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This Month in Holocaust History – Alfred Lerner Fellows – July 2023

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This Month in Holocaust History – July

Vélodrome d’Hiver, the winter cycling stadium in Paris, France, July 1942. (Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem)


The roundups began in the early hours of July 16, 1942 in Paris, France.  Over the course of that day and the next, French police arrested a total of 13,152 mostly foreign Jews, of whom 3,118 were men, 5,919 were women, and 4,115 were children.  Under the authority of René Bousquet, Vichy’s Secretary General of Police, the majority of those Jews were taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vél d’Hiv’), the winter cycling stadium in Paris.  Because the Vélodrome was designed to hold less than a quarter of the number of Jews brought there, conditions inside were miserable.  After six days with no food and water, the prisoners were finally transferred to nearby camps and from there to camps in the east.

Though the roundups were carried out by the French police, they were prompted by demands from the head of the SS and German police in occupied France, Karl Oberg.  The events of July 16th and 17th were preceded by a number of anti-Jewish laws and statutes passed by the Vichy regime without prompting or pressure from the Nazi occupiers.  Immigrants, especially Jewish immigrants, were the first to be affected by Vichy’s campaign.  In contrast to France’s assimilationist tradition, in July 1940 the Vichy government began a review of all naturalizations in France since 1927.  This move was a blow to those Jews who had come to France seeking refuge from persecution in Germany, Poland, and other eastern European countries.  The following month the Marchandeau Law of 1938, which banned expressions of antisemitism in the press, was repealed.  Before the end of the year, the first Statut des Juifs was passed (October 1940), which defined Jews by their race and excluded them from top positions in the civil service and army.  The following year brought the passing of a second Statut des Juifs (June 1941) that led to a purge of Jews in various professions, a census of all Jews in the occupied zone, and a massive “aryanization” campaign.

Since the 1990s, the Vél d’Hiv’ roundups have come to symbolize the Vichy regime’s complicity in the perpetration of the Holocaust.  Though Jewish organizations had held private commemorative ceremonies at the site of the Vél d’Hiv’ for years, increased focus on Vichy’s antisemitism since the 1970s and the fiftieth anniversary of the roundups brought the events of July 16th and 17th into the public consciousness.  There had yet to be an official recognition of Vichy’s antisemitic crimes, and it was this issue that was to propel the Vél d’Hiv’ roundups to the level of national debate.

What was originally expressed as a desire for President François Mitterrand to make a gesture to acknowledge Vichy’s responsibility in the Holocaust quickly turned into a demand.  This demand took the form of a petition written by the Vél d’Hiv’ 42 Committee, which was signed by over two hundred prominent writers, professors, and artists and published in Le Monde on June 17, 1992, a month before the fiftieth anniversary of the roundups.  When the date of the fiftieth anniversary arrived, Mitterrand remained silent.  As such, the petitioners changed their approach.  Rather than an official statement from the President, they requested that July 16th be made a national day of commemoration for the antisemitic crimes perpetrated by the Vichy French State.  At the start of the next year, Mitterrand bent to the calls for official recognition by instituting July 16 as a “National Day for commemorating racist and anti-Semitic persecutions committed under the de facto authority of the so-called ‘government of the French State.’”

At the same time that the national day of commemoration was instituted, a committee was established and tasked with overseeing erection of a monument at the former site of Vél d’Hiv’.  This monument, which consists of seven figures seated on a curved concrete platform representing the bicycle track within the stadium, was erected in 1994 and was designed by Walter Spitzer.  However, it was not until the fifty-third anniversary of the Vél d’Hiv’ roundups that the ambiguity of Vichy’s memory was officially eliminated.  On July 16, 1995, newly elected President Jacques Chirac delivered a speech during the annual Vél d’Hiv’ commemorative ceremony in which he officially recognized Vichy’s antisemitism and its responsibility in the perpetration of the Holocaust in France.

When discussing the Vél d’Hiv’ roundups with your students, consider the short- and long-term implications of the roundups.  Why were Jewish immigrants living in France some of the first victims of the Vichy regime’s antisemitic policies?  How did the French population react to these policies and the Vél d’Hiv’ roundups?  Why do you think it took until 1995 for there to be an official recognition of the Vichy regime’s role in the perpetration of the Holocaust in France?  What does this fact reveal about the difficulty nations face in coming to terms with negative aspects of national history and memory?

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