70 years ago last week (July 16-17, 1942), one of the darkest chapters in the history of France was being written. Without any warning and in the middle of the night, over 13,000 Jews (of an expected 22,000) were gathered by French police and taken to the Vel d'Hiv (velodrome d'hiver or winter cycle track) in Paris' 15th district.
The Vel d'Hiv roundup or Rafle du Vel d'Hiv was organized by German Nazi officials but methodically executed by French police and civil servants serving Marshall Philippe Pétain's war interim government in Vichy, France. In the meantime, the exiled French government under General Charles de Gaulle had relocated to London. Very little was done to prevent the damages. There were only about 100,000 French members of the Résistance and only a limited number of them was able to make a difference.
A roundup of that magnitude would have been impossible before 1940 because no religious census had taken place since 1874 in France. But in 1940, Jews were required to register their names and origins at the sous-prefecture (sub-prefecture) of the district where they lived. By the end of September 1940, things started to change radically for foreign Jews residing in France. A dossier of Jewish names quickly grew to over 150,000 names for the greater Paris area. Eventually, all Jews of France "citizens" or "foreigners" were at risk. 78,000 of them perished in the Holocaust.
Two days after the official rafle more Jews were gathered and sent to temporary French internment camps in Drancy, Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande to be added to the Vel d'Hiv internees. Final destination: Auschwitz!
My maternal grandfather Maurice Weinzveig was one of them as he was picked-up by the Gestapo on the morning of July 19, 1942 after having been exposed by a French neighbor who worked for the Paris Police Department. Maurice perished in the smokestacks of Auschwitz.
For over 50 years, the Vel d'Hiv Roundup , as if exonerated by self-righteous and pseudo-bien pensant French political leaders, had become a taboo subject in France. Excuses abounded!
"The Vichy government was not the official French government!"
"Pétain had no choice but to co-operate otherwise Germans would have done the job themselves"
"The events happened while the French republic was dismantled, thus France is not responsible "
...and on, and on, and on!!!
It is very shameful to realize that most of the French police and civil servants who were perpetrators in the Vel d'Hiv tragedy were still in office after the war, some for years to come like the infamous René Bousquet (Secretary-general of the National Police) who helped finance François Mitterrand 1986 presidential campaign. Incidentally, Mitterrand would never apologize and/or take ownership of the Vel d'Hiv massacre by French police.
It is not until 1995 (53 years later) that then French President Jacques Chirac spoke these words on July 16 at a Vel d'Hiv memorial:
These black hours will stain our history for ever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was assisted by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations... 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."
A few days ago, his message of ownership of the past mistakes and French responsibility was echoed in the words of new French President François Hollande who declared that: the crime was committed in France by France.
All this comes in the aftermath of the Toulouse massacre and an unavoidable resurgence of antisemitic acts all over France and much of Europe. Mr. Hollande really doesn't have much of a choice in that matter. He must display an iron fist against any kind of anti-Semitism. But this might soon prove to be more of a challenge for the man who was most likely put in office by the Muslim voting block in France.
Words are cheap, especially if they refer to the past. Unfortunately, the present offers ample opportunities to combat anti-Semitism in France (and much of the world for that matter).
Mr. Hollande, while you cannot change the past, thank you for taking ownership of the Vel d'Hiv massacre on behalf of France. Now, using the momentum acquired by your unequivocal speech of last Sunday, it is time to combat the present situation in order to alleviate the gloomy future of French Jewry.
I certainly hope you have it in you to do so, but I am afraid that France might end-up not being your strongest ally in keeping the Jewish people safe in France.