Paris has a long and complicated Jewish history. Home to large and diverse Jewish communities from the Middle Ages onward, the French capital still bears the triumphs—and painful scars—of hundreds of years of culture, art, achievement, and terrible persecution. Keep reading for nine places to visit when you want to deepen your knowledge of how Jews have lived, worked, and created in the capital through the centuries.
Your tour of Jewish Paris begins in the heart of the Marais district and the area around Rue des Rosiers, also known as the "Pletzl" (a Yiddish term meaning "district" or "neighborhood.") Get off at Metro Saint-Paul (Line 1) and walk three blocks to the area.
Jewish communities have thrived in the district from at least the medieval period, and the present-day abundance of restaurants, bakeries, bookshops, and synagogues in the area is a testament to that tradition. Enjoy a falafel or traditional Yiddish babka in one of the pletzl's always-crowded eateries, and browse books or other items in one of the shops on Rue des Rosiers or Rue des Ecouffes.
It's also important to take in the moving plaques outside the area's schools, which pay somber tribute to Jewish children and former students deported to death camps during World War II. One of the most prominent of these can be found on the Rue des Hospitalières-Saint-Gervais, a pedestrian street just off of Rue des Rosiers.
Sadly, you can find such plaques outside schools in many Parisian neighborhoods—especially in the 10th, 11th, 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements (city districts), where large numbers of French Jewish citizens lived before 1940. On a more hopeful note, those communities have been rebuilt, and thrive once again. Nevertheless, the plaques remind us never to forget.
The Shoah Memorial invites visitors on an emotional and in-depth exploration of the event known as the Holocaust: the systematic murder of Jews by Nazi Germany that ended with the death of some six million individuals across Europe.
Inaugurated in 2005 on the site of the Memorial of the Unknown Jewish Martyr (itself opened in 1956), the Mémorial de la Shoah houses one of Europe's largest collections of artifacts and archives related to the Holocaust. To enter the exhibit, visitors must pass through a memorial area known as the "Wall of Names," a series of tall panels that list the names of the 76,000 French Jews deported from France to concentration and death camps between 1942 and 1944. Eleven thousand were children, and only around 2,500 people survived.
The free, permanent exhibit on the ground floor holds a dense collection of multimedia archives, from letters to video footage, radio broadcasts, and newspaper clippings to family photos, to document the persecution and murder of French and European Jews during the Shoah. There's a moving focus on individual lives, which makes it challenging to depersonalize the unthinkable events. While much of the exhibit is in French, many displays have been translated into English. We recommend the free audio guide to appreciate the collection fully.
Entry to the memorial site and its permanent and temporary exhibits is free for all.
Another essential stop is the Museum of Jewish Art and History, the city's most important collection related to Jewish cultural, religious, intellectual, and artistic practices.
The permanent collection holds over 700 works of art and artifacts, including religious and archeological items. It traces the history of Jewish civilizations and cultural practices from antiquity to the present day, with a focus on various European diasporas and on the development of French Jewish cultures and communities over the centuries.
In addition to the permanent exhibit, temporary shows at the museum focus on key Jewish artists, cultural movements, and historical periods. Recent shows have highlighted the work of musician George Gershwin and the wartime photography of Adolfo Kaminsky, who participated in the forgery of identity documents to aid the French Resistance during World War II.
Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue
This historic synagogue located at 10 Rue Pavée is situated, like many important Jewish sites in Paris, in the Marais district. Inaugurated in 1914, It was designed by renowned French architect Hector Guimard a year earlier and features a facade with distinctively modern, art-deco elements. Guimard is best-known for having designed many of Paris' most elaborate Metro (subway) entrances.
It was commissioned by a local community of Orthodox Jews, mostly of Eastern European, Polish and Russian origin, following a wave of immigration from the area to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century.
Inside, ornate furnishings such as chandeliers and benches are also the design of Guimard.
The synagogue remains an important place of worship in Paris and was deemed a historic monument by the French government in 1989. It has also seen periods of tragedy: on the evening of Yom Kippur in 1941, during the French occupation by Nazi Germany, it was dynamited alongside six other synagogues in the capital.
Marking one of the most tragic and shameful moments in Parisian history, this memorial site commemorates the some 13,000 French Jews—including women and children—who were arrested by local police in July 1942 and temporarily held at the Velodrome d'Hiver sports stadium.
Detained by police acting under orders of occupying German authorities, these innocent Parisians were later deported directly eastward to the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz, or imprisoned at the Drancy camp outside Paris before being sent to the death camps. At the Velodrome d'Hiver, they would first endure the terror of being held in inhumane conditions inside the stadium, mostly ignorant of what was to come.
A memorial plaque was placed at the site following World War II. Still, the French government only began to genuinely acknowledge the French state's collaboration in Nazi terror in the mid-1990s, unveiling a full memorial at the site of the (since-destroyed) Velodrome in July 1994. A ceremony remembering the victims of the "rafle du Vel d'Hiv" (the Velodrome d'Hiver roundup) is held at the monument each July. The French President and other officials generally attend.
This theatre in the smack-center of the city at Place du Chatelet is forever tied to legendary actress and theatre producer Sarah Bernhardt. Widely considered to be one of the 19th century's most celebrated performers in France, Bernhardt was a French Jewish citizen whose bold performances and immense talent for self-promotion appears very much ahead of its time.
Her memorable, bold roles in plays from "La Tosca" to "Hamlet" (she played the title role in Shakespeare's play) earned her a permanent place in France's pantheon of stars.
After Bernhardt took over the theatre as a producer in the late 19th century, the theater—first opened in 1860—was renamed in her honor. Following her death in 1923, her son Maurice continued to operate it. However, when Nazi Germany occupied France during World War II, anti-semitic officials changed the theatre's name owing to Bernhardt's Jewish heritage.
Today, a restaurant located right at the corner of the square, Le Sarah Bernhardt, continues to pay homage to the performer.
Deportation Memorial (Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation)
This memorial site is situated in close reach of Notre Dame Cathedral on the Seine-River "island" known as the Ile de la Cité. It honors the more than 200,000 people deported to Nazi concentration camps by collaborationist Vichy France during World War II, including thousands of Jewish men, women, and children.
Inaugurated in 1962 by then-President Charles de Gaulle (who had led the French Resistance from exile in London), the memorial was built on the site of a former underground morgue. Its modernist design is the work of architect Georges-Henri Pingusson; the walls feature quotes from notable French writers, some of whom were deported to camps during the war.
Shaped like the prow of a ship, the memorial crypt can be accessed via two stairways. The crypt itself leads to two chapels containing the remains of victims from European concentration camps. The design is intentionally claustrophobic and is meant to represent the terror and imprisonment of deportees.
While many have critiqued the memorial for not explicitly addressing the deportation and murder of French Jews by Nazi Germany and the French collaborationist government, it remains an important site in the capital. Entrance is free for all.
Built starting in 1861, the stunning Palais Garnier (also known as the Opera Garnier) is considered a triumph of Beaux-Arts architecture from the mid-19th century. But unless you take a tour of the interiors or manage to snag coveted tickets for a performance from the National Ballet there, you'll miss one of the building's stunning details: a ceiling painting from Marc Chagall.
Chagall, a Franco-Russian artist of Jewish faith, was commissioned to create the fresco in 1960, replacing an older decorative painting that had fallen out of fashion.
Considered avant-garde for its time, the painting features 12 panels that depict master composers throughout the ages, rendered in brilliant, prismatic colors. It was unveiled in 1964 and has since become a treasured feature of the Opera Garnier, even though it came much later than the original building. Chagall signed and dated the painting, but refused to accept payment for the work.
While this important memorial site is situated outside of the Paris city limits, a trip here is highly recommended if you want to fully appreciate the persecution of France's Jewish communities during the Shoah.
A sculpture in three parts stands on a raised platform. The central sculpture depicts agonizing figures curled around one another, while the two panels surrounding symbolize the doors of death. Behind it, a symbolic railway leads to a cattle car—the exact French model used to transport thousands of Jews from the Parisian region to Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere.
The rousing memorial was inaugurated in 1976. Why is it located here to begin with? Just beyond lies a nondescript series of buildings that continues to be used for housing residents of Drancy. But between 1941 and 1944, nearly 63,000 Jews of over 50 nationalities were detained here before being deported eastward to death camps. The site was once surrounded by double rows of barbed wire and guarded by collaborationist French police.
The memorial site and documentation center across the street together tell the story of the prisoners held at the Drancy detainment center, including hundreds of children. Letters, photos, videos, panels of graffiti extracted from the walls of the detainment center, and other multimedia artifacts allow visitors to grasp the fear and suffering experienced by victims—the vast majority of whom remained unaware of the horrors to come.
To get to the memorial, take Metro line 5 to Bobigny-Pablo Picasso, then local bus 251 to the Place du 19 mars 1962 stop. Walk two blocks to the memorial and the museum across the street (look for a glass facade with tall windows).
Alternatively, the Mémorial de la Shoah offers free shuttle buses from the main site in central Paris to Drancy, most Sundays in the month. Shuttles depart at 2 p.m. and return to Paris at 5 p.m. The visit includes a free guided tour of the Drancy memorial site.