A new exhibition called “The Vel d’Hiv raid: the police archives” opens at city hall in Paris’s third arrondissement on July 16, to mark the 70th anniversary of the largest roundup of foreign Jews organised in occupied France during World War Two.
It is the first time the Paris police have opened up a vault of historical archives to shed light on one of the darkest periods of French history.
During the so-called “Vel d’Hiv” raid, which took place on July 16 and 17, 1942, the victims were held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a cycling stadium in Paris’s 15th arrondissement.
8,160 Jews, including more than 4,000 children, were locked up in the stadium in terrible sanitary conditions before being transported by train in cattle wagons to transit camps and deported. None of the children – who were all deported to Auschwitz – survived.
Although French police had already begun arresting both foreign and French Jews in 1941, the raids in July 1942 were the first ones in which women, children and the elderly were also taken, as the curator of the exhibition, Olivier Accarie Pierson, pointed out.
“Intelligence from the time shows that the population found the roundup shocking,” he told AFP.
“Many policemen had leaked the information the day before; the Germans were furious. They had hoped to arrest 27,427 Jews in and around Paris, but eventually they ‘only’ arrested 13,152,” he added.
This figure includes the arrests from a simultaneous round-up, during which nearly 5,000 adults were sent to the Drancy transit camp and deported.
The archives exhibited, some of them stamped “secret”, clearly show the French regime’s collaboration with the Nazi occupants, with notes giving the tally of people arrested.
“The Vichy regime’s official anti-Semitism and its policy of collaborating with the Third Reich, which planned the extermination of the Jews, led to the deportation first of foreign Jews, then of French Jews,” historian Jean-Pierre Azéma told AFP.
While many people probably had no idea of their fate, one young girl, Hélène Berr, shared her feelings of foreboding with her diary (one of the archival documents): “Something tragic is about to happen,” she wrote in an entry dated the day before the roundup. She later died in a camp.
But France only publicly acknowledged its role 53 years later. “These dark hours soil our history forever and are an insult to our past and our traditions. Yes, the French and the French state seconded the occupying powers in their criminal folly,” President Jacques Chirac said in a historic speech on July 16, 1995, at a commemoration ceremony.
The actual Vel d’Hiv building was razed in 1959 after a fire and there is now a commemorative monument on the site.
Besides the exhibition at the city hall of Paris’s 3rd arrondissement, other commemorations have been organised. The Sons and Daughters of Deported Jews of France organisation will hold a ceremony at the Vel d’Hiv monument on July 16. The same day, a ceremony will be held at the Mémorial de la Déportation in Bordeaux.
On July 22, an official ceremony will be held with President François Hollande at the Vel d’Hiv monument in Paris.