Thursday, July 26, 2012

Biking in Beauty

With my genealogy conference concluded, we began the next leg of our travels.  A three hour TGV train took us to La Rochelle, a port city in western France.  As we exited the station we noted a plaque on the Jews who were deported from La Rochelle during the war.  History follows us wherever we travel although on my earlier trips to France  I never was aware of the Jewish experience on French soil.  It may be that it was not commemorated until recent years.

A bus ride dropped us at the port of St Martin de Re, a central city on the Ile de Re.  Last year as we flew to Lviv, I picked up a Wall Street Journal that had an article on the best places for a biking vacation.  Among them with an enticing picture was the Ile de Re.  Knowing I would be going to France for the conference, I decided to add this region to our itinerary.  With over 100 kilometers of bike paths on flat terrain and a temperate climate,  I thought it might be an appealing break from my typical genealogy focused trips,especially for my husband who is a committed bicyclist.  
The towns on the island are quite lovely with white or cream colored buildings, aqua shutters and a profusion of hollyhocks that seem to grow quite randomly against the buildings.

We were dropped off at the port which was a block from our hotel and across the street from our bike rental.  Our window overlooked the ocean and the lighthouse.  In front of our hotel we noted donkeys wearing the historic culottes which were originally used to protect their legs from the sting of the salt as they pulled salt wagons. One end of the island is filled with troughs in which they "harvested" sea salt. 

Surrounding the port were a wide range of excellent seafood restaurants with moules one of the specialties.  Excellent Italian gelato could be found at the Martiniere where we could watch them make waffle cones.   Caramel with sea salt was one of their custom flavors and the souvenir shops were filled with salted caramel, hearkening back to their sea salt industry.
During our stay on the Ile de Re we plotted a course each day to different areas of the island.  St Martins and La Flotte were the towns with the most activity and we frequently covered the short distance between them.  It seemed that our experience biking was not unlike our experience seeking specific tombstones in the Paris cemeteries.  Despite our carefully plotted objectives, destinations were often arrived at circuitously or not at all with some areas clearly marked and others left to guess work.  Nonetheless we often found interesting and unexpected destinations, just not always the ones that were intended and often with more biking than was planned.

Normally I am concerned with automobile traffic.  Here we soon observed that bicycle traffic posed the greater danger.  Bicyclists abound, often of the family variety.  In August the place fills with French tourists and we heard little English being spoken.  It is not an inexpensive town, but well worth a few days visit.

As our visit came to an end we reluctantly bid a fond adieu to Ile de Re and returned to La Rochelle for our Paris bound train and then home.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


The most interesting tidbit of information that I picked up at the Paris genealogy conference related to Jews in Scotland. In one of the sessions I learned that the original Jews in Scotland came as teachers and students. They came because unlike England, Scotland did not require students to take a Christian oath. I have a family branch that seemed to move between Glasgow and London and I am wondering if this factor might have something to do with those movements. I feel a trip to Scotland in my future.

The conference presented some challenges that are inherent in any truly international conference. Most revolved around language and reminded me of how as Americans we are very accustom to the rest of the world accommodating us by speaking English. One day I attended a film only to learn that it was in Polish with French subtitles. Then I went to a lecture that was in French, but had no translation available although for most sessions they did provide translation. At that point I threw up my hands and decided to take advantage of a rare sunny day in Paris and do some exploring.

As a "good student" I am not much good at cutting classes, but Paris beckoned and off I went to explore Montmartre. As previously noted, I am intrigued by cemeteries so after trekking through the small streets that surround Sacre Coeur, we did a stop at the Montmartre Cemetery. Interestingly the highway bridge goes over the cemetery so as we walked across the bridge we could see through the metal lattice to the tombstones below. It appeared to have been measured carefully to just clear one particularly tall memorial. The cemetery was of an older vintage where many of the memorials were in the form of a booth the size of a telephone booth, essentially a small chapel. Pere Lachaise is similar in style while Montparnasse seemed somewhat more contemporary. Part of the intrigue of cemeteries is how they compress time so significant figures from different times can co-exist. Unlike Montparnasse Cemetery which had many artists and writers, there were far fewer names we recognized at Montmartre. We went in search of Degas and Gustav Moreau and found the de Gas family tomb and the bonus of Nijinsky who had an interesting sculpture atop his tomb. Gustav went undiscovered.

The following day we went out to explore the Marais, the old Jewish district and the more contemporary hip neighborhood that surrounds it. The old Jewish district is largely concentrated around Rue de Rosier and Rue Vielle du Temple. The area is noteworthy for its plaques that detail the deportation of children from two of the neighborhood schools. I watched a diverse group of students gather in front of one of the schools as I thought about the tragic history that preceded them. The plaque noted that 260 Jewish students from that school had been deported to Germany during WWII. I have seen similar plaques at schools throughout the city. I wondered what these students knew of the events that had affected their predecessors. In a reflection of more current times, a plaque notes the terrorist grenade that killed several more recently at what used to be Goldenbergs. When I was here three years ago it still had the original awning, now it has become a clothing store. Yet another plaque speaks of the deportation of a family from their home. And yet life goes on in this district which is still inhabited by many Jews. On the Rue de Rosiers is a synagogue that was designed by Guimand, the art nouveau designer of the metro stations. Delis abound as do falafel stands.

Near this district is the Hotel de Ville where a show is currently up on the children who were deported. July 17th, the day prior to our visit, was the 70th anniversary of this event. Pictures of classes of students show a handful wearing yellow stars. What was most chilling were the teachers' record books which note the date the student enrolled, year of birth and then the notation "disparu", disappeared. A sign on a park notes that it is for children to play with the exception of Jewish children. The Vel d'hiv, the former site of cycle races, was used as the gathering place for families prior to deportation. This location has received far more attention with the release of the book and movie "Sarah's Key". Thirteen thousand people were crowded together with one toilet and virtually no food. There were 4000 children among them. The gathering place was a horrific indicator of what was to come. Perhaps most chilling was the fact that only French policemen were involved in the gathering of Jews at this site. It was done with great stealth with only one picture available as documentation of the buses gathered at the Vel d'Hiv. Of the 300,000 Jews who lived in France, 75,000 were deported.

With the conclusion of the conference and our Paris explorations, our next stop is the Isle de Re, a biking mecca across from La Rochelle.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Exploring Montparnasse Cemetery

I'm a fan of cemeteries.  As a genealogist I have spent many an hour photographing tombstones that were hidden behind trees and under moss.  Each nationality and ethnicity has unique features that define their cemeteries.  Not surprisingly in France there are many tombstones with considerable artistry.

The conference began yesterday, but first we decided to spend the morning at an art fair in Montparnasse.  Along the way we passed Montparnasse cemetery and were quickly diverted. We had explored the well-known Pere Lachaise Cemetery on past trips, visiting the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, and we knew that treasures can lurk within.

Montparnasse has many artists and literary figures buried in the cemetery.  From Jeanne Paul Sartre and Simone de Bouvier to Brancusi, Brasaii and Man Ray, there is no shortage of well known names.  They are marked on a map at the entrance which one would think would make them easy to find.  We searched for specific tombstones to no avail and finally contented ourselves with identifying those that were visually interesting.  We found sculptors had particularly interesting tombstones as most had a piece of their sculpture adorning their grave.  On the left is the one from Henri Laurens on his own grave.. On the right is a sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle. 

Bones, Bones and More Bones

On this visit to Paris we succeeded in visiting a location that we had attempted to visit on several prior occasions, the Catacombs. On our prior attempts we had arrived there by metro only to be told that it had been closed due to vandalism. This time we could easily walk there from our hotel and realized that the line around the block signified it was open.

One of our rainy Paris mornings soon found us at the end of that line. About three hours later we stood ready to enter the portals that are inscribed "ArrĂȘte! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort (Halt! This is the Empire of the Dead)". Now the reason we were so persistent in attempting to gain entrance despite those words of warning was a personal one. My husband, Martin Arend, is also an artist and had done a piece on the Catacombs for a project with a group of artists who each did a painting on one of the movements of Mussorgsky's composition "Pictures at an Exhibition" (see above). He did the one on the Catacombs and had worked from pictures, but was interested in viewing the real thing.

The Catacombs are an underground ossuary that holds the bones of six million Parisians dating back to the 1700s. The city was once filled with churchyards where burials occurred and over time the cemeteries filled. The resulting decay presented a health problem for the city so they moved the bones from Paris cemeteries to a former quarry.

To enter the Catacombs we went down about 170 steps and walked through a lengthy tunnel. Then we continued through a winding tunnel bordered with skulls and femurs often forming artistic arrangements. Broken skulls resembled pottery and French sayings on mortality were embossed in the walls. A very eerie place indeed.

After catching our breath from our climb out of the Catacombs, we stopped for a meal of crepes. Our continuing tour of typical French food now includes tarte tatin, cassoulet, duck confit, croque monsieur and of course frites. When in Paris do as the Parisians.

Later in the day we went to the Pompidou which has an extraordinary permanent collection. They also had a special exhibition of one of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter. I knew segments of his work, but it is always a rare treat to see a cross-section of work and appreciate the evolution of the current work. I chuckled when I saw a painting of a skull. Two things especially intrigued me. Remember the Utrillo white period of which I wrote? Richter also made use of white in many of his works, often layering it over colors and scraping it away to reveal the colors beneath.  As I often use white within some of my work, I came away with an appreciation of how it can be used to create a powerful painting. As a family historian who has painted her family history, I was also intrigued by Richter's use of family photos as source material for paintings. He had one of his uncle Rudy in his National Socialist uniform as well as an aunt who was euthanized by the Nazis due to schizophrenia, a complex family history in his unique blurred style. Viewing other artwork always brings new perspective to my own work and makes me anxious to get back to painting upon my return.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Meeting My Paris Cousins

Today is Bastille Day in Paris and we just returned from the Eiffel Tower where I had imagined fabulous photos of fireworks with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Lesson #1: If you want to see the fireworks and the Eiffel Tower juxtaposed, get off the metro at a stop that is before the Eiffel Tower. Nonetheless there were wonderful fireworks on the left and the Eiffel Tower rising into the sky on the right. And we celebrated with half of Paris. Lesson #2 Half of Paris will want to return home on the same metro train as you. But it is Bastille Day in Paris. If I do it again, I'll know better how to take full advantage of my surroundings. Some of the events included a military parade down the Champs Elysee in the morning with the tanks and officers fanning out to the areas of the city to greet the people. Fireman's balls occurred throughout the city, the Louvre was free and there was a free ballet at the Opera House.

Ah, but the highlight of my day was not Bastille Day, but meeting my French relatives. We were to meet them at a restaurant at Bastille and arrived early to make sure we knew the place. We then went for a walk along the Promenade Plantée, a former viaduct that has been converted into a park-like area up above the city. From it you have unique views of the city. My favorite is the Police Station which has a frieze of Michelangeo's Dying Slave which looks like a chorus line of guys. It just does not look like police station architecture. Below the park area are artisan shops, unfortunately all closed for Bastille Day.

We arrived at the restaurant a few minutes early and soon saw a woman waving at us. My cousin's daughter and I had exchanged photographs to help us connect. Soon her father and mother arrived, her father a very spry 92 joined us. My high school French did not avail me of complex conversation, but fortunately my cousin's daughter had far more fluency than I and we were able to communicate with periodic translation for her parents. A cousin on her mother's side joined us. I learned that the reason her father and his brother settled in Paris after the war was that her mother had a surviving sister who had lived there before the war. This family nucleus created a close French family. We spoke of her parents' early challenges in learning the language and finding a way to support themselves after the Holocaust. I also learned that her father's memoir grew out of the Shoah interviews. Then we spoke the universal language as she showed me pictures of her new grandchild. Pictures were taken, kisses on each cheek given and we offered our au revoirs to embark on the rest of our Bastille Day activities.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Women as Artist and Muse

This blog edition comes from rainy Paris where I am awaiting the beginning of the International Jewish Genealogy Conference. We have been busy visiting art exhibitions in the few days pre-conference so I won't be too tempted to skip out on conference sessions once it begins. It is Paris after all and filled with many temptations. While steady rain and misplaced luggage have added a bit of complication, they have not slowed us down much.

Yesterday we took in three exhibitions, all of which were quite interesting. One was at a new museum, the Pinacotheque that opened in 2007. We are always in search of new museums and were quite pleased with this discovery. This museum assembled the works from the former collection of Jonas Netter, an Alsatian Jew and fairly unknown collector of many of the Paris artists. Through a partnership with art dealer Zhoborowski, Netter acquired 15% of Modigliani's work as well as many works of Soutine, Utrillo and other artists working in Montmartre at that time. I observed that several of the artists in his collection died in the Holocaust and wondered what became of Netter. He apparently survived the war dying in 1946, but I was unable to learn his personal story.

I was particularly taken with the work of Utrillo during his white period when his use of white dominated his paintings and created a kind of distressed surface that brought depth to the image. I also was pleased to see a selection of work by his mother Suzanne Valadon whose use of line was quite extraordinary. This was the first time I had seen a cross-section of her work. Always intrigued by women artists I learned that she began her career as a circus acrobat, then became a model for Toulouse Lautrec and Renoir among others. Degas was a close friend and encouraged her in her own artwork.

We then focused upon another female artist from an earlier era, Artemisia Gentileschi who painted in the 1600s and was influenced by Caravaggio. The Maillol Museum which we discovered on an earlier visit had an extensive show of her work. Artemisia's father was a talented artist and taught his daughter. Later she was taught by another artist, Tassi, who ultimately was charged with raping her. Of course thumbscrews were applied to Artemesia to ascertain if she was telling the truth. Her subsequent work seemed to focus on Judith's beheading of Holofernes which caused me to wonder if there was a connection with her personal experience. Her Judith is a strong character who one wouldn't wish to be on the wrong side of.  Just ask Holofernes. Artemesia's work was quite recognized in her day, an unusual position for a woman.

We ended our day with one more celebrated woman Misia Natanson/Edwards/Sert. Misia was not an artist, but rather a muse. The D'Orsay had a special exhibition of the work that was created with her as a model and out of the salon that she spearheaded. I had read a biography about her by Arthur Gold and Robert Fitzdale so knew a bit of her story.  In the course of her life she was an advisor to Diaghilev and friend to many composers and artists. She was painted by Renoir, Vuillard and Bonnard. Her own story was rather sad with two husbands abandoning her for 19 year olds and one trading her to another in exchange for covering his debts. Ultimately she died alone as a morphine addict.

After making our artistic rounds we connected with a young man from Poland to whom I had been introduced through a Polish friend. Lukasz is a Phd student at the University of Warsaw and coincidentally was in Paris during our visit. He is focusing on the experience of Jews who returned to Poland and specifically Radom after the war. We compared notes on the experience of survivors with whom I am familiar and soon realized it is a small world in the Radom community. While survivors and their descendants are scattered around the world there are many interrelationships between them. Our evening concluded with a dash through the drizzle as we sought to catch our metro home before midnight.