Jewish Gaul

From Asterix to an antisemitic cause celebre, Michael Leventhal discovers Jewish heritage in northern France


I’ll make a confession: despite being a lifelong Asterix fan I had no idea, until earlier this year, that his creator René Goscinny was Jewish. I’m probably not the only person who discovered his heritage thanks to the ongoing Asterix in Britain exhibition at Camden’s Jewish Museum.

With hindsight, his origins should be obvious. After all, he’s a plucky, pint-sized warrior, his small tribe is constantly under attack, but somehow they always prevail and celebrate with food. They might not eat gefiltefish but the Gauls attack their feasts with a feeding frenzy you only see at the best kiddushim.

Discovering the heritage of Goscinny proved to be the tipping point: I persuaded my wife that a trip to Parc Asterix, just 30km from Paris, would be the focus of a perfect summer break. The fact that our sons, aged three and five, have also discovered the joys of Asterix was the clincher.

When I first read the cartoon books, almost 40 years ago, I never imagined I’d meet the crew. The first time we saw the life-size characters at the park was an odd moment: my two sons looked bemused rather than overjoyed when a seven-foot-tall Obelix leaned over to give them both a high five.

The park has everything you’d expect: the Romulus et Rapidus log flume; the Menhir Express monorail, the Pegasus Express Roman chariots, plus numerous both gentle and more terrifying rides mixed with ersatz Roman, Egyptian or Gaulish taverns and shops.

Another unlikely highlight was the slow boat ride that carries you past scenes from the classic books. Electronic models of exhausted, beat-up Romans, triumphant Gauls and nutty druids all wave as you float through dimly-lit caves.

Yes, it’s reminiscent of Disney’s It’s A Small World but, in my opinion, Asterix smashes Mickey Mouse. Disneyland Paris is the most visited park in Europe but it probably has the longest queues too. At Parc Asterix we waltzed straight onto everything. Our children were the ideal age — and passed the minimum height tests — for more than 20 rides.

But while there is an interesting exhibition about the art and origins of Asterix, there’s no nod to Goscinny’s Jewish heritage here.

Instead, for Jewish life, we looked north to Rouen, the capital of the Normandy region. This charming city has a rich cultural heritage that uses, justly, the marketing slogan ‘medieval and trendy’.

Home to more than 50 major historic monuments, beautiful half-timbered houses (almost all reconstructions after the destruction wrought by the Second World War) and a magnificent Gothic cathedral, the key draw is still national heroine Joan of Arc: the city has the dubious distinction of being the place where she was burned at the stake.

The town’s main market square has an expansive black-tiled monument that represents the pyre and the flames; questionable taste, but extraordinary architecture.

There’s even an interactive exhibition where you can take part in the saint’s trial, while shops sell les larmes de Jeanne d’Arc — tear-shaped chunks of chocolate-covered almonds.

We may have been the town’s only visitors to turn a blind eye to the usual tourist spots and focus on the Jewish sites. During the Second World War, just under 900 Jews from Normandy were arrested — the youngest just a few weeks old and the oldest aged 84. Of the 740 Jews from Rouen deported to Auschwitz only one woman, Denise Holstein, is still alive, and has written about her experience.

By the synagogue entrance there is a commemorative plaque and memorial services are held every year. Today, there are around 200 Jews still living in Rouen.

The impressive shul has roughly ten regulars, so getting a minyan is always touch and go. From those regulars there are five Cohanin. On the Shabbat we were in town, the community’s delight at having visitors was mitigated by the slight disappointment that I was yet another Cohen

As so often in France, security is tight, so email beforehand if you want to attend services. However we were made very welcome, invited to Friday night dinner at the Rabbi’s apartment above the shul where he returns every weekend to build the community; with no kosher shops in Rouen, on weekdays, he and his family live in Paris.

Rouen’s famous Jewish monument is the Maison Sublime, an ancient building in the foundations of the law courts thought to have been a yeshiva at the time of the grandsons of Rashi.

Closed for refurbishment until next month, we saw an extraordinary temporary collection of medieval Jewish artefacts at the Museum of Antiquities.

Then onwards to Brittany, for one more Jewish pilgrimage, stopping en route at two more keys sites. The Bayeux Tapestry for our two knight-obsessed boys — there are child-friendly audioguides, although an arrow in the eye is a fairly harrowing image for kids, however you present it — and the town of Arromanches and its D-Day museum.

The experience was more moving than my wife and I had expected. We found the sight of our children playing on the beaches on which so many sacrificed their lives in June 1944 almost unbearably poignant.

Our destination: Rennes, with its link to the retrial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1899.

With grand, tree-lined boulevards and imposing Hausmann-esque buildings it feels like Paris on a quiet day. In fact, large parts of the city were designed by the Parisian architects in an attempt to rival the capital.

The compact and walkable city, the smallest in the world with a Metro network, bears few traces of the upheaval which overtook it during the infamous retrial of Captain Dreyfus.

There are no plaques or monuments but the excellent Museum of Brittany dedicates a large space to the story of the Jewish officer falsely accused of espionage.

It holds a huge collection of documents relating to his life and trial, although the permanent exhibition shows less than 100: a very well curated display of contemporary letters, newspapers, antisemitic flyers and cartoons, original dolls and models. A short French-language film relates the story while the audience perch on jury-style benches.

In 2019 the lease on the old Rennes prison will expire and, drawing on the legacy of the Dreyfus trials, a small group is campaigning to convert it to a national museum of justice.

Leaving countryside which reminded me of Cornwall and Devon — but with fantastic boulangeries, selling the traditional buttery sugar-laden pastries called kouign amann — we braved the marathon six-hour channel crossing from St Malo to Portsmouth.

Longer than the quick outward route from Newhaven to Dieppe, our kids were kept so entertained that it was just as easy, especially compared with the drudgery of airports.

And much easier to return with our bag of deliciously oozing pastries and holiday joie de vivre intact.


Like this? Sign up for more with our JC Life newsletter

From fabulous recipes, to parenting tips;  travel and West End entertainment; insightful interviews and much more: there’s more to  the JC than news

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...


Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive