Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Europa Europa: A Square of Shame

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Douglas Davis

Last month, I stumbled on a charming little square in the heart of Paris. The Plas des Petits Pères (Square of the Augustinian Fathers) hides in the labyrinth around the Bourse. I was drawn to it by the Notre Dame des Victoires, a basilica that keeps company with a group of elegant adjoining buildings.

Inside the church, I learned that the cornerstone was laid in 1629 by Louis XIII in gratitude for his victory over the Protestants at La Rochelle.

Today the church boasts that it "welcomes men and women in need of refuge and comfort". But that has not always been the case. For the church has witnessed a terrible deed. And when it did, it offered neither refuge nor comfort.

About 20 metres from the church entrance, and sharing a common plaza in the square, is the entrance to a compact, five-storey building, a curiously anonymous 19th century structure which boasts no name or offer any other indication of its function and whose front door is firmly locked.
But if you look very closely, high above eye level, you will see a small plaque almost camouflaged against the same cream colour as the wall on which it has been mounted. The inscription is chilling: "From 1941 to 1944 this building housed the General Commissariat for Jewish Affairs, instrument of the anti-Semitic policy of Vichy France. This plaque is dedicated to the memory of French Jews, victims of this policy."

It was here, on July 16, 1942 - in the shadow of the Notre-Dame des Victoires, in a discreet corner of the most beautiful city in the world - that the round-up of 13,152 Jewish men, women and children of Paris was planned and executed. Just 811 survived. In all, 76,000 Jews would be deported from France to Auschwitz. Only 2,500 would return.

France has had a difficult time coming to terms with its wartime role in the destruction of Europe's Jews. For years, successive French presidents attended the annual July 16 memorial ceremony at the site of the Vélodrome d'Hiver, a cycling arena in Paris, where the Jews were assembled before being shipped to Auschwitz. The presidents attended, but they remained silent, acknowledging the tragedy but refusing to accept French responsibility.

It was not until 1995 that President Jacques Chirac broke the silence to publicly acknowledge that the wartime puppet Vichy regime had been culpable. But this year's ceremony, the 70th anniversary of the round-up, marked a definitive change. President François Hollande did not transfer blame to the Vichy regime or the Germans. He unequivocally acknowledged France's betrayal of its Jews.

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

Hollande expressed shock that two-thirds of French children still know nothing of the round-up and deportation. There must not, he ordered, be a single primary school, junior school or lycée in France where it is not taught. And he concluded with the observation that, "antisemitism is not an opinion, it is an abhorrence", pledging that France, "will pursue all antisemitic acts with the utmost determination... Everything will be fought with the last ounce of energy".

That determination may be too late. France is haemorrhaging Jews. True, it still has the largest diaspora community outside the United States, but while its Jewish population of France was around 750,000 two decades ago, it is now down to about 500,000. Some of that erosion is attributed to assimilation, but far more is said to be the result of emigration.

Not only do many French Jews feel unsafe, but their perception of insecurity is accelerating, says Michel Gurfinkiel, former editor-in-chief of a leading French newsweekly. He notes that the immediate reason for French fears - but not the only one - was the cold-blooded killing of a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse by a Muslim terrorist last March. Instead of generating compassion and understanding for the Jewish community, he wrote, the atrocity "actually generated more anti-Jewish violence and hate talk."

This view was supported by the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, who recently warned Jewish leaders that the decline in "Judaeo-Christian values" had presaged a growing "rejection" of Jews and Judaism in France.

French Jews are feeling besieged by the influx to France of some five million Muslims, many of whom are penned up in the outer suburbs of Paris where they translate their pent-up grievances into a powerful hostility towards French society in general and French Jews in particular.

True, François Hollande sounded a clarion call for solidarity with the Jews of France, but, with antisemitic attacks more than 50% higher this year than last, many French Jews doubt the willingness or ability of the authorities to protect them.

Unlike their predicament 70 years ago, however, they now have options. And they are exercising them.

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