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.
“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.
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?”