It was planned by German and French officials for July 14, 1942, until someone realized that Bastille Day might not be the best moment for a massive roundup of Jews in Nazi-occupied Paris.
Two days later, the operation went ahead, with 4,500 French police and gendarmes seeking out foreign-born Jews at the addresses they had registered with the French authorities. By late afternoon on July 17, 12,884 Jews, including 4,051 children, had been arrested and, for the most part, locked into an insalubrious cycling stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, or Vél’ d’Hiv. All but a handful would be sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.
For most of us, memories gradually fade. With France’s wartime persecution of Jews, the opposite is happening. For years, it barely existed as a memory. Yet, thanks to the work of scholars, lawyers, artists and a handful of politicians, awareness of this deep stain on modern French history continues to grow.
This week’s 70th anniversary of La rafle du Vél’ d’Hiv, as the round-up is known, is the latest reminder of a past that resists burial. And with it come fresh opportunities to underline the perils of racial and religious intolerance, then and now.
An exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, the city hall, publicized in posters across the city, dwells on the 11,400 children, half from Paris, who were among the 76,000 Jews deported during the 1940-44 occupation.
Among the displays are teenagers’ identity cards stamped “JUIF” and photographs of Jewish families prior to their arrest, as well as letters and drawings sent from transit camps by children soon to be deported. In one log of 10 pupils at a Paris primary school, “déporté” is scribbled beside four names.
The Vél’ d’Hiv round-up is itself the focus of a smaller show at the town hall of the 3rd Arrondissement as well as of a free 80-page booklet published by the city government. Here, too, the responsibility of the French police and the collaborationist Vichy regime is no longer played down.
Countries rarely address dark chapters in their past until they can no longer avoid doing so. Even then, how far back should the clock be turned? To the European-run slave trade? To the suffering of Indians and Africans in the United States? To the behavior of Europe’s imperial powers in Africa and Asia? To American backing of oppressive dictatorships in all too many countries? And since new dark chapters continue to be written around the world today, can the past ever catch up?
Following armed conflicts, victors’ justice is routinely applied. But even after a revolution, it is not always easy to assign blame for past suffering. And when a dictatorship steps down as part of a negotiated transition, amnesties usual postpone any reckoning. Take Spain: Thirty years of democracy were needed before the crimes committed by Gen. Francisco Franco’s forces in the 1936-39 civil war could be addressed. Or Brazil: Its military regime left office in 1985, but only this year was a Truth Commission created to examine its abuses.
France’s postwar experience was ambiguous. Its liberation in August 1944 was followed by punishment of tens of thousands of collaborators, some executed summarily, others following trials and many more sentenced to jail. But the priority of its new leader, Charles de Gaulle, was to earn France a place alongside the victorious Allies. This meant stressing resistance rather than collaboration. It was not until the 1970s that Robert O. Paxton’s book, “Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944,” and movies like Marcel Ophüls’s “The Sorrow and the Pity,” began undermining this myth.
Meanwhile, little attention was paid to the fate of France’s Jews. During the post-liberation trials, the crime of denouncing or even ordering the arrest and deportation of Jews was not included among the charges. By the time the 2,000 surviving Jewish deportees from France returned, the country had moved on.
Soon the Cold War began to freeze over a good part of this history. And once France and Germany began working together to build a new Europe, the specificity of what happened to France’s Jews was somehow overlooked.
In fact, even in the 1980s, when campaigning by the French Nazi-hunter, Serge Klarsfeld, resulted in the trial of Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief in Lyon, French involvement in persecuting Jews was not highlighted. Further, the then president, François Mitterrand, who had himself worked for Vichy before joining the resistance, claimed that the French republic — as distinct from the “illegal” Vichy regime — had no reason to apologize to the Jews.
But Mr. Klarsfeld and others kept plugging away. René Bousquet, Vichy’s one-time police chief, was murdered by an unbalanced assassin before he could come to trial. But Paul Touvier, a pro-Nazi militia leader, and Maurice Papon, a senior Vichy official in Bordeaux, were both belatedly condemned for crimes against Jews.
Finally, in 1995, France’s new president, Jacques Chirac, issued an apology to Jews on behalf of France. Since then, this long hidden story has been increasingly aired in books, exhibitions, movies and television docudramas.
Since 2002, many Paris schools where Jewish children were picked up by French police carry plaques remembering these “innocent victims of Nazi barbarity with the active complicity of the government of Vichy.” In 2010, two movies, “La Rafle” and “Elle s’appelait Sarah” (“Sarah’s Key”), portrayed the French role in the Vél d’Hiv round-up.
The Hôtel de Ville exhibition, then, is part of an ongoing education process.
Even so, placing blame for what happened remains complex. Yes, Vichy was guilty. But the rest of France? Anti-Semitism was widespread in France in the 1930s and this was reinforced by Nazi and Vichy propaganda. Some French denounced Jews to the police and others moved into homes left empty by deportees.
At the same time, of the 320,000 Jews in France in 1940, three-quarters survived the occupation, in many cases thanks to protection by Protestant groups, Catholic convents and individual families. So there is also a more uplifting side to the story. But it can only decently be told now that the darker truth is finally being accepted.
Alan Riding a former reporter for The New York Times, is the author of And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris.