Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Paris - Part Five

On our final day in Paris, we decided to undertake some serious History business. Let me give you some background.

During World War Two, Jews from around Europe were deported to Nazi concentration camps across Central and Eastern Europe. These camps also housed other prisoners such as Soviet POWs, criminals, homosexuals, and Roma (gypsies). Many Jews were then relocated to specific camps in Poland where they were exterminated en masse. You may be surprised to learn that there were also internment camps - where prisoners were held before being transferred to concentration camps or extermination camps - in countries that we don't usually associate with the Holocaust, such as The Netherlands and France. In France, one of the internment camps for Jewish detainees was located in Drancy, a suburb of north-east Paris. On the 16th and 17th July 1942, 13,152 Jews were arrested and held in the Velodrome d'Hiver and at the Drancy camp, and most were later sent by train to the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland. Drancy was also used by Klaus Barbie, who ordered 44 Jewish children from an orphanage near Lyon to be rounded up and detained at Drancy and then deported to Auschwitz.

Klaus Barbie was finally brought to trial in the 1980s and convicted for crimes against humanity. Very few French who were involved in the deportation or mistreatment of Jews were ever brought to trial, and it is an episode of France's history that has remained, relatively successfully, under the carpet for the past 70 years.

By June 1940, Germany had steam-rolled through Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Soon, the British Expeditionary Forces and their French allies would be backed into a corner of Northern France, valiantly clinging to French soil and awaiting rescue by sea. On June 22, the French government signed an armistice with Germany that, in a nutshell, allowed Germany to rape and pillage roughly half of France while the rest of the country would remain "free", under the control of a French government based in the spa town of Vichy. Personally, I am not sure if the French government at the time was composed of eternal optimists or if it was naive, or if it was actually completely aware of what it was signing up for, but, somewhat unsurprisingly, in 1942 Germany invaded "free France", reneging on the terms of the Armistice.

After the war, the Vichy Regime that had governed "free France" was referred to (in France) as an illegal government, run by traitors and criminals, separate from the French Republic. It was seen as a real victory - in terms of embracing France's shadier dealings in WWII - when in 1995, President Chirac officially recognised the responsibility of the French State in assisting the Nazis in the 'final solution'. However, for me as a historian, I would like to see France go further and acknowledge that the Vichy government was a legal, 'legitimate' government, and be more open to discussion of some pretty unsavoury events that did happen in France during WWII.

So there is the background for you. History really is fascinating, and full of lots of sad stories too.

While in Paris, I decided that I wanted to visit some of these sites from WWII. The velodrome of the Rafle du Vel' d'hiv fame (the roundup of Jews who were then kept at the Winter Velodrome, July 1942) was burnt down some years ago, so that left Drancy. As an internment camp, the suburb of Drancy was mostly made up of run-down high-rise apartments (Not much different from its status today - it seemed pretty grim when we visited) which were confiscated by the Nazis in 1940 and used as police barracks and then as a detention centre. Today, one U-shaped courtyard of apartments remains - the same apartments used to house Jews during WWII. When we visited this area of apartments, it seemed to be an area full of refugees, drugs, crime, and a real air of hopelessness. What a place, and what a sad history it has.

At the site are a sculpture, 'The Memorial to the Deportation at Drancy', created by Shlomo Selinger in 1976, and a railcar that serves as a reminder of the way Jews were transported like cattle, often in sealed carriages, without food or water. In September 2012, a Holocaust Memorial Centre was opened - it is directly across the road from the memorial, and yet we did not find it (not for lack of trying!).

Selinger's Memorial.
In the background is the same courtyard of apartments that housed Jews during WWII
The building in the left of the picture is the new Memorial Centre

Adam also spotted this memorial plaque in Antony. It is in remembrance of the Jews from Antony who were arrested, deported, and sent to to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Some history is very sad, isn't it?

I have spent most of my history studies focussing on both World Wars, on the Holocaust, on Nazi Germany, and on the post-war period in Europe, so it was very poignant for me to be able to visit places that I hold a keen interest in. One day I hope to be able to have a job that allows me to indulge my interest in this period of history, but for now, I shall keep myself busy by teaching Adam and you blog readers about such fascinating - and often sad and incomprehensible - parts of history.

All cities, all countries, have their episodes of history that are shameful and sorrowful. I want to point out that France is not alone in this regard, but while it makes us sad, it does not make us love France any less. What a trip we had - coffee, pastries, tourist attractions, snow, and a chance to focus on some of the great city's history. Paris, je t'aime!

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