Ici est Tombé André Pradat, 2006
When I told my friend Laura that my wife and I were planning to go back to Paris in 2006, she recommended a hotel in the 7th Arrondissement. It turned out to be a wonderful place on the quiet Rue de Bourgogne, a narrow street running between the National Assembly at one end of the street and the Rodin Museum at the other.
It isn’t uncommon in Paris to find small plaques on the sides of buildings commemorating Frenchmen, usually resistance fighters, who died nearby during World War II. I’d seen these plaques before and had associated some vague sense of honor and patriotism with them. But during our 20o6 trip I became more interested in learning about them.
I was fascinated with these plaques not because I knew any of the dead, but merely because the plaques existed at all. We Americans tend to honor our war dead in parks and cemeteries. But these sporadically placed plaques reminded me that the quiet streets my wife and I walked along in Paris were once alive with the sights and sounds of war. The very streets we walked on, the walls we brushed up against, all had stories.
In the languid August of 1944, German occupation forces in Paris were getting edgy. Also trigger-happy. More than a few French nationals who dared leave their apartments had become victims of random strafing by nervous German soldiers.
Just around the corner from our hotel, on the Rue de Grenelle, was the building where French forces had installed a rudimentary radio transmitter that they intended to use to announce the liberation of Paris when approaching Allied forces arrived. Resistance fighters were charged with protecting this building and had constructed a barricade of sand bags at the intersection of the Rue de Bourgogne and the Rue de Grenelle.
On the afternoon of August 23, 1944, a German tank and platoon of soldiers were dispatched to the area to destroy the barricade. A shell from the tank quickly blew the sand bags apart and also killed a French policeman who was walking home from work.
That evening, André Pradat, 40, a corporal in the resistance forces, was shot in the stomach during a skirmish with another German tank and infantry patrol outside 24 Rue de Bourgogne. Pradat died the next morning (a day earlier than stated on the plaque).
The part that always gets me when I look at this picture is the phrase, “Mort Pour La France.” Not just "Died for France," but for La France, the mother, the oldest and most elemental kind of relationship. Such is the tie the French have to their country.
In America we venerate the ground in which our war dead are buried. We attach strong values to our country. Perhaps because of the way the Germans made so much of their concept of the mutterland, though, Americans tend to be somewhat more gender neutral. Yes, some refer to the USA as “her.” But more often you hear “it.” And when we do attach gender to our country, it’s usually in the context of something like the Statue of Liberty, that enduring symbol of our country’s open arms, that is, not coincidentally, a gift from the French.