Learning more about the Vel d’Hiv

Learning more about the Vel’ d’Hiv

For those that would like to learn more of the facts of the Vel d’Hiv round up in 1942 Paris, please see some interesting articles below.

Key facts about the Round Up:

  • Largest mass arrest on wartime France
  • 12,884 Jews rounded up in the Paris region, over 4,000 of them children
  • 7,000 were put into the Velodrome d’Hiver
  • The goal of 24,000 Jews was not achieved
  • Operation planned and executed by over 9,000 French police and civil servants
  • No food or working lavatories
  • On 16 July 1995 President Jacques Chirac issued a complete and fulsome apology for the actions of the Vichy government in executing the Vél d’Hiv roundup
  • 76,000 Jews were deported during World War two, only 3,000 ultimately returned
  • Drancy main stopover on the way to camps
  • It was from Drancy that 62 of the 74 convoys left France between March 27, 1942, and August 17, 1944.  All but six of these trains arrived at Auschwitz, carrying 73,853 Jews
  • Drancy’s administration was run entirely by the French

Vél d’Hiv, Paris 1942: ‘These black hours will stain our history forever’


In June 1942, 12,000 Jewish adults and children were removed from their homes in Paris and sent to Nazi death camps. It was the largest mass arrest in wartime France. The film Sarah’s Key follows one woman’s fight against French society’s post-war attitude of silence and denial over its role in the roundup. Here, writer Adrian Gilbert describes the terrible events that cast a shadow of guilt over the country for more than half a century


The Vél d’Hiv roundup began in the early hours of 16 July 1942 and, over the next two days, 12,884 Jews from the Paris region, including over 4,000 children, were taken into custody. It was biggest such mass arrest in France during the second world war. Of these, 7,000 victims were packed into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor sports stadium. In increasingly desperate conditions they awaited shipment to the death camps in eastern Europe.

What made the event so especially shocking was not just the number of children involved, but that the operation was planned and executed by French police and civil servants. After the war, the Vél d’Hiv roundup would become a symbol of French guilt and complicity in the Holocaust.

The Vichy French government that emerged from the catastrophic defeat of 1940 was very much in thrall to its German overlord and in order to maintain even nominal sovereignty it was forced to co-operate closely with the dictates issued from Berlin. During 1942, growing pressure from Germany to deport Jews from France received an enthusiastic response from the Vichy government.

The original German directive had called for a substantial deportation of adult Jews, including both French citizens and the many foreign residents from central and eastern Europe. René Bousquet, secretary general of the national French police, suggested that it would be less “embarrassing” if his policemen confined their arrests to foreign Jews. The Germans accepted this view and also agreed to a proposal put forward by the Vichy premier Pierre Laval that Jewish children should be included in the deportation. In part, this was to prevent ugly public scenes of the forcible separation of children from their parents. But it was also simply to avoid the financial responsibility for the soon-to-become orphans.

Paulette Stokfisz-Bronstein was one of the Jews arrested and held in the Vel d’Hiv. She wrote a series of increasingly despairing letters to her sister Nana to look after her children, Jacques and Raymonde: “I beg you, Nana, to accept them. Jacques can look after himself … They won’t bother you. Dear Nana, go to my flat and take everything. I give it all to you … There is some money and jewels … keep them. I beg, you, have pity on my children. I think this is my last letter.”

The roundup was prepared in great secrecy and involved a massive force of 9,000 police and auxiliaries. But given the scale of the operation it was almost inevitable that news of the impending action leaked to the French resistance and various Jewish organizations. As a result, some were able to escape. But most tamely accepted the police’s orders to gather up a few possessions before being bused to the Vélodrome d’Hiver.

Parisian reaction to the roundup was mixed. Some unscrupulous concierges plundered the apartments of the arrested Jews; bystanders were seen to applaud as the victims were led away. A few, however, actively helped the Jews. Sympathetic police officers encouraged their charges to flee into the city and French families hid those on the run from the authorities.

But for the thousands incarcerated in the Vél d’Hiv conditions became progressively worse. No food was provided and the only source of water was a single fire hydrant pumping filthy water from the Seine. There were no working lavatories: the stench from the piles of excrement was overwhelming, made worse by the summer heat and the absence of any ventilation. One eyewitness recalled frightened women and children crouching on the stadium benches, the floor below them awash with urine. After five terrible days the victims were taken to nearby transit camps before the first trains left for the further horrors of Auschwitz.

In the war’s aftermath, the French reaction to the deportation of its Jewish population was initially one of silence and denial, the profound humiliation of military defeat compounded by the Vichy administration’s abject co-operation with Nazi Germany. It would take five decades before the government accepted responsibility for its actions. This in turn reflected a change of mood within France itself, now prepared to look more honestly at its past.

This was confirmed on 16 July 1995 when President Jacques Chirac issued a complete and fulsome apology for the actions of the Vichy government in executing the Vél d’Hiv roundup: “These black hours will stain our history forever,” he said, “and are an affront to our past and traditions … the criminal insanity of the occupiers was assisted by the French, by the French state.”

If nothing else, Chirac’s act of contrition provided some posthumous justice to those sacrificed to ideological hatred and base political expediency.

Adrian Gilbert has written extensively on the second world war. His most recent book is POW: Allied Prisoners of War 1939-1945.


Behind the French Ruling on WWII Deportations of Jews


Following decades of debate over the nation’s wartime history, France’s highest judicial body has formally ruled that the French state bears moral and legal responsibility for the deportation of nearly 76,000 Jews during the nation’s WWII occupation. In doing so, the court officially recognized the willful participation of France’s collaborationist Vichy government in anti-Semitic persecution that had long been attributed to Nazi occupying powers.

The ruling Monday, by the Conseil d’Etat, or State Council, was cheered by organizations representing French Jews and families of Jews who were deported during the war — a mere 3,000 of whom ultimately returned. The judgment involved the case of a 76 year-old woman seeking damages for the 1941 deportation of her father by Vichy forces to Auschwitz, where he was killed. In its decision, the Conseil d’Etat held the French state, as then represented by Vichy, “responsible for damages caused by actions which did not result from the occupiers’ direct orders, but facilitated deportation from France of people who were victims of anti-Semitic persecution.”

That ruling definitively buries historical interpretations rooted in the post-war reconciliation period. The common view, which has endured for decades, held that it was the Nazis who mistreated and deported France’s Jews, or forced their French collaborators to. “This is a very satisfying ruling for me, in that it legally refutes the notion that the Vichy regime and the acts it committed were entirely the responsibility of German occupiers,” says Serge Klarsfeld, France’s leading Holocaust historian and Nazi hunter, whose own father perished in German camps. “What this says in legal terms is that as much as France may detest what the Vichy state did, it is responsible for the acts it committed in the name of France.”

In 1995, as Klarsfeld notes, then-President Jacques Chirac gave a historical speech that sought to atone for the nation’s dark past. Chirac broke with the traditional French depiction of wartime events by accepting, in the name of France, responsibility for the July 15-16, 1942 arrests of 13,000 Jews by French police. Known as the “Vel d’Hiv roundup” — after the name of the winter cycling stadium in Paris the deportees were held in — the infamous case was cited by Chirac as an example of active French participation in Jewish persecution. Chirac called on his French countrymen to accept responsibility for the Vichy regime just as they celebrate the anti-Nazi efforts of General Charles de Gaulle and his Free French forces. “France, homeland of the Enlightenment and of human rights, land of welcome and asylum; France, on that very day, accomplished the irreparable,” Chirac said in his speech, using the Vel d’Hiv roundup as a metaphor for all Vichy crimes. “Failing her promise, she delivered those she was to protect to their murderers.”

Yesterday’s ruling goes further. “While [Chirac’s] speech was so important to France and her Jews by finally stating an historic truth, the ruling by the Conseil d’Etat is also crucial, because it now sets that down in stone in legal terms,” Klarsfeld explains.

Ironically, the court decision also delivered a setback to the plaintiff by rejecting over $357,000 in damages she had sought for hardship resulting from her father’s deportation. The reason: the Conseil ruled that organizations set up to pay deportees and their survivors damages, or to compensate them for belongings stolen by Nazis or their French collaborators, have proven to be capable of fairly settling damages without court involvement.

Klarsfeld says nearly $702 million in damages have been paid out to applicants since 2001, while $501 million in endowments to the Shoah Memorial Foundation have generated additional funding to those who suffered deportation. “It closes the door to further court cases in such affairs, but that only shows the system put in place to hear them is working,” he says. What the Conseil decision doesn’t do, Klarsfeld stresses, is force French society into a reckoning with its war-time past that foreigners often think it denies. That has already happened, according to Klarsfeld and others, often in a deeper way than in other countries.

“Many nations, especially here in the U.S., tend to view France with the out-dated, 40 year-old perception that it hasn’t faced its past and learned hard lessons from it,” says Robert Paxton, professor emeritus at Columbia University and an acclaimed expert on fascism and Vichy France. “It has done deep research, held trials, updated text books, and even uncovered troubling wartime information on public figures — late President François Mitterrand for one. I’d like school teachers around the U.S. to be able to teach American responsibility for slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans the way French educators do their own war-time history. Alas, if they did that here, most would get fired.”

How the French contributed to the overall consequences of the Final Solution and French initiatives towards to the Jews: the Vel d’Hiv roundup and Drancy


The initial establishment of concentration camps in France was a result of the French government, not because of pressure of the Germans.  At first intended for foreign Jews, people were held in insufferable conditions under which they perished before the first convoys were even sent to Auschwitz.  These foreign Jews in internment camps “were the first casualties of the Holocaust in France, and they died because of French, not German, persecution.  In fact, it was even said that after the Germans took over control of Drancy, conditions at the camp improved.

Europe in 1942 sent a context in which the greatest roundups, deportations, and implementation of the Final Solution could be carried out.  After German invaded the Soviet Union, the war took on an even deeper anti-communist tone, thereby placing more blame on the Jews under the image of Jewish communists.  In 1942 Germany assumed the total occupation of France.

The effects of the Holocaust in France could not have been felt in the way that they were had it not been for the collaboration of the French police with the German authorities in the roundups of Jews.  The Germans did not have the resources in France to carry out extensive manhunts that resulted in the vast number of Jews being sent to the East.

The Vel d’Hiv roundup was the greatest example of this collaboration.  On July 16, 1942, some 13,152 men, women, and children were forced out of their homes.  While the Vel d’Hiv roundup succeeded in sweeping the streets of Paris and surrounding areas of a majority of their Jewish populations, French and Nazi forces failed to reach their goal of 24,000 Jews.  Single persons and those without children were sent directly to Drancy while families were held in a stadium in Paris, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, that was not equipped to house numerous people over a long stay.

The police intended for this roundup to be done quietly so as not to attract attention from the French populace.  This intent was doomed from the start because word leaked out and underground networks frantically tried to warn Jews to flee or hide.  However, especially French Jews could not imagine what awaited them.  They dutifully followed the law by registering for the “census” and thereby made themselves available to deportation.  The concept of the Final Solution was unfathomable to them, especially at the hands of the French authorities who had so long protected them, in a country to which they were loyal.

For 70,00 Jews from France, their stopover to their unknown destination in the East was at Drancy.  Drancy was to become a critical link to Auschwitz and the German Final Solution; for it was from Drancy that 62 of the 74 convoys left France between March 27, 1942, and August 17, 1944.  All but six of these trains arrived at Auschwitz, carrying 73,853 Jews, a majority of whom were gassed upon arrival.

Drancy opened as an internment camp for Jews expected from Paris in August 1941.  From its opening until July 1943, Drancy’s administration was run entirely by the French.  There was much debate between who should be responsibility for the running of the camp: no one wanted the job.  As Renée Poznanski describes it, Drancy was “first a synonym of terror, and later became an almost obligatory stop on the way to a sinister unknown destination”.


World War two film number 1: Sarah’s Key


Predominantly in French with English subtitles.

Adaptation of the novel, “Elle s’appelait Sarah”, (“Her Name Was Sarah”) by Tatiana de Rosnay

Link to the official trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AmxnNxiNWA

IMDB Storyline by Jeff Mellinger: One of the darkest moments in French history occurred in 1942 Paris when French officials rounded up over 10,000 Jews and placed them in local camps. Eventually over 8,000 were sent off to German concentration camps. As 10-year old Sarah and her family are being arrested, she hides her younger brother in a closet. After realizing she will not be allowed to go home, Sarah does whatever she can to get back to her brother. In 2009, a journalist named Julia is on assignment to write a story on the deported Jews in 1942. When she moves into her father-in-law’s childhood apartment, she realizes it once belonged to the Strazynski family, and their daughter Sarah. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1668200/

This is not a film about fighting, battles, guns, and soldiers. This is a film about how the war affected a normal girl. Much like the youthful reporters in this film, I has not heard of the Vel’ d’Hiv round up in July of 1942. I had heard accusations of French complicity to Nazi activity but had no knowledge of its reality. The film highlights the lack of knowledge of my generation on this, and the wider issues of World War 2, so I feel perhaps it has been a good place to start. Although the smug knowledge of Kristin Scott Thomas, in the journalist Julia’s role, can be somewhat off-putting to someone questing to know more.

The film flips between the past and the present coherently for the first half of the film. The second half of the film regrettably leaves the much more compelling past to focus on the affect of Julia’s increasing knowledge on her life. I shall not attempt to flit between the two as the film does.

The first scenes of 1942 show two young children playing happily in the bedroom of their apartment in the Marais area of Paris. In a stark contrast, the following scenes show French officers come to ‘round the up’ the family, compounded by watching it from the young girl’s, Sarah’s perspective. The actress playing her is extraordinary, a fantastic talent well portraying the true strength, courage and quick thinking employed when attempting to save her brother from their fate.

The round up itself, and the subsequent few days in the Vel’ d’Hiv take up a disappointing small time element of the film. The horrors of sharing that space, without adequate sanitation, are alluded to, but too quickly. I wonder if it is because I am interested particularly in learning about the round up, that I feel it is too small a part.

The film well portrays the increasing reactions of normal people around the Strazynski family, and as a viewer, you start to gain a sense of foreboding and expectation of the worst. I can’t imagine what it would be like to observe those changes in people around me in the present.  The woman who commits suicide in the Vel’ d’Hiv, the man who carries poison in his ring so he can choose when he dies, the woman who cuts her own mouth open to escape. It must make you question constantly whether you should be doing the same, increasing your chances, or reducing your future difficulties. But how?

As they are moved to the concentration camps, Sarah comes down with a fever. Her mother desperately asks for help as she lays her down, ‘My child has a fever can anyone help?’ Nobody answers and people look the other way. The fear people must have felt to stand up and help others is palpable. You can’t blame them, this situation was so alien to them, it is so much easier to stay quiet. This idea is mirrored when Sarah and a friend escape the camp and beg for help at a small farmhouse. The elderly couple shun them in fear of ‘trouble’. They stow away in their garden anyway as Sarah’s friend and fellow escapee is suffering from Diptheria. When the elderly couple see how ill she is, they take her inside where she eventually dies in their home. You can see the pain etched on their faces. They relent, and take Sarah in, to much danger to themselves. It seems once a stranger touched you in the war, you couldn’t turn your back. I wonder, how many children died from disease from exposure to poor sanitation and cramped conditions?

As the soldiers leave with the dead child, the elderly gentleman calls ‘Heil Hitler!’. The French soldier, stops, pauses, and repeats, ‘Heil Hitler’. This awkwardness at the salute, this pause and regret are just a small indication of the reluctance to engage with the Germans, but an acknowledgement that there is nothing to be done about it. ‘Heil Hitler.’

The elderly couple accompany Sarah on her quest to Paris for her brother and are with her when she discovers the reality of the horror because he kept his promise and remained in the close. They go on to adopt Sarah into their family and saved her from being one of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, showing how the courage of someone ordinary could save someone ordinary. It was that simple. Everyone had a choice to be extraordinary. The elderly couple are played beautifully. Hardly any dialogue passes between them, but a constant conversation with both of their eyes portrays the relentless agony they were enduring.

In the future, the film is much less likeable and the characters much less endearing. If the colleagues of Julia, Kristin Scott Thomas, are supposed to represent ‘the youth of today’ in their ignorance and disinterest in the truth, then I am ashamed to be banded in the same group as them.

As Julia delves deeper into the story of Sarah Strazynski, she feels increasingly alienated from her own life and marriage. She learns her husband’s parents moved in to the Strazynski apartment after the family were rounded up. This raises an interesting question of the morality of taking advantage of situations during the war. Were they right or wrong to move in there? Can you blame them? It seems the father ‘always did the right thing’, and they were not bad people, but they nevertheless profiteered from the round up of the Jews.

As Julia visits the Holocaust war memorial in Paris, the camera angle shows the depth and density of the names of the walls. Kristin Scott Tomas plays this scene impeccably, with the sadness etched on her face. We all know that feeling, as we learn about something and sorrow overwhelms us. It reminds me of the great Alan Bennett quote:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”

The scene reminds me of that feeling when you’re reaching back through time and offering your condolences, and compassion to what happened in the past and as I watch this I start to feel the same. My sorrow starts to feel guilt ridden. Why should I feel sad? What right do I have to feel mournful when it was them this happened to not me? How does it really affect me? I don’t know but it does.

Sarah’s son, is clear when he meets Julia, ‘I don’t want to talk to you about this.’ By delving into world war two, we are intruding into people’s pasts, raising questions and exposing truths. Is the truth better out? Ultimately this film says yes, we should know the truth, this is the only way we will we be able to move on and start anew. It’s an interesting question I hope to dwell on with further films.

Ultimately, the modern part of the film dominates too much at the end of the film and isn’t strong enough to support Sarah’s story. What a shame and a disappointment.

The film as a whole raises various issues that deserve greater exploration and study:

  • The idea of good and bad- The majority of the guards are unfeeling, appearing to have lost their compassion. This could just be a cinematic tool to create a ‘baddie’ the girl must battle against. Or were they really like that? Perhaps they had to disconnect from their feelings in order to carry out their duties. Interestingly, the film takes this further and shows some soldiers who have a softer ‘good’ side, and allow their compassion to show, such as the guard in the concentration camp. Trying desperately to fulfil his duty, he tries to withhold fruit from the girls, but relents and lets Sarah have an apple. He tries to stop them escaping, but relents, when Sarah calls him by his name and recognises his previous kindness. Anonymity, it seems, is key to cruelty.
  • The theme of blame and guilt. Sarah locked her brother in the cupboard. At the time it seemed a wise and brave choice. But it led ultimately to an awful and lonely death. Her father screams with anguish when they find themselves in the Vel’ d’hiv, ‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ Clearly in later life is she is usurped in the grief and self-blame and commits suicide as a young woman with a new family. Will I see more of the same? People who survived the atrocities but could not cope with the aftermath? Can you blame people for making a decision they thought was right in the moment?
  • Buildings holding their past and their memories. Can you live in a building that has such a past? Aren’t we all inhabiting buildings which have a past? I am currently sat in a Victorian terrace house in London. What went on here during the war? Would it matter to me?
  • What responsibility can we give to the generation that were there at the time? Julia’s character asks a pertinent question, ‘How do you know what you’d have done?’ Was it right or wrong to rent that apartment in august 42? Can you blame them?

Watching this film has raised as many questions about the process of what I am doing as it has about the process of what the French were doing in 1942 Paris. I can’t help asking the question, is it wrong to develop my knowledge of such an enormously important event on fictional accounts? Shouldn’t I read factual accounts of the tragedy? Then I remember. I have learnt facts, I have felt compassion. I have understood a little more about the difficulties faced by normal people, and ho the reacted. I have learnt. In my own way.

Would I recommend this film? Yes, but be prepared to be enamoured with the past and bored with the present. Mind you, I guess we can all be a bit like that anyway.

Favourite Quotes

The principle I apply to my work is to escape statistics to give a face and reality to each individual destiny (historian in the Holocaust War Memorial in Paris)


The start of something new

On the precipice of a new year, I find myself like many others contemplating my future and my decisions about whether to change my life, and if so, how. Should I revisit the resolutions of my past and commit to doing 20 situps each evening, writing a poem every day, taking more photographs or overcoming my disinterest in telephone conversations to be a better friend/daughter/sister.

I have come to a simple conclusion.

Resolutions needn’t be tiresome, boring or a battle against your instincts. A resolution can simply be a decision to further your knowledge of something you enjoy learning about. A commitment to deepen your understanding of something.

So, I am making the resolution to deepened my understanding of 2 things dear to my heart but still to foreign in my understanding of them. The first is world war two. I have always been distinctly interested in this period of modern history. Whether due to some macabre interest in human suffering, the magnitude of information about the subject available, the proximity of the horror to the modern day, the familiar locations affected, I am not sure. I have visited checkpoint Charlie, listened to tales of my grandparents role in the conflict and roamed the imperial war museum too many times, trying to piece together an understanding of the reality of what happened. What has really interested me is the human element of these stories. How people coped, what they had to face, how they found the strength to carry on. I believe I have much to learn from these human stories. Much to gain from understanding how people dealt with the sadness round them. I feel I owe it to them to learn.

However, there are many different mediums to learn of such a subject. Talks, books, photographs. There is one medium I have chosen to further my understanding, That of film. Film is a medium I have tried to understand in my adult life, I have absorbed myself in its learning and gratified its ability to present a subject so beautifully and completely. It is one of the mediums I understand best, to try and learn about one of the subjects I understand least.

There is a huge variety of films produced about world war two. Some focused on the approach of the leadership, some on the impact on normal families, some mocking the devastating situation and some weighted down by its very nature. I have watched many of these over the years but not enough of them, watched a few on a piecemeal basis, but never thought of them as a collective expression of a particular time, each film an account of one way the war affected one part of the world, be it a place, a person or the very reality of life.

I resolve to watch all the films made about world war two. To try to exploit it’s perspective on the war and further my knowledge of the medium of film at the same time.. If you have any suggestions, ideas, or comments on my project, please let me know as I want to make this assessment as broad as possible.

I will document my watching’s on this blog with my own small analysis of the film and comment on my developing knowledge of the conflict as we go. I hope to do the genre justice, the conflict and myself a greater understanding of two subjects I can’t seem to ignore.

The first film will be Sarah’s Key, a Gilles Paquet-Brenner film of 2010. I have chosen this as my first film as it also shows a modern day attempt to try and understand the conflict. Watch this space.

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