National Holocaust Memorials

A transnational comparison.

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The Holocaust memorial of Paris was envisioned at the same time as Yad Vashem, but it was initiated by the Jewish community, not the French government. This reflects France's ambiguous role and image during and after World War II. Over 76,000 Jews were deported from France with the zealous help of the Vichy government and police, but after the war, France presented itself as a model of resistance to the occupiers, and kept its distance from the Holocaust.

In 1961, France did sponsor a national monument to deportation, a crypt located by Notre-Dame Cathedral by the Seine River, that indiscriminately honors all victims of deportation.

The Jewish memorial, initiated by members of the Jewish resistance, was unveiled in Paris on October 30, 1956 in the presence of European political and religious leaders. Similar to Yad Vashem, it is a crypt with an eternal flame burning amidst names of concentration camps. A year later, France's Chief Rabbi Jacob Kaplan solemnly deposited ashes from death camps and from the Warsaw ghetto in the crypt, changing the nature of the memorial to a holy place containing human remains. The main focus of the memorial is the archive and research center that was started during the war by members of the Jewish underground who tried to document the persecution of Jews as it unfolded.

In 2005, the French memorial underwent State-financed renovation and a monument was added to the site. Now, in the front patio, two white marble walls bear the alphabetically organized names of Holocaust victims deported from France. Visitors can touch the name of a relative, and leave yahrzeit (memorial) candles or flowers at the wall, an echo to Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The wall in Paris is powerful, reflecting the extent of the loss of Jewish lives in France, but it is also modest, and it can sometimes go unnoticed by visitors who rush to enter the main building. There is, however, a little room in the museum that acts as a more condensed and efficient memorial, displaying the Vichy Police files on Jews. This collection of thousands of index files, compiled between 1941 and 1944 to identify French Jews for deportation, is displayed behind a glass wall and is accessible to researchers. Though incomplete, the files represent an original and authentic memorial to the victims, in many ways stronger than newly built walls or multi-media exhibits.

The United States

Like Israel, the United States did not experience the Holocaust on its soil, but became home to a large number of Holocaust survivors and a significant Jewish community of European origin. In 1980, the U.S. Congress agreed to have a Holocaust memorial and museum built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Funded by the government and inaugurated in 1994, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's prominent location among other national landmarks shows how the Holocaust is integrated in American history, and how the Jewish experience is part of the contemporary American landscape.

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Brigitte Sion

Brigitte Sion is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in New York University's Program in Religious Studies. A writer, editor, translator, and teacher, she earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University in May 2008.