Visiting the Mémorial de la Shoah and its attached museum in Paris was a powerful experience that reframed my view of the Jewish experience in Vichy-led France. Upon entering the memorial space, you are confronted with a stone Star of David lit in the center with an artificial eternal flame. The six urns embedded within the stone of the Star or David represent the six million French Jews who were systematically and callously murdered by the Nazis with the help of their French government. Initially, these individuals self-identified as Jewish when the Vichy government required all Jews to register with the government. At the time, none of them could have imagined that this simple and fairly mundane act could ever be the first step in a horrendous genocide that continues to effect the cultural makeup of countries today. The Vichy government’s hand in murdering over 70,000 people of Jewish heritage was a gross betrayal of those individuals who had come to France and thought they had assimilated into the population.
The exhibit itself was well designed in that it walks the visitor through the entire experience, starting with the history of anti-semitism, from which the Nazis drew inspiration, going through war propaganda that greatly influenced the populace, to the final step of the Nazi plan: extermination of the Jewish race. What greatly struck me was the section that displayed propaganda. While the Jewish people only accounted for about one percent of the French population at the time, this propaganda essentially made the general public turn on their fellow citizens simply because of their Jewish heritage. I find it disturbing how these simple and obvious falsehoods and stereotypes led to a mass cultural genocide. Aside from the propaganda section, the section covering the reality of the extermination camps was moving as well. It is one thing to read the statistics and horror stories about what occurred, but it is another thing entirely to see images and videos depicting skeletal figures and mounds of corpses.
At the end of this extraordinarily gruesome exhibit, however, there was a quite literal light (of sorts). The final portion of the exhibit was dedicated to a number of the murdered children with Jewish heritage. Their pictures are displayed on light walls that create a serene atmosphere. As the number of living first hand witnesses decreases, it is important to recall the individuals who were brutally murdered, to remember their names and share their stories so that we can learn to recognize the signs leading to genocide and stop it before it ever gains traction.