All entries for Wednesday 10 August 2011

August 10, 2011

Selective memory (part 3)

If you walk around Paris, especially around the Ile de la Cité, home to Notre Dame Cathedral, you see countless light grey plaques, emblazened with the tricolore, remembering the deaths of policemen and Résistants during the Liberation. Only relatively recently–since Jacques Chirac's 1995 apology for crimes committed under the auspices of the Vichy regime–have new, dark grey plaques emerged round the city, especially in the traditional Jewish quarter of the Marais. On the wall of the École Maternelle (the infant school) opposite my flat there is one such plaque, remembering the young children from this area who were deported during the Occupation. Few tourists take notice of such plaques, nor indeed the grey slab opposite the exit to the Bir Hakeim exit commemorating the Rafle du Vél d'Hiv. It will be interesting to see how next year, 70 years since the round-ups, the event itself is commemorated. Will there be as much newspaper coverage as that given to the controversey surrounding the 14th July 'Citizens' Parade'? The 2010 film, La Rafle, pulled no punches in the treatment it gave to the French police and civil servants involved in the round-ups, which has perhaps helped to immortalize the victims of the event more than any monument could do. Let's hope that the 2012 election campaigns make much of remembering the crimes committed by the French authorities, in the alleged 'City of Light', and that whoever the next President is (it could, of course, remain Sarkozy), the memory of the innocent victims is not forgotten.

plaque ile saint louis

A plaque on the Ile St-Louis (4th Arrondissement) commemorating a group of Jewish children deported from the property during the Occupation. Image ©David Lees


Richard Burton, Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris 1789-1945 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001)

J.G. Shields, The Extreme Right in France from Pétain to Le Pen (London: Routledge, 2007)

La Rafle (Dir: Rose Bosch, 2010)

Selective memory (part 2)

By contrast, I saw a poster in Nation Métro Station the other day advertising an event in memory of the 67th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, in which the Parisian police, along with the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur (FFI), engaged in armed skirmishes with the Nazi occupiers shortly before the arrival of General Leclerc's tanks. It is highly likely that many of the Parisian policemen involved in the 'Paris Insurrection' were also involved in the mass round-up of Jews during the Occupation. Yet it is their involvement in the Liberation, perhaps unsurprisingly, given France's long-standing subscription to the Gaullist myth of the Second World War (in which France had never given up the fight, and the Republic had never ceased to exist), which is celebrated each year, and not the memory of the Jews sent to their deaths in the Extermination Camps in the East.

Rafle Memorial

The Memorial to the victims of the Rafle du Vél d'Hiv, 7th Arrondissement. Image ©David Lees

Selective memory (part 1)

In the shadows of the Eiffel Tower, a short walk from the Bir Hakeim Métro station, is a peaceful, long garden leading to a bronze sculpture. Groups of young men–mostly of Sub-Saharan African origin–perch on the handful of benches that line the route to the sculpture, clutching bulky drawstring bags probably containing mini Eiffel Towers. Unlike the iconic Parisian landmark, the small memorial in the garden has very few visitors. The sculpture is of a handful of families, clutching suitcases with a look of uncertainty and misery in their eyes.

On the 16th and 17th July 1942, two days after the 'Day of Reflection on the National Revolution' of 14th July (the day which replaced, during the Occupation, the traditional Republican Festival celebrating the taking of the Bastille in 1789), 13, 152 Jewish men, women and children were rounded up in the notorious Rafle du Vél d'Hiv. Many of the individuals rounded up were new arrivals in France, who had fled the Nazis as the Blitzkrieg spread from one country to another. Some, however, were French Jews who were simply living in the Occupied two-thirds of the country.

I arrived in Paris this summer on the 69th anniversary of the second day of the Rafle, named for the winter velodrome which once stood on the spot of the current memorial in which the rounded-up Jews were held, before being shipped to transit camps in France (like the Drancy estate on today's RER line to Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport). The newspapers this year dedicated some considerable wordage to the national outrage caused by the suggestions of a Green Party député, Eva Joly, who suggested that the military parade on the Champs-Elysées on the 14th July should be replaced by a so-called 'Citizens' Parade.' (It's worth reading Stephen Clarke's blog on the anger this suggestion caused). There was nothing in the newspapers that I picked up (or indeed online) that hinted at the horrific round-up of 69 years before.

Rafle plaque

The plaque commemorating the spot where the Winter Velodrome once stood , 7th Arrondissement. The last line of the inscription reads: 'Those who pass, remember them.' Image ©David Lees

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