‘C’étaient des enfants’: An exhibition in Paris

A new Paris exhibition commemorates the 70th anniversary of the roundup of Jews.

Young french in Paris 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Archives CJDC - Memorial de la Shoah)
Young french in Paris 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Archives CJDC - Memorial de la Shoah)
Paris, the City of Lights, is also the City of Remembrance of the Shoah. In many districts and arrondissements there are commemorative plaques on the street walls next to the entrances of schools Jewish children used to attend, and of buildings where Jewish people used to live or in which they hid before being deported, and on the street corners where the French Resistance and the Liberators of Paris are remembered.
More than 70,000 French Jews were exterminated during World War II by the Germans and by French collaborators. Remembrance ceremonies are numerous particularly in Paris at the Mémorial de la Shoah, and take place at many other locations around France This year was the 70th anniversary of the roundup of Jews in the Vel d’Hiv (Vélodrome d’Hiver), which took place on July 16 and 17, 1942. To commemorate the anniversary, the City Council of Paris has organized an exhibition in the reception lounge of the Hotel de Ville at 29 Rue de Rivoli, in the fourth arrondissement. It is dedicated to all the young Parisian victims who were among the 1,500,000 children exterminated by the Nazis during the war.
The exhibition, entitled “These Were Children, Deportation and Rescue of Jewish Children in Paris,” has been put together thanks to archive documents on loan from the Mémorial de la Shoah, which gathers newspapers, letters, pamphlets photos and private objects.
The exhibition was devised and proposed by the City of Paris’s Department of Information and Communication, and is directed by Anne Sylvie Schneider and Isabelle Cohen. The curator of the exhibition is Sarah Gensburger, author of Les Justes de France. Gensburger is a researcher at the French national science research center CNRS, a sociologist and a historian and a specialist on the subject of the rescue and despoilment of Jews in Paris.
The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delano, has written in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue: “More than half of the 11,400 Jewish children deported from France were Parisian children” (of which 2,000 were under six years old – only 200 came back alive).
“Our city wishes to honor their memory and to remember those children who were hidden and who survived the Shoah, thanks to the action of the rescue network and the solidarity of the people of Paris which personifies the honor of our capital.”
The mayor concludes: “This exhibition is the crowning achievement of the memorial work carried on by the city for many years, following the task of conveyance and preservation achieved by numerous associations in each arrondissement in order to return a name, a history, a memory, a dignity to all deported children. We wish this exhibition to be a call to faithful remembrance, to vigilance and to responsibility.”
Gensburger says that “the fate of Jewish children is at the heart of the Shoah. The choice to identify, to persecute, to arrest, to deport and exterminate even infants is the ultimate indication of radicalism.”
NEVERTHELESS, 80 percent of Parisian Jewish children born in 1939 survived: the survivors were hidden children, rescued children.
According to Gensberger, “the complexity and diversity of these Jewish childhoods confronted with the Shoah is at the core of this exhibition. The children are the subject of this story. It is seen from the point of view of the children.”
Among all the previously unpublished documents, for example, there is the diary written in 1942 by a teenage member of the Jewish Girl Guides who goes all over Paris on the day of the Roundup in the Vel d’Hiv in order to give assistance to the children left alone.
The letters, the photos, the drawings and official documents exhibited also cover the immediate aftermath of the war, when for many of children the difficulties continued. One little girl’s uncle wrote a letter to the non-Jewish family who raised her, expressing gratitude but also pointing out the family’s obligation to reunite the child with her Jewish family and environment of origin.
In 1940 there were 320,000 Jews in France, including 200,000 in Paris, settled in all arrondissements. A third were born Parisian, some families having lived in Paris for several generations; two thirds were East European immigrants, mostly from Poland, who had taken French nationality after escaping from persecution and economic poverty.
A few were well-off, the families of professionals, while the majority were of more modest condition, counting among their number artisans, shopkeepers, secular and religious. Paris was one of the centers of European Jewish life, with many young people from all districts in constant contact through the city’s many youth movements. Their political tendencies were rather left wing, communist and socialist; the subject of the National Jewish Homeland split the community between Zionists and non-Zionists.
DURING THE war, France was split in two, in the North the German-occupied zone and in the South the area controlled by the Vichy government.
The majority of French Jews found themselves in the occupied zone. From 1940 the stigmatization of the Jews, including children, began to be organized.
Based on the population census, the Parisian Police created a file of Jewish children. First they were identified and then made recognizable: a Jewish stamp on identity papers and the wearing of a yellow star from the age of six. In all primary schools and secondary schools the yellow star was compulsory.
Later came the exclusion of the parents (the banning from some professions), then the exclusion of children (the banning from public places such as parks, shows and children’s holiday camps).
Thereafter the image of “the Jewish children” was used for propaganda. In the zone controlled by the Vichy government, it was decided to start a process of dismissal of Jewish teachers, to limit entrance to university and professional training.
The first roundups involved only men, and the removal of fathers resulted in the breaking up of families which then fell into distress and poverty. Children were sometimes left on their own. The big Roundup centered at the Vel d’Hiv involved 12,884 Jews, including 4,115 children. All were sent to an internment camp at Drancy in the northeast suburbs of Paris and incarcerated in terrible, unhygienic conditions.
On July 19, 1942 the families are transferred to camps in the Department of Loiret. These camps were unbelievably overcrowded with disastrous sanitary conditions, resulting in epidemics of diphtheria, measles and scarlet fever, and were racked by famine. In the summer of 1942, the Germans deported the adults and teenagers to Auschwitz, and the parents were separated from their children. The children under 13 years of age were left behind, alone, hungry, dirty and inconsolable, not only separated from their mothers and fathers but also from their brothers and sisters.
The Vel d’Hiv children still alive in August 1942 were transferred back to the transit camp of Drancy before their departure to Auschwitz. On their arrival between August 14 and 31, August, 1942, 3,000 children were exterminated.
IN 1941 35,000 Jewish children under 15 years old still lived in the Seine Department of France.
On the insistence of the German authorities, in November 1941 the Vichy government helped in the creation of the UGIF (Union Generale des Israelites de France) which was to absorb all Jewish organizations. Children were housed in their centers, such as the one in rue Lamarck in Paris.
Unfortunately, as a result these children were particularly vulnerable to easy raids.
However hundreds were saved thanks to their clandestine evacuation, organized by interreligious and interdenominational networks.
The OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) and the Jewish Scouts and Guides organized clandestine placements and followed them up with visits and support.
Organized first in the provinces around Paris, then in the North, they paid caretakers who were sometimes unaware that the children were Jews.
The 1942 Vel d’Hiv Roundup marks the turning point in awareness of the fate of the Jews. The Parisians realized the disappearance of men, women and children.
The scenes they saw provoked reactions of solidarity by some who were previously indifferent or satisfied with the fate of Jewish peoples. Neighbors, friends, classmates, non-believers, Catholics and Protestants helped Jewish children.
BEING HIDDEN meant great strain and suffering: the separation from parents, the necessity of changing one’s identity, one’s name and religion (even being baptized), from being brought up and living in Paris to going to a different world in the provinces or out to the countryside, a new environment; an experience that must have felt like somewhere between adoption and abuse.
When it was possible, the children wrote to their parents, finding this a way of relieving the pain of separation. When the parents could not be found, whether deported or in hiding, the children made them drawings and prepared gifts in the hope of meeting them again. Psychological stresses stayed with them.
In 1945 there were 10,000 Jewish orphans in France. If they could find their family, sometimes their parents were too weak to cope and without resources or lodgings and therefore unable to take care of their children. The reception centers were increasing in number to help the children until adulthood.
The actual experience of “the lucky ones” who survived was dismissed, even ignored, after the war. At the end of the 1970s they spoke out through the Serge Klarsfeld Association: Sons and Daughters of French Jewish Deported. The ’90s saw the creation of associations of “hidden children” and “old boys and girls” of such centers or houses, and Israel takes on board the obligation of recognizing the members of the Resistance as Righteous among the Nations. ■
This article is dedicated to Yitzhak Lindenman, who died in Auschwitz, and to his son Simon, a child hidden in the countryside during the war with his mother Sidonie. Simon was liberated in 1945. He was 13 years old. In the ‘70s he moved to Israel with his family and created a new life.“These were Children” runs until October 27 at the Hotel de Ville de Paris. Free entrance. Open daily except Sundays and public holidays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.