Paris Vaut Bien Une Mess: the Sense of History

It is not easy to see how yours, mankind’s history disappears in flames in no time. You are lost in complete helplessness and you are paralysed in disbelief. Many of us did not experience anything like that ever: when an essential part of humanity’s historical heritage is gone in front of your eyes. It is a tragedy. Some people have come with parallels to the feeling of utter helplessness that overwhelmed everyone who had his TV on, on the 9/11th. But then we knew that a despicable crime unfolds in front of our wet eyes. Here we do not know about it yet. And we do want to know the real reason for the disaster in the heart of Paris in the early evening of the first day of the Catholic and Christian Holy week.

The legendary phrase of Henri IV Navarra attributed to the leader of Huguenots when he decided to convert into Catholicism  back in 1593, “Paris vaut bien une mess’’, Paris worth a mess, was not always an euphemism for reasoning a compromise. It had its literal meaning, too. And that literal meaning had to do with Notre Dame, first of all. In the wider context, it means our attachment to that very place. The place as it is known, understood and as it is in the blood of anyone who loves Paris, who knows history, cannot live without culture and who appreciates art.  Not to mention what it means for Parisians and French people, and for the history of that special country.

Why so many millions from all corners of the earth tight so powerfully in their hearts to Paris? And it goes on for centuries. Because it is a unique place, brilliant in its shining beauty, manifesting a very special dimension of freedom, the elegance of freedom.  Paris epitomises our dreams not without a reason: a romantic part of people, always individual, is freed there in its own special way.  After all, there are not so many places on this planet among our cities where beauty enhances a human being and opens up a special inner part of us. Venice epitomises harmony, and Paris epitomises elegance. That’s why our hearts are tight to it. And that’s why Paris is worth a mess, indeed, as Henri Navarra did see it literally five centuries ago.

At the time, Notre Dame was firmly in its place at Il de la Cite in the heart of Paris for a good three centuries from the time it had been completed, after two centuries of the construction of that mighty fortress of history. No doubt, the history of Notre Dame is not a pastoral one. No doubt, one could feel the centuries of fierce battles, awful crimes, and uncompromising conflicts being accumulated inside that bastion of Catholicism. But at the same time, Notre Dame in its gorgeous beauty, that incredible amount of human work, that iconic shape of its towers and its spier, meant the history alive in front of our eyes. It was the one of the utmost symbols of Paris and France, and of human history.

The Notre Dame bells, ten of them, all with human names; the Notre Dame splendid organ, the biggest, best and the most important in the world; the Notre Dame incredible rose windows, the essence of art and an embodiment of the very process of what a human being can create and produce. The treasures inside, priceless paintings and sculptors. It all is the essential part of the world’s cultural heritage.

The history of France, Europe and the world accumulated in Notre Dame through its eight and a half centuries. As my artist husband said gleaned to the TV screen on the night of horror: “So, d’Artagnan was passing on and forth there daily, with Notre Dame in its place. And now I would move around without it. It is unreal”. He also said: “Can you imagine for all those people in Paris for whom Notre Dame was always there, what does it mean that it is gone, in such a horrific way?..” I tried, but I could not. And all those millions people on the Parisian streets on that fatal Monday evening, April 15th, 2019, were also in a complete and utter disbelief. Because in its way to protect us, our consciousness refuses to take such things in a real time-regime. It needs time to absorb the loss and new reality, Paris- without -Notre-Dame.

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Inna Rogatchi (C). Notre Dame de Paris. Memories III. 2019.

How many from up to 14 millions visitors who were coming during all those years to Notre Dame annually knew that those great vivid and masterly sculptures on the top of the cathedral, all around it,  all 28 of them are depicting the Kings of Judah, from Saul and David to Zedekiah? That the sculptures are not the figures of the French kings as the ignorant criminals who went crazy of their fountaining arrogance during the French Revolution were supposing  and thus knocking off the heads of the sculptures in question.  

And how many people know the reason for creating in the mid-13th century the most elaborated sculptures of 28 Jewish Kings and placing them on the most honourable position of the most important cathedral in France meant to crown it for centuries to come? The reason was to manifest the gratitude to the Jewish financiers of Notre Dame to whom the French kings and those responsible for accomplishment of the cathedral decided to turn for help after so many years ( 182 in total) of constructing and completing Notre Dame. So, Notre Dame had been built to a very large extent on the Jewish money, and in eternal – as they thought and hoped for – and manifesting gratitude for that, 28 Jewish Kings had been crowned the most important cathedral in France, the place where Napoleon was crowned almost six centuries later. 

Yet two centuries after that, the Jewish man whose mother was murdered in Auschwitz, Aaron Lustinger, Cardinal of Paris for almost 25 years ( 1981-2004), close friend of St Pope John Paul II who did promote him to Cardinal, was buried in the Notre Dame Crypt. His epitaph which he did write for himself starts like that: “ I was born Jewish. I have received the name of my paternal grandfather, Aaron”. It continues: “… I have remained Jewish”. It is not an every day text that one can read in a Catholic Crypt.

Cardinal Lustinger was a complex figure. But his devotion to Jewishness and to the state of Israel was never in doubt. He was also the person who, a year after another, would come to the Paris Synagogue to say kaddish for his mother murdered in Auschwitz.

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So many people so naturally took the tragedy of burning Notre Dame as their own. Especially those for whom culture is an oxygen, and those who are educated adequately. Following the coverage in the world and social media, one can see that additionally to mourning France, very many Italians, British, and Russians do understand what has happened and what scale this tragedy is. The better general education in a given country, the richer the culture, the more people from there understand what has been lost, and that this loss is a tragedy of a world culture and heritage. Poland and Lithuania are shocked unanimously, as well; and yes, there is a strong element of faith in it, but not only. There are some people in other places  as well who are feeling shock and dismay.

So many of our friends and colleagues from the cultural world are devastated – musicians, artists, writers, actors, directors, cinematographers, scientists, culturologists. The world of art is mourning.  The world of culture is in grief. We do know what we have lost. We also know that even would-be restored parts – and it is a very big part of the cathedral – won’t be any close to the historical value of the lost cultural world treasure, to its authenticity. And, importantly, to the energy and presence accumulated there during the centuries. It matters. Authenticity matters always, would it be authenticity of XX or XII century, Warhol or Louis David whose giant canvases are inside Notre Dame, and could be affected.

Having seeing tears of great Jewish director Misha Katz who did break in at the awful moment of the Notre Dame spier’s fell, having read wise and heartfelt words of the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin who did not lose a moment for expressing his solidarity with France, I also came across of some weird reactions, some hopelessly ignorant, some pretentiously hypocritical one. It might be that this kind of reaction, and this kind of people, do not deserve attention. But I think that it would be wrong to let them thrive in their ignorance, their coldness, and their hypocrisy. “Catholic church was so bad towards Jews, so what do we care about their Notre Dame?” – they are saying.  Well, one can start and cannot finish to count the places in which that or another church was bad towards Jews, such is the history of our people. But Notre Dame is not about this, it was very much also about honouring all 28 Kings of Judah in a most prolific display of it in the very heart of Europe for eight hundred and fifty years. Sometimes, it is useful to get back to school, independent of one’s age.

The other kind of these weird reactions is articulated by some journalists who are flaring out that ‘so many people are dying all around, but perhaps it is easier to feel for a subject, a cathedral in this case, than for human lives’. Come on. When a journalist cannot recognise a symbol of heritage, a house full of mementos of human history, he is in a wrong profession. And he is not licensed to preach the rest of us on ‘easiness to feel’.

There is a third type of a strange fronda, in the hope to be visible by being demonstratively different, perhaps, – when some people are so enthusiastically claiming: “ I am anti-Royalist, so why should I care about who has been crowned there?” This is pathetic, to live in such ignorance, to have such a bland life. And then, there are some people who are frantically arrogant about the Notre Dame tragedy addressing us to ‘the place where the Inquisition had a seat’ and reminding us on a truly horrific episode of burning 40 carts full of copies of Talmud and Torah scrolls ‘in that very place’.

The Disputation of Paris had a place in 1240, and the shameful for Catholic church and Christianity in their zealotry against Jews episode had been started by a Jewish convert into Christianity Nicolas Donin who had did quite a job of translating and interpreting  Talmud in his twisted way and writing an inflamed denunciation of Judaism to the Pope. Donin was a small man who has caused enormous and long-lasting damage, being motivated against Rabbis personally because he believed that they ‘mistreated’ him in his dealings with Karaites. Jews and Judaism in that extremely difficult disputation were represented brilliantly and extremely courageously by four most excellent Rabbis of France, Rabbi Yehiel of Paris, Rabbi Samuel ben Solomon of Chateau-Thierry, Rabbi Judah of Melun , and Rabbi Moses of Cousy, the eternal heroes of our people.  King Louis IX who was presiding over the Disputation was so deeply impressed by our Rabbis that he said his famous phrase that ‘only very skilled and trained clerics should dispute with Jews’ ( but laymen should plunge a sword into those who speak ill of Christ’). The Disputation of Paris had been used by the Catholic church in general to spread consciously and manufactured on purpose slander against Jewish people widely among the Christians, spreading insistently frightening, mean and distorted pictures that would last many centuries and cause multitude of deaths, massive injustice, and blossoming vile hatred.

All existing in Paris copies of Talmud and entire wealth of our Judaic theological manuscripts  had been burned in Paris not immediately at the Disputation, but two years later, not in 1240, but in 1242,  and not at the Notre Dame, but at Place de Greve, quite  dark place of the French capital known as the place of executions. Now the place is known as Place of Hotel de Ville, Esplanade of Liberation, the very place of the seat of the City Council of Paris.

To be cold and harsh and indifferent towards the others’ tragedy is definitely and certainly not in the Jewish character. I am glad that there are only very few voices like those appeared in the aftermath of the disastrous Notre Dame fire. In my understanding, a person is feeling more and deeply Jewish when he or she does have capacity for compassion which is not limited by any kind of zealotry. This is written in Talmud and many other our sources of wisdom and kindness. This is prerequisite of our existence. 

And who did pledge the first 100 million euro , and now more, for the Notre Dame reconstruction the morning after the devastating fire? A Jewish man, leading French businessman and philanthropist Francois Pinault. Hours later, the richest man of France, Mess Arnault has joined Francois Pinault, and a privately sourced pledge to restore the symbol of Paris has risen to 300 million euro in a day.

Throughout all history of that complex, beautiful, the one and only Notre Dame de Paris, the place which despite being in the centre of persecutions and fights, had been also the place of a great music, highest art and inspiration for myriads of the artists, including Marc Chagall and many of his friends and colleagues, was also a magnet for millions of people world-wide who were learning of how to appreciate the beauty, how to learn the history in all its complexity, and how to find humanity amidst the darkness. By holding to this humanity, not an abstract one, but always very concrete, we are living more decently and more richly. It is so strange that this kind of thing is needed to be reminded of, doubly so at the moment of sorrow.

Inna Rogatchi (C). Notre Dame de Paris. Memories II. 2019.

It is very painful to look and to see on the blackened hole at the centre of one of the most beautiful places of Paris, Il de la Cite. It is still surreal to think that the one of your favourite sites of that great city, from wherever you would be looking on it, day or night, sunrise or sundown, is not there anymore in its splendor and with a grace of its 850 years. We could be very disappointed with what has happened with Paris during the last decade and how it is losing its unique character dramatically, because we all who do love Paris are judging it on with a high demand of a person in love. I feel tremendous loss caused by that very strange and so massive fire that destroyed the pride of France in an hour. But at the same time, I feel that I do love Paris as I never did.