It has been several months since I posted my Part 1 blog on la Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. For much of this time, I wasn’t certain that I would ever follow up with my planned sequel to Part 1.
This Parisian cemetery opened in 1804. It contains about 70,000 graves, including many famous artists, musicians, writers, politicians, etc. from the past 200 years. It has traditionally been of particular importance to the political left in France. However, at the back of the cemetery, up the hill and about as far away from the main gate as you can get, there are several commemorative monuments. These memorials commemorate several 20th Century wars, and some of the atrocities associated with these wars.
When I saw these monuments, I couldn’t help but wonder – how did these get here, and who was responsible for their installation?
I was especially struck by the monuments constructed in memory of the occupants of Nazi concentration camps, three of which which I photographed.
In order to learn more about the history of the war memorials at Père-Lachaise, I found a blog created by Jennifer Boyer-Switala. Some of her research is incorporated into the following descriptions.
Ravensbrück was a concentration camp located in northern Germany and built specifically to accommodate women. It was opened in 1939 and liberated in 1945 by the Russian army. Polish women were the largest population of the camp, but there were many other nationalities represented among about 130,000 female prisoners who were deported to the camp during these seven years.
The “Monument to the Memory of the Deportees of Ravensbrück Camp” was sculpted by Émile Morlaix in 1955. It was commissioned at a time when President Charles de Gaulle was trying to bolster French national patriotism by celebrating the role of the French Résistance during World War II. Many captured female Résistance fighters were imprisoned and died at Ravensbrück, which is likely the primary reason why this memorial was created.
Dachau was the first concentration camp built in Germany by the National Socialists Party in 1933. The camp initially imprisoned German citizens opposed to the Nazi regime. Later on, résistants and victims of Nazi oppression were deported there, having been arrested in countries occupied or annexed by Germany. More than 200,000 inmates were imprisoned there over its 12 years of existence, prior to its liberation by US troops in April 1945.
The”Monument to the Memory of the Deportees of Dachau Camp” was designed by architects Louis Docoet and François Spy and installed in 1985. It is constructed of granite and is surmounted by a large red granite stone. The red triangle was used to identify the category of political prisoners in the camp system. This differs from many of the other monuments in its simplicity – a stark antithesis to the atrocities and inhumane treatment forced upon its prisoners.
The Dachau monument was conceived during the presidency of Francois Mitterand. In the 1980’s, France was obsessed by its memory of the occupied years during WW II, and there were prominent trials of several French citizens who had collaborated with the Germans during the war. More than 12,000 French citizens had been arrested and sent to Dachau.
The camp at Buna-Monowitz (also known as Auschwitz III) was constructed by the Germans in proximity to the larger Auschwitz extermination camps. Auschwitz III was used to house a labour force to work at the nearby J.G. Farben Company factory, where synthetic rubber and synthetic petrol were produced.
The”Monument to the Memory of the Deportees of Buna-Monowitz-Auschwitz III” was commissioned by the organization of survivors from the Auschwitz III camp, under the sponsorship of the French government. It is a bronze sculpture, depicting six skeletal men – one in a wheelbarrow – trudging towards their execution at the Auschwitz gas chambers. It is one of the most graphic memorials in the cemetery.
The memorial was sculpted in 1993 by a famous French cartoonist Louis Mitelberg (aka TIM). Mitelberg’s life experience (1919-2002) mirrored many of the prisoners’ lives. He was born in Poland, and moved to Paris in 1938 to study architecture at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. After the war broke out in 1939, he joined the French army; was taken prisoner and placed in a camp in Germany; and later escaped, ending up in Edinburgh, Scotland. He then joined the French Free Forces and fought for the liberation of France. Following the war, Mitelberg became a cartoonist and a sculptor.
Louis Mitelberg was also Jewish. The Auschwitz III monument was the first original memorial at Père-Lachaise to specifically mention Jewish victims. Writing of the significance of this sculpture, Mitelberg wrote “For me, this work…represents the life of those who died, those who accompany us in our search for dignity.”