Monday, February 19, 2007

Thoughts on Memory, Violence, and Ilan Halimi's Death as a Jew

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

808 words

In Paris, the flaneur capital of the world, you start one place, end up somewhere else in time and space.

Stop by the Hôtel de Ville to watch ice skaters twirl around in front of two cheesy igloos and the grandiose City Hall building, you'll see an enormous photo of Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian-French politician kidnapped in Colombia in 2002 and still held (if she's not dead) by FARC.

On the rue du Temple, you might be browsing for fancy handbags, and run across a plaque to Raoul Naudet, resistance member, who lived in the building before he got arrested and exterminated in the camp of Mauthausen in 1942.

Last year, I went out with Marina's mom for an ice cream, and we ended up at a memorial to French deportees.

There's a sandy park to one side of Notre Dame. At the far end, you see this long, low wall that's insignificant after the knobby soaring spires and muscular flying buttresses of the Cathedral.

In front is a little placard explaining the memorial, who was taken away and why, how many were exterminated, how many survived. Along the bottom edge are differently colored triangles and the yellow star used to mark the deportees.

Marina's Mom wept a little as she read. She knows the pink triangle is a gay thing, and that the Nazis had interred a lot of different kinds of people, but it hit her hard to see that triangle there condemning her own daughter and son to death camps along with gypsies and dissidents, Jehovah's Witnesses, and of course, Jews.

I went back this week. It was the one year anniversary of the death of Ilan Halimi, a young man, who was kidnapped by a neighborhood gang united in a love for money and hatred for Jews.

It didn't matter that he was a salaried worker in a cell phone store. He was a Jew and they can always come up with some dough, they said. The "Gang of Barbarians" lived up to their chosen name, torturing him for fun while they waited, then dumping his ravaged, barely living, body by some railroad tracks.

For a while the cops tried to cover up the nature of the death, nothing to do with him being a Jew, or them being Muslim even though they taunted the family with anti-Semitic rants when they made ransom calls, recited Muslim prayers, and in one ransom video, showed Ilan blindfolded with a gun to his head like the ones coming out of Iraq from kidnappers there.

Worst of all, was that some neighbors knew, and said nothing from fear or approval.

I went to an SOS Racisme march organized after the story broke. There were a lot of people, but not as many as I expected, and almost all the marchers were Jews. It was a peculiar experience, being in a march like that in Paris where it was just a couple of generations ago the French rounded up Jews like the people I was walking next to, and sent them to extermination camps.

Usually, when I go to a march, I feel invulnerable. That time, even surrounded by thousands of other people, I felt the joint frailty of our human bodies, and how easy it would be herd us all into cattle cars and kill us, that is, if you first re-imagined us as beasts and nothing more.

The march got ugly after a while when teenage Jewish boys started running around with Israeli flags and Jewish Defense League banners and handkerchiefs drawn up over their faces like guerillas. They shouted and shoved and laughed their heads off.

At first, they just seemed high spirited, reclaiming some ground after the petty harassments they put up with in the Metro, on the streets. Then we heard the sound of breaking store windows. Some of the older people were shaken. Later, a Muslim shopkeeper was roughed up, and a couple of passersby.

That's the double-edged sword of memory, fueling grudges and violence on the one side, on the other compassion. It could be you on the other side of the barbed wire fence.

At the memorial to the 200,000 martyred French deportees, visitors descend a narrow stairway into an imprisoning stone patio, circled all around with high walls. There's a kind of spiked sculpture on the far side, and a barred opening with a glimpse of the Seine.

You turn around and there's an impossibly small passageway into the main memorial, and tomb of an unknown deportee. Inside are narrow barred rooms and walls inscribed with the names of Nazi camps. The main chamber, that you see through bars, has thousands upon thousands of little stones on both sides, each a deportee. They catch the light, burn in the darkness.

As you leave, you see the inscription, "Forgive, but never forget."

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