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in modest telling, short histories on placards in paris

Paris is beautiful because it has history. Where ever we turn we see it. We may not know the details, we may not know the story, but we can see it, immediately and without question.

One will look at the La cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and will say, ‘There is a story there, and I know history when I see it, and it has been made here, many times.’

The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Panthéon, Napoleon’s tomb all manifest history. We cannot look away. We whip out our cameras and take pictures.

With little notice, I think, and often ignored are other references to the stories that have made Paris historically vibrant.

I am reading Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance by Robert Gildea. It tells the stories of the many ordinary men and women who resisted the Nazis and the Vichy government during World War Two. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail.)

Who were they? Where did they come from? What prompted them to risk their lives? As I read, I ask myself, “Would I have stepped forward and risked my life? What measure of courage do I have?”

Around Paris are small placards permanently attached to walls and columns. In a few words they tell the names of those who died resisting the occupation of France during the war.

On August 25, 1944 Paris was liberated. During the days preceding, the Germans were still counterattacking and killing Resistance fighters as they encountered them in the city.

If you walk around the Odéon and Saint Sulpice quarter, but not exclusively there, you will see where young men and women died. Evidence of such resistance is commemorated all over Paris.

The doctor Jules de Seze, who fought during the World War 1 and earned the Chevalier de la Légion d’ Honneur Croix de Guerre, was killed by German gun fire on August 20, 1944. He was 70 years old.

Marcel Raoul, a combattant also during the WW 1, died while fighting for the liberation of Paris on August 21, 1944.  He was a part of the FFI, or Forces françaises de l’intérieur.

Victor Rastello, 44 years old, died on a corner where an Italian restaurant now exists.

On August 25, 1944, the day of liberation, Jacques Guierre, 20 years old, died. He was also a FFI. He died on the corner outside the Odéon Theatre just north of the Jardin du Luxembourg.

In this house Lucile Duplessis, guillotined April 13, 1794, lived before her marriage to Camille Desmoulins

In addition to the commemorations of the fallen during WW 2, many placards announce who lived in the building. Authors, artists, politicians, you name the category; and if the person lived and/or died there, the notice will tell you. Being French is not a requirement.

I enjoy reading about the French Revolution, too. Who is not fascinated by the guillotine? Did you know that restaurants were invented in France during the French Revolution? (‘Restaurant’ is a French word after all.)

I suggest Hilary Mantel who will put you in the middle of the Revolution with her novel A Place of Greater Safety, where “she used the historical figures’ own words, from their speeches or writings.”

Just north of the Jardin du Luxembourg and not far from the Church of Saint-Sulpice high on a wall is a placard telling us that the wife of one of the major figures of the French Revolution lived there. Lucile Duplessis indeed walked with the major figures. Her husband Camille Desmoulins was a close associate of Robespierre and Danton, both at the center of Revolution and Reign of Terror.

In an excerpt from the novel, Mantel writes Camille Desmoulins kisses Lucile Duplessis’s hand: “He turned it over rather forcefully, and held her palm against his mouth. And just that; he didn’t kiss it, just held it there. She shivered.”

 

Finally, one will see these placards all over Paris. They are always written in French and in the passé simple, the more formal French verb tense. You are given a much more detailed historical accounting of the events and the people who are associated with the spot.

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