This week marks the 70th anniversary of one of the darkest days in the history
of French Jewry. In the early morning hours of July 16, 1942, French police
descended on Jewish neighborhoods and proceeded to arrest 13,152 Jews, including
5,802 women and 4,051 children.
Most of those detained were taken to the
Velodrome d’Hiver, a cycling track located in Paris’ 15th arrondissement near
the Eiffel Tower. The lavatories had been sealed close to prevent escape, and
there was only one water tap and very little food available.
a week of confinement in inhuman conditions, the prisoners were taken to one of
several concentration camps before being deported to Auschwitz, where nearly all
of them were murdered.
The Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, as it came to be known,
was the subject of a bestselling novel, Sarah’s Key, which was made into a film
The roundup heralded the beginning of the end for Jews living in
Within two months, an additional 23,000 Jews were
arrested in Paris and other parts of the country. And by August 1944, a total of
80,000 Jews had been sent from France to Auschwitz, of whom just 2,000, or 2.5
And so the country that had proudly declared its motto
to be “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality and brotherhood”)
turned its back on those values and instead embraced mass murder and iniquity.
The vile Vichy regime, headed by Marshal Philipe Petain, collaborated with the
Nazis and sought to put an end to the Jewish presence in France.
those swept up in the maelstrom were Isaac Kottler, my grandmother’s first
cousin, and his wife, Anna. A journalist and book lover, Isaac is said to have
amassed a large collection of volumes. Though he had been born in St. Petersburg
in 1902, he chose to leave behind the chaos of Russia and settled in
When my grandmother visited him in Paris before the war, he
showed her his most prized possession: A family tree that stretched back to the
expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. It showed that our ancestors had lived
in Toledo, and traced the journey of their wanderings across Europe down through
During the war, Isaac and Anna somehow managed to obtain
visas to enter British-occupied Palestine. But they did not live to use them
because some time during the summer of 1942, they were arrested by the French
police and taken to the concentration camp in the northeastern Paris suburb of
Then, on September 2, 1942, Isaac and Anna were deported on
Transport 27 to Auschwitz, where the Germans and their henchmen murdered them.
All of Isaac’s library and possessions were confiscated or destroyed, along with
the family tree. They did not have any children, and we have no photographs or
mementos of them.
When most people think of France, they conjure thoughts
of a fine Bordeaux with its complex aromas, or a creamy Roquefort cheese. But
when I think of France, the last thing that comes to mind is material
Instead, I harbor a great deal of anger and
Sure, you might be thinking, but why allow the events of 70
years ago to cast a shadow over the present? The answer is really very simple.
To forget what was done would be an act of betrayal toward all those who
perished, and to brush it aside would constitute an unforgivable crime against
history, humanity and the Jewish people.
The fact is that it was French
police who arrested my grandmother’s cousin and his wife. And French gendarmes
who guarded them, herded them onto the cattle cars, and sent them off to die in
the gas chambers.
The Germans, of course, bear ultimate responsibility
for the Holocaust, but France’s Vichy regime was shamefully complicit in the
murders, and it took more than five decades for the French government to even
bother to acknowledge its culpability.
Only in 1995, after years of
stonewalling, did president Jacques Chirac admit that France was responsible for
the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup.
But the story does not end there.
than a decade, Holocaust survivors have tried to hold the French state-owned
railway, Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF) liable for the
role it played in the deportation of the Jews to their deaths.
company apologized for its role in the Holocaust, it claims it was forced to
transport the Jews.
How do you say “I was just following orders” in
French? In the US, a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen has submitted
a bill called the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, which would make it possible for
survivors to bring claims in US federal court against the company.
act of incredible cynicism, SNCF has hired a team of lobbyists to fight the bill
and, according to Legal Times, it has spent more than $270,000 so far this year
on the effort.
So instead of compensating the victims, the French railway
prefers instead to line the pockets of lobbyists.
This is an absolute
disgrace and it behooves anyone who cares about justice to speak out. If you
live in the US, contact your elected representatives and press them to support
the bill (more information can be found on the website of the Coalition for
Holocaust Rail Justice at http://holocaustrailvictims.org/).
I do not think we can ever forgive the Germans or their collaborators for what
they did to our people.
The passage of time in no way ameliorates their
collective responsibility for participating in genocide.
like it or not, they owe a debt to the Jewish people that will last until the
end of time.
But the least that SNCF and the French government can do is
to provide a measure of compensation to the elderly Holocaust survivors who
suffered as a result of their actions. This elementary act of justice is long