The eyewitness

A young social worker dared to complain to her superiors about appalling conditions at the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of Jews in Paris during the Holocaust. Seven decades on, France has finally awarded her the Legion of Honor.

THE EYEWITNESS (photo credit: AFP)
(photo credit: AFP)
“I stayed silent for many years because, when I did talk about what I had seen, people said I was making it up, or showing off. And when the subject became a topic of national interest in 2010, journalists were not interested in what I had to say because they assumed a non-Jew didn’t have anything to contribute.”
Denise Tavernier is now 94 years old, and people are finally listening. When she was 23 and a trainee social worker with the Paris police, she was present in the French capital’s indoor cycling stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, into which collaborationist authorities packed away more than 8,000 Jews during the biggest anti-Jewish roundup in France in World War II.
On July 16-17, 1942, during the cynically codenamed operation, Vent Printanier (Spring Wind), thousands of French police swooped down on Paris neighborhoods where Jews lived to arrest 13,152 immigrant and foreign refugee Jews from Poland, Russia, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia at the behest of the occupying German authorities.
Childless couples and unmarried adults were taken to existing internment camps. But families, including 1,129 men, 2,916 women and 4,115 children, were bussed to the totally ill-equipped stadium, known colloquially as Vel’ d’Hiv, where they were held in increasingly dire conditions for between four and six days.
Tavernier was the youngest member of a department tasked with handling the needs of policemen’s families. A trained nurse, she had only recently graduated from a course for social welfare workers, and had been at her new job for just four months. Her office sent her to the Vel’ d’Hiv because the Red Cross had complained about the situation there.
“I arrived on the second day and it was already awful. More than 8,000 people, half of them children, including many newly born babies, were packed together with no water whatsoever,” Tavernier recalls in an interview with The Jerusalem Report.
“Conditions were so terrible that I went back to police headquarters in a daze and reported what I saw to the head of my department. She arranged for me to be seen almost immediately by the chief secretary to the head of the police force. I told him that animals were not treated as badly as the people I’d seen. I said it was enough to make one ashamed of being French, and he became angry and said he did not believe what I was describing to him. He also warned me against repeating to people outside of the police what I had told him.”
But the senior official did write an official memo that duly noted: “Miss Tavernier, social worker, reports: ‘Jews starting to react.
Women: epileptic fits, nervous breakdowns, sick children, toilets clogged… noodles not arrived, no water, not enough bread, soup served irregularly, only two doctors present, raining inside.”
Some 41 years later, French Nazi-hunter and Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld found the note while delving through police archives and published it in “Paris-Auschwitz,” one of his many books on the fate of French Jewry during the war. Between 1942 and 1944, some 76,000 Jews, a quarter of those in France at the time, were killed, most of them gassed after being transported to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland.
Speaking to the Report, Klarsfeld says, “In 2010, the feature film, “La Rafle”, (The Roundup), which is about the 1942 events, was released, and it was a monumental success seen by more than three million people in France. It brought the subject up again for national examination and introspection.
There were debates on television and radio day after day, with some of the few survivors offering their testimony.
“One day, I received a telephone call from a woman who identified herself as Denise Tavernier to say she was an eyewitness towhat she had to say. I soon remembered the note I’d found in police records years before and we met later that very day,” relates Klarsfeld.
Since then, Tavernier has become a noted personality whose reminiscences are now sought after by historians and journalists. She also speaks to children’s groups.
Klarsfeld also introduced her to French President François Hollande. This summer, in recognition of her conduct, that of a very junior official denouncing conditions at Vel’ d’Hiv to her powerful superiors, Hollande made Tavernier a member of the Legion of Honor, the French national order. It was Klarsfeld who pinned the Legion’s red ribbon on Tavernier’s lapel during the annual ceremony marking the anniversary of the July 1942 roundup. The ceremony took place in the presence of hundreds of members of the Association of the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France (FFDJF) that Klarsfeld founded and heads.
Klarsfeld, who has tracked down Nazi war criminals as far as South America and who is known for his iron will and nerves, was overcome with emotion and his voice cracked when he made the presentation. Klarsfeld’s own father, arrested in 1943 in southern France, was killed at Auschwitz.
Tavernier recalled during the ceremony that six weeks after the roundup, nearly all of the 13,152 people arrested on July 16-17 had been handed over to the Germans and shipped to Auschwitz. When the war ended in May 1945, only about 100 of the adults had survived. None of the 4,115 children returned.
“What I did then [in denouncing conditions at the Vel’ d’Hiv to her superiors] was very simple and I could not have done anything else,” she said.
Speaking to the Report in Klarsfeld’s office in November, Tavernier says: “Those events were so powerful that they remain imprinted in my mind in such a way that I sometimes think I am looking at them as if I were looking into a mirror.”
What has impressed many historians is the lengthy and detailed recollection of the 1942 events that she wrote exactly a decade later at the behest of her Roman Catholic parish priest. The account was then published in her parish newsletter, gaining little attention beyond her church (“It did me little good among other parishioners, many of whom shunned me afterwards because they were shocked that I had recounted events in which Frenchmen were the main villains.”) Tavernier explains that the parish priest, Father Taupin, had been in the French Resistance during the war, when he was an aide to Cardinal Jules-Geraud Saliège, archbishop of Toulouse, who, following the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, wrote a letter dated August 23, 1942, which he ordered read aloud in all the churches of southwest France, the area over which he had authority.
“The Jews are men and women… All is not permissible against them. They are members of the human race and like others, they are our brothers. No Christian should forget this,” wrote Saliège, who was recognized in 1969 by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial authority in Jerusalem, as a “Righteous Among The Nations.”
“When Father Taupin learned that I had been a witness to the roundup, he insisted that I write my testimony, saying: ‘If you do not do so, your conscience will bother you for the rest ofyour life,’” Tavernier recounts.
In the 1952 account, Tavernier wrote: “Inside the Vel’ d’Hiv, the noise was deafening, people were packed together amidswirls of dust from the race track. Some lay on the ground, while others stood around talking amongst themselves with small children crying and shouting in their arms.
“I was stunned. From the ground floor all the way up to the upper balconies, I walked about totally lost, stepping over prone bodies of old people and youths sleeping despite the incredible noise. Entire families were there, fathers, mothers, grandparents, children, all waiting as if in a train station, shocked and uncomprehending as to what was happening.
Some wept with great sorrow while others were prostrate, immobile with their heads bent.
“I found that many toilets were locked up, while long queues formed up outside others, which were beginning to be clogged up and were unbelievably filthy. Discouraged, I asked an employee of the stadium where there was water and he said there was only a single tap open for the whole stadium in a little courtyard. A plumber would have to be called to open the water for the toilets and bathrooms, he said.”
As a result perhaps of Tavernier’s complaint to her superiors, the city’s fire department arrived soon and supplied water. Firemen also discreetly took out many messages from detainees to be sent to families and friends outside. The fire department captain, whose humane deeds were later widely recognized, was a Captain Pierret. His son, Alain, later became a diplomat and was French ambassador to Israel from 1986-1991. He is a close friend of the French Jewish community today.
After complaining to her superiors, Tavernier recalls that she told her mother she did not want to go back to the Vel’ d’Hiv the next day “because I was useless and of no help to anyone. But my mother replied: ‘Go back tomorrow because, to the people inside, you are a breath of fresh air.’” In her account, Tavernier noted: “Again, it was the dust, the noise, the awful odor. I walked in puddles of urine, women without the proper sanitary equipment trailed reddish or brownish stains behind them, old people were coughing and spitting, doing their bodily needs along the walls. And all this lasted a long week.”
Klarsfeld, speaking today, says: “In fact, the police were not prepared for the situation.
To start with, the police had very little regard for the needs of foreigners, who were looked down upon. But they had expected to hold the people no more than 24 to 48 hours before shipping them off to holding camps. Because of the disorganization, they held them for between four and six days, and logistics were awful.
“The Germans had been expecting the police to round up 20,000 Jewish males. Quite a number of policemen had clearly tipped off Jews beforehand of the forthcoming roundup and many Jewish men had left their homes and gone into hiding. No one expected the police to arrest women and children – which had not happened before.
“What is most terrible is that the Germans had no orders to deport children. It was Pierre Laval, the prime minister of the Vichy regime [executed for collaboration in 1945], acting on humanitarian grounds – that of avoiding separating the children from their parents – who insisted that the Germans take the children also,” notes Klarsfeld.
“I was so disgusted with what I had witnessed that I resigned from the police less than two weeks later,” says Tavernier.
She returned to the civil service after the war as a social worker in the Education Ministry, tending to student needs. “But I will never forget the children at the Vel’ d’Hiv who sometimes played ‘cops and robbers’ despite the circumstances. Six weeks later, they were all murdered at Auschwitz,” she says.