, almost as a beacon of hope. For brighter days, more understanding, more compassion, and more love.