Paris 22-June-2010

Voyage en hommage à Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Day 2

The day begins with a visit to the Panthéon, the monumental tomb of many great and distinguished French citizens such as Voltaire, Louis Pasteur, Louis Braille, Pierre and Madame Curie, and Victor Hugo.

In the grand entrance hall to the Panthéon we are received by M. Paul Schaffer, Président of the French Committee for Yad Vashem, and by Mme. Anne-Marie Revcolevschi, president of Aladdin Project and former director of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah. Also present were several members of the French Committee for Yad Vashem, including M. Jean Raphael Hirsch (Vice-Président), M. Jean Pierre Gauzi, General Secretary, M. Charles Finel, M. Leon Borocin, M. Paul Ejchenrand, and Mme. Alice Tajchman, General Secretary of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah.

Paul Schaffer welcomed the delegation, and explained that one of the missions of Yad Vashem is to recognize "les Juste" or "the Righteous Among the Nations" -- those Gentiles or non-Jews that saved or rescued Jews during the Second World War. An introduction to the history of the Panthéon was provided by its representative, Monsieur P. Monnet.

Anne-Marie Revcolevschi described the process by which these institutions secured a place in the Panthéon for "les Juste" in 2007, and the impressive ceremony conducted in the presence of then Président Jacques Chirac. She further explained why this step was important: to counter revisionist historians and the rise of "holocaust denial" or negationism, to fight the resurgence of anti-Semitism in France, and to highlight the actions of "les Justes" of France, most of whom acted anonymously to save Jews, and therefore can not be formally recognized by Yad Vashem. It was pointed out that 75% of the Jews living in France survived the war, far more than any other European country that was occupied by Nazi Germany.

A comprehensive review of this ceremony (in French) can be found on the blog of the French Committee for Yad Vashem.

On the way to the lower crypt of the Pantheon we saw the giant working model of Foucault's Pendulum. The delegation assembled beside the memorial for "les Justes", where Lissy Jarvik and Paul Schaffer placed a beautiful bouquet of flowers to honor the memory and legacy of Aristides de Sousa Mendes.

Lissy's expression of gratitude and appreciation for her life brought tears to many eyes, including my own. Her brief remarks echoed a statement she wrote in 1996:

Program for 22 June







Lissy Jarvik (January 26, 1996)

"Without Aristides de Sousa Mendes I would not be here.
          It's as simple as that.
Without Aristides de Sousa Mendes I would have suffered tortures
          so grievous and so prolonged
                    that death would have been a welcome relief.
Without Aristides de Sousa Mendes I would have missed out
                    on half a century --
          half a century which allowed me to breathe; to live, to love -
                    to mature, to marry, to have children, to study, to teach
                              and to help a few people individually as well as to
contribute a little bit to our knowledge base on aging and mental health;
          And I would have missed out on becoming part of a country
                    which was the home of a truly free people,
                    a country which offered opportunity to
                              the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the needy --
                                                                      to people like me."

The delegation observed a moment of silence, took some time to explore the crypt, and then watched a short documentary film on Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Next we went to visit the Portuguese Embassy. As we approached its location near Place Victor Hugo, I became excited, as I came here one year ago to see the house where where my grandparents and father lived from 1936-39. To my surprise, the Embassy is located three blocks from that house on rue de Spontini.

We were welcomed in the gorgeous salon of the embassy by Ambassador Francisco Seixas da Costa, his wife and attaché. Also present was a special envoy from the royal family of Luxembourg. Ambassador da Costa encouraged us to feel at home, and it was in a sense a true homecoming for the decendants of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, as the consul surely spent some time in these very same rooms (the building was acquired by the Portuguese Embassy in 1936).

After speeches by Manuel Dias, Ambassador da Costa, and the Luxembourg envoy, I listened intently as Lissy Jarvik told a portion of her story to the Ambassador. It was here I made an important discovery, a clue which may point to the exact date that my grandparents and father left France in 1940. I know that they received their visas from Aristides de Sousa Mendes on May 17, 1940, but not the actual date upon which they emigrated.

Lissy told the ambassador that when her family arrived in Portugal, she was 16 years old. (My father would have been 9 years old.) Lisbon was so crowded with refugees, she said, that their train was routed to the smaller city of Figueira da Foz. Her family was welcomed there by a woman, also named da Costa, who was a teacher. Lissy attended school with the local children and studied the Portuguese language -- she and her family remained there for around seven months. Her story fascinated me because Arthur and his parents were also received in Figueira da Foz before relocating to Estoril. I imagined that they could have been on the same train, or that she could have seen my father in school! Lissy was not sure how many refugees were in Figueira da Foz, but I have since learned that there were *probably less than 1,000.
(*source: The Rotarian, July 1941).

I very much enjoyed the Portuguese delicacies, having acquired a taste for them in Lisbon in 2008 and in the Portuguese bakery in Provincetown in 2009. My favorites are the pastéis de bacalhau (cod fritters) and pastéis de nata (egg tarts). Of course we also sampled some very fine blush and Porto wines.










Our next reception was a couple of hours later, and so I brought Kevin Gironnay along for the short walk to the house where Jacques, Kate and Arthur Oesterreicher lived. We were both struck by the proximity of the two places. It could even be possible that Jacques had seen Artistides de Sousa Mendes on the streets of his own neighborhood, years before their fateful encounter in Bordeaux 1940. Kevin recorded a brief interview with me beside the entrance to the house at 51 rue de Spontini.

Kevin bought me a beer at a cafe on the Place Victor Hugo, a relaxing pause in the day. We then walked by l'Arc de Triomphe, and took the above-ground Metro back to the city center. We took a short walk through the Latin Quarter and rejoined some of the delegation at the Brasserie du Pont-Louis-Philippe, where the waiter recognized us from the night before. Refreshed with a cold drink, we continued with the rest of the day's program at the Memorial of the Shoah.



The entrance to the Memorial houses a mural, the Wall of Names, enscribed with the names of the 76,000 deported from France between 1942-44, most of whom perished in the camps. In the lower chamber there is a large Star of David made of black marble with a flame burning in the center. This crypt contains ashes of Jews who perished in death camps and the Warsaw ghetto, consecrated with earth from Israel. A portion of the French National Archives, "the Police files" on Jews (identification of families arrested in Paris and detained in nearby concentration camps) are also exhibited here.

In addition to being a memorial for the deceased, there is a comprehensive museum, a research archive and educational center. The Memorial itself includes a vast array of photographs and other exhibits documenting the Holocaust, it's victims, survivors, and those who resisted. We were on a guided tour led by Fabrice Teicher, and we missed so much that I hope to return and explore the exhibits of the Memorial of the Shoah in greater depth.




In a conference room on the upper floor, we attended a private screening of the film "Désobéir" in the presence of the director, Joël Santoni, and the actor who portays Aristides de Sousa Mendes in the film, Bernard Le Coq. This is an historical reenactment or "docudrama" made for French television, and although the subtitles were not shown, I found it to be extremely well done.

Excerpt from the film "Désobéir"


The film was followed by a reception hosted by Eric de Rothschild (the Rothschild family also received visas from Sousa Mendes in 1940). It was wonderful to see the grandchildren of Sousa Mendes pose for photos with the "two grandfathers" Bernard and Armand – the actors who portrayed Sousa Mendes in the film and the play.

We returned to the Hotel Concorde-Montparnasse. Although tomorrow we must meet at 6:45AM to catch the first train to Bordeaux, I spent a couple of hours writing a journal entry about this emotional and eventful day and night.