August 10, 2011

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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