Paris’ body is made up of the metro. Each line darts back and forth, crosses over each other, and connects Parisians much like the blood vessels and neurons of the body. The sound of the train provides Paris’ heartbeat. With the loud rhythmic thuds of each train cart passing over the tracks, it seems that is the very sound that keeps Paris alive. But Paris is an old city, and her body is a recent invention. The Parisii named her and the Romans conquered her. The Bourbon kings abandoned her for Versailles and the Revolutionaries took her back. American founding fathers used her as a political playing field and American artists made her their muse. But where have all these people who have shaped Paris gone? Much like Paris’ structural body, the people of Paris’ history have gone underground. As a lover of history, I have always been interested with the stories and events of the dead. It is the dead who shaped the world and societies that modern day people live in. With the rich history that Paris has, I decided I wanted to explore this buried history and pay homage to the dead that have outline Paris’ history and made her what she is today.
Mairie de Montrouge
With the Mairie de Montrouge metro stop being one of the newest in Paris’ metro system, with its official opening on March 23, 2013, I was worried about what history I would find. But, luckily for me, Paris has yet to disappoint me in its historical abundance.
A 20-minute walk from the Mairie de Montrouge stop brought me to the Parisian Cemetery of Bagneux. This cemetery was opened on November 15, 1886 and is one of the smallest cemeteries in Paris yet one of the most active with an average of 10 burials a day. It is estimated that the Parisian Cemetery of Bagneux is home to 83,000 graves and was the original resting place of Oscar Wilde before he was moved to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery.
The cemetery is commonly referred to as the Jewish Cemetery of Paris due to several of its divisions having exclusively Jewish graves. As such, there are several memorials in the cemetery dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust as well as Jewish soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the good of France in WWII.
One memorial that caught my eye in particular was a headstone dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust who were not given a proper burial and/or final resting place. Many of the victims of the Holocaust were dumped into mass graves to rot away or the bodies were set on fire by the Nazis to dispose of them. As a result of this, many of the millions of Holocaust victims could not be brought back home after their deaths and their bodies became forgotten. This memorial headstone reads “To the memory of the victims of the Shoah who were not buried neither here nor anywhere else.” When I first read it, I had no clue what “Shoah” meant. I knew it definitely was not the French word for the Holocaust so what could it be? In my research I have found that the Jewish community refers to the Holocaust as “Shoah”, the Hebrew word for catastrophe. As I read the word “catastrophe” my heart sank. That is exactly what the Holocaust was. A catastrophic event that lead to the extermination of 6 million Jews and 11 million people in total. The weight of this catastrophe became heavier on me when I found out that the Jewish population in Europe today still hasn’t matched the population of Jews before the Holocaust according to the Pew Research Center. Close to 80 years later and the Jewish population still has not bounced back from the great Shoah.
As the closest metro stop to our university, I became quite familiar with Porte d’Orleans and yet knew nothing about it. It was one of the first metro lines to open in Paris with its grand opening on October 30, 1909. The metro stop was given the name Porte d’Orleans after one of the gates in in the Thiers wall, the last defensive wall made around Paris in 1844. As Porte d’Orleans has been around for 110 years, I knew that it would be able to provide me with the history I craved.
A 6-minute walk from the station led me to the Montrouge cemetery. Walking through the large stone arch and its rusted green metal doors, the cemetery is packed with headstones and gives the appearance of a small town. As I walked around a tall thin structure caught my attention. It appeared as if several thin smokestacks sprouted from the ground. I approached to read the headstone and found out it belonged to Etienne Beöthy. Born on September 2, 1897 in Heves, Hungary as Istvan Beöthy. Beöthy first studied to be an architect at the request of his father in Hungary but was later given a grant to study art in Europe. As a result, many of his works are very structural and are rooted in mathematics as he himself explains in his book “Golden Series” published in 1939. At the same time that he is creating art and sculptures, Beöthy is also the head of one of the several cells of resistance fighters. In between making art and sculpting, he uses his time fighting for France by designing resistance flyers to be distributed throughout Paris. Around the same time, 1940 to 1945, Beöthy joins the Hungarian Independence Movement and later becomes the movement’s vice president. His works are stills exhibited throughout the world and several of his pieces are held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The station of Denfert Rochereau was built in 1906 originally as part of line 6. The station was named after French colonel Pierre Philippe Denfert- Rochereau who fought victoriously during the Franco- Prussian War in the 1870s. Its entrance is crowned by the famous art nouveau metro signs that Paris is known for.
I came to this stop on a mission to fulfill my pilgrimage for this trip. But, as I emerged from the underground, right across the street was the site of the famous Paris catacombs. The catacombs were the result of public health concerns related to Parisian cemeteries in the late 18th century. The bones from the catacombs come from the Holy Innocents Cemetery where the Place Joachim du Bellay currently stands. Due to overcrowding and dead bodies’ natural decomposition process, it no longer became ideal for cemeteries to be located within Paris’ city walls. Parisian authorities felt that the best place to put the remains of the Holy Innocents cemetery was deep underground in the quarries of Montrouge. The bodies were then organized into patterns and religious shapes to mimic the catacombs in Rome.
As I looked upon the intricate patterns of bones on display, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the separated remains of those who have been long forgotten. Skulls separated from spinal vertebrae and femurs separated from pelvises. There is no way for these bodies to be reunited with themselves. But there is very little chance that these remains have any family to remember them and visit them. So, much like the famous quote, these remains have experienced their final death: being forgotten. In being ultimately and truly dead, these remains become less human and more fossil-like. They have become part of an ancient history but are still surrounded with mysticism and fascination.
The station of Odéon was opened on January 9, 1910 in order to connect Châtelet and Raspail under the Seine river. The station is named after the Odéon theatre which opened its doors in 1779. What excited me most about this stop was being just a 15- minute walk from visiting my favorite author, Alexandre Dumas.
Alexandre Dumas is currently laid to rest in the Panthéon. The building of the Panthéon fuses Napoleon’s wish to portray himself as a Roman Emperor with elements and traces of Gothic influences. The Panthéon is currently used as a mausoleum for France’s most notable citizens. Among these are Napoleon himself, Marie Curie, Emile Zola, and Alexandre Dumas. Although I had already visited during class time, I wanted to go back to pay further respects to the author who changed my whole perspective of literature. I was first introduced to Dumas in my freshman year English class in high school. That year had been focused on Shakespeare and other classic artists that I frankly wasn’t interested, and their works didn’t move me in the least. This changed when we had to read the Count of Monte Cristo which, to this day, is still my favorite book.
Alexandre Dumas, while being a successful and notable author, went through several hardships in his life. Outside of personal relationships, it seemed the constant trait writing critics would point out was his race. Dumas was the grandson of a slave from Haiti and while his father serve valiantly under Napoleon I, it never seemed like it was enough. No matter what he would accomplish, the people of France still referred to him as “the negro” as if that had more weight than his talents as a writer. Several newspapers would draw caricatures of him with exaggerated African features and I was fortunate enough to see these and experience their severity in person in the Musée d’Orsay.
While I am not of African descent, the realities of racism have only become clearer to me within recent years. Coming from a majority Hispanic city like Miami, it never felt like I was the “other.” The only differences between me and the kids in school was what country in Latin America we were from. But, since the presidential races of 2016, the hatred towards Hispanics has only become louder and more toxic. With Trump’s infamous speech stating that Mexicans are rapists and murderers as well as the zero tolerance policies at the southern border, it feels as though white America is looking at us with daggers in their eyes. While they claim to hate us, they still go to restaurants to eat our food and they still vacation in our home countries. The same contradiction Dumas faced is what is still happening now. The only question that remains is do we turn a blind eye to it or do we rise up and fight back?
Raspail was opened on April 24, 1906 as part of line 2. As the Paris metro continued to develop in the years soon after, it also became a stop on lines 5, 6, and ultimately, line 4. The station of Raspail was named after Francois- Vincent Raspail, a French scientist and statesman who was one of the early proponents in the use of the microscope as well as the head of the French Human Rights Society. But I didn’t come to Raspail for science or politics. I stopped at Raspail to visit someone in particular: Alfred Dreyfus.
Alfred Dreyfus, the person I selected for my Declaration Project back in the Spring semester, was someone I deeply sympathized with. As a young man, his aspirations of serving under the French Army and rising up the ranks were cut short when he was targeted, due to his Jewish background, and falsely accused of treason. He was then stripped of his military titles and sentenced to solitary confinement of Devil’s Island and stayed there for about 5 years. His case split Paris in two with one group siding with the French government and army and the other siding with Dreyfus. It wasn’t until much later that Dreyfus was freed from prison and was reinstated in the military under the orders of the French President and Parliament. This is one of the most documented cases of antisemitism rearing its ugly head in France.
I felt it necessary to visit him. After all, I had spent months researching his life to ensure I gave him justice in my project. But aside from that, Alfred Dreyfus had spent so long in solitary confinement that it only made sense for me to visit him and give him some company.
I headed to the Montparnasse Cemetery in order to do so. It is a large cemetery lined with trees and plants growing over several tombs. I wandered around trying to find Dreyfus and, along the way, found a large windmill looking structure. I would later find out that before the cemeteries opening in 1824, the land was full of farms and fields and as a result, some windmills stayed behind. I continued wandering until I finally found him. I instantly knew it was his grave in the distance when I saw stones on it. These stones are a Jewish tradition in which, rather than leaving flowers at a grave, you place a stone on the tomb to indicate you have visited. I walked up to his tomb stone in hand and not only did I find Alfred Dreyfus, but I found his whole family with the most recent member passing away in 1996. It felt like a strange homecoming to me. I never knew Alfred or his family and yet I felt such a strong connection to him. I spent some time at the grave just reflecting on everything I knew about Alfred and all the things I barely knew about the whole Dreyfus family. As I walked away, it felt like my whole trip had come full circle, and no matter what happened this month, good or bad, there couldn’t be anything to top how I felt visiting Alfred Dreyfus.
The Saint- Michel metro stop is one of the most visited due to its proximity to both the Latin Quarter and Notre Dame. It was opened on January 9, 1910 as one of the original stops on line 4. The station gets its name after the square that rests above it with a large statue of Michael the Archangel. As one of the first stops used in class this month, this was another stop I had become familiar with, but I took particular interest in a nearby church.
The Church of Saint Severin is a gothic church in the Latin quarter known for one famous feature: the column behind the church’s altar. This column, rather than the grooves on the column being up right, has its grooves twisting around the column much like a vine growing up a tree. The grooves continue toward the ceiling and, once they reach the top of the column, shoot out like palm fronds. But I needed to find out more about this church. There needed to be something more than a twisting column given how old the church is. I walked around the Church and came upon an open garden in its center. It seemed as though I was alone until I heard someone say hello. I turned to see a priest taking a cigarette break. He began to ask me where I was from and what I was doing in Paris (I guess my huge purse and constant photo taking gave it away). As we continued talking, he told me that the garden we were sitting in used to be a cemetery. Before I could ask any further questions, the priest disposed of his finished cigarette and went back inside the church. Was he trying to scare me? I’m sure that fooling tourists is fun but something about his claim also seemed serious. I began to look it up on the way back to the university and sure enough it was true. During the 15th century, the garden of the Church of St. Severin was used as a cemetery for important people in Paris. In addition to this, in 1474, the first ever successful stone removal surgery was performed. King Louis XI had ordered a prisoner sentenced to death be the trial run of the surgery and, if the prisoner were to survive, he would be released. The surgery went so well that Louis XI himself began to encourage people to get the procedure done.
Les Halles was originally opened on April 21, 1908. However, its present location was opened is 1977 as it was shifted east to accommodate the construction of the RER. The station gets its name after the markets that resided above it for many years. Today, this is still the case as there is a large mall that engulfs the station. But, despite the modern shopping center, Les Halles holds much more history that its patrons aren’t aware of.
Across the street from Les Halles is Place Joachim du Bellay. The place’s namesake was one of the first people to promote French as an artistic language. In the 9th century, the location on which the place now stands used to be home to the Holy Innocents Cemetery as well as a church by the same name. Place Joachim du Bellay’s main feature is the Fontaine des Innocents, a tall structure that seems like a missing part of a building, which was originally located on the edge of the Holy Innocents Cemetery. The fountain was commissioned in 1549 as one of the royal markers of King Henry II’s entry path into Paris. Later, towards the end of the 18th century, having cemeteries in the center of Paris was deemed unsanitary and the entire cemetery was dug up and removed. The bodies that were laid to rest there were then moved to what is presently known as the catacombs of Paris where they have remained since.
The station of Réaumur- Sébastopol was first opened on October 19, 1904 under the name of Rue Saint- Denis. It was part of line 3 and connected Parisians to the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery and Villiers. Then, in 1907, the station was renamed to its current name and, in 1908, was made into a stop on line 4. The dual name of the station is after French entomologist Rene- Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur and the port of Sevastopol in Crimea in which an important battle took place during the Crimean War.
Initially this area made little to no impression on me. It seemed to be just like the rest of Paris’ streets full of shops and stores. But, as I walked around, I passed by a very large Monoprix that seemed to be closed in the middle of the afternoon. I found this to be strange as it is a popular grocery chain and it was the middle of the day. When I looked up the Monoprix’s location, I found several articles explaining that in 2015, there had been and archaeological discovery below the Monoprix.
Due to France’s rich abundance of archaeological discoveries, the French government issued a law that would require the Ministry of Culture to survey any land to be constructed on and developed for any archaeological finds. In the case of the Monoprix, this is exactly what led to the find. Monoprix wished to expand that specific location by adding an additional floor underground. As workers began to dig, they found that several feet underground were the remains of over 200 bodies from the 12th century cemetery of Trinity Hospital. Since then, archaeologists have been able to discover more about medical practices from the Middle Ages as well as the common causes of death from the time such as small pox and famine. Many of the bodies were even wrapped in hospital sheets dating back from the 14th century.
The Barbes- Rochechouart station was opened January 31st, 1903 as part of line 2 but later became part of line 4 in 1908. The station is named after Armand Barbes, a famous revolutionary who was sentenced to life for trying to overthrow the King, and Marguerite de Rochechouart, a scholarly nun from the 17th century who also served as Mother Superior at the Abbey of Montmartre.
Above the station matched what Montmartre is known for: hilly and narrow streets full of people painting or performing music. I had come to this station to visit the Cimetiere du Calvaire. However, I was unaware that the cemetery was opened to the public twice a year: on All Saints Day and Heritage Day. This cemetery is one of the smallest and oldest in Paris. It was opened in 1688 as part of the Abbey of Montmartre and was all that remained of it after the Revolution. One of the most notable people who remains there is Louis Antoine Bougainville. While his body rests in the Panthéon, his heart is kept in an urn in his family’s burial plot.
Louis Antoine Bougainville was a famous French Navigator who sailed from France to South America, the South Pacific, and even Australia. What drew me to him was what he brought back to France: a thorny shrub with bright pink paper-like flowers. This plant is what is commonly known as the bougainvillea. Its bright pink flowers are a staple in Miami gardens and homes.
This was the first connection I felt to colonialism in my month in Paris. All of my life I have been surrounded by these flowers in the gardens of Tias and Tios and its colors have painted my memories of walking to my neighbor’s house for Tupperware’s full of sopa de carne. I had always taken its name for granted. To me, the plant was always Cuban for as long as I could remember. But, learning about Louis Antoine Bougainville, it seems like not even the world knows exactly where it first came from. The plant has taken over South America, Australia, China, the United States, and even the Alhambra is Spain. The bougainvillea’s home has been forgotten and its name is that of its “discoverer.” Much like the bougainvillea, colonialism’s thorny branches have wrapped around native history and strangled them until they have become nothing and all that remains is Bougainville.
The station on Simplon was opened on April 21, 1908. Its name is after Simplon street which is named after the Simplon pass in the Alps. As the second to last stop on line 4, the population of people on the train drastically changes. Not only is there a smaller concentration of people on the trains, most of the people appear to be of Middle Eastern and African origin. As I walked the streets above, the languages around me we neither English nor French. Instead, people were speaking their native tongues: Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Creole, and many more that I couldn’t even recognize. Yet with all of the African and Middle Eastern residences and homes that filled Simplon, I still came upon a large gothic church.
The church that I wandered into was Our Lady of Clignancourt. It was first opened 1863 but has gone through various refurbishment projects since. The church’s interior seems to be a hodge podge of its history. Stained glass and high ceilings were of no surprise to me. Not even the blue ceiling of the dome above the alter seemed entirely strange. However, the lights in the church all came from bronze chandeliers with cherubs’ faces. Even stranger, the walls at the entrance of the church were lined with names separated into the years 1914 to 1918. I couldn’t find any information on these names anywhere. Not online nor in any of the church’s pamphlets. I decided to return to the church another day to ask as my first visit was greeted with only the sound of my footsteps echoing off the walls.
When I returned to the church, I found a small old woman cleaning the offering candle stands. I asked if she spoke English and she softly shook her head. After about 30 minutes of trying to communicate with broken French I finally got my answer. The names on the walls are of men from the parish who died during World War I. This piqued my interest as World War I hadn’t been discussed heavily in class like we had for World War II. I paced back and forth reading each of the names of the men who laid down their lives only for it to be in vain and a second world war to occur 20 years later. Does anyone remember these men? Does anyone visit the church to touch their names? Or are they doomed to end up like the bones in the catacombs and have their identities forgotten forever?
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