Vichy treatment of Jews still divides French citizens Did France fight or collaborate with Nazi plans?

July 16, 1992|By Dallas Morning News

PARIS -- At dawn on July 16, 1942, police across Paris arrested more than 16,000 Jews and bused them to the Velodrome d'Hiver, an indoor cycling stadium. The families were held inside without food or water for three days. Those who survived were transferred to concentration camps in France and, ultimately, to Auschwitz.

The 50th anniversary of the "Vel d'Hiv" arrests, which was to be marked today with a ceremony at the site of the since-demolished velodrome, comes as Holocaust survivors and others are demanding a national accounting of the anti-Semitism by the Vichy government that ruled France after its defeat by Germany in 1940.

The demands have gathered force since spring, when a French court ruled that Paul Touvier, leader of the Lyon militia during the Vichy regime, was not guilty of crimes against humanity.

Mr. Touvier had acknowledged ordering the execution of seven Jews held at the Lyon prison in 1944 to avenge the assassination of Vichy's propaganda minister. An eighth hostage who was not Jewish was spared.

Unlike Nazi Germany, the court ruled, the Vichy government Mr. Touvier served was by definition not genocidal. It was not a totalitarian state. It had not collaborated with the Nazis. It had not, by extension, complied with the deportations of more than 75,000 French and foreign Jews, of whom only about 2,500 surived the Nazi camps.

France's intellectual community immediately exploded into charges of a whitewash of the nation's most painful period. The aftershocks continued to disturb this week's customary demonstrations of French patriotism.

After Tuesday's Bastille Day festivities, President Francois Mitterrand told French television that he could well understand why about 200 writers, artists and intellectuals have asked him to apologize to the victims of Vichy repression.

But the former French Resistance fighter said the modern French Republic is rooted in the resistance, not in the wartime Vichy regime. The Vichy state should be "brought to account," he said, but the French Republic has nothing to apologize for.

Mr. Mitterrand's remarks invoked one of his nation's most precious myths -- that most French struggled and resisted throughout the war years, and that the Vichy government shielded them, bending only reluctantly to Nazi pressure.

That version of history has paid dividends in boosting national pride, but it has had its costs.

The French have yet to convict a single French citizen for crimes against humanity. And, many say, by covering its old wounds so tightly the nation has never allowed them to heal.

"France still suffers from a deep and painful division that does not exist in other countries," Simone Veil, a member of the European Parliament who was deported to Auschwitz as a teen-ager, said during a televised discussion of the Touvier case.

"It remains an indelible stain. We collaborated."

That seems likely to change in the uproar following the Touvier ruling.

In part, the furor may stem from fears about the current-day rise of neo-fascist politicians such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, who leads the National Front.

More simply, it may reflect the gap between the Touvier court and public opinion.

Slowly, the huge majority of French people who were not even alive during the war have been learning new truths about the Vichy era. High-school history texts now state that the Vichy regime "directed an anti-Semitic policy well before the Nazis even asked for it."

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