As far as sports complexes go, the Paris Velodrome built in 1909 within blocks of the Eiffel Tower was a marvel. Housing the popular indoor 6-day bicycle races, the huge stadium contained a giant steeply banked oval track at its base with two tiers of seating for 15,000 spectators towering above. From the upper balcony, the track looked like a distant bowl. The entire complex was roofed by a glass skylighted ceiling with 1,253 hanging lamps to supply the lighting. The finest riders of the day competed at the Velodrome the proper name of which was the Velodrome d’Hiver. Proud Parisians referred to their Velodrome simply as the Vel’ d’Hiv. Had they known the role the Vel’ d’Hiv would later play in what would be the blackest day in modern French history, the Parisians would not have been so proud. The Vel’ d’Hiv would become forever linked to the day that France, the nation of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”, willingly delivered her own innocent people into the hands of their executioners.
In the spring of 1940, Nazi Germany invaded France. Within 5 weeks, the French capitulated and signed an armistice under which the German military would occupy three-fifths of France’s territory. With the approval of the Germans, an acquiescent French government based in the town of Vichy and headed by World War I hero, Marshal Philippe Petain was established. Following the liberation of France and the end of the war, Petain would be convicted by a French court of treason.
Hitler shakes hands with Head of State of Vichy France Marshall Philippe Pétain in occupied France on Oct. 24, 1940.
Almost from the beginning, the approximate 330,000 Jews of France were persecuted. The French Vichy government without any encouragement from the Germans passed a number of anti-Jewish measures including ordering all Jews to wear yellow stars, prohibiting congregating in public areas, forbidding a change of residence and establishing a curfew. Jewish businesses were “aryanized”. French Jews lost their civil rights and their livelihoods.
Much worse was to come. On January 20, 1942, 15 high-ranking Nazi officials gathered at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to finalize the Third Reich’s policy towards the Jews. The earlier strategy of expulsion and containment was abandoned for a new policy of mass extermination, the euphemistically called “final solution of the Jewish question.” Every country under Nazi occupation, including France, was obliged to carry out this policy.
While a small number of expulsions of Jews from France to death camps occurred earlier, they would pale in insignificance to the massive deportation planned for July 1942. In an action, ironically codenamed “Operation Spring Breeze”, 22,000 Parisian Jews were to be rounded up and delivered to the Nazi killing machine. The Germans approached Vichy for assistance. French authorities were only too eager to help. French officials planned, organized and carried out the operation. Every man taking part was French. Not one German soldier was involved.
The operation swung into action at 4 o’clock in the morning on July 16, 1942. Some 9,000 Frenchmen, most police officers, were divided into 880 separate teams for the purpose of apprehending the Jews. Fifty buses with public transport drivers awaited, ready to take the detainees to their destinations. Working from a large number of files held by Vichy authorities, for two days, in a scene repeated in apartment after apartment, loud banging, followed by the entry of two or three policemen brusquely ordering the occupants out, mothers futilely begging to take them but not their children. The apartments emptied of humanity, chaos on the streets, Jews herded onto buses, frightened, a mass of men, women and children the youngest crying and the most elderly in a pitiful state of health.
Twenty years later, Annette Muller remembered that day; “In the morning we were very violently woken by knocks on the door and I saw my mother on her knees on the ground with her arms around the legs of two policemen. She was screaming and crying and I saw the policemen, well the Inspectors, who were pushing her back with their feet saying ‘Hurry up. Hurry up. Don’t make us waste our time’.”
Marcel Brzyski, age 11, and his brother Albert, 9, were arrested during the Vel d'Hiv roundup with their mother, Chana, and their little brother, Victor, 2.
During the action, 12,884 were captured including 4,051 children. The operation fell short of the expected 22,000. The French Resistance warned some Jews; some were hidden by friends or neighbours or benefited from the lack of zeal of a few policemen. On the other hand, there were those who gleefully pointed out the apartments of their Jewish neighbours; those who laughed and mocked the Jews being rounded up, clapping and cheering from open windows as they were hauled away; and those who looted the vacated Jewish apartments. In the main, ordinary French people just shut their eyes and ears as if nothing was happening.
Of the captives, single adults and childless couples were sent directly to transit camps on the outskirts of Paris, entryway on their journey en route to the death camps. Families with children were delivered to a place large enough to act as a collection center, there to be warehoused before being moved to transit camps and ultimately Auschwitz. The cavernous Vel’ d’Hiv was chosen. The sports complex was about to be transformed from an arena of amusement and diversion to a prison of anguish and terror.
Busload by busload, the captured families comprising some 8,160 people, over 4,000 of them children, were crammed into the Vel’ d’Hiv. There they would stay, some for five and others for as many as eight days. The conditions were horrendous and increasingly desperate. People were crowded together with little room. Privacy was non-existent. With no ventilation, the roof shut and the windows sealed for security, the heat was oppressive. Lights were kept on all day and night to keep watch on everyone. Orders shouted from loudspeakers were unrelenting. The cries of the frightened, the distressed and the panicked reverberated throughout the echoing hall. Sleep was fleeting.
Hunger and thirst were all-encompassing. There was no water except that brought in from a single street hydrant pumping filthy water from the Seine. Nor was there any food apart from for a little soup offered by some Red Cross helpers served directly into the cupped hands of the starving. Disease was rampant amongst the children. Three hundred were struck with the triple epidemic of diphtheria, scarlet fever and measles. There was little that a doctor and a few nurses present could do.
Yet what was most horrendous was that there were no lavatories. Of the ten available, five were sealed because their windows offered a way out and the others were blocked. Humiliatingly, there was no choice but to perform the most basic bodily functions in public. The bleachers became awash in urine and the people were living literally in excrement. The smells and the filth were unbearable.
People screamed all night long. They attacked each other with insane frenzy. The French police guarding them shot the ones who tried to escape on the spot. Five were driven to take their own lives. They walked to the top of the bleachers and threw themselves off onto the floor below. It was hell on earth.
Commencing on day five and for three days thereafter, the Vel’ d’Hiv was emptied of its woeful mass of humanity. They were taken in sealed cattle trucks to transit camps outside of Paris. The camps were only slightly better than the Vel d’Hiv. Each comprised a group of huts surrounded by barbed wire. The mattresses were filthy as was everything else. The diet was a soup that made everyone ill. Most developed a skin disease and few escaped the lice. The camps were all under the authority of the French.
Then the ghastly happened. Parents were forcibly and brutally separated from their children. The French police beat the mothers with rifle butts as the mothers crying and screaming desperately tried to hold on to their offspring. All parents were shipped to Auschwitz leaving the children alone in the camp.
The Vel’ d’Hiv stands as a lingering symbol of France’s national guilt and national shame for which she would eventually and belatedly take responsibility.
Starting in the middle of August 1942 it was the turn of the children. They were crammed into sealed railroad boxcars, mixed in with the old and the sick and headed east. Those who did not die en route from exposure, from a lack of food and water were immediately gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz. Of the Vel’ d’Hiv detainees who headed east, few returned, none of them the children.
This terrible and shameful event in which the Vel’ d’Hiv was at the epicenter, has become known as the “Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv” (in English, the “Vel’ d’Hiv roundup”).
Following the liberation of France and the end of the war, the French government remembered the victims but not the participation of the French. No commemorations mentioned French responsibility. In the name of national unity, the post-war French government ordered all documents linked to the treatment of Jews during the occupation destroyed. For unknown reasons, some papers survived. No public accounting of the actions of the French police ever took place. French involvement was for decades denied, masked, overlooked or disregarded. A convenient national amnesia set in.
Some 50 years later, in an act of contrition, French President, Jacques Chirac, on behalf of the French people, at last took responsibility for the complicity of the French in executing the Vel’d’Hiv roundup. The French President issued a full public apology, repentantly speaking to the nation on July 16, 1995, “These black hours will stain our history forever and are an affront to our past and traditions …the criminal insanity of the occupiers was assisted by the French, by the French State.” A few years later a lone gunman with links to far right groups would attempt to assassinate President Chirac.
The Vel’ d’Hiv was demolished in 1959, never to be rebuilt. The stain would not so easily be removed. The Vel’ d’Hiv stands as a lingering symbol of France’s national guilt and national shame for which she would eventually and belatedly take responsibility.
(Author’s note: – A fictionalized but historically accurate depiction of the events surrounding the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup are portrayed in Tatiana de Rosnay’s 2007 novel, Sarah’s Key. De Rosnay brilliantly braids the past with the present to give voice and face to the 6 million. Her haunting book, one of the finest I have read, is one of the few that made me cry. Sarah’s Key was the impetus that compelled me to learn more of the events described in this article.)