Newspaper article International New York Times

Paris Archives Its Tokens of Grief

Newspaper article International New York Times

Paris Archives Its Tokens of Grief

Article excerpt

Tens of thousands of letters and drawings have been left at makeshift memorials after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks.

On a recent afternoon in the storage room of an imposing gray building in northeastern Paris, Mathilde Pintault cut open a sheet of clear plastic and pulled out a child's drawing, its colors blurred by water. She carefully placed it on special moisture- absorbing paper and put it on a shelf to dry.

A colleague, Gerald Monpas, wiped mud and candle wax off another drawing. Under the muck was the image of a hand holding a glass of beer with "La Belle Equipe" written on it and a gun-wielding assailant drowning inside.

For Ms. Pintault and Mr. Monpas, both archivists for the City of Paris, this was not the usual fare of musty public records and old administrative documents.

Instead, they were sifting through some of the tens of thousands of letters, drawings and other tokens of grief that have been left at makeshift memorials after the Nov. 13 attacks that killed 130 people. Assisted by the city's cleaning services, and encouraged by groups of ordinary Parisians seeking to keep intact memories of the victims, the archivists have collected thousands of documents.

Memorials have become a common sight after tragic events worldwide. But when the wave of grief slowly subsides and life returns to normal, deciding what to do with the piles of objects left behind can be tricky. "We need to leave some of the objects, and at the same time, we need to make room for the sidewalk, sometimes even the road, so that life can go on," said Guillaume Nahon, director of the Paris archives.

"It's a day-to-day process, and a contradictory one too, because these memorials are supposed to be ephemeral, but people still need a place to mourn for now," he said, standing near La Belle Equipe cafe, where 19 people were killed.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, collectors there had to navigate the same difficult and ill-defined line between the moment that impromptu memorials were no longer growing organically and the moment that messages, flowers, origami cranes and other mementos had become refuse.

"You didn't want to interrupt the life of a memorial while it was still in service," said Mark Schaming, director of the New York State Museum in Albany. "On the other hand, you didn't want to see it destroyed."

In Paris, that difficulty is compounded by the freshness of the city's wounds. The attacks came less than a year after three gunmen killed 17 people, including at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket, in January. Those places became temporary sites of mourning, but none of the objects left there were archived, although the library at Harvard University recently began an initiative to collect such material.

Gerome Truc, a sociologist who is publishing a book on reactions to some of the last decade's deadliest terrorist attacks, said the failure to archive could be attributed to the swift and unexpected nature of the January attacks.

This time, the City of Paris quickly mounted an effort to archive the material from Nov. 13, which will prove valuable to sociologists and historians.

Alice M. Greenwald, director of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York, said sentiments at impromptu memorials after that attack ran the gamut. This is evident in the "Schuster scroll," named for a student, Jordan Schuster, who taped down a piece of butcher paper at Union Square in Manhattan immediately after the attack on which people could write. …

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