August 13, 2007

In Memoriam

One of my favorite memories of previous visits to Paris was the first time I visited Notre Dame. Upon entering the dim, cavernous cathedral, I was awed by the incredible height of its arched ceiling, which seemed to expand upwards infinitely. The quality of the light coming in through the intricate stained glass windows was magical, and I felt a deep sense of comfort and peace. Despite the presence of many people, a reverential silence prevailed, and I felt as if I had stepped back in time, walking where so many thousands had before.

Wanting to experience that type of atmosphere again, last Monday Joe and I made our first visit to Notre Dame since our arrival in July. I thought we might have a better chance of avoiding the tourist crowds because it was a weekday and it was threatening to rain, but my predictions turned out to be wrong. We joined a long line of tourists stretching almost across the parvis (square) in front of the cathedral, and waited our turn to enter. Thankfully, the line moved quite briskly, and once inside, I was again impressed by the size and beauty of the sanctuary, but something was different. Instead of a crowd that seemed dwarfed by the scale of the cathedral, it was just the opposite. Low murmurs were replaced by louder voices, and it was difficult to navigate through the crowds clustered at various points in the cathedral. There also seemed to be many more cameras in use; not just constantly-flashing still cameras, but more sophisticated-looking video cameras.

As we walked towards the centre of the church, we saw a large banner hanging over the altar. The banner bore the photo of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the former Archbishop of Paris who had died only the day before. Suddenly it all made sense; our visit coincided not only with the usual tourist crush, but with a day that had a greater significance to the church itself. Since we knew we could come back on a quieter day, we decided to head out early and explore the area around the cathedral.

We walked past the row of looming gargoyles lining the north side of the cathedral, and entered the small park on its east side. After getting a better look at the massive buttresses supporting the cathedral, we walked towards the river and then kept going east. Our destination was the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Deportation, a monument to the 200,000 people deported from France to German concentration camps during World War II.

After a quick bag check by the attendant outside to make sure we weren’t carrying anything that could do damage to the memorial, we descended into a large sandstone pit with high walls that blocked our view of the city beyond. I felt a slight chill as we crossed this courtyard; the bare walls were so austere, and the only outlet was a small low window overlooking the Seine which was barred by menacing spikes of black metal. From this courtyard we entered a dark, cave-like space. Below our feet was a plaque that read “They descended into the mouth of the earth and they did not return.”

Standing in that cramped, low-ceilinged room, I noted the stark contrast between this place and the one we had just left. It seemed to me that those who had created this memorial wanted us to feel in some small way what it was like to be buried alive, to feel the walls closing in. The effect it had on me was the opposite of the light and space of Notre Dame; both provoked reverential silence, but one inspired peace and comfort, and the other an uncomfortable reminder of the violence we are capable of inflicting on each other. The only source of hope was the memorial itself, that the thousands who had died (symbolized by 200,000 crystal lights along a memorial wall) would be remembered, and that the living would “Forgive but never forget.”

It was only after our visit to the memorial that I learned Cardinal Lustiger was born Aaron Lustiger, a Jew who converted to Catholicism during World War II, and that his own mother was sent to Auschwitz and her death during the war. I found it poignant that the memorial to her and so many others stands in the shadow of the great cathedral he presided over for 24 years. Despite his conversion, Lustiger never denied his Jewish roots, and the epitaph he wrote for himself is a final act of remembrance:

I was born Jewish.
I received the name
Of my paternal grandfather, Aaron
Having become Christian
By faith and by Baptism,
I have remained Jewish
As did the Apostles…

One Response to “In Memoriam”

  1. John Baxter said:

    You have said the rest, all I can say is “thank you, Morgen!”.