French people

Holocaust survivors celebrate 80 years of mass roundup in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron has denounced his Nazi collaborator predecessors and the rise of anti-Semitism, vigorously vowing to stamp out Holocaust denial as he paid tribute on Sunday to thousands of French children sent to death camps ago 80 years for one reason: because they were Jewish.

Family by family, house by house, French police rounded up 13,000 people in two terrifying days in July 1942, snatching children from their mothers’ arms and sending everyone to Nazi death camps. France honored these victims this weekend as it tries to keep their memory alive.

For France’s dwindling number of war crimes survivors, a series of commemoration ceremonies on Sunday were particularly significant. At a time of rising anti-Semitism and far-right rhetoric watering down France’s role in the Holocaust, they fear the lessons of history are being forgotten.

A week of ceremonies marking 80 years since the Vel d’Hiv police roundup on July 16-17, 1942, culminated on Sunday with an event led by Macron, who promised it would never happen again.

“We will continue to teach against ignorance. We will continue to cry out against indifference,” Macron said. “And we will fight, I promise you, at every dawn, because the history of France is written by a fight of resistance and justice that will never be extinguished.”

He denounced former French leaders for their role in the Holocaust and the Vel d’Hiv raids, among France’s most shameful acts during World War II.

During these two days, the police parked 13,152 people, including 4,115 children, in the Paris winter velodrome, known as Vel d’Hiv, before sending them to Nazi camps. It was the largest such roundup in Western Europe. Children were separated from their families; very few survived.

In public testimony over the past week, survivor Rachel Jedinak described knocking on the door in the middle of the night, and marching through the streets of Paris and parking in the velodrome in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

She remembers her desperate mother yelling at the police. Some French neighbors informed about the Jews, others cried when they saw them herded like cattle.

Chantal Blaszka’s aunts and uncle were among the children arrested: Simon, 6, Berthe, 9, Suzanne, 15. Their names are now engraved on a monument in a garden where the velodrome once stood, along with some 4,000 other children targeted in the raids. Pictures of the children hang from tree trunks, the result of years of painstaking research to identify and honor the long-unnamed victims.

Among the children deported from Vel d’Hiv 80 years ago, only six survived.

“Can you imagine?” Blaszka asked, pointing to the names and shaking his head. “Can you imagine?”

Serge Klarsfeld, a famous Nazi hunter whose father was deported to Auschwitz, spoke Saturday in the garden, calling it “a shocking testimony to the horrors experienced by Jewish families”. Klarsfeld, 86, stressed the urgency of passing on memories as more and more war witnesses pass away.

On Sunday, Macron visited a site in Pithiviers south of Paris where police sent families after the Vel d’Hiv roundup, before sending them to Nazi camps. A new memorial site honoring the deportees has been unveiled, including a plaque that reads: “Let’s never forget”.

The president called for vigilance: “We are not done with anti-Semitism, and we must lucidly face this fact.”

“It shows on the walls of our cities” when they are vandalized with swastikas, he continued. “It infiltrates social networks… it inserts itself into the debates of certain television programs. It manifests itself in the complacency of certain political forces. It also thrives on a new form of historical revisionism, even denial.

Another ceremony took place at the Shoah Memorial in the Paris suburb of Drancy, home to a transit center that played a pivotal role in the deadly journey of French Jews to Nazi camps. Most of the 76,000 Jews deported from France under the collaborationist Vichy government passed through the Drancy camp.

The Drancy Shoah Memorial actively documents the Holocaust, especially for younger generations. This work is particularly important at a time when Jewish communities are increasingly concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. The French Interior Ministry reported an increase in anti-Semitic acts in France in recent years and said that while racist and anti-religious acts were increasing overall, Jews were disproportionately targeted.

Anxiety has deepened for some since the far-right National Rally party made a surprising electoral breakthrough last month, winning a record 89 seats in France’s National Assembly. Party co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was found guilty of racism and minimizing the Holocaust. His daughter Marine, who now leads the party, has distanced herself from her father’s positions, but the party’s past still raises concerns for many Jews.

During the campaign for this year’s French presidential election, far-right candidate and pundit Eric Zemmour propagated the false claim that Adolf Hitler’s aides in Vichy were protecting the Jews of France.

It took 50 years for French leaders after World War II to officially acknowledge the state’s involvement in the Holocaust, when then-President Jacques Chirac apologized for the role of French authorities in the Vel d’Hiv raids.

“The policy, from 1942, was to organize the murder of European Jews and therefore to organize the deportation of Jews from France,” said Jacques Fredj, director of the Paris Shoah Memorial. “Most of the time the decisions were made by the Nazis… but the leadership was French.”

Macron said it clearly on Sunday: “Let us repeat here forcefully, whether the self-proclaimed revisionist commentators like it or not.”

None of the Vichy French wartime leaders, he said, “wanted to save the Jews.”