This Day in History: The Rafle du Vel d’Hiv

July 16-17, 1942 – Over 13,000 Jews are arrested in Paris, including four thousand children

More than half were crammed into a Paris velodrome known as the “Vel d’Hiv.” There were no bathrooms; the only food came from too-rare visits by Red Cross and Quaker relief workers; and the only water came from a single pump drawing untreated water straight from the Seine. After five to seven days of being held in such appalling conditions, those who hadn’t elected to commit suicide or been shot trying to escape were taken to transit camps like Drancy and then to Auschwitz.

The round-ups continued. By summer’s end, over 40,000 Jews had spent time in Drancy, awaiting east-bound trains. Few returned.

Jews in Paris, 1942
Jewish women in occupied Paris, June 1942 – Bundesarchiv

As this kind of reckoning goes, there were more dangerous places in the Nazi Empire to be a Jew than France. The Baltic Republics, Russia, Poland, Germany itself… After all, about 75% of France’s Jewish citizens survived the Holocaust. (For more on France and the Holocaust, see articles from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies.)

But to many observers (including many of the French themselves), France’s participation in the Holocaust is far worse than statistics make it look. The Rafle du Vel d’Hiv is in many ways the epicenter of that moral failure, and its commemoration epitomizes the nation’s struggles to come to grips with the period 1940-1945. It is one of the pivotal moments, for example, in Marcel Ophüls’ documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, which did so much to end the national forgetting of the Gaullist era and initiate the painful, dislocating remembering documented in Henry Rousso’s study entitled The Vichy Syndrome.

On July 16, 1995, President Jacques Chirac finally issued a national apology for the Vel d’Hiv, which had proceeded thanks to the willing participation of hundreds of French policemen, bureaucrats, and leaders. Two sentences of his speech are especially revealing:

France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.

It’s an odd kind of nationalism, but Chirac was expressing a sentiment that was simultaneously penitential and immodest: France was far better than it behaved on July 16-17, 1942.

First, France, and its cosmopolitan capital in particular, had for centuries been a place of refuge — for Jews, as for others forced from home because of politics, warfare, religious persecution, economic trials, etc. (I suspect this also colors Dutch memories of collaboration, given that nation’s even longer tradition of hospitality and toleration.) That held true as Nazi persecution spread from Germany to the rest of Europe. By June 1940, less than half of the 350,000 Jews living in France were citizens of the country.

Defenders of the collaborationist prime minister of the Vichy regime, Pierre Laval (executed after the war), claimed that his government did what it could to protect French Jews, pointing to the “75% survived” number. But, of course, this argument rests on the admission that French officials handed over non-French refugees to save French Jewry. Whether that’s true or not, the Vel d’Hiv — whose victims were primarily refugees from Central Europe — exemplified the abject failure of France to protect its guests who had claimed sanctuary. In the end… Of the 77,000 Jews living in France who died in the Shoah, only a third held French citizenship.

It’s also telling, then, that Chirac described his country not only as “land of welcome and asylum,” but as “home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” For even if the sacrifice of refugees saved the lives of its Jewish citizens at a rate surpassing that of France’s neighbors, such a national victory came at the cost of staining France’s self-identity as the birthplace of universal virtues like “liberty, equality, fraternity” and “the rights of man.” (Slogans very much out of favor with the right-wing National Revolution that followed the surrender of June 1940 and shaped the Vichy government.)

Drancy Memorial
Drancy Memorial – Creative Commons (Philipp Hertzog)

As The Economist argued in a 2010 article, positive public response to a “hard-hitting but even-handed” feature film about La Rafle (“neither vilifying all Parisians as collaborators nor glorifying the courage of a few”) seemed to validate the contention of then-President Nicolas Sarkozy that it was time to put an end to an “unending cycle of repentance for past wrongs.” (See on how the initial wave of national forgetting and mythmaking swung far in the other direction after 1968, towards obsessive remembering and accusation.) Of course, the new French president represents a very different political tradition than Sarkozy, but it’s not clear that François Hollande, when he speaks at a 70th anniversary ceremony next Sunday on the site of the Vel d’Hiv (the velodrome was destroyed after a fire in 1959), will want to go too far beyond what Chirac already said in 1995.

At the same time, the end of repentance does not demand the end of remembrance. So it’s well that there are physical reminders placed where the Vel d’Hiv and camp at Drancy once stood. But there should also be temporal markers as well.

The 1942 round-up was postponed by a couple of days to avoid comparisons with Bastille Day, which celebrated a revolution that granted French Jews full rights of citizenship. But even as the French continue to celebrate their revolution, it’s perhaps well that a very different kind of anniversary is so close to 14 juillet, lest the nation be tempted to think too highly of its own history.


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