When Benjamin of Tudela, a medieval Jewish explorer who travelled all over the known world and recorded its Jewish communities, arrived in Paris he called it Ha-ir Hagedolah (‘that great city’).
In ‘The Travels of Benjamin’, originally written in Hebrew, he wrote: “This city, situated on the river Seine, belongs to King Louis, and contains many learned men… they employ all their time upon the study of the law, are hospitable to all travellers, and on friendly terms with all their Jewish brethren.”
Throughout the centuries, Paris has been a place of Jewish prosperity, scholarship, and greatness. However, it has also been a city of woes in which many Jewish tears had fallen: Mass expulsions, government-sponsored vilification, forced conversion to Roman Catholicism, and both systematic and random physical violence and murder were common throughout the centuries. It was not until the French Revolution that the Parisian Jewish community finally had some measure of civil and religious freedom… but only for a short while.
Le Marais — located in the heart of historic Paris — has been a haven for the Jewish community since the thirteenth century. This are spreads across the 3rd and 4th arrondissements and today it celebrates one of the most culturally rich and diverse communities in Paris, where both the Jewish and Gay communities thrive.
Cobblestone streets wind through Le Marais’ dizzying network of hidden courtyards, provocative galleries, and ivy-covered boulangeries. The neighbourhood’s quint beauty of painted windowpanes and antique relics has always been pristinely groomed by its thriving Jewish population.
The Jewish quarters — Le Pletzl (Little Place) — is defined by Rue des Rosiers, Rue des Ecouffes, Rue Pavée and Rue du Roi-de-Sicile. Here you’ll experience a real old-world village atmosphere where the streets are decorated by Hebrew shop signs and the locals are all familiar with each other, eating falafels together on street corners.
This chic, lively and eclectic neighbourhood offers plenty of cafés, restaurants, culture and the latest fashion. Not to mention stylish boutiques, museums, parks, beautiful architecture and famous monuments. Rue des Rosiers and its narrow side-streets will spoil you with Jewish restaurants, bookshops, boulangeries and charcuteries, as well as beautiful synagogues and shtiebels.
The most celebrated Jewish bakery is at 27 Rue des Rosiers. Sacha Finkelsztajn, with its canary yellow shop walls is the oldest Jewish bakery in the neighbourhood and offers a vast choice of original dishes that marry tradition with modernity.
On Rue Geoffrey l’Asnier, number 17, is Le Mémorial de la Shoah (The Holocaust Memorial). Here the history of anti-Semitic persecution all over the world can be revisited as well as the rebounding state of Jewry today. The Holocaust Memorial was opened in January 2005, and is a valuable research institution that houses an archive of documents and more than a million artefacts, including 55,000 photographs, of the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities committed during the Second World War. There is also a haunting memorial wall bearing 76,000 names of French Jews who were deported to the Nazi camps between 1942 and 1944, of which only 2,500 survived. The memorial offers a free guided tour in English the second Sunday of every month at 3 pm.
Behind Notre Dame Cathedral is Le Mémorial des martyrs de la Déportation (Memorial of the Deported Martyrs), bearing the names of 200,000 French men, women and children who were murdered in the German death camps. However, the memorial lacks specific references to Jewish victims, and its dedication to the two hundred thousand French ‘martyrs’ who died in the deportation camps suggests that these victims died willingly for a national cause rather than as victims of state persecution.
The Memorial of the Deported Martyrs hosted a small service in 2001, to France’s eventual recognition of their persecution of homosexuals during World War II. Since the 1980s, several European and international cities have erected memorials to specifically remember homosexuals who were abused, persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust. Major memorials can be found in Berlin, Amsterdam, Montevideo, San Francisco and Sydney. Sadly, until today, there is no official memorial site in France to commemorate the persecution of gay people by both the Nazis and France’s Vichy regime.
As you leave The Memorial of the Deported Martyrs, the words above the door speak volumes: “Forgive, but do not forget!” a stark reminder that collaboration and capitulation can happen anytime, anywhere.
Other places of interest:
La Gaîté Lyrique — One of Paris’s newest contemporary art venues combines innovative exhibits with live musical performances and a multimedia space that features a library, movies, and free video games. Think of it as a smaller, more interactive Centre Pompidou. La Gaîté Lyrique occupies three floors of a 19th-century theatre — remnants of which are visible in the café upstairs.
Maison de Victor Hugo — Here, on the northeast corner of Place des Vosges, is where France’s most famous author, Victor Hugo, lived between 1832 and 1848. It’s now a museum dedicated to the multitalented author of Les Misérables. The first floor is dedicated to temporary exhibitions that often have modern ties to Hugo’s work. In Hugo’s apartment on the second floor, you can see the tall desk, next to the short bed, where he began writing his masterwork Les Misérables (as always, standing up). There are manuscripts and early editions of the novel on display, as well as others such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Musée Carnavalet — If you are looking for an overview of Parisian history, this is the museum to visit. Musée Carnavalet hosts a fascinating hodgepodge of artefacts and art, ranging from the prehistoric canoes used by Parisii tribes to the furniture of the cork-lined bedroom where Marcel Proust laboured over his evocative novels. Thanks to scores of paintings, nowhere else in Paris can you get such a precise picture of the city’s evolution through the ages. The exhibits on the Revolution are especially interesting, with scale models of guillotines and a replica of the Bastille prison carved from one of its stones. Louis XVI’s prison cell is reconstructed along with mementos of his life, even medallions containing locks of his family’s hair. Other impressive interiors are reconstructed from the Middle Ages through the Rococo period and into Art Nouveau — showstoppers include the Fouquet jewellery shop and the Café de Paris’s original furnishings.
Also see our review of Hôtel Original, a trendy boutique hotel in the heart of Paris… perfectly located for your stay in Le Marais.
Don’t miss our follow-up article, Gay Paris — Le Marais, Paris, in which we’ll treat you with the best gay places to visit in the heart of Paris.