Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Paris Monument Remembers the 200,000 Deportees

IT is concrete. It is abstract. And while it can belong to no other century but ours, it succeeds extraordinarily in being set aside from time or period.

It is called the Memorial aux Martyrs de la Deportation (Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation). Designed by French architect Georges-Henri Pingusson (1894-1978), it belongs to our century not only because of its architectural language and materials, but because of what it memorializes: the removal of 200,000 people during World War II from French soil to Nazi death camps in Poland and Germany.

About these ads

Most visitors to Paris miss this architectural monument - though crowds pass close by. On the eastern tip of the Ile de la Cite, on a site like the prow of a boat, it lies low beyond a small park and is entered between oppressively high walls down two long, steep and narrow stairways. There are a few signposts for it. But most tourists are intent on a more prominent sight: the cathedral of Notre Dame.

The memorial is best visited alone. Its paved courtyard, the black iron of the grille, the spiked and bladed sculpture that blocks the escape to the river, and, behind you, the two massive walls between which you have to walk to enter the crypt - everything demands silence and thought. The crypt is like a cave.

A vicious, sharp lettering was designed by Mr. Pingusson for inscriptions incised in the heavy-textured surfaces of this stirring architectural monument. Dark red, they might be painted with blood. They remind of extermination; of the "ethnic cleansing" of that period; of systematically planned termination not only of ordinary human liberties, but of the voices of those who had different loyalties. People were counted criminals because of their race or birthright, worthless because of their beliefs. And they were robbed of plain dignity.

These inscriptions in French also remind - by their beauty, and their very existence on these rough walls - that the annihilation of human lives cannot so simply be the end of hope, memory, protest, or a persistent humanity. They insist that even the deepest play of shadow implies light.

Light filters into the crypt with its inscriptions, with its triangular niches framing the names of the camps, with its locked iron gates through which we peer at walled, half-hidden spaces evoking the gas chambers. But in the center, exactly opposite the entrance passage, through more bars, is a long corridor. At the end are interred the remains of an unknown deportee. Beyond, in a compelling perspective, the walls are covered with tiny points of light.

Each of these lights represents one of the 200,000 deportees.

At the furthest distance is one larger light - an electric bulb, not a flame - and it affirms some final purpose, some inextinguishable destiny. The bars preventing entry become paradoxically a protection, rendering this gallery of lights and the one light at the end inaccessible.

About these ads

The memorial was commissioned in 1961 by Gaullist Minister of Cultural Affairs Andre Malraux and finished in 1962. It is meant, as one wall text has it, to forgive but never to forget. What came out of this decision, in the shape of Pingusson's remarkable architectural concept, was not an architectural "J'accuse."

It was not some crudely shocking affront, pointing the finger and perpetuating the anguish. It was not even - as with too many memorials - a heroic rehash of some sub-Grecian or Roman personification. And although its subject is death, and it is hardly a comforting place, it is not morbid. It offers space for contemplation. It is an idea imaginatively trapped in the forms of an intense architectural experience.

The danger of such a concept is that - as with the glacial beauty of lilies on a grave - the horror memorialized might almost have become a pretext for the aesthetic. But Pingusson used the more rigorous forms of modernist architecture and sculpture to press home a feeling that cannot escape into too-facile release or visual pleasantness.

Pingusson has made his monument a prison, a place of massive walls, of brutal, blanked-off spaces, of unambiguously impersonal surfaces: of the rough, the cool, and the hard. It fits its theme. But it is also the place of 200,000 small points of light.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.