One of the most beautiful mansions in Paris – the Saint-Aignan mansion – has housed the immense collections of the Museum of Art and History of Judaism (MAHJ) since 1998. Nestled in the Marais district, the MAHJ which took over from the museum of Jewish created in 1948 by survivors of the Holocaust, brings together more than 12,000 artworks and countless archives retracing two thousand years of Judaism.
The choice of the district is not insignificant since the Marais has been home to a large Jewish population since the end of the 18th century from the Rhine regions and then from Central and Eastern Europe. After decolonization, the Jewish populations of the Maghreb came to revive a presence decimated by the Holocaust. The Saint-Aignan mansion itself also housed many workshops of Jewish tailors and cap makers.
If we have to evoke the Marais district, Rosiers street is emblematic of the presence of the Jewish community in Paris. There are many kosher delis, bakeries and butchers and the memory of the Jo Goldenberg restaurant will live on forever because of an anti-Semitic attack in 1982, even though the restaurant closed for good in 2006.
The old Saint-Paul hammam has also disappeared, but its red terrazzo facade can still be admired.
The Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue on Pavée street, which was inaugurated in 1914, is embellished with a very beautiful facade by Hector Guimard (the architect of the metro station entrances).
The Synagogue des Tournelles has an imposing facade adorned with a large rose window.
Finally, the Shoah Memorial located brings together many archives relating to the fate of the Jews during the WWII – something the MAHJ is not intended to do.
Here is the Marais district, which has, as you understood, always been animated by a large Jewish community.
Now let’s talk about the Saint-Aignan mansion, which houses the MAHJ. This superb residence was built by the King’s architect Pierre Le Muet in 1650 on behalf of the superintendent of finances of Mazarin, Claude de Mesmes. It will nevertheless keep for posterity the name of its second owner, the Duke of Saint-Aignan, who bought it in 1688 and refurbished it. The main courtyard, which is slightly rectangular in order to visually appear perfectly square, now houses a statue of Captain Alfred Dreyfus with his broken sword.
The main building at the back is surrounded by outbuildings on the right and by a right wing called “en renard”, that is to say decorated with pilasters and false windows but without any depth – for the sole need of the symmetry of all the buildings.
The vestibule, treated in the antique style with niches and pilasters, precedes the grand staircase, which is absolutely magnificent with its trompe l’oeil perspective on the ceiling. The dining room – which now houses the bookstore – is adorned with a superb fragmentary wall decoration, which can only evoke Antiquity.
In 1792, the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan was seized and sequestered by French Revolution. From 1842, it was intended for trade, since many Jewish craftsmen who had immigrated from Poland, Romania and Ukraine set up their shops and workshops there. During the 1942 infamous roundups, several people living within its walls were arrested and deported. Thirteen of its inhabitants died in concentration camps. The City of Paris bought the Saint-Aignan mansion in 1962 and dedicated it to the installation of a museum devoted to Jewish civilization in 1998: this is how the MAHJ was born.
Now let’s talk about the MAHJ. The collections retrace the history of Jewish culture from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The diversity and unity of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish communities mingle in all their richness and complexity.
The Dreyfus Affair, which is documented by a fund of 2,700 documents, evokes one of the most polarizing political scandal in modern French history.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish ancestry, was accused in 1894 of having delivered military secrets to Germany. Sentenced to deportation, he was publicly stripped of his army rank on January 5, 1895. The political and media action of the Dreyfus supporters made it possible over the following months to discover that the real traitor was Major Esterhazy. On January 13, 1898, Emile Zola, one of the most translated French writers in the world, published “J’Accuse”, which gave the Dreyfus Affair an international dimension. Sentenced, Zola was forced into exile in England, while France continued to tear itself apart in a climate of anti-Semitic hatred. On July 12, 1906, Alfred Dreyfus was finally declared innocent by the French Supreme Court and returned to the army with the rank of commander. Esterhazy will never be condemned.
The stigmatization of the Jewish community, already strong in the 1880s, was undoubtedly amplified by the Dreyfus Affair.
In a lighter and more contemporary way, the presence of canvases painted by Chagall, Soutine and Carp recall the vitality of the School of Paris.
Esther Carp, who never dated her paintings, was interned several times for paranoid delusional psychosis. However, nothing shows through from her torments on her cheerfully colored canvases.
February 10, 2023