Tuesday 10 February 2009

A Tale of Two Tragedies

It is the lot of all cities that occasionally tragedy will strike. Whilst some cities are prey to natural disasters, such as rising tides or thundering underground plate movements, other cities are shaken by accidents and human incompetence. When such events occur, the city stops and weeps, but the natural kinetics of human life ensure that the city always goes on. What is of interest to future generations though is how such events are recorded, commemorated and remembered.

I was inspired to write this piece after reading the fascinating series on the Watts Memorial Park in London on Caroline's Miscellany blog. London found a place to celebrate simple acts of heroism, but has there been any such place in Paris? I could not think of one until I remembered the Notre Dame de la Consolation church in the Rue Jean-Goujon (75008), a structure that was built as a permenant memorial to a terrible event that had struck on the same spot 6 years beforehand.

Beneath the dome of Albert-Désiré Guilbert's church are heroic sculptures by Horace Daillion, a date, the 4th of May 1897, and a quotation from Thessalonians ("ne vous attristez pas comme ceux qui n'ont pas d'esperance" – “Do not grieve like those who have no hope”). Inside, the temple is dimly lit and thick with silence. There are few windows to bring in air and light, only heavy, baroque sculptures, marble columns and a monumental painted ceiling. There is little sign of the tragedy in what is today a simple church which has been adopted by the Parisian Italian community. To one side though, in the murky depths of the confessional, stands an iron gateway held together by a cheap bicycle lock. Beyond this a strip of light leads the way to the true monument, a pathway in cross form telling the story of what happened on that fateful day.

This monument is only open to visitors once a month so remains an intensely private and secret space. The images and memorials contained within have so far remained frustratingly out of my reach, but the story is one that has been amply documented elsewhere. In 1897 a large wooden hanger stood where the church is situated today. It had recently been rented by an organisation called the Bazar de la Charité, a group which organised periodic charity events. On this occasion, 22 medieval style wooden boutiques had been set up along the 80 metre space, and these were looked after mostly by members of the Parisian aristocracy. Adding to the celebratory atmosphere, the event also featured a cinematography show, an early precursor to cinema, featuring films created by the Lumière brothers.

The Bazar de la Charité just before the fire

On the 4th of May, the second day of a planned five day event, the sales attracted over 1000 visitors, again mostly members of the aristocracy. It was an immense success, but people were soon complaining about the overheated atmosphere whilst the cinematographers were worried that there was not enough space for their equipment in the small area they had been given. At about four o'clock in the afternoon, their concerns were sadly proved to be accurate as the machinery caught fire and quickly spread throughout the building. The wooden structure was soon alight, and the curtains, lace and ribbons around the stalls became streaks of flame. It apparently only took 15 minutes for the entire building to be reduced to ashes. When the dust settled and all the remains had been sifted through, 130 people were found to have lost their lives.

The most famous of all the victims was the Duchess of Alençon, younger sister of the Empress of Austria, better known as Sissi. Being the most widely known to the general public, stories of her heroism were widely reported in the press. It is reported that she said "Ne vous occupez pas de moi. Je partirai la dernière" ('Don't worry about me - I'll leave last') to one lady who managed to escape, and when a nun collapsed at her feet and cried "Ô Madame, quelle mort !" ('O Madam, what a way to die'), she calmy replied "Oui, mais dans quelques minutes, pensez que nous verrons Dieu!" ('Yes, but in a few minutes we will see God'). It is then said that she quietly shielded the head of another lady to protect her eyes from the terrible sight of their final moments of life. Whether these stories are true or were simply an attempt to create a myth around the most prestigious guest at the event will never be known.

What does seem truly incredible today though is the fact that 123 of the 130 victims were women, despite there being an estimated 200 men present at the time the fire broke out. Whilst it is true that many of the ladies were stuck behind their stalls and were hampered by their bulky clothing, the fact that there were so few male victims did not go unnoticed at the time. As one female journalist, Séverine, noted in Le Journal shortly after the event, only about 10 of these men were seen to help at all. "Le reste détala, non seulement ne sauvant personne, mais encore se frayant un passage dans la chair féminine, à coups de pieds, à coups de poings, à coups de talons, à coups de canne" ('The rest ran away, not only not saving anybody, but also pushing their way past female flesh, kicking, punching, pushing with their heels and sticks'). Incredibly, other contemporary newspapers lead with images of heroic men!

Memorials to the victims of a tragedy are essential for the city's cathartic process, but would we not learn more if memorials were also built to reflect the cowardly behaviour of men?

Coming Next:
A lower class of tragedy


CarolineLD said...

What a fascinating story. The point about the possible exaggeration of the Duchess of Alençon's heroism is one which comes up in some of the Postman's Park stories too: perhaps we all prefer to believe in the heroic, rather than think too hard about cowardice!

PeterParis said...

Your final remark is particularly interesting! That could make quite a number of memorials!

Great thanks for this interesting story!

Adam said...

Just as a little sidenote, despite previously writing about the lack of ghosts in Paris, I came across several references to this area being haunted. Some mention the church being spooky, whilst others talk about an aristocratic looking lady outside the church pointing up at the inscription.

It seems that the events of that day have lived long in the public's imagination!

margaret said...

Spellbinding story and post! Hard to believe there wasn't some myth-making around the unfortunate Duchess of Alençon. But Séverine's account has the hard, uncomfortable ring of truth.

Starman said...

It would appear that the few men who may have helped, were among the victims.

Squirrel said...

Not just a tragedy but horribly frightening to think about. The panic everyone must have felt, the loss of life. Not surprisingly haunted. another great post --Thank you.

George Biles said...

Does anyone know which day of the month the church is open to visitors? I plan to be in Paris next year & would like to visit this place.


Adam said...

Hello George: I have a feeling that it's only one afternoon a month. This is the church website: http://missioncathitalienne.free.fr/. There is no information about opening times or dates, but there is an e-mail address and phone number you can try.

Anonymous said...

On the apparent contradictions in reports of the heroism (or otherwise) of men at the scene of the fire; if you look closely at all the images of rescue, they are largely of working class men. - like the cooks of the hotel which stood on one side of the fire and lifted victims in through the kitchen even as the flames licked the side of the building.

All the contemporary accounts of the disaster have to be viewed through the lens of Belle Epoque politics and class conflict - the Bazar itself was an attampt to draw the sting of socialism by providing a Catholic/Royalist source of relief for the urban poor.

As to visiting the private chapel: the memorial has its own blogsite -
http://bazardelacharite.blog.free.fr/ - which listings the opening times. (1st tuesday of every month, at 14.00)


Tanya said...

May 4 1897 was of course the first tuesday of the month, and the chapel is open from 14.00 - 15.30, which would correspond to the short time that the Bazar was open before tragedy struck, and the last few minutes of the victims' unsuspecting happiness.

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