Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation (Paris)

May 11, 2007

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view of the Seine by nightParis is one of those magical cities. No matter what time of the year one visits, the city has a way of capturing a person’s imagination and taking them to places they have never been before.

I don’t quite remember how many times I have been to Paris. Growing up in neighboring Belgium it was only a short trip to Paris where we enjoyed its many churches, museums, civic monuments, restaurants... Surprisingly, there was one monument I failed to visit, time after time: the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, the memorial to those who were deported from France during World War II. I simply was not able to face the monument.

Memorial sculptureMy grandfather and all the men working in my grandmother’s shoe factory were deported to Nazi camps because she refused to make shoes for the Nazi army. The family home was occupied by Nazi officers and my grandmother and great-grandmother were made to work for them. When my grandmother died, some 10 years ago, I inherited her private papers and was blessed with the possibility of reading the letters my grandfather sent her from the camp. Her letters to him were not part of the collection, probably lost in the ugliness of the camp. I also found letters from one of the officers who had occupied my grandmother’s house. The latter evolve from describing the devastation he discovered in his village; to relating that his two sons had been killed in the war; to musings about the horror of the war; to asking for understanding; and finally to words of appreciation and gratefulness for the apparent words of forgiveness spoken in the letters my grandmother sent to him.

Until I read these letters I had been unable to visit any death camps or memorials for those who died in the Second World War. After getting a glimpse of the power of forgiveness that was revealed to me through these letters, I was moved to learning and visiting. Thus, during my recent visit to Paris I went to the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. It was an amazing experience.  A true place of spirit.

entrance memorialAt the edge of one of the islands in the river Seine (l’Ile de la Cité), a narrow and steep stairway leads down to the memorial courtyard.  When entering the bleak courtyard a low-level fenced-in window is the only place that allows a glimpse of the outside.  A severe sculpture representing the imprisonment and torture of those deported by the Nazis hangs in front of this window.  On the opposite side, a narrow door guarded by two oppressive columns barely allows entrance into the memorial itself.  The foyer, beyond this entrance is inscribed with quotes by various authors. One in particular struck me: “Pardonne, n’oublie pas…” “Forgive, don’t forget.”

The main installation, on the far end of the foyer, is a long narrow corridor lined with 200,000 quartz crystals, one for each man, woman, and child deported from France by the Nazis during the Second World War.  A rod-iron gate prevents entrance.  An eternal flame burns at the very end of the corridor.

Wall of LightsThis extraordinary building capture those who enter it from the very first moment, guiding them down the narrow steps, through the courtyard, into the foyer, to the wall of remembrance and the eternal flame.  A journey which takes each person through the reality of the suffering of these particular people, as well as all human suffering to the light of hope for humanity which seems untenable and almost absurd.

After leaving this monument, gaie Paris does not seem all that gaie anymore, and yet, “don’t forget, but forgive.”

Johan van Parys is Artistic Director for EnVisionChurch.  He lives and works in Minneapolis, MN.

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