Suburban Paris was home to a vast wartime concentration camp. Suzanne B ardgett traces its hidden history Would we have acted any differently? In which suburb would our Drancy have been - Peckham? Deptford?
Pain and incomprehension still show in Erik Rosen's face as he recalls the day the Nazis came for him. A teenage refugee from Nazi Germany, he was living in Nice. Life was comfortable; a family snapshot taken on the Promenade des Anglais shows a w ell-to-do young man in knickerbockers, his mother on his arm, a fur stole slung around her shoulders. Then came the morning in 1943 when Erik, then aged 14, was arrested and taken to the Gestapo HQ at the Hotel Excelsior.

Suspected of carrying a false identity card, he was ordered to lower his trousers. His Jewishness thus established, he was arrested and put on a train for Paris, where he joined thousands of other Jews imprisoned in an oddly futuristic, half-finished building. He had arrived at Drancy.

You pass Drancy on the railway line from Paris airport, seven kilometres from the city centre. A cheerless suburb which today houses low-income, mainly immigrant, families, it is the kind of place taxi-drivers refuse a fare to - an insalubrious backwater. In the late Thirties there were high hopes for it: a new, experimental housing estate was under construction. But the bold, Bauhaus-style flats - the capital's first attempt at social housing - were never completed. Instead, in August 1941, they becamethe transit camp through which 67,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz.

Conditions were squalid beyond belief: there was no running water, no lavatories, hardly any light. Fifty people were allotted to each room, where they slept on metal bunk beds. Food was scarce, forcing inmates to scavenge in the rubbish mounds - a demeaning sight which one former prisoner, Sam Radzynski, will never forget. His weight dropped to 6st 4lb in the few months he spent at Drancy. Ironically it was the Nazi authorities who, alarmed by the skeletal forms in the camp, in November 1941 released 1,000 of the most seriously ill.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this story is that the dispatch of 67,000 men, women and children to an unknown fate happened with the willing connivance of the French authorities. Considered a safe haven because of its rhetoric of liberal egalitarianism, France was looked on as the least anti-Semitic country of Europe; 55,000 Jews had fled there in the Thirties.

But with the calamitous defeat and armistice of 1940, and the division of the country into two zones, the Jews offered a bargaining advantage in the delicate relationship with the occupying forces. In the words of the historians Robert Paxton and MichaelMarrus: "It made it acceptable to voice prejudices now sharpened by defeat."

In the summer of 1942, the Nazis demanded that 28,000 Jews be deported to Germany. On 16 July, in a meticulously planned affair, 9,000 French policemen made dawn raids all over Paris, using a card index of 150,000 Jews drawn up in 1940. Just over half the 13,000 detained were herded into the Velodrome d'Hiver - a vast covered sports arena where, in the hottest month of the year, they remained for five days without water, food or sanitation. There were 30 suicide attempts, 10 successful. The remaining 6,000 went straight to Drancy. Women could be heard screaming; dozens of inmatesthrew themselves out of the windows on to the concrete walkway below.

In August police, soldiers and firemen began a similar operation in the French unoccupied zone. The sight of families being forcibly separated on station platforms stirred public sympathy for the Jews and several bishops made pulpit denunciations of the round-ups, but the hunt continued. Convents and boarding schools were swooped on and hidden children seized.

Drancy was the deportation point for all but 12 of the 79 convoys which left France for Germany during the war. Inmates spoke of pitchi poi - "over there" in Yiddish - the place to which thousands of their fellow prisoners had gone. Work camps was the common explanation, and for a time this was believed: deportees left with the hope of at last being properly fed. But no word ever came back.

What made the situation even more distressing and baffling for the Drancy prisoners was the fact that they were surrounded by a community of 35,000 people. But barbed wire and watch-towers with armed guards seem not to have deterred local businesses fromcarrying on as usual. Neighbours in nearby high-rise blocks could look right into Drancy's courtyard where prisoners squatted on open latrines and scavenged on the ground for something to eat. Up to 100 shootings took place - not something which can have gone unheard.

Renee Emboulas, a Drancy resident, nine years old at the time, recalls: "You couldn't speak to them or even stop outside the camp. We were frightened - of our neighbours, of being denounced and ending up there too. It wasn't indifference, just plain fear."

The familiar green and white Parisian buses were commandeered to take the deportees to either Le Bourget or Bobigny stations where, under searchlights, they were herded into cattle trucks. French gendarmes were seen wielding truncheons even on small children. Railwaymen - again national employees - then drove the wagons to the border town of Noveant-sur-Moselle where German drivers and police took over for the three-day journey to Auschwitz. Pierre Dufour, a retired SNCF worker, remembers t he convoys: children, old people, sick people carried on stretchers. The explanation of "work camps" must surely have looked thin at that point.

Most Drancy deportees were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. Erik Rosen was one of those spared and sent to work at the nearby IC Farben work camp. But the spade he was given was larger than him and impossible to lift. He tried to hang himself but failed and was beaten by the SS "for sabotaging the war effort". Not surprisingly, Rosen has put an ocean between himself and the supposedly free society he fled to in his teens. Today he lives in New York.

One ponders the wisdom of maintaining Drancy as a housing estate today. Its population tends to be transient - North African immigrants, often themselves under threat of deportation, albeit of a different sort. One wonders whether a more settled, cohesive community would not feel revulsion at its surroundings and demand to be housed elsewhere.

The concessions made to Drancy's former role are few: a lacklustre monument put up by the Communist mayor in 1976, 32 years after the camp was liberated; a small museum whose relics include a chunk of chimney breast unearthed during a refurbishment of the camp, etched with the words: "Sztajman Sura est entree le 6 Janvier 1943".

Recent years have seen efforts to explore the unexorcised trauma of collaboration under the Vichy regime, but the process has been slow and painful. It was thus with an awareness of the "no-go" nature of this territory that Envoye Special, the hard-hitting French documentary series, chose a British production company to make a programme about the concentration camp in Paris.

The French screening of Drancy: La Honte ("Drancy: The Shame") came at the end of a year in which Vichy's ghosts had been particularly restless: the trial and jailing for life of the collaborator Paul Touvier; the revelations about President Mitterrand'sclose friendship with the former police chief Rene Bousquet. But to the film-makers' astonishment, the programme produced a torrent of in-depth features in all the French national newspapers, even the right-wing Le Figaro. Commentators, it s eems, are at last ready to examine the nation's failure to take responsibility for the Vichy years.

When the film is shown in Britain this week, we shall watch it without an attendant scrutiny of a guilty past. But there is an uncomfortable question to be asked. Would we have acted any differently? In which obscure suburb would our Drancy have been, served by a railway, yet tucked away from view? Peckham, perhaps? Deptford? The ease with which a modern suburb was subsumed into the Nazi killing process may bring home our own good fortune in being spared occupation, its dilemmas and painful post-mortems.

"Drancy: a Concentration Camp in Paris" will be shown on Channel 4 on Thursday 5 January at 9pm.