Former Vichy official to face his accusers Defendant: Maurice Papon, a former Vichy official, is scheduled to go on trial Wednesday in France. He is accused of crimes against humanity in the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps.

Sun Journal

October 03, 1997|By Susannah Patton | Susannah Patton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARIS -- In 1942, when he was 17, Michel Slitinsky fled the French police, who were searching for Jews in the city of Bordeaux. He escaped by hiding on rooftops, but his father and other Jews there were less fortunate: They were captured, deported and died in German concentration camps.

Slitinsky ever since has sought to find and bring to justice the person he believed responsible for his father's death. After a 15-year legal battle, Slitinsky and 49 other families of Holocaust victims are about to encounter him in court.

The defendant is Maurice Papon, now 87, a postwar Paris police chief, member of Parliament, treasurer of the Gaullist party and government minister. He is scheduled to go on trial Wednesday in Bordeaux, accused in a 186-page indictment of crimes against humanity.

Papon is charged in connection with the deportation of 1,560 Jews, including more than 200 children, to concentration camps from 1942 to 1944 when he worked as a senior regional official in Bordeaux under France's pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Papon says he is innocent. He says he in fact aided the Resistance and saved Jews by watering down orders issued by the Nazis.

He is the first, and most likely the last, former Vichy official to stand trial for crimes against humanity. And the trial, the subject of intensive news coverage in France, is likely to reignite a painful debate about the nature and extent of France's wartime collaboration with the Nazis.

"The trial will be a great history lesson," says Gerard Boulanger, a Bordeaux lawyer who has campaigned for the victims' families for 14 years. "It will be the first trial of a senior civil servant focusing on the complicity of the French state in the Holocaust."

France has had an uneasy relationship with its role in World War II -- and especially with the role of the regime established by Marshal Philippe Petain in the sleepy spa town called Vichy after France fell to the Germans in 1940.

"Scholars have made a judgment on Vichy, but I'm not sure the general public has," says Robert O. Paxton, a U.S. historian who is the author of landmark works on the Vichy regime and its racial policies. While officials and the public still sometimes glorify France's wartime role, scholars have documented Vichy's willingness to carry out the Nazis' orders.

An acknowledgment of the nation's collaboration came on Sept. 30, when France's Roman Catholic Church formally apologized for its silence during Vichy's persecution and deportation of more than 75,000 Jews. The date of the ceremony was chosen to coincide with the eve of the Jewish new year and the anniversary of the first anti-Semitic laws promulgated on Oct. 3, 1940, by the Vichy regime.

There are few precedents for Papon's trial. The only Frenchman to be convicted of crimes against humanity is Paul Touvier, a leader of a pro-Nazi militia in Lyon and charged with ordering in 1944 the execution of seven Jews. After being sheltered by the Catholic hierarchy in Lyons, he was captured in 1989 and convicted in 1994. In 1996, he died in prison at age 81.

Two former Vichy police chiefs accused of crimes against humanity died before being brought to trial. Jean Leguay, accused or organizing a mass roundup of Jews in 1942, died in 1989. Rene Bosquet, charged with ordering the deportation of 2,000 Jewish children, was shot to death in 1993.

Serge Klarsfeld, a prominent Nazi-hunter who pursued Papon for years, notes that Papon played a smaller role than Bosquet and Touvier. "But Papon followed orders he didn't have to follow," Klarsfeld says. "He did the Germans' dirty work."

Papon's wartime activities remained unknown for many years, allowing him to hold senior government posts: From 1958 to 1967, he served as Paris police chief; from 1978 to 1981, he was budget minister in the Cabinet of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

But just as bureaucratic prowess made Papon's career, it also eventually betrayed him. He meticulously filed memos, including the paperwork from his Vichy career, and ordered his staff to store the deportation files in official archives. They show that when the Nazis asked him to deport up to 400 Jews, Papon wrote this note to his superior: "The study of these measures in the set time frame is difficult but possible."

That is, the deportations could be done.

The documents were discovered in an attic and published in 1981, largely due to the persistence of Slitinsky. "I found the names of the police officers who tried to arrest me and from there the trail led all the way up to Papon," Slitinsky says. "I had lost everything, and I needed to find out who was responsible."

Legal proceedings against Papon started in 1983, then were annulled on technical grounds. They were resumed and finally completed in 1995.

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