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The French Stain

In the gripping novel, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah, a 12-year-old French girl of Polish parents, is arrested by the Paris police in the Vel D’Hiv roundup of non-French Jews on July 16, 1942. The plot also centers on Julia Jarmond, a journalist who investigates the virtually forgotten event 60 years later, and makes it her mission to find out what happened to Sarah after she escaped from a French internment camp to find her four year old brother, who she locked in a cupboard of her family’s flat for safety. The outcome is as surprising as it is emotionally charged.

But what’s most shocking is the complicity of the French gendarmerie and Vichy government in this criminal ethnic cleansing.

The roundup involved 4,500 French policemen and 12,884 victims – including 4,051 children – who were held for two days without food or water in the Paris Vélodrome d’Hiver, in dangerously unsanitary, tawdry conditions, then herded onto municipal buses and driven away to detention camps, including the infamous Drancy. Children of all ages were then separated from their parents before being transferred by cattle cars to Auschwitz where most were gassed.

In July, 1995, French President Jacques Chirac gave a speech acknowledging the French role in the July 16, 1942 “Velodrome d’Hiver roundup.” Here are his words:

“These black hours will stain our history forever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was supported by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women, and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations…France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.”

This stain on French history is also the subject of the film Le Rafle (“The Roundup”).

(Photos taken during the July 16 roundup of Parisian Jews; Top: packed commercial buses were used for transport.)

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