City at heart of Jewish deportations confronts past
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Despite a poll suggesting a shocking lack of knowledge about the WWII round-up of Jews being commemorated Sunday, cities like the Parisian suburb of Drancy, which housed an infamous deportation camp, work hard to raise awareness among the young.
From 1942 to 1944, more than 67,000 French and foreign Jews were held in a transit camp set up on a housing estate in the middle of Drancy, a working-class suburb north-east of Paris, before being deported to death camps in Germany and Poland.
The camp’s watchtowers and barbed wire fences were removed, but the U-shaped block of low-rise buildings, known as Cité de la Muette, still stands and has been lived in since 1947. A freight car, once used to deport Jews, sits next to a granite commemorative memorial, surrounded by cars from the estate’s residents.
On a recent grey July morning, a resident who has lived in this public housing site for the past 20 years said she was not aware the building had been a Jewish deportation camp when she moved in, but that she just lived with it now.
“I had nightmares at first, when I was living alone, but then everyday worries take over and you forget about it,” she said.
“We do think about it sometimes, though,” she added.
Seventy years after more than 13,000 Jews from Paris and its suburbs were arrested on July 16 and 17 in 1942 before being sent to Nazi death camps, France is commemorating one of the darkest chapters in the nation’s history.
At a ceremony in Paris on Sunday, French President François Hollande laid a wreath and paid his respects before a commemorative plaque that was erected on the site of a cycling stadium -- called the Vel d’Hiv or Winter Velodrome -- where Jews were detained before being sent to Drancy.
The Parisian suburb of Drancy served as a transit point for Jews being deported to Nazi death camps in Eastern Europe.
In a commemorative booklet released before the anniversary, Hollande said, "This crime was committed in France by France," before adding that it was “also a crime against France, a betrayal of its values.”
Yet 70 years later, few French people are aware of this World War II-era atrocity.
A recent poll by France’s Jewish Student Association revealed that 42 percent of French people did not know what the “Vel d’Hiv” round-up was. The figure was even higher among French youth, with 60 percent of 18 to 24 year olds saying they were not aware of the Vel d’Hiv round-up.
“I am very surprised by the result,” Adeline Salmon, in charge of educational workshops at the Holocaust Memorial museum in Paris, told FRANCE 24. “It’s a major event that we talk about a lot, and which is covered by many films and TV documentaries.”
But historians and activists were not so shocked, saying that young people generally had a good grasp of the big picture, even if they lacked knowledge of the specific historical event.
The general secretary of the AFMA, an association dedicated to preserving the memory of World War II in the Drancy, told FRANCE 24 that the Vel d’Hiv round-up was “just one episode within a wider context of occupation and deportation.”
A city confronting its past
Beyond the annual wreath-laying ceremonies, the city plays an active role in making sure its youth is taught about France’s dark past. Every student pays a visit to the boxcar or the AFMA’s mini-museum in the Cité de la Muette at least once during their school years.
Anaïs Legendre, a 20-year-old youth counsellor from Drancy, recalls being struck by the displays about Auschwitz when she visited the AFMA’s museum as a high-schooler. “On the other hand, I don’t remember being taught about the Vel d’Hiv round-up at school. I found out about it later, when reading a novel,” she told FRANCE24.
Her colleague at Drancy’s youth club Anissa Labiod sounded surprised. “My high-school history teacher covered it at great length, and even had a former deportee come and tell us about it in person,” she said, adding: “It’s shocking! Imagine suddenly having the police knock on your door at 5 am to round you up?”
Indeed, the AFMA has former deportees visit most of Drancy’s schools to tell pupils about their experience. Jean-Marc Assayag, a retired schoolteacher and AFMA member, told FRANCE24 that they also helped students prepare for the national ‘resistance and deportation contest,’ an annual contest organised by the ministry of education and historical foundations to raise awareness about the main events of World War II.
“The first prize is a visit to extermination camps such as Buchenwald, and two years ago, the city hall funded an additional trip to Auschwitz for the winners,” he added.
At a youth club in Drancy, just days before the commemoration ceremonies, five boys playing cards offered snippets of information about what they knew about the Jewish deportations to the Nazi death camps. “They shut up Jews and killed them,” said one. When asked who was responsible for the round-ups, he said, “The Nazis, because they were racist.”
The boys did not seem to be aware that it was the French police in occupied Paris that was responsible for rounding up thousands of French and foreign-born Jews in France to be sent to the death camps.
Ismaïn, a quick 12-year-old, joined the discussion: “Are you talking about the Jews who were exported (sic)?” he asked, before launching into a description of a witness account he had heard during a trip to AFMA. “They had to wear a yellow star. When we were near the freight car, this man rolled up his sleeve to show us the number tattooed on his arm and told us he managed to survive the camps by staying with the men rather than the children.”
Indeed, first-hand accounts seem to be the best way to involve children and teenagers.
“It’s important for students to hear things as they were, from a witness,” AFMA’s Lucien Tinader told FRANCE 24. “One of our former deportees talks about how the camp stank, how they had scabies, without sugar-coating it. But he also makes them laugh, telling the kids that he too was in love at their age.”
Tinader, himself a “hidden child” who escaped deportation by being sent to the countryside in 1942, says the students can more readily identify with the tragedy when former deportees -- most of them in their eighties now -- explain that they lived through the war at the age of 13, 14, or 15.
“After five minutes, they’re a rapt audience,” added Alice Chekroun, who also volunteers for AFMA. “The kids feel the need to move closer to the person talking and touch them for reassurance; sometimes we need to bring Kleenexes for the girls.”
The problem is that those who lived to tell the tale are getting old and ill, and dying off. The few left are assailed with requests from schools.
City of ghosts
But Drancy’s dark history is unlikely to be forgotten, not least because the former camp has been declared a historical monument, meaning that the buildings at the site cannot be razed. Local officials plan to revive the Cité de la Muette by opening shops or moving the freight car. And a local branch of Paris’s Holocaust Memorial museum is due to open across the street by the end of 2012.
In this little suburb of Paris, the past is destined to rub shoulders with the present. But seven decades later, life goes on -- for the residents as well as the fortunate who managed to avoid the camps.
Tinader reveals that he was once asked whether he could feel the ghosts of the past. “I don’t,” he replied. “Life takes over.“
"More than a dozen members of my family were deported from here, and when in the late 1970’s I opened a sewing shop on the premises [that would become the museum in 2004], I thought it was a good way of showing that these attempts to destroy the Jewish people failed,” Tinader said.