CHESTERTOWN—Dr. Gary Schiff, an adjunct professor of history at Washington College, will present a slide-lecture on his recent trip to study the Jewish communities of France on Thursday evening, November 11, at 5:30 p.m. in Hynson Lounge, located in Hodson Hall on the College campus. Entitled “In Search of Tsarfat: Seeking Jewish Roots in La Belle France,” the talk is free and open to the public.
Jews have been living in France (Tsarfat is the Hebrew name for the country) since Roman times. Numbering more than 600,000 today and living in all parts of the country, French Jews constitute the largest Jewish community on the European continent.
Schiff visited a wide array of communities on his trip this past summer. He researched and photographed synagogues and other Jewish sites in the largest cities—Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg, and Marseilles. And he trekked to smaller towns like Troyes, Montpellier, Avignon and Pezenas where, during the Middle Ages, Jews sometimes lived in walled ghettoes. “I was amazed that Troyes, the capital of the Champagne region and home to the renowned 11th century Jewish scholar Rashi, still looks like a medieval town,” he observes. “It still has period half-timbered houses, Gothic towers and cobblestone streets only a few feet wide. Nor has the 14th century Jewish ‘juiverie,’ or ghetto, in the walled town of Pezenas in the South of France changed very much physically either. Both seem frozen in time.”
In his talk, Schiff will share the ways in which France was heroic and democratic in its treatment of the Jews, and also how it fell into tragic anti-Semitism. During its own Revolution, in 1791, France was the first country to specifically grant equal rights to all Jews. In appreciation, the design and décor of many synagogues reflect a patriotic devotion to the country, says Schiff. An example is found over the main entrance to the original Great Synagogue of Paris, built in 1819, he notes, where the usual Biblical Hebrew phrase of greeting is replaced by “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there have been waves of destructive prejudice. The trial of Army Captain Albert Dreyfus, who was convicted of treason in 1894 but later exonerated, led to decades-long hostility toward Jews among many French. And under the Nazis, the Vichy government participated in the same persecution and genocide of the Jews that took place throughout Europe. About a quarter of France’s Jews, or 77,000 people, died in the Holocaust.
Schiff’s historical tour stopped at the sites of major concentration camps and also at smaller places that played a role in the Jews’ history, such as a chateau in the remote mountain village of Izieu where 44 Jewish children were hidden for a year before being arrested and sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.
This will be the fourth in Schiff’s series of public lectures on his visits to historic Jewish communities in Europe. Previous trips and talks focused on Spain, Germany and Poland. His experiences in Poland will be documented in a book that is scheduled to be published in 2011 by the Peter Lang Publishing Company under the imprint of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics and Society at Washington College.
Image: Dr. Gary Schiff, wearing his George Washington style sunglasses, poses in front of the Arc de Triomph in Paris.