Hiding Places: Secrets the Walls Tell

You’ve heard the saying, “If walls could talk.” It is a sentence fragment, an incomplete thought, a fill-in-the-blank. Perhaps it should be written like this—“If walls could talk…?”—since it is an implied question. Traveling extensively in some of Europe’s ancient cities, this unspoken question—what would they, i.e., the walls, say?—has come to mind many times.

To give you some historical perspective, my office is in Birmingham, Alabama’s “historic district.” The word “historic” must be understood rather loosely. The building was constructed in 1910. Since Birmingham was founded in 1871, this is, by Birmingham standards, an old neighborhood. By comparison, a few days ago I stood in the ruins of a French village founded in the sixteenth century and yet there is no signage to indicate that it has any historical significance whatsoever. It is just a forgotten ruin in a forest. And this is because it is neither especially unique nor especially old. (The nearest town was founded in the thirteenth century.)

Architecture can tell you a lot about a people: what their economy was based on, their standard of living, their priorities, the size of their families, and whether they enjoyed peace or lived under the continual threat of invasion and war. That Versailles screams prosperity goes without saying, but it’s most impressive architectural feature is the one that is missing: walls. Where other European monarchs built massive fortress-like palaces to protect themselves (think Windsor Castle or the Kremlin), Louis XIV did nothing of the kind. The Sun King was making much more than a fashion statement when he decided to dispense with walls; he was making a statement about his own power: other kings need protection from the people they rule. I don’t.

Another intriguing (and not uncommon) characteristic of some pre-war French buildings is hidden rooms. Speaking of Parisians and this phenomenon, one historian wrote that they had a “fixation” with “secret and narrow spaces.” Many old chateaux, maisons, and apartments are now known to have hidden doors, passages, and stairways leading to carefully concealed rooms. They are not there merely to entertain children and dinner guests as they do today. No, they signal something much more sinister. They indicate that the occupants (and the architects) lived through dark times. I mean, who goes to the considerable trouble and expense of constructing such spaces? People who are terrified and have reason to fear for their lives. In the case of France, these rooms were there to provide places of (potential) safety during the Inquisition, The French Wars of Religion, The Reign of Terror, and, more recently, the German Occupation of France (1940-44).

At Labastide there is such a space. One imagines Jews hiding there during la grande rafle—a countrywide sweep of Jews who had not yet managed to flee abroad. Or maybe it was Frenchmen who were being hunted by the Gestapo and the Milice who used these places of refuge. Knowing something of the terrible history of this country we see these rooms with a mixture of fascination and horror. Who built them and what were they afraid of? Did they ever use them? Were they caught or did they survive? Who knew that a chateau could say so much about the evil that is innate to the human condition? The Latin proverb Homo homini lupus is true: Man is wolf to man.

The first recorded instance of people hiding is found in Genesis 3:8. After The Fall, Adam and Eve, fearing the Lord’s judgment, hid themselves among the trees of the garden. Man has been hiding from God—and from one another—ever since. Still, you’d think that we would have learned by now that the former cannot be trusted while the latter, which is our only real refuge, can. What? You say your home doesn’t have a secret hiding place and doesn’t need one? Give us time. America’s history is still very young.

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