Forty-two years ago last week, on July 16 and 17th 1942, French police and municipal agents carried out Opération Vent printanier. Over 12,000 Jews, including approximately 4,000 children, were arrested in Paris and imprisoned in the Vélodrome d’hiver. Police entered apartments and went to the windows to stop Jews from escaping or committing suicide, as some did. Neighbours witnessed these acts. Families were removed, marched through the streets, put on busses. Although some French families did shelter Jews (the target was to round-up 25,000 Jews for deportation that day), many simply watched as their neighbours were taken away by les gendarmes. The Vélodrome d’hiver, more commonly known as the Vel d’hiv, was an old cycling stadium where the Jews were held for several days with little access to food, water, or sanitation. It was unbearably hot, people were sick, starving, scared. Some committed suicide in the stadium. After several days, the Jews were transported to Austerlitz, sent by train to Beaune-la-Rolande and then on to their deaths at Auschwitz. Of the over 12,000 deported, approximately 25 survived. Two children managed to escape from Beaune-la-Rolande.
After the Shoah, many Jews who survived were reluctant to talk about their experiences. French society certainly did not want to hear about them. Few texts or first-hand memoirs of the Shoah were published in France during this time, and those that were met with little interest from the general public. It was not until the 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie that the Shoah was thrust back into the general consciousness of the French public and its remaining Jewish community. At this time there was a noticeable increase in memoirs written by Jewish survivors. Many who had kept silent for decades began to relate small parts of their experience to their families. However, the general narrative that practically every French citizen had been a member of la Résistance continued. It was not until 1995 that French officials apologized for their role in the deportation of Jews, and the Catholic Church in France followed suit in 1997. Even after this, French society has been reluctant to acknowledge anti-Semitism, beyond admitting that Jews were killed and France was complicit. This is why, when Roselyne Bosch began working on the film La Rafle (released in 2010), which depicts the events of July 16 and 17 1942, she was told that it was “too soon” and that France was not ready for this film. Seventy years later was too soon. Bosch made her film, and it was relatively successful. Although the film is profoundly disturbing, it sanitizes much of what took place, including the treatment of Jews at Beaune-la-Rolande. A small boy, Nono, miraculously survives a train to Auschwitz, leaving viewers with a completely false trickle of hope at the end of the film. Was this put in because a true depiction of events would have been too much for French viewers to handle? Joseph Weismann, one of the few survivors of Opération Vent printanier, visited the set of the film several times. Weismann visited the set of the staged Vel d’hiv (it is no longer standing), and was overwhelmed by the director’s ability to recreate the horrific stench that permeated the stadium during his imprisonment. His daughter, who visited the set with him, informed him there was no smell. So powerful were his memories of his final days with his family.
Memories of the Vel d’hiv were stifled and repressed, left unacknowledged by French society for decades. Finally, a small monument was built in Paris, it is located on the Seine, but it is obscure and there is little to mark it. A tourist may happen to stumble upon it, but it is not easy to find. The text on the monument reads as follows:
La République française
En hommage aux victimes des persécutions
Racistes et antisémites et des crimes
Contre l’humanité commis sous l’autorité de fait dite
Gouvernement de l’état français 1940-1944
So very vague and absolving. There is another memorial at the former site of the Vel d’hiv, which is largely maintained by the Jewish community. It is nestled in amongst other businesses on the street, visible but easy to walk past without much thought unless the passerby knows why it is there.
Some believed France was not ready for the film La Rafle, but Europe was certainly ready to Irène Némirovksy’s Suite française. Over 60 years after it was written, Némirovsky’s daughters began typing the hand-written manuscript their father gave them prior to his arrest and deportation. Suite française was publiched in 2006 and proved very popular. It is interesting to note one of the most popular books written by a French Jew during the Shoah focuses entirely on life in France, for the French during the Occupation. There are no scared or suffering Jews in her work. But there are many French citizens in turmoil, which is also a factual reality of the period. Némirovsky does not delve into the Shoah at all in her text, in fact several of her other writings are considered anti-Semitic in their portrayal of Jews. She wrote under a pen name when Jews were being persecuted in France. She was arrested at her home and deported to Auschwitz where she was killed, she never finished writing Suite française.
Official France has acknowledged its involvement in the deportation of Jews during the Shoah, but this does not necessarily translate to the public at large. Reluctance to tackle this issue head on has stemmed from many places. Human nature dictates that people prefer to remember the heroes of la Résistance, or the Catholic priests who hid Jewish children (see Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants) – but these stories have overshadowed some of the darker parts of France’s history which need to be carefully and honestly examined in order for the public to move forward in a healthy way. Albert Memmi, in his semi-autobiographical book La Statue de sel, wrote of witnessing pogroms in his childhood home of Tunisia. He idolized France and “la civilisation” it represented to him. Mordekhaï, the protagonist, finds his vision of the world upended when German soldiers arrive in France (it is World War 2) and the French colonial police help them round up the Jews to be sent to camps. (As an aside, Memmi was anti-colonial and anti-Israel). Seventy years later, the marriage of the groups who targeted Jews in Memmi’s book – Arab Muslims, French officials and parts of the public – are joining forces in France to denounce Israel and target France’s remaining Jewry. While French politicians denounce anti-Semitism in one sentence, they say rioters have legitimate grievances in the next (see Manuel Vallis). For years anti-Semitic rioters have been hiding behind their right to protest against Israel – emboldened by a public that does nothing to challenge them and may largely sympathize with them – these groups are so emboldened that they now run about Paris and its suburbs attacking Jews and Jewish businesses. And there is no mass public outcry. In fact the only crying in the streets has been to kill the Jews. In France. In 2014.