Like many other people around the world, I spent quite a bit of time this week watching news pictures of the fire that struck Notre Dame Cathedral. For almost everyone who has visited Paris, and millions who have never been there, Notre Dame is immediately recognizable.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Notre Dame several times. My first visit was during the 1950s when I went on a student trip to Europe. We Americans were overwhelmed by the beauty and history of Paris. Buildings, streets, the whole city seemed so old and yet still alive and important. It was a revelation. This was only a few years after the end of World War II, when Notre Dame became the centerpiece for the liberation of Paris and the end of the war. We could still remember the newsreel pictures of American troops being welcomed by tearfully joyous French civilians.
Every time I went back to Paris and visited Notre Dame, the church was more crowded with tourists than the time before. Memories of the war became one small part of the centuries of history enshrined in the church. Looking at the overwhelming light and beauty of the rose window, it was easy to understand how it must have brightened the lives of people, both Parisians and others throughout the centuries. The events that window cast light on—the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots and the coronation of Napoleon—linger on in memories in the building alongside the memories of nameless soldiers coming back from wars, families bringing babies for Baptism, and refugees trying to build new lives in a strange city.
But more important, the cathedral has welcomed thousands of visitors over the years and given them a glimpse of a past that still lives and influences us. The sculptures, the stained glass, the votive candles flickering along the side altars. Every visit reminds us of the people who visited the cathedral and were awed by the experience just as we are. The past comes alive in places where so many people have experienced some of life’s major events. William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We recognize the reality of the past—our past and the past of humanity—when we visit places so rich in history. Notre Dame Cathedral is an important part of the heritage of all humankind and we cannot afford to lose it.
It is not only the heritage of our own societies that enrich us. Visiting heritage sites around the world binds us together in our common human history. When I visited Angkor Wat in 1999, I was overwhelmed by the evidence of a past world I had never known about. I recently reread the journal I kept during that visit.
Today we went to a temple complex that is being overgrown by the jungle. The banyan trees in particular send their roots into the crevices in the stones and force the stones apart. Many parts of the temple have fallen to the ground. The stone faces of the Buddha statues peer from the tops of devastated towers. A group of soldiers who were guarding the site were cooking a frog over a tiny fire. They had killed the frog that morning and it is considered wrong to kill a creature and not make use of it–lack of respect.
On our way back to the hotel we drove around the Angkor Wat complex and began to get a better sense of the whole place, although my knowledge is still sketchy. I have an impressionistic feeling about the glories of the crumbling ruins, the huge, smiling Buddha faces, the graceful figures of the dancing girls, and the parades of war elephants and troops. The surroundings haven’t changed much over the centuries, it seems, and that adds to the sense of their antiquity. It’s like walking into a preserved world of the past. We walked through what seemed like acres of temple property, along stone paths and up crooked stone steps around the walls of the complex, which are carved with scenes of Cambodian life from the thirteenth century. Banyan trees push up through the stones.
Both Notre Dame Cathedral and Angkor Wat are UNESCO World Heritage sites. They remind us all of a past that will never be completely recovered but will continue to resonate with generations of people to come. They commemorate the universal experiences of life and death, birth and burial. In recognizing them we acknowledge the common life of all humans and the events we all share. We must not lose these reminders of the past. They are worth rebuilding, no matter how long that takes, because they enrich all of us.
The audience that laughed and cried with Shirley Temple as she starred in movies like Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, and Heidi during the 1930s and 1940s has pretty much disappeared. Some of us still remember the TV shows she hosted during the 1950s and 60s, but her movies and the songs she made famous like “On the Good Ship Lollipop” seem relics from a forgotten past. Nonetheless her name and image are still remembered as an indelible part of America’s past.
Like many other people, I had a vague idea that Shirley Temple had maintained a long career after her retirement from films. Recently, however, I had a vivid reminder of Shirley Temple’s career when I read Norman Eisen’s book The Last Palace (2018). The palace of the title is a magnificent home designed and built in Prague during the 1920s by Otto Petschek, a Jewish entrepreneur whose fortune was made through coal mining. The Petschek family was driven from the country when Hitler came to power and Czechoslovakia fell to the Nazis.
Eisen has built his book around telling the story of the palace and its occupants throughout the century. Each chapter tells an intriguing story but the one that surprised me the most was that of Shirley Temple Black, who was ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the late 1980s. She had first visited Prague and the palace in 1968, after she had retired from the movies. The purpose of her visit was to encourage the country to join the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies. She succeeded in her mission, but was unexpectedly caught up in a coup. On the morning that she had planned to leave the city and return home, she looked out of her hotel window and saw tanks crowded with Soviet troops rolling down the streets. Suddenly all of her plans were cancelled. Tanks have a way of doing that.
Reading this chapter of the book reminded me vividly of my trip to a library conference in Moscow in 1991. I dug out the old journal I had kept during that trip to find my description of how the sudden eruption of the August coup had seemed to me and my colleagues.
Last night was scary. After we went to bed at 11:00, we heard tanks rumbling through the streets. They really make a racket ‑‑a loud roar that sounds almost like a low‑flying aircraft. Then we heard gunfire, first pistols then machine gun fire. Not much of it, but enough to make us listen. We kept peering out the window and trying to see what was going on. We could see the tanks, but could not see where the shooting was. There were lights all over the city. In the hotel across the street we could see people silhouetted in windows. I began to realize how people must feel in Beirut where no one knows what is happening.
The noises stopped at about 1:30 and we finally got some sleep. This morning at breakfast rumors were flying. Some people can see down the street to the Yeltsin office building. Some said that there were crowds out on Kalinnen Prospekt yelling “Yeltsin” “Yeltsin” and that the tanks turned back when they came upon the crowd. There is some hope that the fact that the tanks refused to fire means that the junta is going under. Some reports on the radio say that two junta members are “ill”. CNN doesn’t go on the air until 9:00, so there has been no outside news.
The memory of those tanks and the insecurity of not knowing what was going on and not being able to get in touch with people back home is still clear in my mind, Eventually the coup failed, Moscow was safe and soon we were able to return home and go on with our lives.
Shirley Temple’s coup adventure lasted longer than mine and had a far different ending. After days of confusion and conflicting news, many foreigners were finally able to leave Prague and Shirley played an heroic real life part in the drama. With the help of people from the U.S. State Department, she led a caravan of autos to the German border where they were able to escape from the Soviet’s takeover of Czechoslovakia. The events had a great impact on her and she spent most of the rest of her life in public service, working as White House Chief of Protocol, and eventually becoming an ambassador to Ghana and then to Czechoslovakia in 1989. She returned to Prague and lived in the palace, which is now the American embassy. As ambassador, she was able to welcome a more liberal government as it took power. She demonstrated both good judgment and star power in encouraging the Velvet Revolution that brought democracy to Czechoslovakia.
Eisen has chosen well in focusing on one building that saw the unfolding of so many historical trends during the 20th century. It is a welcome reminder of how history unfolds and how events in other countries impact American life. I strongly urge you to read it. Not only will you learn a lot of history, but you will also enjoy suspenseful stories about some amazing people.