The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

On the Rue de la Victoire

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 2, 2014

[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]

Danny wakes me in a state of excitement. It’s the Sabbath. He has gotten us an invitation to attend services at the Grande Synagogue de Paris on the Rue de la Victoire.

La Grande Synagogue de la Victoire

“Trust me,” Danny says. “It’s one of the most beautiful houses of worship in the world. Wake up, you’re not getting out of this.”

We go. The place is spectacular. Towering stonework, vaulted ceilings. It looks and feels like a cathedral.

Danny has a prayer shawl for me. A tallit. I put it on. A first for me.

“Do you feel like a real Jew yet?”

The service is in French and Hebrew, neither of which I understand. This is not a negative in my view. The experience is like attending a Mass in Latin. I enjoy the rhythm of the language and the obviously reverent and pious demeanor of the celebrants.

After the service, the congregation gathers for hazelnut cakes and wine in a large, gracious courtyard. The scene feels very French. The faces look French, the language is French, the stylishness of the women is very French.

While Danny circulates, I wander off on my own. On the walls that surround the courtyard are a number of floor-to-ceiling mahogany panels. On each are inscribed the names of Jews from this synagogue who gave their lives in France’s wars. I do a rough count. Between four and five hundred.

ALAIN BENDES                  1915

SIMON BERTHIER              1917

MORDECHAI BEN AMI     1917

The wall is not the roster of all who served from this congregation, only those who fell for France.

A few weeks earlier I had read an article about the formal apology issued by French president Francois Hollande for the 1942 roundup and deportation from Paris of over 13,000 Jews. The action was carried out not by the Gestapo but by French police, in uniform. The operation was called by the French Vel d’Hiv, “Spring Breeze.”

Entire families were ordered from their homes in dawn raids and taken to the Velodrome d’Hiver (the Winter Velodrome) in the French capital where they were kept for days without food and water before being deported to German concentration camps. These raids accounted for more than a quarter of the estimated 42,000 Jews sent from France to the Auschwitz camp in 1942. Jewish organizations say only 811 of them returned.

French president Francois Hollande lays a wreath at the Jewish memorial in Paris on the 70th anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv deportation of Parisian Jews during World War II.

I scan the names of the heroic dead on the panels at the Synagogue de la Victoire. I wonder how Alain Bendes died, or Mordechai Ben Ami. Under what circumstances did Simon Berthier give his life?

Did they fall for France charging into machine gun fire at Ypres or Amiens? Did they die in a trench somewhere, or a medical tent, or in the back of an ambulance crawling along some nameless track in the dark? In their final moments, what meaning did each man ascribe to his sacrifice?

Were his last words, “Vive la France?”

Posted in The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

6 Responses to “On the Rue de la Victoire”

  1. Mary Doyle
    June 2, 2014 at 5:44 am

    Enough stories in the names on the courtyard wall for another lifetime of writing…thanks for sharing this.

  2. Arthur Shapiro
    June 2, 2014 at 6:23 am

    I recently read An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris, a novelization of the Dreyfus Affair. It’s an interesting read about historic French Anti-Semitism, which included (centered on?) patriots and heroes.

    Those you mention died in service to a country that despised their jewish citizens. Yet, the jewish heroes served.

  3. June 2, 2014 at 6:37 am

    His last words, as the last words of every Jew, were the words of Shema Yisrael…in whatever language.

    “Do you feel like a real Jew yet?” You were then, now and always.

    Thanks, Steve. What a moving way to start the day.

  4. June 2, 2014 at 6:40 am

    I laughed out loud after reading, “Wake up. You’re not getting out of this.”

    That is the candor that makes this blog so riveting.

    I read Jews, God, and History probably 15 years ago. An LT buddy of mine, Lou, was the first and only ‘Zionist’ I’ve known. He was always talking about the anti-Semitism in the Press, culture, etc.

    I had just decided that I should read the Bible, and was doing one of those ‘Bible in a Year’ programs.

    One day after Lou was ranting about something in the news that he interpreted as anti-Semitic, I (thinking I was suddenly a Biblical Scholar) offered, “Lou, come on now bother. So I’ve been reading the Bible. This whole ‘God’s Chosen People’ thing, I mean come on bro. Don’t you think that’ll piss people off?”

    Lou looked at me like I was eating paste.

    “Read this book. It is about onus Brian. It is a responsibility.”

    So I read it. Great read. 3 lessons I got from the book. 1. Values define a people and are more important than resources when it comes to success. 2. Education is the way you teach values. 3. Fight to defend your values and the ability to teach/live them. The Jews were/are a Warrior Nation.

    Those French Jews fought. There is an enemy inside us, and frequently enemies that want to take away our way of living. Life is conflict.

    Great piece, and good to know that Danny wouldn’t let you sleep in.
    bsn

  5. June 2, 2014 at 7:41 am

    Steve,
    As always, your stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Even in a blog post your muse is alive.
    Thank you for sharing your insight and your experience. What did they say in their final moments?

  6. Yosi Ben Hanan
    June 11, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    Shalom,
    Dear Steve,
    So far I can keep on reading what you write with the full trust that you keep your promises… not to change what I told you.
    As you know I am back in Jerusalem.
    You should come soon to meet us here.
    I wish you the BEST!
    Yosi.