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Remembering the Vel D'hiv Roundup

An article by David Lees, Department of French Studies

Published July 2012

In the early hours of Thursday 16th July 1942, French police rounded up some 12,884 Jewish men, women and children in the Paris region. Working alongside young men from the French proto-fascist organisation, the Parti Populaire Français (PPF), the police transported families en masse from their homes to the winter cycling stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, near the Eiffel Tower before eventual deportation to Auschwitz. Here David Lees looks back on what's now known as 'Black Thursday'.

Barbed wireJuly 2012 marked the seventieth anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup - the single-biggest operation of its kind to take place during the four-year German occupation of France in the Second World War. The Rafle du Vel d’hiv - the round-up of the Winter Velodrome - is a reminder of the anti-Semitism prevalent in France throughout what French historians call the ‘Dark Years’ of occupation. The Jewish families rounded up on ‘Black Thursday’, 16th July, were mainly immigrants from Eastern Europe and from countries annexed or occupied by the Nazis. Many had fled the anti-Semitic persecution of Nazi Germany only to be faced with governmental opposition in France.

Coming to power after the fall of France in June 1940, the Vichy regime, under the direction of First World War military hero, Marshal Philippe Pétain, sought to re-define the French community through exclusion. The project of ‘National Revolution’ was intended to purge France of ‘outside’ influences - principally the ‘anti-France’ of Jews, Freemasons and Communists. The Vichy authorities governed in practice the southern rural third of France, while they also exercised nominal control over French civil servants in the larger industrial and urban area which fell under German occupation. It was Vichy, though, not the Germans, who first introduced anti-Semitic measures in France. In two statutes, of October 1940 and June 1941, quotas were placed on the number of Jews permitted to work in the liberal professions, while Jews were completely forbidden from holding public office.

The round-up operations of July 1942 were thus the culmination of Vichy’s anti-Semitic policies, carried out by French police with the backing of the German occupiers. Vichy’s Prime Minister, Pierre Laval, and the chief of Paris police, René Bousquet, had engaged in a series of negotiations with the German authorities prior to the round-ups, reaching an agreement whereby French Jews were exempt from the round-ups. Instead, foreign Jews and their families were to be arrested across France. All foreign Jewish children under the age of 16 were, at the insistence of Laval, to be included in the round-ups. It is important to note that the arrests were carried out in the German-controlled zone of France, in Paris and its surroundings, but with minimal involvement on the part of the German authorities. The planning and execution of the operation was very much a French concern, with the final decisions to go ahead with the round-ups taken by the Vichy council of ministers.

In all, some 4,051 children were taken with their parents to the Vélodrome d’Hiver. Conditions in the velodrome were appalling; little preparation had been made for the arrival of the detainees, who were held in the stadium for up to seven days. The victims of the round-ups were deprived of access to food and water, and for much of their detention access to lavatories. Little aid was given to the families, with food coming at first only from religious and aid organisations like the Quakers and Vichy’s own relief agency, the ‘Secours National.’ After seven days of detention in the vélodrome, the families were transported to camps in the Loiret region, where conditions were similarly deplorable, before deportation, over a prolonged period of up to a month, to Auschwitz. A group of 3,500 children were taken from the holding camps to Drancy, where they were placed on trains in large groups, sometimes of up to 800 at a time, and deported to the Death Camps.

The 12,884 foreign Jews who were rounded up over the 16th and 17th July 1942 were just a fraction of the 76,000 Jews deported from France over the course of the Occupation. Only 2,600 of these deportees survived, fifty of whom were victims of the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv. None of the 4,051 children deported returned to France.

The question of how much the French population knew of Vichy’s implementation of anti-Semitic measures, and the enactment of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ in France is one which is often considered by historians. My research has thus focused on the Vichy regime’s control of the media during the Occupation years, especially the manipulation of audio-visual propaganda. The media response following the rafle is particularly interesting, in that it reveals a determination on the part of the Vichy authorities to prevent any references to the round-ups.

Both audio-visual and print media in the week following the arrests are remarkably similar in their ignorance of the event. The French official newsreel, France-Actualités Pathé-Gaumont, which was shown obligatorily in all cinemas in Vichy-controlled territories, featured news items on a cycling race on the Mediterranean Coast and a forest fire near Marseilles. Also covered in the issue were the ceremonies of the 14th July, traditionally the commemoration of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but re-packaged under Vichy to celebrate the project of National Revolution. The production made no mention of the round-up operation.

Newspapers in the Unoccupied, Vichy-controlled Zone, presented similar stories in place of the mass arrests and deportations. The renowned Le Figaro, published in Lyons during the Occupation, promoted the government’s work ‘relief’ (‘relève’) scheme, in which skilled French workers were encouraged to volunteer to work in Germany. Under the initiative, one French Prisoner of War would be released for every three skilled workers sent to Germany. The same story featured heavily in the Clermont-Ferrand based Le Petit Journal, championing a less sinister version of Franco-German collaboration than the mass arrests of Jewish families.

Monument commemorating the roundups near the Velodrome dShould, however, this ignorance of the round-ups in official media surprise us? The Vichy authorities were always reluctant to champion anti-Semitism in their propaganda. Anti-Semitism is not a theme which features in any single documentary film produced under Vichy, and up to 1943, only one daily radio programme referred on a regular basis to the government’s anti-Semitic measures. While there is a perceptible shift in the French public attitude away from hostility towards Jews and towards indignation after the round-ups, this was in spite of the official media response. Instead, the wider public heard of the arrests through clandestine news sources, like the Resistance and the BBC, who called on the French to protect their Jewish neighbours. Vichy was too preoccupied with maintaining some semblance of public popularity to broadcast its involvement in the round-ups.

The reality was, though, that French opinion was already turning against the Vichy authorities by the time of the round-ups. Both the ‘relief’ work scheme and its successor, the Service de Travail Obligatoire, which conscripted young French men and women to work for Germany, made the regime unpopular, and by November 1942, only four months after the round-ups, the invasion of North Africa prompted the Germans to invade the Vichy Zone, ending Vichy’s political autonomy. The regime’s tight control of the media failed to prevent the population from turning against Pétain’s government; a phenomenon which has been largely replicated in Syria and Libya in recent years. Seventy years after the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv, the deportation of Jews from France remains, though, a sensitive chapter in French history. It will be interesting to see whether France’s new president, François Hollande, will choose to commemorate the round-ups with a symbolic official ceremony - in any case, the media coverage should be notably different from that of 1942.

Further reading:

  • (In French) Claude Lévy and Paul Tillard, La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 1992)
  • (In French) Pierre Laborie, Les Français des années troubles: de la guerre d’Espagne à la Libération (Paris: Seuil, 2003)
  • Julian Jackson, France the Dark Years 1940-1944 (Oxford: OUP, 2001)
  • Robert O. Paxton and Michael Marrus, Vichy France and the Jews (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995)
  • Film: La Rafle (The Round-Up) (Dir: Rose Bosch, 2010)

David LeesDavid Lees is a doctoral candidate in the Department of French Studies at the University of Warwick. His research builds on work from the MA for Research in French and Francophone Studies, which he gained in 2010. His thesis, entitled 'Vichy and the Republic: ideological compromise and symbolic adaptation in the France of the Occupation', focuses on the ideology of the Vichy regime during the Occupation of France (1940-1944).

Image: monument near the Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris by Jim Forrest (via Flickr)