Countries, like individuals, have sinister histories from which they cannot escape. At best, they may be able to come to terms with the past, to integrate it into a public consciousness. But committed indignities, perversions of justice, persecutions and atrocities are every bit as much a part of a national identity as the intellectually or morally elevated individuals and moments with which societies much prefer to identify.
Americans understandably take tremendous pride in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the political legacies of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, not to mention towering cultural personalities such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Aaron Copeland, Georgia O’Keefe, Duke Ellington, and Leonard Bernstein. But always lurking in the recesses of our consciousness are slavery, the Cherokee people’s Trail of Tears, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Jim Crow laws and segregation, the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the mid-20th century Hollywood Blacklist, and the homophobic anti-sodomy laws that were finally declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003.
The same is true of France. “I am here to uphold the universal values that France has always proclaimed, the rights to which all human beings should be entitled wherever they live: freedom, safety and resistance to oppression,” French President François Hollande declared before the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25. “France,” he said, “wants to set an example, not to teach others a lesson but because it’s our history, our message. Setting an example in promoting fundamental freedoms is our battle and a matter of honor for us.”
An outstanding 2010 French film about the July 1942 mass arrest and subsequent deportation of 12,884 foreign-born Jews, including 4,051 children, in Nazi-occupied Paris is a stark reminder that the example set by France during the years of the Holocaust was far from honorable. La Rafle (the Roundup), written and directed by Roselyne Bosch, which will be released nationally in the United States on Nov. 16, bears witness to the brutality of not German soldiers but French policemen who carried out this action against Jewish men, women and children with callous efficiency and an absolute repudiation of the fundamental principles of human equality and dignity embodied in France’s 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
In La Rafle, Jo Weisman, an 11-year-old Jewish boy, is taken with his Yiddish-speaking parents first to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, or Vel d’Hiv, a huge bicycle stadium near the Eiffel Tower, where they, together with some 7,000 other arrested Jews, were confined in horrendous conditions. In the words of historians Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, “there was hardly enough space to lie down. Worse still, hardly any physical preparations had been made. There was neither food nor water nor sanitary arrangements. . . . At first the victims experienced thirst, hunger, the heat of the day, the cold of the night. Then diarrhea and dysentery. A terrible odor infected the place. Then came a sense of abandonment as hours stretched into days. The confinement lasted for five days.”
Mélanie Laurent gives a superlative performance as Annette Monod, a Protestant nurse who is assigned to the Vel d’Hiv and who, overcome by the plight of the imprisoned Jews, desperately tries to help them as best she can. She then accompanies the doomed Jews to a transit camp from which the overwhelming majority is then deported to be murdered at Auschwitz.
La Rafle brilliantly captures the horror of it all with enormous sensitivity, including the anguish of parents unable to protect their children, the distress of the very few who wanted but were unable to save the victims from their fate, and the cruelty of the French gendarmes, many of whom seemed to relish their task. Both Jo Weisman and Annette Monod were actual participants in this drama. The film accurately shows how Weisman and another boy survived by crawling under the transit camp’s barbed wire fence.
In his 1981 book, Paris and the Third Reich, the British author David Pryce-Jones quotes Monod’s recollection of the Jewish children’s forced departure from the Drancy camp which is movingly depicted in La Rafle: “’The freight cars had no foot-boards, and many of the children were too small to step up . . . the children gave way to fear. They did not want to leave and began to sob, calling on the social workers and even the gendarmes to help them. I remember little Jaquet, aged five and especially endearing. Begging for my help, he called out: ‘I want to get down, I want to see the lady again . . . .’ The door of the wagon was closed and padlocked, but he still stuck his hand out through a crack between the planks; his fingers moved. . . The warrant officer…gave that hand a blow.”
For decades, the official line of successive French governments was that the deportations were entirely the fault of the Germans, assisted, perhaps, by the collaborationist Vichy regime. It was not until July of 1995 that the newly elected French President Jacques Chirac set the record straight and confessed his nation’s “collective error.” Speaking on the 53rd anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, he said that “France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable. Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.”
This is not to suggest that France’s record during the Holocaust is entirely negative. As Alan Riding wrote earlier this year in the International Herald Tribune, “of the 320,000 Jews in France in 1940, three-quarters survived the occupation, in many cases thanks to protection by Protestant groups, Catholic convents and individual families. So there is also a more uplifting side to the story. But it can only decently be told now that the darker truth is finally being accepted.”
Which is why La Rafle is such a terribly important film. It not only forces us to confront the demons inherent in the human condition. It keeps open wounds that must never be allowed to fully heal.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.