Monday, April 9, 2012

The Architecture Museum and the Liberation of Paris

On the first Sunday of each month, many of the city museums here in Paris offer free admission.  Never ones to miss out on a good deal, we headed over to the City Museum of Architecture.  The curators of the museum have assembled quite a collection of plaster replicas of famous architectural works from all over France.  Granted it is not the same as seeing the originals, but the museum offers a unique opportunity to see the evolution of architecture from the rounded arches of the Romanesque period to the pointed Gothic ones, and finally to the soaring Flamboyant Gothic spires that seem to pierce the sky.

We walked behind the museum for one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower.  No matter how many times we see it, La Tour Eiffel still gives us goosebumps (or at least it gives Anne goosebumps!).

Our main goal for today was a "Paris Walks" tour on the Occupation and Liberation of Paris.  We love these walking tours that make history come alive as you pass places where actual historical events happened.

Our very affable and knowledgeable tour guide Mary Ellen explained that the French capitulated to the Nazis, not because they were afraid to fight, but because 1/3 of the adult male population had died in the recent WWI.  And even before the French surrender in June of 1940, France had already lost 200,000 men (plus many thousands wounded) fighting the Nazis.  So France was devastated by the bloodshed and could not bear any more, much less spare any more resources.

The Occupation was very difficult for the people of Paris, and many people were starving.  Hitler stripped and humiliated the country as a reprisal for the harsh treatment of the German people by the French as part of the Treaty of Versailles after WWI . He made the French pay thousands of Francs daily for his German soldiers to occupy France.

People planted gardens in all the public places, growing root vegetables like rutabaga.  And they also raised rabbits for food!  Which may explain why "lapin" (rabbit) is such a popular dish today here in France.  Mary Ellen showed us an actual brochure called "What to do with a Rabbit" that contained information on raising rabbits during the war, tips on how to prepare them, and instructions on how to use rabbit fur for shoes.

We wrere taken to the Meurice Hotel where General Dietrich von Choltitz, the Nazi officer in charge of the occupation of Paris was headquartered. When the allies landed in Normandy, Hitler realized that Paris was lost, so he wanted the city of Paris leveled  (his thinking was, if I can't have Paris, no one will have her).  All of Paris's bridges and major monuments (including the Eiffel Tower) were wired with dynamite and ready to be blown to bits.  Luckily, von Choltitz realized the war was lost, and unilaterally decided that he did not want to go down in history as the man who destroyed Paris, so he ignored Hitler's orders.

Hotel Maurice seen through the Tuileries Park fence.

Mary Ellen also shared stories from her interviews with war survivors.  She talked with one man who was only a little boy at the time, but he remembered the noisy sound of the German soldier's boots as they marched thru the streets of Paris.  He compared this to the American Army who, when they arrived in Paris, marched so quietly in their rubber-soled boots!.

We also saw a placard dedicated to Rose Valland, an art historian who was instrumental in recovering 45,000 pieces of art stolen by the Nazis.  The Nazis never suspected that this mousy, little museum worker could understand German, and certainly never guessed that she was a member of the Resistance who secretly documented where stolen art was being hidden in Germany.

Mary Ellen showed us many of the surviving photos including this one taken in front of  Gestapo Headquarters (the building still looks eerily the same).  The Germans foolishly left this photo behind allowing the Allies to match up photos to German faces, and arrest many of the Gestapo officers.

Our tour ended at this larger-than-life statue of Charles de Gaulle striding down the Champs Elysees as "he liberated Paris."  Of course, Liberation would never have happened without the support and resources of the U.S. and the other Allies.  But, de Gaulle failed to give credit to supporters of his cause, claiming victory because of his single-handed deeds during the war.

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