Responsibility and overcoming indifference

I may have mentioned a time or two before that Paris is very easy to love. Beyond the list of things written about in every guidebook, the city reveals its character in small ways, in the otherwise understated gaps between the glitz and glam.

One of the most powerful of these glimpses is the plaza across the street from my apartment, between the Memorial de la Shoah and a middle school. There, on the wall of the school, is a small stone plaque similar to those found outside dozens of others. The plaque reads:

“Arrested by the police of the Vichy government, accomplice of the Nazi occupation, more than 11,000 children were deported from France between 1942 and 1944 and murdered at Auschwitz because they were born Jewish.

More than 500 children lived in the 4th arrondissement, among them students of this school.

Never forget them.”

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Sometimes these neighborhood plaques list children’s names and ages, if the specific victims are known. A separate plaque in a nearby park lists the names and ages of children – babies – who were not yet old enough to attend school when they were deported and murdered.

Until the 1990s, France blamed the Nazis alone for these horrors. When the French government finally acknowledged their complicity, they chose the wording of these plaques carefully, to emphasize their responsibility in the crimes that were committed. To take public responsibility like that—it is so admirable, and so rare.

But even in the midst of dark times, humanity shines through. In the wise words of Mr. Rogers, when scary things happen, look for the helpers.

In that same plaza across from my apartment is one of the most inspiring monuments in Paris—le Mur des Justes, the Wall of the Righteous. This wall identifies, in a jaw-dropping, seemingly never-ending list, the names of those who put their lives at risk to help the Jews of France survive. Part of the accompanying plaque reads:

“Alone or in organized groups, these men and women from all political, religious and social backgrounds overcame the indifference that seemed to hold sway in our land and rejected barbarity. They felt a sense of commitment and responsibility toward their fellow human beings.”

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It makes me tear up every time I see the list of thousands of names stretching as far as the eye can see, with blank panels at the end for those helpers who haven’t yet been identified. Year after year, more names are added as the magnitude of the heroism – the humanity – of ordinary French citizens is more fully understood.

I also tear up when I read those words – “the indifference that seemed to hold sway in our land” – because it still feels so relevant. Like someone could have written those words about today, about Muslims or refugees or immigrant children torn from their parents at the US-Mexico border.

Fifty years from now, will we – in the US, in Europe – have a Mur des Justes for those who helped overcome the indifference now holding sway in our land?

And, whose names will be on it?

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