Memory and the Vel d’Hiv
Monday marked the seventieth anniversary of the rafle du Vel d’Hiv, the mass arrest and deportation of Jewry from France, conducted by Nazi and some 9,000 Vichy police officers, on July 16 and 17, 1942. 12,884 Jews were penned into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the majority including 4,000 children for five days in the heat of summer with little sustenance, before movement onto Drancy and then Auschwitz. An official act of commemoration in the presence of President François Hollande will take place on Sunday, July 22.
A poll conducted by CSA for the French Union of Jewish Students has revealed that 67% of those aged between 15 and 17, 60% between 18 and 24, and 57% between 25 and 34 did not know of the round up of Jews into and out of the Vél d’Hiv. Across the entire population, 42% possessed no knowledge of the one of the most important events in the history of twentieth century France, indicitive of the nation’s struggle and oftentimes failure to face up to the hand it played in the Holocaust.
It was not until 1995 that the French government officially acknowledged that it had played any part in this most heinous of acts. “These dark hours soil our history forever and are an insult to our past and our traditions. The French and the French state seconded the occupying powers in their criminal folly”, Jacques Chirac proclaimed on Vél d’Hiv day in 1995. “France committed the irreparable”.
During the immediate postwar period, successive French premiers and in particular Charles de Gaulle considered it more important to construct a unifying French national identity, centred around the myth of mass resistance, than acknowledging the messy reality of occupation and collaboration. The Vichy regime was considered illegitimate and the work of a few bad eggs, an aberration in the history of a republic founded upon fraternal and egalitarian principles.
A shift in public awareness concerning Vichy and the Holocaust came only in the last twenty-five years of the century just past, following a succession of landmark cultural and political events. The publication of Robert Paxton’s Vichy France in 1973, for example, demonstrated the extent to which the Vichy government’s actions against the Jews were undertaken without prompting from Berlin.
In 1987 Klaus Barbie – the head of the Gestapo in Lyon during the occupation – was tried and convicted of crimes against humanity, at around the time Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film about the fate of Eastern European Jewry, Shoah, received its premiere on French television. 1993 saw the opening of proceedings against René Bousquet, responsible for organising the rafle du Vel d’Hiv, and his second-in-command Jean Leguay; in 1994, Paul Touvier was imprisoned for arranging the murder of seven Jewish hostages at Rillieux-la-Pape in 1944.
Political change followed the Touvier conviction and Chirac’s election in 1995. The president but one, François Mitterrand, had been a civil servant during Vichy and had arranged for the laying of wreathes on Marshall Pétain’s grave on Armistice Day in the late 1980s. Because of his tortured past, he refused to speak openly of France’s cooperation during the Holocaust through Vichy, even on the fiftieth anniversary of the rafle du Vel d’Hiv in 1992.
“Until the French understood Vichy as it was—and not as they had chosen to misrememeber it”, Tony Judt once wrote, could they begin to come to terms with the past. He also warned in the epilogue to Postwar that if Europeans are to maintain the vital links to its terrible past, then it will “have to be taught afresh with each passing generation”.
Germany has been at the forefront of Holocaust commemoration and remembrance in Europe precisely because each generation learns anew the horrors of their collective past. Now, twenty years removed from the last public debates concerning France’s role as collaborator following Chirac’s 1995 omission, it seems the nation and its schools have failed to reinforce the devoir de mémoire – duty to remember – and instil in its young people the gravity of France’s crimes during the Shoah.