“Is Paris Burning?” Hitler reportedly asked the question on 25 August 1944. He had given orders for the French capital to be torched as Nazi forces retreated in order to spite the Allies. The Wehrmacht commanders defied Der Fuhrer’s order and Paris was preserved.* Today, however, one of the great monuments saved from insanity in 1944 is in flames.
As Notre Dame burns, I—like anyone that has experienced the magnificent cathedral—am filled with sadness and reflection. Many others are already holding forth on the cultural loss and meaning of the church. Rather than presume to add meaningfully to that dialogue, I’ll share some of my pictures of the monument in happier times.
I am very thankful that Mrs. Ancient Dan and I decided to invest in giving our children the experience of travel and, hopefully, an appreciation of cultural treasures and a global outlook. One of the things they enjoyed in person was Notre Dame.
Many of my visits to the cathedral were during long layovers at Paris’ CDG airport while leading student study-travel programs to Mediterranean countries. If I had six hours, I felt it was possible to take a train into the city (about 40 minutes), see a couple of sites, and make it back and through security to catch the flight on to Turkey, Greece, Jordan, or Israel. Notre Dame was always on the itinerary. Some thought I was crazy to try it; but in retrospect the risk was rather worth the reward—especially now that the cathedral is un-visitable (at least for the near future).
So . . . I have not named the General who defied Hitler’s order to burn Paris. This is intentional, because he did carry out other orders from on high and liquidated the Jews of the city during his tenure as occupying commander. That certainly stains his memory. But I am thankful to him for preserving the city and thus Notre Dame to be appreciated for nearly an additional 75 years.
* The story is well told in: Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Is Paris Burning? Penguin Books, 1966. This engaging book was later made into a motion picture.
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