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French President François Hollande (center) at the Drancy Memorial inauguration
French President François Hollande (center) at the Drancy Memorial inauguration
Johannes Wetzel

Contemporary French historian Henri Rousso’s seminal book Syndrome de Vichy (The Vichy Syndrome) came out in 1987. Its subject was the way the French dealt with the Nazi occupation, and it in Rousso coined an iconic phrase: “The past that does not pass...”

Now, however, Rousso says, "The past is past. It’s not forgotten, but it has finally found its place."

As late as President François Mitterrand’s administration (1981-1995) this part of France’s national story was being denied, and Gaullist doctrine, born of the wish for reconciliation – "Pétain’s Vichy was not France" -- prevailed. France had moved to London with Charles de Gaulle and was not responsible for what happened back home.

It was not until 1995 that there was finally an official admission from Mitterrand’s successor Jacques Chirac of French complicity in what is known as the "rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv" (the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup) in Drancy. On July 16, 1942, the French, complying with German orders, rounded up 13,152 Jews in Paris and locked them up at the Vélodrome d’Hiver indoor bicycle race track and nearby Drancy internment camp, before the detainees were transported by rail for extermination at Auschwitz. Referring to that shocking day, Chirac said, “France, on that very day, committed the irreparable.”

Now, 70 years after the fact, François Hollande, angering some neo-Gaullists, repeated Chirac’s admission when he said at the 2012 memorial:

“The truth is that French police -- on the basis of the lists they had themselves drawn up --undertook the arrest of thousands of innocent people, who were trapped on July 16, 1942. The French gendarmerie escorted them to the internment camps. The truth is that no German soldiers -- not a single one -- were mobilized at any stage of the operation. The truth is that this crime was committed in France, by France.”

Some two months later, Hollande inaugurated the Mémorial de la Shoah à Drancy, as the memorial center overlooking the former camp north of Paris is known. It was a recognition that this past had finally found its place in the collective French consciousness.

The center, designed by Swiss architect Roger Diener, overlooks the huge, horseshoe-shaped housing project called the Cité de la Muette, which was requisitioned by the Nazis from 1941 until 1944 as an internment, then transit camp for Jewish prisoners. Of the 76,000 Jews deported to extermination camps from March 1942, 63,000 passed through here. The facility was under French control until June 1943, when Alois Brunner, a GermanSS officer, took over as head of the camp.

The Cité de la Muette was reconverted to public housing not long after the end of the war, and no memorial of any sort existed until 1976. In 1980, a cattle car was installed to serve as a reminder of the way the prisoners were transported from the two nearby train stations to their deaths in concentration camps.

In September, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also dedicated the newMémorial du camp des Milles (Milles Camp Memorial) near Aix-en-Provence. The Milles camp is the only internment and deportation camp still standing in France today, of the over 200 of them that existed between 1938 and 1946.

The Milles camp was in use from the declaration of war until a few weeks before German troops invaded the unoccupied southern half of France, then known as the “free zone.” As the Prime Minister put it, it was "under French orders from September 1939 to September 1942."

Altogether, 10,000 people are said to have transited the former brick factory of the Milles camp. Many German refugees were interned here as “enemy aliens,” including historian Golo Mann, writers Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Hessel and Alfred Kantorowicz, and artists Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer. Expressionist poet Walter Hasenclever took his own life here in 1940.

Later the site served the Vichy regime as an internment camp, and in July 1942, the the 2,000 Jewish men, women and children delivered to Drancy by the Laval government passed through the Milles camp.

The impetus for the President Chirac’s 1995 speech came from an American, Robert Paxton, a political scientist and historian whose specialty was Vichy France. His1972 book Vichy France, Old Guard and New Order: 1940-1944 was translated into French in 1973. That began a reconsideration that accelerated in the 1980s, when younger historians started to take a closer look at the generally accepted French view, rose-tinted by the cult of Gaullist and Communist resistance heroes, that had prevailed since the amnesty of Nazi collaborators in the 1950s.

Private initiatives

It was also in the 1980s, as historians became interested in the Holocaust and the public learned more about it, that private initiatives were launched to preserve "Les Milles," which had reverted to being a brick factory; it remained in use as one until 2006.

Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974) was one of the first French movies to touch on French collaboration with the Nazis. French movies dealing with the subject since then include Claude Lanzmann’s epoch-making documentary movie Shoah (1985) and Roselyne Bosch’s 2010 feature film La Rafle, starring Mélanie Laurent, Jean Reno and Gad Elmaleh.

After Chirac’s "admission of guilt" in the name of France came a stream of apologies, including from French churches. More memorials, commemorations and research were to follow, thanks to private initiatives like that of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, who founded the Association of the Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported From France.

The Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, founded in 2000 with a capital of 393 million euros, was funded from assets confiscated from Jews by the French state and unclaimed Jewish bank accounts. This made it possible to continue and expand on the work of an existing Parisian memorial called the Mémorial de la Shoah (Holocaust Memorial).

It is this foundation that, with the victims' own money, financed the Drancy memorial center.

Seventeen years after Chirac’s speech, historian Annette Wieviorka says, "Accounts have been settled." They have been settled legally, with the 1998 conviction of Maurice Papon, head of the Paris police during the Nazi occupation, for crimes against humanity. And they have been settled financially since 1999, when the Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation Through Anti-Semitic Legislation in Force during the Occupation (CIVS) -- known as the Drai Commission -- came into being. This was followed in 2000 by a decree stipulating that anyone whose parents were deported from France as part of the anti-Semitic persecutions during the Occupation and who died during the deportation is entitled to reparations. French archives for the period 1940-1945 were made fully available for public consultation in 1997.

All this commemoration work is bearing fruit. According to a poll, about half of the French under the age of 35 have heard of the "Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv’," a result historians say is respectable.

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