The Jewish Traveler: Toulouse
Jews have lived and mostly prospered in this southwestern French city for over a thousand years, both publicly and in hiding.
In contemporary outreach parlance, Toulouse and Tel Aviv are “twin cities.” Not identical, but perhaps fraternal. Before pooh-poohing the notion—except as an international friendship tool—check some history.
However many centuries Toulouse may have on Tel Aviv, throughout its multimillennial past, no matter the ruler, this southwest French city and surroundings have either found themselves or put themselves in opposition to the hegemony du jour. It is that upstart sensibility that also characterizes Israel’s major metropolis.
Over the last thousand years, Toulouse harbored such varied outcasts as the Albigensians (Cathars) who opposed mainstream Catholicism (and who may have found inspiration in the Kabbala); the Protestant Huguenots; Moors and Marranos running from Spain; Basques and Republicans running from Spain; and hosts of other refugees running from hosts of other persecutors—including the Nazis.
Certain figures underscore the generally unsung but almost palpable liberality of the area, called Midi-Pyrenees, whose capital is Toulouse. When the Nazis invaded France, occupying and oppressing in stages, the country had 94 Catholic bishops. Of these, six protested—half from Midi-Pyrenees. Two were from small cities, Albi and Montauban, 20 and 40 miles from Toulouse. The third was their higher-up who, on August 23, 1942, read a letter from his pulpit calling for mercy toward Jews. He was Monsignor Jules Gerard Saliege, archbishop of Toulouse.
“The fields of garlic, olives and figs bespeak the mixed Moorish-Jewish blood and the Languedoc seems like another Judea….” This phrase, roughly translated from French writer Alem Surre-Garcia’s Au-delà des Rives (Beyond the River Banks), notes something not often recognized in French histories.
Modern-day France usually begins with the Romans, then the Visigoths, Franks, Normans and, periodically, the English. Royal and ecclesiastical power consolidates in the north, then pushes southward. But for Surre-Garcia, France’s south remains an area apart, one retaining some aura as a bridge between East and West, a route over which passed Middle Eastern and North African knowledge and international trade. He sees the region as one boasting a Mediterranean-tinged cosmopolitanism.
However debatable, certain facts remain regarding the country’s southwest and the Jews who lived there—sporadically or otherwise.
Whether Jews, who commonly traveled the same paths as conquering Romans, were along when Rome arrived in the 2nd century C.E. in the Toulouse area is arguable. But they were surely there by the 8th century, since, for disloyalty to the Franks, a regulation mandated a prominent community member be publicly face-slapped every year on Good Friday—a complaint officially recorded in 883.
By 849, large sections of the southwest—from the Rhone to the Garonne Rivers and the Dordogne to the Pyrenees—came under the counts of Toulouse’s bailiwick. Generally freethinking, these counts ruled for almost five centuries virtually unhampered.
Jews living under the counts of Toulouse benefited. Protected and appreciated, they held posts of power; owned property; and worked in many areas beyond the traditional niche of moneylending. Taking stands against the official church, some Toulousain counts and churchmen endangered their own lives to defend their Jewish subjects.
Heresy could root in such fertile ground. And did. But when crusading fever infected both crown and church, deviation became so threatening that the French made war on their own. Ultimately, they crushed the Albigensians. Their defeat also meant the downfall of Toulousain separatist power, effectively ended in 1270.
Minus zestful independence, tolerance for religious minorities worsened when, in 1309, France expelled all Jews. Though the edict was not really absolute—Toulousain communities resprouted several times during the 14th century, and some Jews took shelter under the French popes in the Comtat Venaissin sector—the southwest slumbered. Until, and even after, the French Revolution, Toulouse was a backwater, with one exception. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Toulouse experienced a period of renewed prosperity, thanks to its cultivation of the woad plant, part of the mustard family; its processed leaves yielded indigo in demand by society’s upper echelons. At least a dozen pastel merchant houses developed in Toulouse, not the least being Don Juan de Bernuy’s. Bernuy was so successful he became a city capitoul, or councilor. In 1525, Bernuy demonstrated his political clout when he volunteered to guarantee the ransom of King Francois I, who had been captured by Emperor Charles V. What makes Bernuy’s success distinctive is that subsequently he was fingered as a Marrano. His presence in the city after the Jews’ expulsion from Spain—along with others, such as Dr. Isaac Orobio de Castro, who ultimately went to Holland around 1666 to practice Judaism openly—raises the question of Marrano activity in Toulouse.
When the Revolution began in 1789, at least 80 merchant Jews already lived in Toulouse. The war and Napoleon’s dictates changed all. Jews received cemetery land and the offer of property for a synagogue. But not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries did they begin significant reestablishment. Eastern Europe and the Balkans yielded many Jews attracted by the venerable University of Toulouse. World War II sent others, and some stayed. Meanwhile, Toulouse itself began to revive thanks largely to the governmental decision to establish France’s aerospace industry there. And the overall complexion of the city—the Jewish community included—changed with the influx of French from Algeria and elsewhere in North Africa after Algerian independence in 1962.
Approximately 30,000 Jews reside today in the Midi-Pyrenees region. Of these, between 20,000 and 25,000 live in Toulouse, with about 15,000 involved in various community activities. Those with Ashkenazic roots are estimated at 5 to 15 percent; the remainder are Sefardim.
Most Jewish-related events are based at the new community center, Espace du Judaisme (The Jewish Space; 2 Place Riquet; 011-33-5-62-73-45-73). The main synagogue, Hekhal David, is housed in this building, and other groups operate here as well. While most Toulousain Jews claim differing degrees of “traditionalism”—and all officially affiliated congregations are Orthodox—the full spectrum of religious observance exists.
Chabad runs the nominally Ashkenazic Adat Yechouroun Synagogue (3 Rue Jules Chalande) plus a school that attracts from beyond its ranks. Conversely, there’s also the Synagogue Libérale at 13 Rue du Colonel Driant. Among other congregations are Chaare Emeth (35 Rue Rembrandt); Palaprat (2 Rue Palaprat); Adath Israel (17 Rue Alsace-Lorraine); and Mishkan Nessim (33 Rue Jules Dalou).
The main switchboard for the community is run out of the Espace; for information regarding services, ask for ACIT (Association Cultuelle Israélite de Toulouse; 33-5-62-73-46-46; email@example.com). Among other activities affiliated with the Espace are Radio Kol-Aviv, broadcasting on 101 FM, as well as several publications. Hadassah France (33-1-53-42-67-18; www.hadassah.fr), a thriving branch of Hadassah International, counts a local chapter in Toulouse.
Often called The Rose City for the reddish brick of its older buildings, Toulouse’s points of interest range in extremes. There is the old—St.-Sernin Basilica, conceived over a millennium and a half ago for Toulouse’s first saint—existing along with the ultracontemporary. Among the sleek and modern sights are the City of Space, France’s answer to Cape Canaveral and a sort of scientific theme park (www.cite-espace.com); and the Airbus facility, with the tour provider Taxiway (www.taxiway.fr) offering various package options (one includes a stop at a hangar full of now-grounded Concorde jets).
The nominal heart of this generally relaxed, friendly metropolitan area is the great open space called Capitole, since the city hall, Le Capitole, flanks one side. Though primarily a reference point—with tourist information available in the Donjon du Capitole (33-5-61-11-02-22) adjacent to city hall—many sights are within walking distance, though in different directions and chronologies.
Just east of Capitole, toward the railroad station at one end of the boulevard Allées Jean Jaurès, is the lively tree-covered square, surrounded by outdoor restaurants, shops and the like, known as Place Wilson. On its northerly side is a statue commemorating a Jewish son of Toulouse, the 19th-century poet Ephraim Mikhael, born Georges Ephraim Michel. Though he quickly headed for Paris, where he died of tuberculosis at 24, he left behind several literary works considered among the foundations of the late-19th-century Symbolist School. For Toulouse, he was noteworthy as a child of post-Revolutionary Jewish émigrés to the area and as a representative of young Toulousains who achieved Parisian success during the Third Republic.
Heading southwest from Capitole, either winding a path among the tangled streets of the city’s Old Quarter or going more directly along the Rue Gambetta to its junction with Rue Lakanal, stands Bernuy’s former home, Hôtel de Bernuy, with its construction date, 1504, on the façade. While its interior is closed to the public, the cobblestone courtyard, surrounded by decorative Italian Renaissance arches, is accessible. This space is significant for what is absent. Specifically, rather than boasting crosses, which were common to other period structures, the area is devoid of any noticeable religious symbolism.
From Bernuy’s home, head south past another, even grander, pastel merchant’s home—the Hôtel d’Assezat, now housing the Fondation Bemberg (33-5-61-12-06-89; www.fondation-bemberg.fr) and its art collection specializing in works of Pierre Bonnard but including some Camille Pissarros. Leaving that hotel, head down Rue des Paradoux to its intersection with the Rue Joutx-Aigues. This may have been the heart of Toulouse’s original Jewish settlement, usually described as having been near the still-extant Place des Carmes.
Yet farther south, at 7 Place du Parlement, is the stark Maison de l’Inquisition. French heretics were tried here even before Jews faced the Inquisition’s horrors. Slightly east is Toulouse’s Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Gardens; 33-5-34-60-86-20). On entering via its southernmost point—where Allée Frédéric-Mistral and Rue Alfred Duméril almost form an arrowhead at the city’s main Resistance Monument—there is a large stone monument commemorating the area’s Righteous Gentiles. Engraved in French is the phrase that typically reads in English, “He who saves one soul saves the world.” Following the major right-hand walkway northward through the garden, Allée des Justes, one can note on the left two additional stone monuments—one to the Jewish Resistance movement, considered to have originated in Toulouse; and another, also bearing Jewish names, to the Resistance in general.
Leaving the garden to the south and following Allées des Demoiselles, at No. 52 stands the Resistance and Deportation Museum (33-5-61-14-80-40; firstname.lastname@example.org), depicting the area’s wartime terror.
At the Musée des Augustins (21 Rue de Metz; 33-5-61-22-21-82;www.augustins.org), display No. 67 is an inscription, possibly pre-14th century, of worn Hebrew letters. Another church-related display—one featuring fragments of Hebrew Bible scenes—is in the Chapelle des Carmelites (1 Rue de Périgord; 33-5-61-21-27-60). Though the convent buildings were destroyed in the Revolution, the chapel has paintings of Elijah on the north and south walls. Additionally, above the altar appears a figure resembling Moses—but peculiarly, the man bears only one tablet. The chapel is across the street from St.-Sernin Basilica, one of Europe’s largest untouched Romanesque structures and considered by many Toulouse’s primary sight.
If just one house of worship is to be viewed, it is Palaprat synagogue, located at the corner of Rue Palaprat and Rue de la Colombette. Dating from Napoleon’s era, the structure features an unprepossessing brick and cement exterior but a decorative interior. Its menora, silver covered with bronze and layered with gold foil, replicates one presented to Napoleon by the building’s architect. Flanking the bima are two matching filigree gates; orange-rose marble surrounds the Ark; and inscribed names of the dead cover the sanctuary walls.
No matter the direction, excursions from Toulouse are plentiful and splendid. (Consult www.tourisme-midi-pyrenees.org for guidance.)
A southern course leads to the Hautes-Pyrenees and Ariege Pyrenees. Apart from entering Cathar country—where, on the Montsegur promontory, about 200 rebels made their Masada-like last stand—the route also hits the spectacular Pyrenees foothills.
For wild mountain scenery, explore Gavarnie, with its famed cirque and falls. To sense the terror faced by World War II refugees—including urban Jews from Central and Eastern Europe who crossed the Pyrenees wearing city clothes—look for the starting points of various seemingly insurmountable trails. One is near St.-Lary-Soulan. To allay exhaustion, check into the spa at the Hôtel Mercure Cristal Parc in St.-Lary (33-5-62-99-50-00).
Northeast of Toulouse is Albi, particularly noteworthy on two counts. One is the choir area of the Cathedral of Ste.-Cecile, which is surrounded by at least 30 life-size, life-like statues of Hebrew Bible figures, each displaying distinctly different facial features. Additionally, the city, birthplace of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, boasts, in the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum (www.musee-toulouse-lautrec.com), the largest collection of the artist’s work anywhere. On display are works done for Jews, particularly for Thadée Nathanson’s famous late-19th-century cultural publication, La Revue Blanche. Toulouse-Lautrec drew posters promoting it as well as covers for it—including a well-known one featuring Nathanson’s wife, Misia.
Almost due west of albi is moissac, known primarily for the Benedictine monastery that, apart from its renowned capitals, harbors a more recent work of art, an untitled Marc Chagall piece. But to Jews who know, Moissac also had a special wartime story, for here, in several simple houses, and later in the countryside, a Jewish couple managed to hide in full view, more or less, 400 to 600 non-French-speaking Jewish refugee children.
To Moissac’s north lies Cahors, the main town in the Lot Valley, an area favored by artists. The municipality itself holds several particular attractions. Visitors will find The Resistance Museum (33-5-65-22-14-25) on the Place Général de Gaulle. Its second floor is devoted to refugees and displaced persons. A book is available noting those who disappeared from Cahors as well as those transported to Auschwitz.
During the 13th century, Cahors became a banking center, and many bankers’ homes still stand clustered near the Rue Nationale. Mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy of 1321, they faced damnation, and the word “Caorsin” became synonymous with “usurer”—though the gentlemen in question may not have been Jews.
Rosemary Wakeman’s Modernizing the Provincial City: Toulouse 1945-1975 (Harvard University Press) examines the industrialization of the city after World War II.
The Jews of France: A History From Antiquity to the Present (Princeton University Press) by Esther Benbassa, a Sorbonne professor of Jewish history, and translated by M.B. DeBevoise makes special effort to cover the evolution of French Jewry throughout the country’s regions—including the Midi-Pyrenees.
Approximately one hour north of Toulouse lies the sleepy, ancient town of St.-Antonin, where the 2001 World War II drama Charlotte Gray was filmed.
Famed mime Marcel Marceau, born Marcel Mangel and perhaps best known for his character Bip, spent the last years of his life in Cahors, dying there in 2007 at age 84. During World War II, he and his brother, Alain, joined the French Resistance, saving numerous children from concentration camps.
Air France provides chic, quintessentially continental service directly from the United States to Toulouse. For additional information regarding major cultural sights, contact the Toulouse Tourism Office (33-5-61-11-02-22; www.toulouse-tourisme.com).
For accommodations, consider the well-situated and well-priced Best Western Les Capitouls Jean Jaurès (www.bestwestern.com) on Allées Jean Jaurès. Closer to the Espace du Judaisme—which has a kosher restaurant—is the more luxurious Sofitel (www.sofitel.com), also on Allées Jean Jaurès.
For those wishing to buy samples of goods dyed with pastel, the staple of medieval Toulouse’s economy, visit La Fleurée de Pastel (20 Rue de la Bourse; 33-5-61-12-05-94). The trains of France’s SNCF system (www.sncf.com) connect some but not all points in the area. More out-of-the-way spots are only reachable by car.
Yet it is these hidden gems that confirm the overall luster of virtually every turn in Midi-Pyrenees, arguably France’s most varied and relatively undiscovered region.