Shoah memorial museum, Paris

  (  with a good knowledge of French)  - darkometer rating:  6 -
Shoah memorial 1 - main facadeA major modern memorial museum and documentation centre in Paris about the Holocaust, especially in France, but also covering the topic in general, with lots of material presented (but much of it in French only). 
More background info: Shortly after the invasion of France in WWII by Nazi Germany in 1940 came the Holocaust too. With the help of the collaborating Vichy regime and French police forces, the Jews in the country (both of French citizenship as well as foreign Jews who had fled to France in the years before) were rounded up and deported, mainly from the transit camp in the Paris suburb of Drancy. The total number quoted at this museum is 76,000. The majority of them perished in Auschwitz, but also in a few other camps as well as en route during deportation or in the transit camps. Only a couple of thousand survived.
The Paris Shoah memorial museum, or Memorial de la Shoah, in French, goes back to underground initiatives started as early as 1943 in an endeavour to document the plight of the Jews in/from France and the crimes at the hands of the Nazis and the Vichy regime. This led to the memorial site in Paris after the war. However, it was only in 2005 that the present modern memorial museum was opened.
For many years, the whole topic didn't have the profile in France that it deserved – too embarrassing was France's own involvement in the Holocaust under the Vichy regime it seemed, too at odds with the notion of La Grande Nation. Only in recent years has this changed; in 1995 then president Jacques Chirac even publicly admitted to France's guilt in this dark chapter of the country's history.
The original "Memorial du martyr juif inconnu" ('Memorial of the Unknown Jewish Martyr') in Paris's Le Marais quarter underwent major refurbishment, re-building and expansion between 2002 and 2005, when it was opened (with president Chirac present) on 25 January, exactly on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
The centre is now one of the world's major Holocaust documentation centres and it collaborates with other similar institutions such as the US Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel. Just like these, it is, apart from being a memorial site and museum, also an important research institution.
For the dark tourist, it is a significant addition to the range of things to see in Paris, although the language limitation (see below) makes it somewhat less accessible to foreign visitors that its counterparts in those other places.
What there is to see: Even from the outside the memorial centre makes an impression. The side facades of the main building are noteworthy, being formed from a network of hundreds of concrete Stars of David. And along the lower outer wall to the north side of the memorial connecting Rue Geoffroy-l'Asnier with Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, a wall of names in honour of the "righteous amongst the nations (cf. Yad Vashem) is publicly accessible at all times.
To get to the memorial proper one first has to clear security, which as usual at such places, is rather tight. Once inside the main courtyard, note the central cylindrical sculpture bearing the names of some of the concentration camps, death camps and ghettos (e.g. Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Warsaw). To the left of this courtyard is a set of walls of names, listing all 76,000 victims known to the institution, amongst them 11,000 children.
The entrance to the indoor part of the memorial is under the main front wall, which bears a large Star of David and two inscriptions, one of them a quote by a former minister and honorary president of the memorial demanding respect for the Jewish "martyrs".
The permanent exhibition of the museum is on the lowest level, two flights of stairs down. En route, on the first underground level, you pass three more significant components of the memorial. First of all, the large crypt with an eternal flame in the centre of yet another large Star of David, made of black marble, in the middle of a gloomy dark hall (somewhat reminiscent of the old main memorial at Yad Vashem). The flame is directly underneath the cylindrical sculpture of the main courtyard above – which aims at a certain symbolism relating to the chimneys of the death camps.
On the wall by the stairs facing this crypt is one of the museum's largest concrete artefacts, a wooden front of a concentration camp barrack with its door.
Displayed in a side room to the left of this is the museum's collection of original file cards – an indication of the bureaucracy involved in the Holocaust. These are original index files, called "fichier juif", collected by the police under the Vichy regime. (The files, which belong to the National Archives, are behind glass and remain inaccessible – its content can only be searched on microfilm copy.)
Also on this level is a room used for temporary exhibitions (at the time of my visit in March 2011 this consisted of film posters of movies about the Holocaust or related to it and Jewish life and culture).
In the permanent exhibition, visitors can first get an overview of Jewish life in France/Paris, with various personal belongings and documents on display.
Explanatory text panels also feature English translations, which are largely OK, despite a few translation slips. Unfortunately, however, all the audio-visual material and interactive workstations (of which there are quite a few) are monolingual in French only. How much you can get out of the exhibition on a self-guided visit thus depends to quite a degree on whether you can understand French well enough.
Topically, the exhibition moves on to the days of the Nazi occupation, the Vichy regime and the discrimination, oppression, and deportation of Jews in France during that time. Again, displays are a mixture of documents, personal belongings, photos and explanatory texts and multimedia stations. Amongst the exhibits are also a few copies of Hitler's "Mein Kampf", in the original as well as in translations (e.g. Italian) – which is something you don't get to see in German exhibitions …
The most impressive feature in this part of the exhibition, in my view, is the large screen at the far end which shows a slowly moving image of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Creepily, the image very slowly creeps forward towards the iconic gatehouse (see also logo), seemingly in constant motion without ever getting much closer. If you look very closely you can see it's a loop, but the return to the beginning is so subtle that you can easily miss it – hence the effect of constantly moving but never getting there.
Behind the screen, the topic of the concentration camps is picked up in more detail, including a large plan of the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the centre of the room. Naturally, this is the grimmest part of the museum, although it doesn't get quite as graphic and explicit as e.g. at the USHM in Washington.
The final section of the permanent exhibition explores the aftermath of the Holocaust, including documentation, the Nuremberg trials and also cover-ups. The largest exhibit here is a farm machine used in the camouflaging of the grounds of former death camps as farms (cf. e.g. Belzec or Sobibor).
On exiting the exhibition one passes a set of high walls of photos – those of children who perished in the Holocaust …
The memorial centre also includes research stations, a multimedia collection, archives, educational services, meeting/seminar rooms (where regular events are held), and finally a comprehensive shop.
In the shop, most material, again, is in French only, though there is also a small section of titles in English. Unfortunately, this does not include a catalogue of the museum exhibition.
Overall: the modernized Shoah memorial museum is a significant addition to Paris's portfolio of museums and memorials, and certainly a worthwhile place to visit for the dark tourist too. Regrettably, though, the lack of English lets foreign visitors down a bit (the same, by the way, is partly true of the centre's website, whose "English version" often has links back to the French original or outside sites, such as the USHM's).
Location: at 17, Rue Geoffroy-l'Asnier in Paris's 4th arrondissement (district), just a quarter of a mile (400 m) from the Hotel de Ville.
Google maps locator:[48.8548,2.3562]
Access and costs: quite easy to get to; free.
Details: to get to the Shoah memorial museum you can take the metro to either Pont St Marie (M7) or St Paul (M1) and walk the short distance. From the former just stroll up Quai de l'Hotel de Ville to the next corner and turn right into Rue Geoffroy-l'Asnier; the museum entrance is on your left at No.17. From St Paul metro station on Rue de Rivoli first walk westwards and then branch down into Rue Francois Miron. Rue Geoffroy-l'Asnier then branches off to your left and the museum will be on the right-hand side of the street. You can also walk it from Hotel de Ville down Quai de l'Hotel de Ville and turn left.
Opening times: daily except Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., on Thursdays to 7:30 p.m.
Admission: free
Every second Sunday of each month, the museum offers a guided tour in English, beginning at 3 p.m., also free of charge (no reservation required).
Also on Sundays the museum offers a free shuttle service to its new branch and documentation centre at Drancy. As these buses depart at 2 p.m. and don't return until 5 p.m. that would rule out the guided tour at the main museum, though. So you'll have to decide one way or the other.
As usual at such Jewish institutions, there's quite tight security at the entrance. You have to pass your bags, coats, etc. through a metal detector like at an airport before being let through the double turnstile gates. Unfortunately, such security measures still seem to be necessary. What a shame.
Time required: depends very much on your level of French and depth of interest in the subject. If both are profound, then a single visit may not even be enough, as there's so much material on offer, not just in the museum proper, but also in the adjoining multimedia and research centres. Without French, you'd be limited to the English translations of the text panels and labels, and your visit could be shortened to as little as an hour or so.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Closely linked thematically and also nearby is the deportation monument at the southern tip of Ile de la Cite, just a few hundred yards away.
Much further out, but even more authentically related to the museum's subject is the memorial at the original site of the Drancy transit camp in the north-east suburb of the same name. The trip out there has recently been made much more worthwhile, however, namely through the Shoah Museum's new branch directly adjacent to the Drancy memorial which opened in September 2012. This now features a proper documentation centre and exhibition. On Sundays the museum even offers a free shuttle bus service between the two locations (dep. 2 p.m., return from Drancy at 5 p.m.).
Topically related are also parts of the WWII exhibition in the Army Museum at Invalides.
Otherwise see under Paris in general.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Le Marais, the quaint historic quarter of little streets and alleys in the 3rd and 4th arrondissement to the north and east of the Shoah memorial museum make for nice city strolls – and it's also an interesting quarter from a Jewish point of view: it was here that the "Pletzl" was, the Jewish centre until WWII and the Holocaust. After the war, and especially in more recent years, the area has seen a revival and is again Paris's main Jewish quarter, with a historic synagogue, Jewish bakeries and fashion shops, in particular around Rue de Rosiers.
In the other direction, across the river on Ile de la Cite, one of Paris's main tourist attractions beckons: Notre Dame cathedral. And a bit further down the Seine is the Louvre.  
For more see under Paris in general.
  • Shoah memorial 1 - main facadeShoah memorial 1 - main facade
  • Shoah memorial 2 - central memorialShoah memorial 2 - central memorial
  • Shoah memorial 3 - courtyardShoah memorial 3 - courtyard
  • Shoah memorial 4 - wall of namesShoah memorial 4 - wall of names
  • Shoah memorial 5 - floor planShoah memorial 5 - floor plan
  • Shoah memorial 6 - cryptShoah memorial 6 - crypt
  • Shoah memorial 7 - exhibitionShoah memorial 7 - exhibition
  • Shoah memorial 8 - exhibitionShoah memorial 8 - exhibition
  • Shoah memorial 9 - wall of righteousShoah memorial 9 - wall of righteous
  • Shoah memorial museum 8a - farm machine cover-upShoah memorial museum 8a - farm machine cover-up
  • Shoah memorial museum 8b - wall of photosShoah memorial museum 8b - wall of photos

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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