How do you say ‘Just following orders’ in French?

Fundamentally Freund: This week marks the 70th anniversary of one of the darkest days in the history of French Jewry.

Nazi salute neo-Nazi 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Tim Shaffer)
Nazi salute neo-Nazi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Tim Shaffer)
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.
After nearly 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 in 2010.
The roundup heralded the beginning of the end for Jews living in wartime France.
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 percent, survived.
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.
Among 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 France.
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 the centuries.
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 Drancy.
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 pleasures.
Instead, I harbor a great deal of anger and resentment.
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.
For more 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.
Though the 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.
In an 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
Personally, 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.
Whether they 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 overdue.