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The Unexpected Jewish Heritage of France

PARIS, FRANCE—While we all recognize Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermès, as household names, not many people know that France has the world’s third largest Jewish population, that it boasts some of the best preserved synagogues in Europe, and that its art and culture owe a tremendous debt to wealthy Jewish benefactors as well as to such emigré artists as Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, and Osip Zadkine.

Today, France is home to over a million Jews out of a population of 65 million citizens, and yet many of those Jews, whether they are Sephardic or Ashkenazic, have no idea that the art collections, institutions and real estate they take for granted would not exist without the hard work and dedication of Jewish philanthropists, financiers and entrepreneurs.

When Jewish visitors travel to France, we love to show them the 13th century representations of Jewish scholars and rabbis on the right portal of Notre Dame Cathedral, as well as the gilded stone names of Jewish composers on the façade of the Paris Opéra Garnier, such as Jacques Offenbach, who wrote the “Tales of Hoffman” and “La Vie Parisienne” the latter a celebration of the glamourous 19th century French Gilded Age.

If our guests travel to and from London via the Gare du Nord train station on the Eurostar, they are always surprised to discover that Baron James de Rothschild financed the magnificent train station in the 19th century. They are even more taken aback when they learn that many of the most beloved Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings hanging in the Orsay Museum, including celebrated works by Degas, Renoir, Monet, and Manet, were donated by Isaac de Camondo, a wealthy Jewish financier, who had the discernment to collect and donate them when these talents were to the French state at a time when these “refusés” were being treated as rejects by the conservative bourgeois establishment.

Yet, it was the very acceptance and integration of those early pioneers in French art collections, that later spurred such Jewish émigré artists as Amadeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipschitz, Jules Pascin, and Osip Zadkine, to flee the hardship of Belorussia and set off for the Left Bank of Paris, which until the outbreak of World War Two, was the center of the art world. Known as the School of Paris, these same artists’ works now figure prominently in major French museums. In the case of Chagall and Zadkine, who generously gave a major body of their work to French art institutions, they each have museums named after them.

Not to be overlooked are the Jewish financiers such as Rothschild, Fould, Cahen-D’Anvers, Camondo and Ephrussi, who amassed stunning Old Masters and decorative arts collections which they generously bequeathed to the Louvre, the Museum of Decorative Arts, as well as Versailles. In fact, the very year that Colonel Alfred Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s Island for alleged treason, these Jewish scions establishised “Les Amis du Louvre” to show how much they wanted to contribute to the glorious heritage of France. It was their way of demonstrating their undying faith in their adopted country.

Today, as you admire the Apollo Gallery of Jewels in the world’s largest museum, as you visit the magnificent Villa Kérylos –a copy of a 5th century Athenian villa commissioned by statesman and archaeologist Theodore Reinach—and stroll through the seven magnificent gardens created for the Villa Ephrussi-Rothschild, it is clear that part of France’s glorious heritage is intimately bound up with the dazzling contributions made by its Jewish citizens.

But as with all Jewish experience, tragedy is never far away. The oldest memorial to the Holocaust, is in Paris: the Shoah Memorial with its wall of names, documenting the 78,000 men, women and children who were deported by the German occupant with the collaboration of the Vichy Police. It may come as a surprise to learn that this painstaking record-keeping on the part of the Jewish Resistance was started in the middle of World War Two in occupied France, to ensure that the Holocaust would never be forgotten and would serve as a lesson for future generations. Today, it is part of the French curriculum that all school children regardless of background or faith, visit this unique institution.

Located in the heart of the Marais district, the Shoah Memorial leads to one of the most joyous and dynamic streets in Paris—the rue des Rosiers—where you can find falafel as delectable as any you’ll find in Tel Aviv, kosher bakeries featuring pastries whose recipes could just as easily come from Algeria or the shtetls of Russia, and even kosher chocolates and macarons from an acclaimed confectioner.

But don’t think you have to limit your discovery of Jewish heritage to Paris and the French Riviera: the next time you have a chance to visit France, be sure to explore the charming Alsatian villages with ancient Jewish cemeteries and synagogues on the outskirts of Strasbourg, or spend some time discovering Jewish Provence and its evocative ancient synagogues in Carpentras and Cavaillon.

With the first Jews arriving with Caesar’s army in 52 BC, to the Jews who arrived from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, you will find that France’s Jewish culture and history is both complex and enriching, surprising and unique. And its story is still being written today, waiting for people from all over to discover and appreciate it.

Rachel Kaplan is the author of six books including Little-known Museums in and around Paris, and is the founder-president of European Jewish Heritage Tours (


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