The most vivid piece of writing about occupied France that I know comes from the autobiography of the historian Annie Kriegel. On July 15, 1942, she was waiting – with her hat and white gloves – to undergo the oral for her baccalaureat examination. Suddenly her mother turned up and took her aside. She had heard there was to be a rafle (round-up) of Jews on the following day. The family had to hide. At dawn the next day Annie was walking down Rue de Turenne when she saw a policeman, with tears running down his “’massive ruddy face”‘, leading a column of people carrying their possessions in improvised bags. A little later she heard women wailing “as if in the labor ward”.
The round-up from which Annie and her family escaped with help from their neighbors (the Poublans) is known as the ravel du Vél d’Hiv. It derives its name from the fact that a large proportion of the victims were initially held at the winter cycling stadium (Vélodrome d’Hiver) in the fifteenth arrondisement. It was the biggest single such event in France and, for that matter, western Europe during the war, though there were fifteen further, smaller rafles in Paris, the last of which took place in February 1944. The round-up had been ordered by the German occupier, but was carried out by the French police. Its ostensible targets were “foreign” Jews – a category that had been expanded by Vichy’s decision to strip citizenship from many of those naturalized since 1927. A total of about 13,000 Jews were picked up on July 16 and on the following days.
The general outlines of the rafle are known from previous books – including some by Laurent Joly himself. What is most compelling in his latest volume, published to coincide with the eightieth anniversary of the round-up, is the wealth of detail about the individuals involved. This includes the policemen who carried it out. Joly’s main source is the postwar disciplinary hearings in which, unsurprisingly, policemen presented themselves as having done their best to impede operations. In practice only those who had performed with excessive “zeal” were punished – and even then some were spared because of their later work with the resistance. Some were unenthusiastic in the performance of their duties. One woman recalled that the agent sent to her family’s flat said he would return in fifteen minutes. The family grabbed a few possessions and ran across the street to seek refuge with neighbors. To their horror the policeman was standing outside the building, and seemed to have seen them, but he ostentatiously looked at a shop window and they escaped. Policemen usually worked in pairs. How much latitude they enjoyed depended partly on whether they trusted their partner, and partly on how much pressure their superiors applied. Police behavior also varied from one area to another. In the twentieth arrondisement, policemen were issued with tools to break down doors. Elsewhere those in charge were less exacting. The commissaire de police in the second arrondisementRoger Jéhanno, had warned some Jews of the coming raflewhile another well- established policeman, Léon Degaugue, said, when he was demoted in 1943, “I know Jews and nothing will make me renounce old friendships”.
Few Jews seem to have understood the full extent of Nazi intentions, but they knew that deportation was a horrifying prospect. The first victim of the rafle was Ita Poitevin (born Ita Zitenfeld in Poland). She had not registered as a Jew and her name was not on the list of those to be arrested. She was, however, weary – having lived by a succession of expedients, and usually without the correct papers, since her arrival in France in 1937. She must have known that the French or German authorities would get to her eventually. When she heard the police on Rue des Rosiers beneath her apartment at about five in the morning, she despaired and took poison. Chawa Cynober barricaded her flat and opened the gas taps in an attempt to give her four children a quick death: they survived and were taken to hospital. This saved them from immediate deportation and they were then handed over to the assistance publique, from which one of their aunts snatched them to safety. Madame Cynober had the misfortune to come up against a lenient judge who stopped her prosecution for attempted murder and released her – only for her to be rearrested and sent to Auschwitz. People faced agonizing choices. Many assumptions that deportations would only concern male adults, and consequently some men had gone into hiding. At 50 Rue de la Chapelle, Léon Tsevery and one of his brothers climbed onto the roof as the police came up the stairs. Their father and nine-year-old brother hid in the communal toilets. To their horror, they then heard Madame Tsevery, who had stayed in the apartment, being dragged down the stairs.
Escape required help and good fortune. Taking off the yellow stars that Jews in the occupied zone were required to wear was a first step, but doing so carried its own risks, because not wearing the star was an offence. Some policemen, seeking to make up their quota of Jews, arrested those without a star whose papers identified them as Jewish. Some people were spared. These included the wives of prisoners of war (a group who enjoyed a degree of protection from Vichy) or furriers (protected by the Germans, who needed their products for troops on the eastern front). Those who belong to such categories had to decide whether to declare themselves and benefit from their official status or take their chances in subterfuge and flight – in the long run, as it turned out, the second option was usually best. Those who provided active help were not always models of virtue. Anna Traube was a good-looking young woman who was interned in the Vélodrome d’Hiver. She enlisted the sympathy of a doctor and a maintenance engineer who, between them, obtained the laissez-passer that she needed to get out. However, the final checkpoint was manned by a policeman who had made crude advances to her when she first arrived. He knew her papers were false and could have taken revenge for his rejection. Instead he gave her a look of rueful admiration and waved her through.
Partly in an effort to persuade the French public that the rafle was part of a humane movement of population, rather than a prelude to extermination, Pierre Laval, the effective head of the Vichy government, had insisted that children under the age of sixteen should be arrested with their parents – although most such children had been born in France and were therefore French citizens. A child over sixteen might save their younger siblings from deportation if they could persuade the authorities to leave them at their charge. Jenny Plocki, born in 1925, remembered “the most important two hours of my life”, during which the authorities ascertained that she and her younger brother were French citizens while her mother desperately sought to instil the advice that might normally have been dispensed across a lifetime. Children were separated from their parents after arrest. Jean-Claude Loterman was three. The police were willing to leave him with his nineteen-year-old sister, Suzanne, but he clung to his mother and she kept him, believing that she would be able to hand him over to Suzanne later. The mother was deported on August 3. Later Suzanne, still trying to save her brother, wrote to the authorities, but the boy had already been sent – on his own – to Auschwitz. If he had survived the journey, in a sealed wagon without enough food or water, he would have been gassed on arrival.
Richard Vinen teaches history at King’s College London
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