A chilling reminder

Marking the 70th anniversary of “Vel d’Hiv:” The largest mass arrest of Jews in Nazi-occupied France.

OSE (photo credit: Avec l'aimable autorisation de l'OSE)
(photo credit: Avec l'aimable autorisation de l'OSE)
The 70th anniversary of an episode so single-minded in its efficiency and so chilling in its brutality that it defies comprehension passed by recently, virtually unnoticed.
The “Vel d’Hiv Roundup” in July 1942 was the largest mass arrest of Jews in Nazi-occupied France. It involved 7,000 French police – with not a German soldier in sight. Fifty buses were provided by the Paris Public Transport Company, plus 10 coaches with sealed windows. The instructions were clear: no discussion with those being arrested; pets and keys to be handed to the concierge or neighbor.
Working from lists which they had compiled, the gendarmes arrested 13,152 Jews – 5,919 women, 4,115 children, 3,118 men. Single adults and couples were transported to holding camps, while families were interned for five days in the Velodrome d’Hiver, the winter bicycle stadium.
Jewish doctors were permitted into the Velodrome, as were nurses and Quakers who provided soup, serving it directly into cupped hands.
The doctors’ authority to recommend hospitalization was limited to “life-threatening haemorrhaging,” “contagious epidemic illnesses,” “amputations of at least one leg” and “women more than four months pregnant.” This meant 300 children suffering scarlet fever, measles, tuberculosis and appendicitis were refused evacuation; many died as a result.
The only level surfaces were the field in the center of the Velodrome and surrounding track; these were forbidden to the Jews, who were restricted to the spectator benches, subjected to harsh light and vulnerable to contagious disease. Five committed suicide.
Remarkably, the inhumanity was kept from the public. Media looked away. Seemingly, no one took photographs, captured footage or saw anything amiss. A month later, the Communist L’Humanité Clandestine reported bizarrely that a “monstrous roundup” had spared “Jewish millionaires.” And Combat, published by the National Liberation Movement, wrote that the Velodrome “looked like a scene from hell.
Eight thousand Jews were camping there, living in their excrement with nothing to eat or drink for three days. Men died. Women gave birth.
The clamor prevented the neighborhood’s residents from sleeping.”
The Vichy regime decreed that children should not leave with their parents, and after traumatic separations, all were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the 13,152 seized in the roundup, 811 survived.
The anniversary of this atrocity coincides with an upsurge of farright groups across Europe – Svoboda in Ukraine, Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece – as well as in the Austrian, French, Italian and Dutch parliaments.
Moreover, Germany, Norway, Italy and Britain report increases in anti-Semitism, while a survey by the US-based Anti-Defamation League found that anti-Semitic attitudes are at “disturbing levels” in 10 European countries, rising in Hungary from 47 to 63 percent since 2009 and in Britain from 10 to 17 percent.
A Jobbik MP recently invoked a centuries-old blood libel, while desecrations of synagogues have occurred in Croatia, Greece, Lithuania and Poland, and a synagogue in Malmo, Sweden, has been fortified to be not merely bullet-proof but rocket-proof.
In late July, French President François Hollande delivered an inspirational address at the site of the original Velodrome. Acknowledging that France had betrayed its people and its values, he said, “Across time, beyond grief, my presence bears witness to France’s determination to protect the memory of her lost children and honor these souls who died but have no graves, whose only tomb is our memory… No nation is immune from evil.
“Let us not forget this verdict by (the Italian-Jewish author) Primo Levi on his persecutors (in Auschwitz): ‘Save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces.’ Let us remain alert so that we detect monstrosity under its guises. Being silent about anti-Semitism, dissimulating it, explaining it, already means accepting it. The safety of France’s Jews is not just a matter for Jews, it is a matter for all French people.”
No French president has been as outspoken about France’s responsibility for these dark elements of its past and the need for action to preempt any semblance of a repetition. Other European leaders would do well to take a leaf out of his book. •
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in Sydney, Australia.