Saturday, July 30, 2011

Anniversary of Vél d'Hiv, Sarah's Key and French Guilt

When French journalist Catherine Nay said of Muhammad al Dura, the boy who allegedly died by IDF gunfire in a still contested incident in Gaza in 2000, "the death of Muhammad cancels, obliterates, that of the Jewish child hands up, put into play by an SS in the Warsaw Ghetto," she was really breathing a sigh of relief that the French and other Europeans were off the hook and could finally shed their guilt about the Holocaust. For every time European anti-Zionists call Palestinians the new Jews and Israelis the new Nazis it may have been because they "...will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz." 

Interior of Vél d'Hiv from Sarah's Key
So, it is a teeny, weeny bit of a miracle that, so close to the July 16th and 17th anniversary of Vél d'Hiv, the French government has signaled that, "any solution to the Middle East conflict would need to recognize Israel as the national-state for the Jewish people," considering that, so far, few of the other major European nations are willing to agree to this. Could it be a sign of recognition that earlier ambivalence towards Israel was a reflection of French guilt?

In an excellent summary of the events, Adrian Gilbert tells that , "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."

Sarah's Key, a new film based on Tatiana de Rosnay's novel is about one family caught up in the roundup, the subsequent separation of the daughter from her parents, the horrific drama of her escape from the transit camp back to Paris to rescue her brother and post war French society's silence and denial of the events. It wasn't until 1995 that the French nation officially acknowledged and apologized for its participation in the the murder of its Jews when President Chirac lamented, "These black hours will stain our history for ever...the criminal insanity of the occupiers was assisted by the French, by the French state...Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners."

I really meant for this to be a recommendation for Sarah's Key. To be honest, I resisted reading the book and seeing 'yet another Holocaust film' but, just as the film depicts, most people in France and elsewhere have little knowledge of Vel d'Hiv nor the details of how some Parisians actively encouraged the roundup and happily seized the empty apartments left by the Jews. Considered a taboo subject until recently, the events described in Sarah's Key add further specificity to our knowledge of the Holocaust and, perhaps, what it is that drives French attitudes towards Israel.


  1. Good article and sadly true but I will not ever be tired to say that we can not talk about "the French" in a general term. Let me remind you that French was also represented by Premiers like Leon Blum and Pierre Mendes France - one of the most estimated Jews statesmen in Europe. Not all the French were ambiguous about Middle East - let me name Lionel Jospin Socialis Premier forced to leave the Territories after having labelled Hamas as terrorists.Most of the French were and surprisingly more on the Right than on the Left, but please not "the French"

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Andrea. Of course we cannot speak entirely in generalities but we can wonder if/how the Vichy period had an effect on France's relation to Israel.

  3. Sarah’s Key is a book about Julia Jarmond and Sarah Starzynski in Paris, July 1942. In 1942, 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski tells the French Police that her brother has left with her dad .She has her little brother Michel at home, hidden in their bedroom cupboard .She tells him to stay there and wait until she returns. And promises that she will be back after they get released. Later after 60 years an American journalist “ Julia Jarmond” investigates the round up. During her research, she encounters some things that connect her to Sarah. And the author of this thrilling story is Tatiana De Rosnay.


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