Looking out my window recently, I saw two young boys of perhaps seven or eight years whizzing around the corner on their scooters. I was glad to see that young kids are allowed out to play in our part of town, unsupervised. You just don’t see overweight children here. Just seconds before one of the boys entered his code outside his door and leapt inside, it struck me that he was wearing a yarmulke. He pulled his friend after him and disappeared…This glimpse was one of those small moments that mean a lot to me. I get a feeling of triumph every time I see visible the survival of the French Jews.
These plaques are everywhere in Paris. They attest to the number of dead children, given up by the French and seized from their schools and homes by the Nazis, then deported and murdered because they were Jewish. I admire the French willingness to own up to this shame. These constant reminders distress me, but we owe those children our distress even so many years later. Five years ago, sending my own half-Jewish child to attend a French school, she went past one such plaque and the big blue doors of the ecole shut behind her. I gulped hard, imagining her fate had we lived here at the wrong time.
But today, bright and sunny and perfect these thoughts were not on my mind. We were off to visit the Maison Victor Hugo, one of Paris’ many small museums. We went through the beautiful courtyard of the Hotel Sully and into the gorgeous Place des Vosges. Children were playing, their mothers’ laughter ringing out.
And unbidden, as these things often are, I noticed a green door in the arcade of the Place des Vosges. Peering more closely I realized with a start, it’s a synagogue.
Wow. A congregation of Jews, thriving in the heart of the former Jewish district (as the Marais was) and in a highly significant Marais location, too. This miracle survival, despite the very best efforts of some very bad people was heartening. Bravo.
On to Victor Hugo, what a delight.
I am a big fan of nineteenth century novels and admire French ones as much as English and Russian. In the museum, I learned about Hugo’s life and experienced his surroundings, the apartment he lived in through some of his most successful years. No starving artist, Hugo gave his apartment on the Place des Vosges a sumptuous appeal.
Bright rooms, en enfilade, are filled with the paintings and furnishings selected by Hugo, who clearly enjoyed decor and was a fan of Chinoiserie. As with his prose style, in Hugo’s view, more is more.
Despite his evident success, Hugo’s interesting life had many difficult moments. His beautiful daughter Leopoldine drowned together with her husband, at the age of 19, shortly after her marriage. Hugo could not recover.
This is Leopoldine.
As well, Hugo’s outspoken support of Republican causes put his life in danger when Napoleon III seized power. He fled and remained in exile for 15 years, unable and unwilling to return to a homeland that was not free.
How many successful artists today would risk it all for a principle? Hugo could have returned in a general amnesty to join the cultural life of his homeland, but he refused. He must have been tempted to see family and friends, talk to his publishers, get theatre projects going, be in his beloved Paris, but he chose to use his fame to promote freedom. Despite all the disturbing plaques, the reminders throughout Paris of horror and terror, of human criminality, Hugo’s life shows us how a good man can behave and what it is to be moral.