Friday, July 16, 2010

July Dates in France: The highs of the 14th and the lows of the 16th

Mid-July is a time for celebration here in France. Like our 4th of July festivities in the U.S., all across France families gather to celebrate their independence day on the 14th. However, there is another event that occurred in mid-July here in France that is not the cause for celebration. It is called Le Vel d’Hiv.

On July 16, 1942, French Police under orders from Pierre Laval and the Vichy Government who were at the time, cooperating with the occupying Nazi regime, began a series of roundups in Paris’ Jewish neighborhoods. There are differing accounts on who gave what orders for these “arrests”. Some claim that there was a certain number of men that the French police were ordered to detain while others say that entire families should be arrested in an attempt to quell public outrage that families were being broken up. None of that really matters because in the end, the reasons were simple. One group wanted to eradicate another and the reasons behind this objective can never be truly understood.  It is unfortunate that at this time France’s leaders were cooperating as though they were on board with Hitler’s mission.

Over the course of two days in July of 1942, Parisian police rounded up 13,000 Jewish residents and corralled them until July 19th at a sporting arena called the VĂ©lodrome d’Hiver. Just to put this in perspective, 42,000 French Jews were deported to Polish death camps that year so nearly a third of those people were taken from Paris on these two days in July.

Planning for this event started the previous month and considering there had been other series of arrests during the spring of that year, rumors did begin to surface. There were undoubtedly people working in government offices who, upon learning of this secret mission, helped to quietly warn Jewish families. Some accounts of this event indicate that many people thought that the police would come to arrest just the men. Other accounts indicate that the Nazi forces asked for only people over the age of 16. Regardless of what was supposed to happen, 3,118 men, 5,919 women, and 4,115 children were forcibly removed from their homes and most were sent to their deaths. If you look at those figures and note that the women outnumber the men by nearly double, it seems reasonable to conclude that many of the men were in hiding. Perhaps some of them had already been arrested but it could be an indication that people may had heard rumors of a round-up and thought they were coming for just the men.

These people were held at the VĂ©lodrome d’Hiver for 3 or 4 days with no food, water or sanitary conditions. Disease spread, babies were born, and people died. It immediately conjures up thoughts of the Superdome in New Orleans during the recent Hurricane Katrina. Inhumane conditions. The kind that if you really wrap your head around, your stomach will turn.

Between July 19th and 22nd the Jewish people were transported by train to either Drancy, which was a French internment camp, or Auschwitz. From some accounts I have read, men and childless couples were sent directly to Auschwitz and mothers and their children were sent to Drancy. What is seemingly in agreement amongst all sources is that at some point, children were forcibly and fearfully removed from their parents and left to their own devices at Drancy. Eventually, all these Jews were sent to a death camp.

What I find stunning is that a single event like this, that accounts for a third of the number of Jews deported from France in 1942, got so buried in history. Did you know about it? I certainly didn’t, and my husband who grew up in England didn’t learn about it either. I’d even bet that French school children don’t hear much of it as well.

I first heard of the Vel d’Hiv in February of this year when on a Sunday afternoon I picked up the book, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay and the rest of my life stopped. I could not put it down. Tatiana de Rosnay tells two stories in alternating chapters. Both set in Paris. One, of Sarah who lives in the Marais in 1942 and the other, of Julia, a woman in present-day in a troubled marriage who is about to inherit an apartment. In the Marais. If I could recommend one book right now, this would be it. It grabs you from the first chapter and doesn’t let you go. You will find not only sorrow and grief in this book but also hope and tenderness.

Knowing I would be here in Paris on July 16th I have been rereading sections of the book to gain a better understanding of where all the events took place in the city. When you read the book, because you must, you will then understand why I will be thinking of all the Sarahs from 1942 today.

(The photos in today's post were take at the Bir-Hakeim metro station which is one you might use to go to the Eiffel Tower)

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