Paris yields fascinating places to explore for World War II history buffs. Some are specific museums about WWII and some are tourist destinations sitting in plain sight with ties to WWII. You may pass by or visit some of these without seeing any clues about their involvement in the war. So, the more you know about what to look for as you sightsee, the more you will understand what you see.
To you who are looking into how to follow a family member’s WWII steps, if your loved one was in Paris during the war years, these places may give you a good starting point. My father enjoyed his leave in Paris during his service, as so many did.
Whether you find traces of WWII as you stroll around Paris or head to one of the excellent museums, echoes of the past are all around. Here are a few places to consider when you visit.
1. Museum Of The Liberation Of Paris
This gem of a museum is a newcomer to Paris. It’s a must-see for anyone with an interest in WWII. A smaller version was previously located above the Montparnasse railroad station. The Museum of the Liberation of Paris now occupies spacious buildings in the heart of the 14th arrondissement. You will be immersed in the experiences of those in the French Resistance during the war. Follow the chronological events leading up to the German occupation of France. Celebrate the Liberation of Paris that took place in August 1944. Move through light and airy rooms as you learn about the everyday heroes who stood up to the occupiers.
The displays focus on the lives of two notable Resistance leaders, Jean Moulin and Philippe de Hauteclocque, better known as General Leclerc. The museum stands on top of the underground headquarters of Leclerc, and you can explore this area, too.
Allow at least two hours for your visit. Take in displays of artifacts, documents, newsreels, uniforms, and personal items of those in the Resistance.
2. The Invalides
The Invalides, famous for its glittering gold dome, houses Napoleon’s tomb, a superb collection of weapons, and museums featuring the history of France. One large section of the museum is given to the two World Wars, with a focus on the French army. You can go through this chronological presentation, spending as much time as you wish on both wars. You could also skip to the WWII area.
The WWII years are divided into three parts. The “black years” cover the defeat of France and occupation, the “gray years” are about the French Resistance and the French army in North Africa, and the “light years” begin with the D-Day landings in Normandy and carry through to the end of the war.
Also housed in the Invalides is the Museum of the Order of the Liberation. This intriguing part of the Invalides displays photos, documents, and memorabilia of the French Resistance. A ticket to the Invalides includes admittance to this museum.
3. Arc De Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe is on the itineraries of many visitors. Along with paying respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and perhaps a climb to the top of the monument for a sweeping view of Paris, the WWII buff will want to be aware of wartime history.
What took place during WWII at this monument, commissioned by Napoleon, that symbolizes French loyalty and valor?
The day after France capitulated to Germany in June 1940, Adolf Hitler toured Paris, his treasured new possession. His motorcade headed to the Arc de Triomphe, as well as to the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides. Hitler never returned to Paris.
Fast forward four grueling years to the Liberation of Paris. Two days after the Germans left the city once again to the French, General De Gaulle arrived. He and his procession made their way to the Arc de Triomphe, where De Gaulle placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then he marched down the Champ Elysees to the Place de la Concorde as hundreds of French lined the streets and cheered wildly. Imagine that scene as you visit.
4. Jeu De Paume Library
This unassuming library tucked into the Tuileries is easy to pass by without realizing the role it played during WWII. Here, a hero named Rose Valland served as an art historian and curator during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Hundreds of pieces of art circulated through the Jeu de Paume before being shipped to Germany for Nazi gain. Art taken from Jews ended up here, marked as “abandoned.” Notably, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring used the Jeu de Paume as his collecting center.
Valland, actually just a volunteer curator, decided to do what she could to save as much art as possible. She kept meticulous records of art that passed through, noting which trains carried various treasures. After the war, this list was instrumental in returning many valuables to the rightful family owners.
Today, Jeu de Paume is an art center that holds exhibitions, classes, and workshops. You can enter the building and then make your way downstairs to the bookshop. You will be standing in a place where crucial spying took place during the war.
To learn more about stolen and recovered art during WWII, read The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel.
5. Shoah Memorial Museum
In the heart of the Marais district of Paris, the Shoah Memorial Museum pays tribute to Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust during WWII. The museum takes you through history and also provides personal stories of those who suffered.
As you move through the museum, the history of the Holocaust is presented on panels, windows, and interactive terminals. Short films, biographies, documents, and photos tell the stories. The purpose of the memorial museum is to allow visitors to reflect on what happened and determine to fight intolerance of all kinds in the present.
The last section you will tour is the Children’s Memorial, which features photos of 3,000 young people deported to camps during the war.
6. French Deportation Memorial
In a small park behind Notre Dame Cathedral, the French Deportation Memorial honors those deported in WWII. About 200,000 people were deported to German concentration camps. Enter the courtyard, then descend the steps to the crypt. Here is the Tomb of The Unknown Deportee. As you walk past the tomb into the darkness, 200,000 points of light line the way.
7. American Library In Paris
The American Library in Paris opened in 1920 and was immediately a popular hub for readers and researchers. When war broke out and France was occupied in 1940, the staff of the library made tough decisions. Director Dorothy Reeder kept the library open. She stated her view that the library “stands as a symbol of freedom and understanding, of service to all, a fine piece of democracy.” Through the war, people came to check out books, including Jewish people, who were forbidden by law to do so. Reeder served them all. Due to the upheaval in France, many folks were not able to return borrowed books. Reeder didn’t hesitate to keep on lending books anyway.
When the U.S. joined the war in December 1941, Reeder had to return to her home in the States. However, the library continued to function under other directors.
The American Library in Paris provides a lovely place to wander among the stacks of books, sit in a soft chair and read, and marvel that this library survived WWII and is still going strong today. The library, moved from its original location at 10 Rue de L’Elysee, is at 10 Rue du Général Camou, near the Eiffel Tower.
8. Vel D’Hiv Memorial
A memorial plaque stands at the site of the Vélodrome d’Hiver, also known as the Vél d’Hiv. Here the French police, in collaboration with Germans, rounded up Jews of all ages in July 1942. During this infamous rafle, more than 13,000 Jews were arrested and brought to the velodrome. The round-up was a first because not only men but also women and children were caught up in this sweep. From there, they were moved to the transit camp at Drancy, northeast of the city, and then by train to Auschwitz.
You can find the memorial plaque at 8 Boulevard de Grenelle. There is also a commemorative sculpture of the round-up near the river.
Before my first trip to Paris, I was unaware that the city displays more than 200 commemorative plaques dedicated to those who died in the week-long liberation of the city. These plaques hang quietly on walls of buildings around Paris. Some are in rows, but many stand alone in random locations. At times, the government decorates the plaques with small bouquets, which make them easier to spot.
In all, the Liberation of Paris claimed more than 500 civilians and about 1,000 French Forces of the Interior (FFI), which represented different Resistance movements. A few days after the start of the fighting, French, American, and British soldiers arrived to join the battle for Paris. The sporadic street fighting claimed not only Resistance members and soldiers but also ambulance drivers, nurses, and police.
For anyone fascinated by WWII, Paris offers so much. The outside walls of the Hotel de Ville still sport marks of bullets that flew around during the Liberation. The elegant Hotel Meurice served as the Nazi general’s headquarters. The Police Headquarters across the street from Sainte-Chapelle was the scene of fierce fighting in August 1944 and also still shows bullet impacts. If you do some research and plan to spend time at different WWII sites, you will find plenty to make each day in Paris memorable.
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