PARIS – His hands trembled when Benjamin* saw a letter his son-in-law received, stamped with the letterhead of the government offices of Paris’ fourth administrative district.
In fact he trembled all over, so much that he had to sit down.
It turned out the letter was just asking his son-in-law to renew his driver’s license. But it took the rest of the day for the 90-year-old Jewish man to recover from just the sight of the letterhead.
It was too much like the letter that summoned him away from his home 70 years ago during the Holocaust and landed him in a German concentration camp for five years. When he returned home, most of his family was dead.
Seven decades have passed, but the memory is still fresh for the Jewish grandfather.
“Sometimes it’s easy for us to think about the Holocaust in terms of, ‘That was a long time ago. That kind of prejudice doesn’t still exist,’” said Richard Hall*, a social scientist familiar with Jewish history. “But actually we are still in a generation when people can tell their children that the reason they aren’t allowed to wear striped pajamas is because their grandma or grandpa had to wear them in prison camps. The memory isn’t far removed at all.”
Photo by Michael Logan
For eight years, Baptists from the United States have cleaned Jewish cemeteries in Poland as a way to show love to Jews and rebuild relationships. The cemeteries have fallen in serious disrepair in the decades since the Holocaust.
And if that were not enough for Jews in Paris, there’s a message just for them carved into the front of the city’s imposing Notre Dame Cathedral, right in the heart of the city’s fourth district.
It’s been there 1,000 years. Ships 20 miles away on the Seine River could see it. Tourists from all over the world have their photo made in front of it.
The message is a statue called Synagogua, and it portrays the Jewish community as “damaged goods,” Hall said. Synagogua is a woman with a broken staff, broken tablets and a snake wrapped around her eyes to indicate she’s been blinded by evil.
She sits on the front of the cathedral opposite the statue Iglesia, a strong, stately crown-wearing woman representing the Christian church.
“For 1,000 years, the front of Notre Dame has been a billboard to the Jews of what Christians think of them,” Hall said. “That’s a hard message to overcome.” Especially, he said, when Christians seem to be oblivious to the fact that messages like that are still being presented today.
But John Simmons* is one person trying to turn some of those messages around by a simple act. He travels from his home in the U.S. to Europe to take care of Jewish cemeteries. There, he and his friends work on walls, pull weeds and clean headstones.
“To honor the dead is a very high good deed for the Jews, so to do that for them is a message of love,” Simmons said. “We just want to show love, to see the Jews and the Christians reconciled. We are pulling the weeds of injustice, of the things that happened, so the land can be renewed and restored and relationships can be reconciled.”
It’s something Christians should be aware of and working to overcome, Simmons said.
“We are just showing the love of Christ,” he said. “That is first and foremost.”
A six-minute documentary (http://vimeo.com/45358520) on Jews in Paris is available for individuals and churches that want to know how they can be more sensitive and show love to Jewish friends and neighbors.
“As Christians, we sincerely want to make the love of Jesus Christ visible to Jewish people,” Hall said. “Yet to do so means that we must now express His love in a way that speaks more loudly than the long history of hatred and distrust which Christians and Jews have inherited from the past.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ava Thomas is an International Mission Board writer and editor based in Europe.)