We’ll always have Paris… and Normandy:

An American in Paris remembers

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The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Photo credit: Ben G. Frank.

This year remains special for tourists who cannot help but recognize two momentous celebrations: The 75th anniversaries of the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944, and the liberation of Paris, August 25, 1944.

It's a two-hour drive from Paris to Caen in Normandy. While Paris survived destruction in WWII, Caen was almost totally destroyed. The day I'm there, the sun is out, the waves wash ashore, the beaches are calm, and silence reigns at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Colleville-sur-Mer, lined with crosses and Stars of David. I stop by several graves of American Jewish soldiers and place pebbles on the headstones.

Our knowledgeable guide of the Caen Memorial Museum shepherds us to Omaha Beach, where thousands of American soldiers died at Normandy to defeat Nazism and preserve freedom. A number of D-Day Jewish veterans, who participated in the liberation of Paris, attended the 75th anniversary celebration of that victory this past August. 

I tour the Caen Memorial Museum, which highlights the events leading up to the war, plus the Normandy invasion itself. This year, the museum is showcasing a Norman Rockwell exhibit titled "Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt and The Four Freedoms . "   The exhibition, which runs until Oct. 27, usually resides in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. 

Included in the Rockwell display shipped to France are the paintings: Freedom of SpeechFreedom of Worship , Freedom from Want , and Freedom from Fear , as well as 30 other works by the American master. The Four Freedoms paintings are Rockwell's pictorial interpretation of lines from President Roosevelt's speech in 1941. According to Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum: "Rockwell's aspirational paintings shifted American attitudes towards engagement in the war in defense of the free world, and ultimately helped to make the case for universal human rights."

Walking through the exhibit, I am moved by the paintings, illustrations, prints, and artifacts: The radios of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the photos of FDR, and the many other Rockwell posters. Rockwell is most famous for his illustrations of everyday life, created the cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine, nearly five decades ago. 

There is also his poignant, iconic painting of a key moment in the Civil Rights Movement from 1963- six-year-old Ruby Bridges, the African-American girl, being escorted to a white New Orleans school by four federal marshals. At this exhibit, this painting serves as a reminder of the dignity and freedom for which the American soldiers buried in Normandy died.

Back in Paris, I head to my favorite section, Le Marais, still a viable center of Jewish life. Here stood the site of the 13th century ghetto of Paris known as the Juiverie , later called by the Yiddish word, the Pletzel, "little square."  

I visit one of Europe's finest Jewish museums, the Museum of Jewish Art and History, housed in one of the most palatial mansions, the Hotel de Saint-Aignan, built in the 17th century. Located at 71 rue du Temple, the museum sponsors an exhibition, running through early Decmber, that deals with resistance during the Nazi occupation.

The display cites Adolfo Kaminsky a remarkable photographer. Joining the French resistance at only 17, he used his knowledge of chemistry to become an expert in forging official documents for the Jewish resistance and the French military secret services. His forgeries were so good that the police never suspected that the forger they were after was an adolescent.

Overall, this young man's work saved 14,000 Jews in WWII. He facilitated the immigration of tens of thousands of concentration camp survivors, contributing to the very creation of the state of Israel.

For more information on the Caen Memorial Museum, contact Olivier Pizzimenti at opizzimenti@memorial-caen.fr. For the Museum of Jewish Art and Historymahj.org and  us.france.fr/en.         

Ben G. Frank, travel writer and journalist, is the author of  A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe  4 th edition, (Pelican Publishing) and the just-published, historical novel, Klara's War .

 



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