This exhibition, held last autumn at Paris’s Town Hall as part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv’ (Vélodrome d’Hiver) roundup, the mass arrest of French Jews in July 1942, was organised under the auspices of the mayor of Paris (admission free). It was timely in that the French have been slow in acknowledging their part in the Holocaust thanks largely to the belief, fostered by General de Gaulle, that all Frenchmen conducted themselves with rectitude and even heroism during the War and were not tainted by collaboration with the German occupiers.
I did not see the exhibition but French friends found it deeply moving and sent me the English catalogue, which gives a detailed description of the contents of the exhibition. It recounts the history of mass arrests by the French police, with tens of thousands, including many children, eventually sent to extermination camps following a cruel stay in the overcrowded Vel d'Hiv. In the notorious round-up of July 1942, almost 14,000 Jews were arrested, many of them children. More than half of the 11,400 children deported from France between 1942 and 1944 were Parisians. These stark figures are a reminder that the French police not only followed instructions from their German masters but frequently did so with alacrity.
The exhibition tells a tragic and moving story. Arrests began as early as August 1941, at the request of the Gestapo, followed by internment in the notorious Drancy camp in the suburbs of Paris. The first deportation to Auschwitz took place in March 1942. Hundreds of French Jews were arrested by the German authorities as a reprisal for attacks by members of the Resistance, followed by deportation. Pierre Laval, head of the government at that time, asked that children should be arrested alongside their parents, and this was done.
In the Vel d‘Hiv round-up, more than 12,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, almost all French, were assembled in the stadium in deplorable conditions that led to epidemics and some deaths. Some were sent to Drancy and others to the Loiret camps, where conditions were equally horrendous - gross overcrowding, poor hygiene, epidemics and starvation. Many children were separated from their parents and left to their own devices.
On the positive side, the exhibition also describes the many attempts to help and rescue some of the children. By November 1941 Jewish welfare organisations were officially closed down and a new Union Générale des Israelites de France, which ran children’s homes and clinics, was created under the auspices of the Vichy state. But many of the welfare organisations – Jewish, Christian and secular – continued to function clandestinely, creating a nationwide network for the rescue of children. Some children were smuggled into non-Jewish families in Paris and others were taken out of Paris with ‘carers’ paid to look after them. Funding came from a variety of sources, much of it from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and between 1941 and 1944 up to 2,000 Parisian children were thus saved. In France as a whole, some 10,000 children were saved thanks to the existence of the rescue networks. The majority of foster families did not attempt to convert the children but there were exceptions, such as the Sisters of the St Vincent de Paul Convent, who not only converted their charges but were reluctant to return them to their guardians at the end of the war.
So, once again, we have a picture of great cruelty on the part of the state and the police and the indifference of the majority of citizens, tempered by the brave and selfless actions of individuals and Catholic organisations who, by helping Jews, put themselves at considerable risk. A great many French Jews, probably the majority, survived the war. Vive la France after all?