The Vél d'Hiv roundup: 75 years on, a survivor remembers
Issued on: Modified:
On July 16-17, 1942, more than 13,000 Jews were detained in Paris and deported to concentration camps. Many were first sent to the Vélodrome d'Hiver (Vél d'Hiv) stadium in Paris. Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard, then 14, managed to escape.
For a long time, Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard had the same nightmare. “At night, I saw the little green ghosts of the Vél d'Hiv," she declares in a clear, unwavering voice. “Inside, there was a large blue-painted canopy to protect the building from bombs. It gave off a glaucous light and the people who sat there had a greenish look about them.”
These faceless bodies still haunt her. At 89 years old, Sarah is one of the few survivors of the Vél d'Hiv roundup; one of a handful of people who managed to escape from the stadium-turned-internment camp in the summer of 1942.
In 1942 Sarah was just 14 years old. The Polish-born teenager lived with her mother in a modest apartment in the 20th arrondissement (district) of Paris. Her father, Moise, had been arrested in July 1941 and sent to the Pithiviers internment camp, from which he had managed to escape. He was hiding in a room in Paris and using false papers. On July 15, Sarah and her classmates were celebrating the last day of school before the summer holidays. That day, a Jewish classmate told her that her parents "knew a police commissioner who told them that he was preparing a massive roundup of women, children and old men. She added that they were leaving their apartment and that I should do the same”.
As soon as she got home, Sarah told her mother, Maria, who refused to believe the rumour. “But it’s not possible to arrest women and children in France," she said. "For her, [France] was the country of human rights.” But the memory of the pogroms in Poland was still fresh. Sarah's mother decided to spend the night keeping watch in a chair. She slipped their meagre savings into her girdle and was set to flee through the kitchen window should anyone come to get them.
"But she dozed off. At six in the morning, there was a rap at the door. She woke with a start and shouted, ‘What is it?’" recalled Sarah. Two French policemen, a plainclothes inspector and a peacekeeper burst into the apartment and ordered them to get their belongings. At the request of the Nazi regime, the French authorities had just launched a massive roundup of Jews in Paris and the suburbs. Some 13,152 men, women and children were arrested in the space of two days.
Maria Lichtsztejn tried to resist, but without success. “They put tape across the door as if we were criminals,” remembered Sarah. “That was the end of my childhood as I knew it. Until then, I had always thought that grown-ups were always right, but now I knew that was not the case.”
She was terrified by what she saw happening in the street. Hundreds of people had been forcibly taken outside the buildings. “Some people put their things in sheets, others carried children’s mattresses. Parents were completely panic-stricken and looked haggard. They were holding little children, who were awake, crying, surrounded by policemen. It was a terrible shock.”
Sarah and her mother were first driven for an hour to a garage on the corner of Belleville and Pyrénées streets. They were then pushed onto a French public bus. Sarah spotted one of her schoolmates through the window: “She didn’t see me, but she looked up sadly at the bus. I felt it was terribly unfair. She was outside, it was a nice day, and I was locked up just because I was Jewish.”
The bus crossed Paris. Sarah saw no German soldiers on the streets: “They must have received orders not to leave their barracks. I only saw the French police arresting families that day.” Not far from the Eiffel Tower on Nélaton Street, the vehicle stopped near the entrance to the Vél d'Hiv – where sporting shows and competitions usually took place – and “unloaded its cargo”.
“I found some schoolmates there,” Sarah said. “‘Ah, there you are,’" some greeted her, "as if it were a game". "But I quickly felt that that wasn’t the case.”
'An atrocious smell'
Accompanied by a policeman, Sarah’s mother managed to go to a café for some breakfast. But the two women, like all the others, were eventually pushed inside the stadium. “There were already 5,000 people in there. It was dreadful. There was a horrible hubbub. Children were running around, but the parents in the stands were silent. There was an atrocious smell. The few toilets were quickly clogged. I saw adults go to the bathroom everywhere.”
There were no plans in place to accommodate so many people. Water and food were in short supply. The hygiene conditions were appalling. Mother and daughter were at first resigned to their fate: “When we asked the police what they were going to do with us, they told us that we were going to be sent to work in Germany.”
But the arrival of old people and people in wheelchairs later that evening appeared to contradict this story. “'We’ve been lied to,' said my mother. 'They are preparing something really bad. You can’t make those people work. We have to escape!'” She slipped a hundred-franc note and her food card into Sarah’s pocket and ordered her to leave the camp by any means possible and go to non-Jewish friends. “She begged me to look for help. I was very shy. I tried to slip behind the police, but I was constantly pushed inside.” Near the entrance to the camp, she heard some horrifying stories from earlier in the day: “One woman told another that her neighbour had thrown herself from the third floor with her two children when she was arrested.”
Sarah finally managed to get out on the street by walking backwards towards a crowd: “A policeman said to me, ‘What do you want?’ I simply said, ‘I am not Jewish, I came to see someone.’ He said, '[Leave] the camp and come back the next day'.”
Without running, for fear of being shot at, Sarah managed to get away from the Vél d’Hiv, to cross another police cordon and to head down into the metro. “When I arrived at the Glacière station, I saw my mother come down onto the same platform. She had run away 20 minutes after me. She had also managed to slip behind a policeman. She hung on the arm of a street-sweeper and pretended to know him.”
The two women found refuge for a few weeks with their friends; Sarah even took lessons with false papers. But in May 1944, after being denounced, she was arrested with her mother and deported to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen. More united than ever, they managed to survive and were eventually released on April 15, 1945. “It was once again thanks to my mother’s clear-headedness. When she was sent to a labour camp, she didn’t say she was a seamstress, because she knew she would be separated from me as a high-school student and that I wouldn’t be able to cope,” Sarah said.
Sarah always felt that she owed her life to both her mother and the French police who allowed her to escape from the Vél d’Hiv: “I was carrying a light coat that day. As it was summer, they could easily have guessed that I was leaving the Vél d'Hiv.” That is why Sarah bears no particular resentment towards the police. For several years, at the Shoah Memorial, she said to young police recruits: “You can easily disobey orders. There were some who did it during the raid, or who warned people.”
The former deportee nevertheless warns against rewriting the past. When National Front candidate Marine Le Pen denied the French state’s responsibility in the Vél d’Hiv roundup during the presidential campaign, it made Sarah very angry. “It scares me to hear such things. It was the French State! [Former president] Jacques Chirac admitted it in 1995. He had the courage to say it, because it was true.”
Sarah asks simply that we don’t deny what happened. Despite everything she went through, she has never let herself be guided by hatred. As a teenager, she saw the worst of humanity. Seven decades later, she says she sees only love.
“The human race does not exist. We are a human species. We all have the same red blood that runs through our veins. If we are humiliated, it is the same heart that bleeds. But the most important thing is love and humour. I always knew how to find joy in my life – even in the worst moments.”
This article was translated from the original in French.