The hidden history that tells of Paris’ brutal and bloody WWII occupation

Scattered throughout Paris are hundreds of memorials, often small and inconspicuous, that tell the remarkable and heart-breaking story of the city under occupation during World War II. Diana Liu finds out more.

The hidden history that tells of Paris' brutal and bloody WWII occupation
One of the many hundreds of memorials that dot the city of Paris. All photos: Diana Liu

Some mark the spot where heroic Resistance fighters fell during the bloody days of summer 1944 when the city was finally liberated, while others mark the streets, homes and schools of the tens of thousands of people who were deported and killed during the four years of occupation.

The first memorials, in the form of flower bouquets or commemorations written on walls, went up shortly after the city’s hard-won freedom.

City officials began to receive numerous requests for commemorative plaques dedicated to resistance fighters, soldiers of the French 2nd Armored Division, nurses, teachers, and Jewish residents who lost their lives during the war.

Now, discreetly affixed in front of schools, apartments, and even in the Metro, these plaques (which total around 200) represent an integral part of the capital’s historic landscape and communal remembrance.

Here is a small selection.

1. Place Saint Michel

This pair of plaques is tucked away to the right of la Fontaine Saint Michel, an ornate neoclassical monument that welcomes visitors crossing the river from the Right Bank. The top plaque features a declaration by General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the exiled Free French Forces government operating from London, exhorting the French to persist in the fight for liberty. 

The bottom plaque commemorates Robert Gauthier, a 21-year-old student active in the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI) – the formal title used by Charles de Gaulle to designate the various groups of resistance fighters throughout occupied France – who “died a glorious death” liberating Paris on August 21st 1994.

2. 60 boulevard Saint Michel

In front of the prestigious École des Mines near the Luxemburg Gardens are two sandstone-coloured plaques affixed to a wall punctured with bullet holes. The top plaque commemorates two major conflicts that took place within the school’s vicinity – overnight German air raids on January 20th 1918 (at the tail end of World War I), and the last day of Paris’ battle for liberation on August 25th 1944.

The bottom plaque honours 24-year-old FFI member Jean Montvallier-Boulogne, who was fighting alongside soldiers in General Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division. The young man was lobbing grenades at the Germans when the opposing army retaliated with sub-machine guns.

3. Ecole élémentaire Récollets, 19 passage des Récollets

Located on a quiet street not too far from the Canal Saint-Martin, this memorial pays hommage to the Jewish schoolchildren deported from the 10th arrondissement.

More than 500 children from this district of Paris alone were, “victims of Nazi barbarism and the Vichy government (the authoritarian French regime which administrated the country and collaborated with Nazi Germany following the Third Republic’s surrender in 1940)”, and were deported and exterminated in death camps between 1942 and 1944.

4. Jardin des Rosiers-Joseph Migneret, 10 rue des Rosiers

The Jardin des Rosiers-Joseph Migneret, a garden hidden in the heart of the Marais, is named for Joseph Migneret, an elementary school principal and resistance fighter who sheltered students threatened with deportation.

The plaque memorialises the 11,400 Jewish children deported from France between 1942 and 1944 and murdered at Auschwitz. 500 of these children, the inscription notes, lived in the 4th arrondissement, and 100 of the youngest never even had a chance to attend school.

The plaque exhorts the passerby to read the names of these 100 “little ones”, as “your memory is their sole resting place”.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

5. Gare d’Austerlitz

Few of the passengers who board a train at Gare d’Austerlitz are aware of the station’s role as a roundup point to deport Paris’ Jewish population during the Vichy Regime.

This plaque informs passengers that more than 10,000 Jews (4,000 of whom were children) were arrested in the Paris area by the Vichy-controlled French police force. They were gathered at Gare d’Austerlitz to be transported to internment camps, before being deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

6. Lycée Victor Hugo, 27 Rue de Sévigné

Outside of the Lycée Victor Hugo school, this plaque commemorates the “more than 11,000 children who were deported from France by the Nazis with the active participation of the French government of Vichy and killed due to being born Jewish”.

The school lobby (not open to visitors) houses another plaque that commemorates by name the students deported from the Lycée during the war.

7. Quai de Montebello in front of Notre Dame

In a scenic location along the quay perfect for a selfie with the battered but still majestic Notre Dame, this unassuming memorial doesn’t get much attention next to the cathedral.

However, this plaque commemorates a chapter of the city’s history that’s just as significant – the military and street battles of the Liberation of Paris between August 19th and 24th, 1944, and the members of the 5th arrondissement’s Front National who fell defending their city. 

It’s important to note that the Front National referred to on this plaque is not the far-right political party found by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972. The 1944 Front National (full name Front National de lutte pour la libération et l’indépendence de la France) was a resistance movement founded by members of the French Communist Party.

Members engaged in acts of sabotage against German and Vichy regimes and helped and sheltered those threatened with arrest or deportation.

8. 4 bis Rue des Rosiers

A popular stop on historical tours of Paris’ traditional Jewish neighbourhood of Marais is this plaque, affixed to the entrance of the École de Travail apprenticeship school on Rue des Rosiers. It commemorates the establishment’s principal, staff, and students who were arrested by Nazi German and Vichy police and deported to their death in Auschwitz. 

9. 137 boulevard de l’Hôpital

Affixed to the entrance of a quaint apartment complex in the 13th arrondissement, this plaque commemorates ten of its Jewish former inhabitants, ranging from a nine-month-old baby to a 58-year-old, who were deported and killed at Auschwitz.

The plaque also memorialises Robert Andrezowsky, a resistance fighter who was shot to death by the Nazis at Vincennes (in the suburbs of Paris) in 1944, following a string of German arrests of FFI members through the east of Paris.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

10. Musée d’Orsay at La Place Henry-de-Montherlant

Many have strolled by the Musée d’Orsay’s grandiose facade without noticing this plaque, which describes the former train station’s use as a major welcome and repatriation centre for victims of Nazism between April and August 1945, at the end of the war.

On the quays facing the Seine, doctors, nurses, and members of the Red Cross fed the returning survivors and tended to patients.

General de Gaulle ordered the requisition of L’Hôtel Lutetia on Boulevard Raspail, the former headquarters of the Gestapo. There, survivors were nursed back to health and, if possible, reunited with their families.


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Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Asterix is hitting the box offices again, so to celebrate here's a look at France's most treasured hero.

Asterix: Five things to know about France's favourite character

If you have walked past a bus stop anywhere in France in recent weeks, then you have likely run into film posters advertising Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom.

Starring high-profile French actors Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, France’s film industry is hoping that this film, capitalising on France’s nostalgic relationship with the comic series “Asterix” will bring box office success.

The Asterix comic book series was first published in 1959, and tells the story of a small Gallic village on the coast of France that is attempting to defend itself from invaders, namely the Romans. Asterix, the hero of the series, manages to always save the day, helping his fellow Gauls keep the conquerors at bay.

As the beloved Gaulish hero makes his way back onto the big screen, here are five things you should know about France’s cherished series:

Asterix is seen as the ‘every day’ Frenchman

“Asterix brings together all of the identity-based clichés that form the basis of French culture”, Nicolas Rouvière, researcher at the University of Grenoble-Alps and expert in French comics, told AFP in an interview in 2015.

READ MORE: Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

The expert wrote in his 2014 book “Obelix Complex” that “the French like to look at themselves in this mirror [of the Asterix series], which reflects their qualities and shortcomings in a caricatured and complacent way”.

Oftentimes, the French will invoke Asterix – the man who protected France from the Roman invaders – when expressing their resistance toward something, whether that is imported, American fast food or an unpopular government reform.

The front page of French leftwing newspaper Libération shows President Emmanuel Macron as a Roman while Asterix and his team are the French people protesting against pension reform.

The figure of ‘a Gaul’ is a popular mascot for French sports teams, and you’ll even see people dressed up as Asterix on demos. 

A man dressed as Asterix the Gaul with a placard reading “Gaul, Borne breaks our balls” during a protest over the government’s proposed pension reform, in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Asterix is the second best-selling comic series

The series has had great success in France since it was first launched in 1959, originally as Astérix le Gaulois. It has also been popular across much of Europe, as the series often traffics in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of other European nations – for example, caricaturing the English as fans of lukewarm beer and tasteless foods.

Over the years, Asterix has been translated into more than 100 languages, with at least 375 million copies sold worldwide.

It remains the second best-selling comic series in the world, after the popular manga “One Piece”.

There is an Asterix theme park 

The French love Asterix so much that they created a theme park, located just 22 miles north of Paris, in the comic series’ honour in 1989.

The park receives up to two million visitors a year, making it the second most visited theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris. With over 40 attractions and six themed sections, inspired by the comic books, the park brings both young and old visitors each year. 

READ MORE: Six French ‘bandes dessinées’ to start with

The first French satellite was named after Asterix

As Asterix comes from the Greek word for ‘little star’, the French though it would be apt to name their first satellite, launched in 1965 after the Gaulish warrior.

As of 2023, the satellite was still orbiting the earth and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

Asterix’ co-authors were from immigrant backgrounds

Here’s become the ‘ultimate Frenchman’, but both creators of the Asterix series were second-generation French nationals, born in France in the 1920s to immigrant parents.

René Goscinny created the Asterix comic series alongside illustrator Albert Uderzo. Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Born in Paris, René’s family moved to Argentina when he was young and he was raised there for the majority of his childhood. As for Albert Uderzo, his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Paris region.

Goscinny unexpectedly died at the age of 51, while writing Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo took over both writing and illustrating the series on his own, marking Goscinny’s death in the comic by illustrating dark skies for the remainder of the book.

In 1985, Uderzo received one of the highest distinctions in France – the Legion of Honour. Uderzo retired in 2011, but briefly came out of retirement in 2015 to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered in a terror attack by drawing two Asterix pictures honouring their memories.