Remembering Paris in 1947

Fifty years ago this month, Paris was swarming with the task of recovery – material and psychic. The spring of 1947 brought with it a huge wave of displaced Europeans, and Paris emerged as a “plaque tournante” for  a battered  continent finding its bearings. In the crowded streets around the Gare Saint-Lazare one heard Polish, Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian. The little hotels were stuffed with people with tattered suitcases, unpronounceable names, and small wads of US dollars and perhaps a few pieces of gold sewn into threadbare overcoats. Many handed over everything they owned for a visa to a far-off country, Cuba or Venezuela, Canada or the United States, the promise of a new start. Many stayed, dug in, opened little shops and became part of France’s merchant class. Others battled to gain passage on a Salvation Army charter boat that left from Le Havre and pulled into the Hudson River two weeks later.

This month a series of exhibitions of art works plundered by the Nazis during the war, and subsequently held by French museums, opens to the public in the hope that some of these works may finally find their way back to their rightful owners. According to Lee Yanowitch of Reuters, “the display follows a government decision to launch an inquiry into Jewish property – artwork, apartments, jewels, bank accounts – seized during Germany’s occupation of France.” Interestingly, it has been the research of Hector Feliciano, a Puerto Rican American journalist who has lived in Paris for years, that has stimulated the government’s revived interest in the subject. Feliciano’s book “The Lost Museum” takes the issue of French complicity and collaboration into a new field, art and public policy. This comes at a moment of extreme public pressure on banks, especially those notoriously secretive ones in Switzerland,  to attempt to return the funds of Jews who never returned from the concentration camps.

One philosophic Parisian taxi driver remarked recently that the greatest psychic “malaise” in French society continues to be the issue of collaboration during World War II.  He has something there.

Reminders of the acts of fascists in Europe 50 years ago thus are being tossed into the psychic blender and are mixing in with the perverse recent interest in immigrants. And like other “productive and legitimate” non-French members of French society, I’ve started to feel just how easy it is to forget history’s often bitter lessons, and wonder if the extended séjours of expatriates in France aren’t just  temporary passages-rather-than -final-destinations.  It is not reassuring that we talk about immigrants now as opposed to “illegal immigrants.” A few years ago the focus was more on the flow of clandestine Africans and Arabs huddled in crowded apartment blocks. Today political diatribe singles out people whose flaw is simply holding nationalities other than French. Although Anglo-Americans are far from  being the primary targets of racism in France, to those who feel threatened by foreigners Americans represent  a decadent culture and the imposition of a language they do not master, a risk to everything that is quintessentially French about France. And the British, although part of this common thing called Europe, are rarely seen as “fellow Europeans.” While  strong and vocal reactions against these dangerous attitudes on the part of the intelligentsia may be healthy and somewhat comforting, they also tend to polarize the issue and force citizens to take sides. The destruction of a right-wing publisher’s stand at the Salon du Livre last month most likely will only add bullets to the FN stockpile.  On the whole, it’s fair to say that it is getting less fun being in a France that sees you as an immigrant instead of as a taxpayer, a consumer, a working member of society, a parent, a welcome visitor, a tourist … or doesn’t see you at all.

An incident in the late ’70s  keeps coming back to mind. My German girlfriend and I spent an early spring weekend at a deserted seaside village on Cap Frehel in Brittany. As she sat chilled on our beach blanket I dashed down to the water’s edge to dip a toe in the icy Atlantic. Out of nowhere, an elderly Breton man with a deeply creased face and a worn beret approached with a galvanized metal bucket.  We exchanged glances, then a few words – he had come down from the hills to collect seawater for his weekly bath – and with my self-conscious East Coast accent, I felt obliged to reveal within a few minutes that I was American. “Américain,” the man repeated, and a wave of excited comprehension spread across his face. He dropped his bucket in the sand, rushed toward me and, to my great astonishment, hugged me with fervor. “Merci, monsieur, merci pour tout.” As incredible as it now sounds, I was the first American he had met since the liberation of France by the Allied Forces. Now, he was thanking me profusely, or rather the American in me, and frankly, I was embarrassed. I could hardly say, you’re welcome, don’t mention it, could I? Roosevelt was long dead before I was even born. I looked up the beach and saw the figure of my fraulein perched there, elbows dug in the cool sand, and just as this old Frenchman was gripping me with gratitude for having liberated his country it struck me with shame that the act of thanking me was precisely the moral equivalent of blaming her for the fascist romp of Europe, my copine from Frankfurt who sat a hundred meters away on a beach blanket in Brittany as happy and innocent as any 20-year-old.

The incident unnerved me in several ways, but mostly because I hadn’t previously realized just how much closer to history we were in Europe. And how arbitrary the decisions that change the direction of our lives can be. The subjects of films and magazine articles back home were the living memories of a man fetching seawater.

As the issue of immigrants and immigration in France trips clumsily into the limelight and the public at large is clubbed into increased sensibility on the subject, Americans in France might seize the occasion to think about their immigrant origins. We’re all immigrants once removed, and the nature of change, progress, and historical and personal events obliges or prompts humans to pick up and leave and start life elsewhere. By looking back, we may gain insight into how to process what we see around us today.