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Exploring old Jewish Nice

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A splendid view of Nice as seen from the Jewish Cemetery (Nancy Wigston photo)

Founded in antiquity and named for Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, this Cote d’Azur city (pop: 344,000) has witnessed waves of new arrivals over several centuries. Its flavour is decidedly multicultural, with a Jewish community currently numbering about 20,000.

As for me, it had been two decades since I’d visited this Mediterranean city with my family. Still, walking with Anne, my guide from Nice’s Tourism Office, through the centuries-old Cours Saleya flower and produce market, I immediately recognized our favourite socca stand, where vendors present the city’s signature snack: giant-sized chickpea pancakes, wrapped in paper, eaten piping hot from the pan.

At the far end of the market stood the elegant yellow villa where artist Henri Matisse once lived. Among the exodus of the “painters of light” from northern France who’d settled in Nice, the most important – according to Pablo Picasso – and the last true champion of colour, was Belarus-born Marc Chagall, a Francophile whose escape from Nice to New York in 1941, was made possible with the help of Varian Fry and his American Rescue Committee.

From 1948 onward, Chagall lived in the south of France, a few kilometres from Nice in the village of St Paul de Vence, where he died in 1985 at 97. The Chagall Museum in Cimiez, Nice’s hillside neighbourhood – where hot springs once soothed the nerves of Roman nobles—sparkles with Chagall’s biblically-themed stained-glass windows, murals and paintings.

The Chagall Museum (Nancy Wigston photo)

Centuries before, in the early days of their settlement in Nice, Jews had been limited to certain activities (money-lending, medicine) and subject to various government taxes and restrictions, their severity depending on which now-extinct kingdom ruled the city. When France asserted its final control of Nice in 1848, restrictions on Jewish life were eased or erased.

The Jewish Ghetto – a distant memory now – was located on the old rue de l’Arc – renamed the rue de la Juiverie – and now known as rue Bunico. The ghetto boasted a 1733 synagogue at 18 rue Bunico, designed by architect Anselme Spinelli, before it was abolished (for the final time) in 1848.

My young French guide and I stood and gazed at the warm ochre walls where the synagogue once stood, once the religious heart of Jewish life in Nice. As we strolled the narrow old streets lined by tall, colourful buildings that seemed to bend toward one another under the blue sky; it seemed as if we’d entered a time portal onto into the past.

READ: EXPERIENCE RICH SOUTHERN JEWISH CULTURE IN NEW ORLEANS

Leaving the old streets, we passed a bagel bakery, and climbed a series of wide steps, ascending to Castle Hill Park and Nice’s Jewish Cemetery, where spectacular views of city, sea, and mountains await the visitor. A striking banner on the cemetery’s ivy-covered walls honoured Simone Veil, whose death in June 2017 caused all of France to pause and remember one of the city’s most remarkable citizens.

The entrance to the Nice Jewish cemetery (Nancy Wigston photo)

Born in 1927, Veil passed her baccalaureate exams in 1944. Days later she and her family were deported to concentration camps. Miraculously, both she and her sister survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, but  her mother, father, and brother were murdered.

After liberation, Veil lived a life dedicated to the idea of a peaceful, united Europe, becoming a lawyer, jurist, politician and renowned human rights champion. She was inducted into the French Academy, a rare honour, especially for a woman.

By her choice, the ceremonial sword that came with her academy membership was engraved with her Auschwitz number, with France’s revolutionary motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” and with “Unity in Diversity,” the motto of the European Union, of which she’d been president.

Entering the cemetery gates, we paused in front of twin monuments to the war dead: one dedicated to the “Heroes of Country and the Resistance”, the other to “The Martyrs of Persecution,” erected by the “Israelite Community of Nice.”  During the early years of the war, Nice had offered some safety for its Jewish citizens and for people fleeing Germany, but a situation that was already brutal under the Vichy rulers, further worsened when Nazi soldiers arrived.

Walking among rows of tombstones, we notice some famous names (Van Cleef of jewelry store fame), but many simply state the names of loved ones “killed during deportation.” The overall impression here, high above the old city, is one of beauty, dignity, serenity, peace. We are the only visitors.

As we made our way down Castle Hill, re-entering streets redolent of the past, I recall a survival story I heard from a Jewish man whose grandparents owned a beautiful art deco hotel in nearby Juan-les-Pins. The storyteller’s grandmother had rowed her children across the Baie des Anges to safety, just ahead of the invading Nazis.

Her young son, the storyteller’s father, decided to return to fetch his books. Climbing a tree, he peered into his bedroom, where he spied a German officer – the hotel had been requisitioned. He quickly climbed down, making his second escape that day. Today that hotel, the Belles Rives, remains in family hands, proud of both its personal and literary heritage; in the 1920s legendary writer Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda occupied the villa around which the hotel is built.

Today’s Nice offers not only enchantment, colour, and centuries-old history, but, to my eyes, seems more diverse and more youthful than the city of 20 years ago. A good example: my hotel, Le-Deck, located near rue Massena, the popular pedestrian thoroughfare, is bright, friendly, casual, a light-hearted paean to the old ocean liners: blue-and-white walls, porthole-shaped windows, fanciful city murals. From the terrace I gaze out over the terracotta roofs of this old port city, where past and present seem to mingle with ease. 

 

If You Go: Tourism and Convention Office, 5, promenade des Anglais, www.nicetourisme.com. Le Deck Hotel (deck-hotel.com) at 2, rue Maccarani, belongs to the HappyCulture group. My Nice visit concluded with a splendid vegetarian lunch at the tiny Restaurant A Buteghinna, 11 rue de Marché, in the Old Town; owned by Sophie, Marcelle, and Evelyne, three women who specialize in “cuisine nissarde,” traditional Nice cuisine. A list of kosher eateries is available at www.consistoirenice.org.

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