My Paris

by Ilya Ehrenburg

from the Literarishe bleter
October 26, 1934




From outside of Paris the Seine is a simple French river, more interesting to look at for a ship communication. In Paris, the Seine is a sentimental requirement; Without it, one can not imagine, either the history of the city, or the biography of its inhabitants.

Not to mention the poet ... how could poetry exist without a little boiling water? But even an ordinary bourgeoisie with a hard hat and swollen little whiskers often remains by the bridge to look at the water for a long time. He can, of course, explain that this is how he unloads goods from a boat, or how dogs are washed, but you do not have to believe him. He usually looks into the Seine.

The banks of the river are covered by an entire row of bookseller stalls. Originally people used to stroll along the banks, apparently looking at the books. Here one does not sell complete sets of journals and works of long-forgotten writers. This does not correspond to the surrounding landscape. An amateur of dust and of dreams, whining of pain:

-- It lacks the eleventh part!

For a while it seems to him, without a doubt, that the eleventh volume is the most interesting. He shakes off the dust and continues on his way.

Old women sell the books. They themselves are like non-adapted bands of forgotten and useless history.

If one of them was shaken like that, she would tell about love under the chestnut trees, about the armament of Paris, about Anatole France, about golden louis (an old French coin). But it is better not to shake them: they are full of dust and can easily die.

It all starts with steps: Everything begins with ascents; on the stairs sleep the poor; they sleep on stone as if they were on fluff. Most of them like to get under the bridges: it is cool in the summer and you can hide out there from the rain. In the darkness the shadows move; some people like the bridge of Auteil (Pont Auteil), another -- the Pont Alexandre III. One cannot distinguish any eyes in the darkness. Life here consist of various sounds: the barking sounds of a dog, cursing, whining, quarreling ...

The Parisian bridges, the old and the new, with the clamor of the metro -- connecting both banks; the Stock Exchange with the Académie, Les Halles and the Sorbonne (University). They have various names. Some people travel from place to place, others are strollers who dream. From below, they are all alike: they are hidden in silence, under the bridges near those who have no strength to cross onto the side of the shore.

Fishermen can be seen on the stone bridges. These are the greatest amateurs of the Seine. They even speak about the virtues of various worms that are used to catch fish. Or about the success of one Dipon (Dipon caught a pike. "Here it is!"). In reality, however, they are not interested in fish at all. They only see fish at fishmongers. They remain here for hours at a time, looking incessantly at the inconspicuous heel of the fishing rod. Often, looking like this in water, they sleep alone.

Not far from the fishermen are people who are standing around, yet are far from being "static." A vagabond washes his pants. Two women come here to refresh themselves. They do not lose any time: One makes a dress for the other. And here, on a stone bridge, in the very center of Paris, she measures it.

The steps that lead to the Seine, this is not a fixed number of steps; This is head-scratching and human fate. The need makes you go down, the love too. Those who love Paris know the damp fog that rises over the Seine, the short melancholy cries of the small boats and the trembling of shadows. The lovers kiss each other, locking themselves in the barrier; they glide down the stairs, they hide under the bridge arch, and no one wonders at all.

The Seine has yet other admirers. These, however, do not count the steps of the ascent. They stay on the bridge and then fall like a stone into the water. Who will be able to explain why they chose the cold water, instead of the rope or the gas pipe? They throws themselves [into the Seine] because of hunger, another because of unrighteousness, a third because of love.

Before the war people used to come here from a very early age to look at the mortuary that was here on the shore. They admired the fanatics of the Seine, blue and swollen. Now people have other pastimes: They have already tasted death. Suicides are waiting to be buried regularly, the place of death is in the earth, not in the water; it's hygienic and calm. In this, however, the Seine is not guilty. It is a river, like all rivers. It is also a door. The door was left open.  People go through this door ... The drops fall into the depths of the sand. And at the same time, dreamers continue to haunt the shores.


For a historian the names of the Paris streets are quite a rarity: To passers-by, however, this is simple humor of a bad kind. When on the Rue de la Santé (Health Street), one finds two hospitals and one jail; on the rue du Roi-Doré (the gilded king) the rag-pickers quarrel, and on the Boulevard [de la] Chapelle there are madams and bordellos.

The Parisian beggars street is called Belleville. It is like a cluster of streets, so entangled that no pedestrian or draftsman would be able to disentangle it.

These streets possess entirely smelling names: "Rue des Acasias," "Rue des Amandie," "Rue des Églantine." [However] Dampness, sweat and garbage are felt here.

Belleville exists on a descending slope: stairs and vertically straight steps, and street bridges.  This is the romanticism of domestic romance, and also the romanticism of a sound film in which there appears silhouettes of "Parisian nights," of "Love in Paris," or of "Secrets of Paris."

So as in every other area of Paris, there are in Belleville shiny streets with illuminated show-windows, cafés, mannequins laid out with a smile and multi-colored hats. A pig's head framed in a wreath of paper roses. The cafés try to be as ambitious as they can to invite the customers. "A gift will be given to every user," "A newly renovated premises," "Every Saturday -- famous jazz" ... "A cup of champagne -- one franc" ...


People drink the champagne, smiling at the pig's head, just as they would greet the mannequins. Then they go off in the direction where the acacias and the almonds should be in full bloom. There it is dark and empty. Buckets of dirty water and potato peelings are brought out of the houses; Children making their needs. In the houses it is even narrower. Life goes on there along the shores like a lot of water in a well, with lukewarm water pouring out curses and tears.

Wise leaders would be able to show these houses to the American tourists. A dark courtyard under a small half-dilapidated turret, toilets in front of the entire house. A water faucet, rising, twisted, slippery.

A street of Jews without money. They would like to say -- a fragment of a Warsaw ghetto. A street of "cities," Pollacks, Italians, Spanish, furnished rooms and yet the sad poetry of names: "Hotel des Acasia," "Hôtel de Pékin," "Hotel de L'Ocean." The small rooms are brimming with bugs and children: the housewife with the bass voice and unpaid rent money, the life of constantly waiting for the pay, accompanied by quarrels with the neighbors, with the sounds of sirens; it is time to go to work.

On Saturday they go to the theatre or to the movies, just like one would walk into a bathroom.

"The Two Favorites," a realistic drama, tickets are two francs each:

However, do not believe everything: the "realistic drama" is very legitimate realism and the masking of human suffering. One of the "favorites" is a big lady. She was left out, and the author stamped her for it. The other is the daughter of an unemployed person, and the composer is ready to cry over her fate.

The darling of Belleville is the old actor Monteus, who many years ago was a good Christian and epicurean, an apostle of forsaking God and a stubborn patriot, who knows more than anyone else about all the dreams and all the secrets of the crowded, entangled streets. He himself wrote this play -- and today he has become a Marat. He wears a red blouse and unmasks the heroes. The audience agrees with enthusiasm. Lovely ears get well-groomed words and an orange-peel; Belleville lets out their anger. Finally the gentlemen are unmasked. The "people's friend" exits, accompanied by applause: he is greeted in an old-fashioned manner. The orchestra plays the fox trot. The young women quickly powder their faces to cover their tears.

The neighboring streets swirl; Here the audience exits the theatre and cinema. In the midst of the rubbish, hideous and disgusting cats let out a cry.

Up there, like some idiotic lantern, there hangs a golden moon over dark Belleville.











courtesy of YIVO.

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