What is it about those bullet holes that beckon the boys to touch them?
It’s our twin teens’ first trip to Paris. Thirteen-year-olds with attention spans shrunk by YouTube and Xbox, Luis and Andres lack patience for strolling the Louvre and have little awe for landmarks. (Luis’ reaction upon his first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower: “It’s a TV antenna.”)
But they have a fascination with World War II shaped by hours of History Channel gazing. So, my wife Cristina and I thought, maybe the streets of Paris could be our museum.
“There was a lot of fighting along here,” Thierry Heil tells us. He’s a professor of French language and civilization who leads small cultural tours of Paris. His tour, “Lights Out: Paris Under the Occupation,” through Philadelphia-based Context Travel, had enough gunfights to win approval from the kids, but he promised a glimpse of ordinary life under Nazi occupation that we thought might be more educational.
The timing was perfect. The 70th anniversary of D-Day had just passed. And the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day was just around the corner: May 8.
Heil, 42, leads us along the Rue de Rivoli past the Tuileries, better known for manicured lawns than mortar holes. Look for signs of plastered-over bullet holes, he tells us. Sure enough, patchwork abounds on the walls. But one wall was left unrepaired. “As a remembrance,” Heil says.
Luis and Andres worm their fingers into the cavities. I resist pointing out the naughty graffiti strategically spray-painted around them.
“There’s no bullet,” Luis concludes.
I remember doing the same at their age when I’d visit Civil War sites as a boy growing up near Gettysburg, Pa. It’s not really about looking for a piece of old lead. It’s seeking a connection with a moment of history impossible to imagine.
How could two 21st century boys understand that 74 years earlier, the glamorous street where we’re standing was hung with long red banners bearing swastikas?
But in the summer of 1944, the tide of the war was turning. The Allies had stormed the beaches of Normandy. The French Resistance emerged from the shadows. On August 19, Paris took aim at its occupiers.
To touch those bullet holes was to try to touch that moment.
Heil is tall and thin with dark curly hair, and he’s cool enough to hold the attention of a pair of teens who travel with a pop music soundtrack in their earbuds. He wears a brown suede jacket with epaulets, dark jeans, black shoes and Ray Ban sunglasses, which he takes on and off as he shows us historical photographs on his iPad Mini along the walk.
“You’ve probably heard of a guy called Hitler?” he asks.
Of course they have. But Philippe Petain? Not so much.
Through the iPad, Marshall Petain looks out as us from the past with cold eyes and a mustache that curls at the ends. A World War I hero, Heil explains, Petain went on to lead France’s collaborationist government. He doubted France could beat Hitler.
“We have this word in French. It means ‘worse than defeat,’” he says. “For the first time in its history, Paris falls without fighting.”
By the end of 1940, Jews were barred from many professions—doctors, lawyers, journalists. By 1942, they were forced to wear yellow stars. In July 1942, a two-day roundup sent 12,500 Jews to a velodrome, one of Paris’ popular cycling racetracks, to await their fate.
About 76,000 Jews were rounded up, Heil says, and taken to Auschwitz where some of the most horrific deeds of the 20th century awaited them.
Heil’s iPad shows a photo of two French girls standing on a street. “You see these two girls?” he asks. “You see that star there?”
It looked like a scene from Nazi Germany.
Heil leads us on. To a covered arcade of shops where shopkeepers were rounded up and taken away. To the Place de L’Opera, where Hitler himself took in a performance. To the Hotel Ritz, where high-ranking Nazis lived in luxury. Across the open plaza of the Place Vendome, with its towering verdigris column erected by Napoleon at the center, hid the Resistance headquarters.
“Here we are in one of the most magnificent squares in Paris,” Heil says.
Faces carved from the white stone buildings overlook arched doorways for Dior and Chanel, keeping their secrets silent.
“There was a lot of resistance,” Heil says. “And lots of collaboration.”
When he leads us to the Rue de Rivoli, he points out a monument at the edge of the Tuileries. It pays tribute to 10 men and women who died near here in the August 25 battles. Their names are etched on stone plaques. Private Antonio Lopez-Ros, of the 3rd Marching Regiment of Chad. Madeleine Brinet, ?a Red Cross Nurse. Guy Lecompte, of the ?Resistance. They’re adorned with flowers and flags.
At the Place de la Concorde, a gray stone wall is riddled with 70-year-old bullet holes.
“Look at that,” he says. “Those are traces of the liberation of Paris.”
On his iPad, Germans surrender just yards from where we stand. Parisians pose on top of vanquished tanks in front of Notre Dame.
Andres studies one of the holes in the wall. Luis analyzes another.
“It’s almost the size of my hand,” Luis says.
I can’t resist the urge to touch it, too, and see if it still vibrates from that decades-old impact. I put my fingers in the bullet holes alongside them. Like standing with a seashell to my ear, I can almost hear the sounds of gunfire.
But when we turn and face the street, the swastika banners are gone. The mortar rounds stop echoing. The City of Light is free.
David Frey is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.