(Globes, Tel Aviv/ TNS) - La Bellevilleoise is a sprawling art and culture center that hosts crowds for regular live world music concerts in Paris. Opened in 1877, it was the first cooperative venture in the city, located in the working class eastern 20th district, home to the revolutionary leftist Paris Commune uprising in 1870. But in 1942, the collaborationist Vichy government used the noble cultural center, from where food and clothing were distributed to the working poor, to participate in one of the most infamous events in modern French history.
Before World War II, at the beginning of the 20th century, the 20th arrondissement, or district, was settled by thousands of Jewish immigrants from eastern and central Europe. They included the parents of Rachel Jedinak, from Warsaw.
Rachel remembers the first time she went to La Bellevilleoise, when she was eight years old. “There were hundreds of us, crowded into a hot room,” she recalls. “Children and mothers were crying. We were helpless. It was awful.”
Rachel was not attending a language class for new immigrants (she was born in Paris) or a concert. It was July 16, 1942. The eight-year-old, her 14-year-old sister and her mother were among more than 12,000 Jews rounded up by French police across Paris that day and the next.
They were part of a group taken from their apartments by French policemen in the 20th district and parked nearby in La Bellevilleoise. From there, they were bussed to the Velodrome d’Hiver, the now infamous bicycle racing stadium in western Paris torn down many years ago that gave its name to the round-up, la Rafle du Vel d’Hiv. From there the next stop was the internment camp in Drancy north of the city, and weeks or months later, depending on the convoy number, the final destination was Auschwitz.
Except for eight-year-old Rachel Jedinak and her 14-year-old sister. They were not taken to the Vel d’Hiv . Rachel explained the events that saved her life to Globes at the ceremony for the anniversary of the Rafle, the Round-up, organized every year by the CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish organizations, and attended by the prime minister and other dignitaries and community figures.
Her mother realized that, contrary to what they had been told by the police, they were not being taken to work somewhere outside of Paris, Rachel tells me. She stops to greet other elderly survivors, perhaps 20 in all, in a special section of the event. As ever year, it is held along the Seine River next to the site of the former stadium, now an ugly high rise apartment development. With traffic blocked off by dozens of heavily armed police, the ceremony was attended by perhaps 500 guests, by invitation only, for security reasons.
“Why round up children and the elderly to work,” Rachel continues. “My mother told us, ‘girls, get out of here now’, and pushed us towards the edge of the crowd. Two policemen disgusted by the situation looked the other way and we got out. My mother and all the others were taken to the Vel d’Hiv and then to Drancy….and then to Auschwitz.”
She saw her mother once more, from a distance with binoculars, standing hidden in a field outside the Drancy camp. Others with family members held prisoner in the camp also went to the field, until the French police found out.
“Somehow my mother saw us and motioned with her arm for us to get away,” Rachel says. “She knew the police were tracking us. I was crying. I was eight years old. I never saw her again.”
Rachel can tell her story with little display of strong emotion. She has been telling it for years to high school students throughout France. She helped found the group that has placed plaques in schools all over Paris, each with the names of Jewish students deported from the school. They began in 1997 at the school on the rue Tlemscen in the 20th district, her former school.
Why wait until 1997? Because it was not until 1995 at this same ceremony organised by the CRIF that then President Jacques Chirac officially, for the first time, held the French Vichy government and its police, not their Nazi German overlords, directly responsible for the Vel d’HIV round-up, and the deportation of French Jews in general.
And once the responsibility had been taken officially, the process of transmission and education could begin.
“This has been our role, to explain to the young people what happened during the war,” says Rachel. “I even went back to La Bellevilleoise 55 years later, to the part of the building now called La Maroquinerie, another small concert site and restaurant. I spoke to a crowd there and brought them to tears with my story. And with pressure from local 20th district officials on the owner of La Bellevilleoise, I convinced him to put up a plaque there as well. He was against it, saying people came there to have fun. But the plaque simply had to be put up.”
By now the ceremony had begun. And one could say that Rachel Jedinak has been successful in transmitting the history of the deportation of Jews by the Vichy government. But the job facing the French government and the CRIF is more complicated.
First, the selected guests heard from an elderly survivor who cried on stage, the grandson of a Righteous Gentile who saved Jews during the war (two thirds of France’s Jews survived the war, often hidden by their non-Jewish countrymen), and then from the always hard-hitting Nazi-tracking lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, who over the years has compiled a file on every deportee from France.
What he tells the crowd is chilling. “Nobody under the age of 15 deported in August 1942 survived,” he says. “Seven women out of 2,700 deported then were still alive in 1945.” Not for nothing that he founded the original group, the Sons and Daughters of Deported French Jews. His own father was deported.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe repeats the often-stated mantra that indifference is the enemy in the fight against anti-Semitism and racism. He says, “President Jacques Chirac said on July 16, 1995 that in this fight, nothing is insignificant, nothing is banal, nothing can be discounted,” adding, “I am paying close attention to proposals on how to deal with racism and hatred on the Internet.”
Not very interesting. What can he say? Perhaps it is that France is basking in the glory of its World Cup victory, and would like to forget about anti-Semitism and terrorism for a little while.
CRIF President Francis Kalifat was more to the point, noting that anti-Semitism had evolved into larger attacks, a form of terrorism against France itself, by a small group, mostly members North African Muslim society here.
“Historians and deportees themselves have opened the doors of education about the Holocaust, , but now anti-Semitic attacks and terrorism against France come from the same sources and are often one and the same thing,” he told the gathering. “The state does have a plan to fight this on the Internet, but more must be done.”
A major challenge for Kalifat and the CRIF has been to find partners from within French Muslim communities to fight the hatred and violence propagated on Internet websites and in prisons.
“We have always had partners in the fight against hatred,” he told me after the ceremony. “This battle is not just about Jews in France anymore. It concerns everyone. All partners are welcome.”
True, but any Muslim group leaders publicly associated with the CRIF and Jews in France have been showered with ridicule, disdain and even hate from many of their own community members.
Kalifat knows this. He frowns. “We must go further,” he continues. “We must get Internet heavyweights on board in this fight against hatred. The Internet is an extraordinary tool, but in the wrong hands….” He shakes his head and goes off to do a TV interview.
Back to Rachel Jedinak for a moment. Has she ever thought in terms of revenge for her loss and the difficult life she has led? “My revenge is being alive,” she says. “In Yiddish, we say, wir zinnen do, we are here. I have been married, with a child and two grandchildren. I am in good health. We must be vigilant, but we are alive.”
She smiles. Zeit gezint. To your health. But for the CRIF, and for the French government, the battle against anti-Semitism and terrorism continues, and appears to be uphill.
© 2018 Copyright of Globes, distributed by Tribune Content Agency.