Behind the Headlines the ‘pletzel’

The “Pletzel,” the Paris Jewish quarter, was once an East European ghetto where 100,000 people spoke French with a Yiddish accent. It covered a sizeable part of the city stretching from the Place de la Republique, where Zev Jabotinsky used to speak in pre-World War II days in the local Jewish “Palace,” the Hotel Modern, to the Rue Saint Paul where poor Jews made a living hawking “alte sachen, alte shiech” (old clothes, old shoes).

Today, it is a sentimental memory to which people return to try and remember how their parents or their grandparents once lived when they first arrived in France from somewhere east –Poland, Rumania, Russia.

The “Pletzel” is a maze of narrow alleys and winding streets, far from the glitter of the Champs Elysees or the skyscrapers which line the ranks of the River Seine. It is filled with dark courtyards, where the sun rarely shines, and small, modest shops.

In its center, La rue des Rosiers, where terrorists struck two weeks a go killing six people and wounding 22, there still are half a dozen kosher butchers, a Hebrew bookshop, two or three Jewish restaurants and an old woman who sells on Fridays the traditional “chalot.”

In between the remaining Jews, live and work Paris’ new poor: immigrants from North Africa and Spain. The shoemaker who resoles the shoes and boots of the neighborhood’s residents, is from Portugal; the locksmith is from Auvergne, France’s poorest province.

The Pletzel is a museum, and Jo Goldenberg’s restaurant, with its hot pastrami and chicken soup, is its main exhibit. The restaurant was also the scene of the terrorist attack.

THEY COME TO KILL A DREAM

“People could not live if they did not know their roots,” says an old Jew who has lived here since before the war. “The rich Jews, those who now live in the posh sections, and have villas in the country, spend their holidays on the Coted’ Azur and drive big Mercedes, they all have to come back here from time to time, where it all started, to remember who they are.”

The old man, a regular client at Goldenberg’s, comes in every day with his copy of the local Yiddish paper, “Unser Wort,” to drink a glass or two of vodka. He has his own theory of why the killers struck on the Rue des Rosiers.

‘They did not come to kill Jews. They could have found more”Jews and easier to hit in the center of the city or in the Jewish suburbs, like Sarcelles or Plessy. They came to kill a dream. Yes monsieur, a dream. They wanted to erase the past. They want us to be just like them, people with no past and no future.”

FILLED WITH PAST HISTORY

The Pletzel is filled with past history. Jews first started settling in what was then a suburb of medieval Paris back in the 11th century, and after Philip Augustus expelled the Jews from France they returned to the area in 1198.

The Rue des Rosiers was named at the time “La rue des Juifs,” the street of the Jews, and on the site of the synagogue, where President Francois Mitterrand came to attend services for the victims two weeks ago, stood a famous yeshiva where in the early days of the 13th century. Yudah Ben Isaac, known as Sir Leon of Paris, used to teach.

The Pletzel is Jewish history. Every street, every corner, is somehow linked with the past. After the Jews were definitely expelled from France in 1394, the Pletzel emptied itself as if leprosy had struck. The streets were barely inhabited till the early part of the 18th century when the rich Jewish businessmen from Metz and Alsace started returning.

By royal permission, they could at first just spend the night in the capital “if necessary,” and the first Jewish inns opened. The first Paris inn serving kosher food officially opened in 1721 not far from where Goldenberg’s eatery now stands. The first synagogue, officially recognized as such, opened in 1788 as the French Revolution was already brewing.

The following year, after the fall of the Bastille, Paris’ Jews, not more than 500 souls at the time, appealed to the revolutionary parliament, the Constituent Assembly, to be recognized as full French citizens and inhabitants of Paris. On January 28, 1790 their petition was granted and not far from the Rue des Rosiers, on the Rue du Roi de Sicile, where Meir’s Inn stood at the time, the Jews gathered to drink “lechaim” and to sing “La Marseillaise.”

VAST NUMBER OF EAST EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS

It was from the start of the 19th century that the Pletzel started to grow as more and more Jewish emigrants arrived. Every morning, the night trains from Eastern Europe, Russia, Rumania, and the Slav Provinces of Austria, used to stop at the “Gare de 1 ‘Est” and a human mass of poor, unshaven and unwashed Jews would disembark.

The Pletzel was only a short walk from the station. Many of them settled near the Place de la Republique which in popular speech became “The” Pletzel, the place where the rich Jews, or those on their way up –the doctors, the lawyers, the prosperous shopkeepers–lived.

The Dreyfus affair in the early 1890′s was their first shock. The widespread anti-Semitism provoked by Edouard Adolphe Drumont, the leading spokesman of French anti-Semitism under the Third Republic, was their second shock. Neither, however, affected the mass immigration which reached its peak between the two world wars.

It was in the 1930′s, despite the threat rising in Nazi Germany, that the Pletzel Jew felt at his best. France was prosperous and the Jewish community’s standard of living improved fast, even faster than that of the majority of France’s inhabitants. They also could fully live and express their Jewishness.

In the Pletzel kiosks, half a dozen Yiddish dailies were on sale, Jewish pastry shops lined the area’s chic avenue, Boulevard de la Republique, and two Jewish theaters played for full houses. The elegant and the rich used to meet for tea at the Hotel Modern, where political meetings were also held.

THE DREAM TURNS TO NIGHTMARE

The dream was shattered with the outbreak of the war — it turned into a nightmare on July 16, 1942 when the French police, acting on the Nazis’ orders, started their big roundup. Some 12,384 people, including some 4,000 children, were arrested and deported to Maidanek. Most of the arrests were carried out in the Jewish Pletzel where the poor and middle class still lived.

It was there, where every building housed dozens of Jewish families, that the police came at night. The hunting ground, in this huge concentration of Jews, was the best. Slowly, as the war dragged on, and more and more people were arrested and deported, the Pletzel started to empty itself. By the end of the war, only a few thousand Jewish families remained, many in hiding. The survivors came back. Many returned to their former homes, tried to find their former businesses, to renew their lives. The spell was broken, however. The Pletzel was never to be again what it had been.

As life returned to normal and the Jews became re-integrated into the country, many left their former homes for richer or better surroundings.

In the early 1950′s and 1960′s North African Jews started arriving, but again they opted for other areas where their families already lived: Belleville, in the north of Paris; the Rue de Faubourg Montmartre, where many Israeli yordim also settled; or the outlying suburbs where modern, state-subsidized housing was available, with modern bathrooms and central heating.

It is only near the Place de la Republique that many Jews still live, but here, too, life has changed. The old kiosks with the Yiddish papers have disappeared. The Jewish theaters have closed down, and even the Hotel Modern has this year been converted into Paris’ new Holiday Ion with air-conditioned rooms and a hamburger cafeteria.

To the south of the formerly Jewish area remains a typically Jewish business districts La Rue du Sentier, the heart of the garment district. Thousands of Jewish-owned shops and small factories, where the clothes which have made Paris fashion famous all over the world are designed and sewn, are located here.

Behind the labels of famous couturiers and fashion houses, are the men who once lived and worked in the Pletzel. From time to time they get into their big black cars to drive round the corner and get back to the past.

Jo Goldenberg’s restaurant was such a jump into time — a jump into an era when the Pletzel was filled and bursting with Jews who thought they never had it so good.

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