1) Politics and Policies
The use of public buildings as assembly points for Jews before their transport to internment camps was not unique to France. The policy transformed these buildings into the anti-chambers of the death camps in Poland. In Amsterdam, the former national theatre was used as a “Dutch Vél’ d’hiv’” during the major round-ups of August 1942.
A former 1889 Universal Exposition gallery used to display machinery, the Vélodrome d’hiver was opened to cycling competitions in 1903. Following reconstruction by architect Gaston Lambert, it reopened in 1910 with the “Six Day of Paris” (modeled on the New York marathons) and remained a space devoted to leisure, sporting and political activities up until its demotion in May 1959. On April 26, 1942, two-and-a-half months before the major Round-up, Marcel Cerdan fought a boxing match there, and within weeks following the tragic events of July 1942, the complex regained its previous role before becoming an assembly centre for suspected collaborationists for a few days upon Liberation.
Horse races from 1947, an ice-skating show in 1948, circuses, and then military parades known as “Army Nights” (modeled on the London Royal Tournament) from 1952, the memory of the Jews that were assassinated in Summer 1942 was seemingly hidden. Moreover, the setting up of regular commemoratory activities near the Vélodrome was prevented by the festivities held there, as demonstrated by the elections of a “Queen for Six Days” which spilled-over into nearby streets.
In 1962, the twentieth anniversary of the Round-up was marked by a commemorative ceremony at the Memorial of Unknown Jewish Martyr (which had been inaugurated six years earlier in Paris). Georges Wellers, an Auschwitz escapee, and Irène de Lipkowski, President of the Réseau du souvenir spoke at this event at which it was difficult to tell Holocaust victims and Résistance deportees apart. In a Saint-Ouen school which had been used as an assembly and “sorting” station for the Rounded-up, a commemorative plate of the same period announced that “more than 600 Saint-Ouen women and children were arrested by German occupation troops on July 16, 1942” (Lévy, Tillard, 1992). Another plate put up in 1946 on the façade of the Vélodrome did not mention any French responsibility. Commemorative plate on the site of the Vélodrome d’hiverIt was removed in the 1960s during construction work and was finally replaced in 1986, affixed to a wall overlooking a garden between the new Territorial Security Department buildings of the Ministry of the Interior. This new commemorative plate details the number of Jews “held in inhuman conditions by the Vichy Government police upon the orders of the Nazi occupiers”, and thanks “those who attempted to aid those concerned”.
It was only in 1992, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Round-up, that a President of France attented the commemorations, held at the corner of rue Nélaton and boulevard de Grenelle. François Mitterand, accompanied by a Round-up escapee, Rosette Breski Schalit, left a wreath before the commemorative plate, but his refusal to recognize the responsibility of the French Republic in the events of July 1942 earned him widespread criticism among the audience and a strong defense by Robert Badinter, who was President of the Constitutional Council at that time.
The affair interfered with two issues. Firstly, the recognition of the guilt of René Bousquet (a friend of the president since their meeting in Vichy), acknowledged one year earlier following Serge Klarsfeld’s deposition, and then again one month before the commemoration as part of the Papon Affair. Secondly, the practice of laying a presidential wreath at the tomb of Marshal Petain, which was initiated in 1968 by General de Gaulle. François Mitterand had transformed the practice into an annual rite whereas his predecessors only did it once.
Despite being caught out by lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, President of the Association for the Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France, who announced on July 21, 1992 that the President had informed him of his decision to no longer decorate Pétain’s grave with flowers, Mitterand sent the Prefect of Vendée to Yeu Island on the following 11 November anyway, for one final visit. Wary of the need to resolve the issue, he declared by way of a decree on February 3, 1993 that each Sunday that coincided with or followed July 16 would be a “National Day Commemorating Racist and Anti-Semitic Persecutions Committed under the Defacto Authority Known as the “Government of the French state (1940-1944)”. The decree also made provisions for the construction of a commemorative monument to be installed at the Place des Matyrs juifs du Vélodrome d’hiver (Place of Jewish Martyrs of the Vélodrome d’hiver), near the Bir Hakem bridge.
Commemorative monument of the Place des Matyrs juifs du Vélodrome d’hiverA work of Walter Spitzer, a camp escapee (Spitzer, 2004), and the architect Mario Azagury, it was inaugurated on July 17, 1994. Its curved base evokes the Vélodrome’s track, while the bronze group of seven civilians of all ages, surrounded by luggage, recalls the abandonment and the hopelessness of the deportees. References to the orders of the Nazi occupier disappeared on the new inscription.
Elected to the French presidency the following year, Jacques Chirac marked a turning point in collective memory by organizing a significant commemoration before the monument on July 16, 1995. It was the first time that the complicity of the apparatus of the French state in the persecution of Jews would be recognized by a President in the name of the Republic. As part of a speech developed by Christine Albanel, Nicolas Sarkozy’s future Minister of Culture and Communication, Jacques Chirac declared:
“These dark hours will forever soil our history, and are injurious to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal insanity of the occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state. (…) France, home of the Enlightenment and of Human Rights, land of refuge and asylum, France, upon that day, committed an irreparable act. Breaking her word, she delivered her charges to their executioner”. Jacques Chirac replaced the 1993 decree with the decree of July 11, 2002 which defined the application of the law of July 10, 2000. This law implemented a “National Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Racist and Anti-Semitic Crimes of the French State and of Recognition to the “Justes” of France”. Previously unknown beyond the community of victims, the commemorations undertaken at the actual site of the former Vélodrome was related by the public authorities and the media to create a collective remembrance for French society as a whole.