The 1897 fire that destroyed the “Bazar de la Charité” was one of the saddest tragedies in European history. It still has something to teach us.
by Stefania Cerruti*
*Introduction to the webinar “Tai Ji Men: A Message of Charity, Conscience, and Human Rights,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on September 4, 2023, on the eve of the United Nations International Day of Charity.
My field is the study and prevention of disasters, and when I hear the word “charity” I associate it with one of the saddest disasters in European history, the fire at Paris’ Bazaar of Charity of May 4, 1897. The Bazaar of Charity was among the first of its kind in Europe and consisted of a sale of used items for the benefit of the poor. The aristocrats and the rich brought their goods there, and several of them worked in the Bazaar as volunteers.
The 1897 Bazaar was organized in a wooden warehouse including the reconstruction of a street in Medieval Paris, where houses were mostly built in wood. Unfortunately, wood is highly flammable. The installation included a movie theatre and at that time the projection lamps were fueled by ether. Refueling the ether, a worker made the mistake of lighting a match. The ether caught fire, and the fire extended to the whole installation. There were between 121 and 135 victims, according to different sources (which vary because the bodies of some people believed to be in the Bazaar were never found). Most of them were women, including the Duchess of Alençon, who was the sister of the famous Austrian Empress Elizabeth, popularly known as “Sissi” and featured in several well-known movies.
The fact that many victims were well-known aristocrats, artists, and part of Paris’ richest families made the fire one of the most commented upon disasters of the century. Unfortunately, the comments in France did not testify to a national unity in the face of a horrible tragedy. These were years of social struggles and of religious conflict between the Catholic Church and the state. A famous writer who liked to be hyper-provocative, Léon Bloy, wrote that this had been God’s vengeance against the French rich who oppressed the poor and believed they can wash their conscience with a well-publicized act of charity performed once a year only. At the funeral, in the presence of the French President of the Republic, the Catholic preacher also interpreted the fire as the punishment of God for the corruption and anti-Catholicism of the government.
This famous disaster may offer the opportunity for three short remarks about our webinar. First, without looking for metaphysical explanations (which belong to a literary genre that, used with moderation, may have its merits), modern historians tell us that the disaster happened because early movies projections did not have security standards. They were immediately introduced after the Bazaar case. Often the lack of preventative measures is the immediate cause of disasters. I am reminded here of the good work of Tai Ji Men during the COVID epidemic. While insisting on their teachings about conscience as a compass that should also guide us during disasters, Tai Ji Men proposed “5 do’s 3 don’ts & 6 tips” as effective preventative measures easy to adopt and capable of saving lives.
Second, France was probably unable to learn the lessons of the disaster because of the lack of social harmony prevailing at that time. This is another important teaching of Tai Ji Men. Conscience and love brings social harmony, but when conscience in society is lost, social disharmony causes injustice and disasters.
Third, one of the reasons the disaster of the Bazaar was followed by controversy rather than national unity is that Catholics had been affected by measures restricting freedom of religion or belief in France. These measures not only hit religionists but create disharmony in society in general. In this sense, Tai Ji Men’s struggle for freedom of religion or belief and against the injustices imposed on them preserves social harmony and benefits all Taiwanese. It is also, as this webinar will surely prove, their way of testifying to charity and love.