Neo-Nazis deface 1942 frieze by child Holocaust victims

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The Independent Online

French politicians reacted with outrage yesterday to the desecration of a frieze painted in 1942 by Jewish children waiting to be sent to Nazi concentration camps.

French politicians reacted with outrage yesterday to the desecration of a frieze painted in 1942 by Jewish children waiting to be sent to Nazi concentration camps.

The attack on the frieze, inside a hut in a former transit camp, is the latest of a series of anti-Semitic acts in France, most of which have been carried out by young Arabs sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

On this occasion, the vandalisation of the frieze, using hammers, chisels and other sharp tools, bears the hallmarks of the neo-Nazi ultra-right. Although neglected for many years, and once covered with whitewash, the frieze, depicting happy countryside scenes, animals and smiling people, was to become the focal point of a Holocaust museum at the Rivesaltes transit camp, near Perpignan, south-west France.

The attack was discovered by a historian who visited the camp on Friday night. A protective grille had been dismantled and the scenes painted along five metres of a wall inside the hut by 110 Jewish children in 1942 had been defaced.

Most of the child artists died in Nazi death camps.

"This was a premeditated act," said Thierry Lataste, the prefect - senior national government administrator - in the Pyrénées-Orientales département. The Interior Minister, Dominique de Villepin, called for intensive efforts by gendarmerie and police to discover the culprits. He said that he had learned "with consternation and indignation" about an attack on a site which "bears witness to one of the most painful periods in our history".

He promised that the state would pay for the frieze to be restored to its original condition. The Jewish youth movement in France, Hachomer Hatzair, said the desecration of the frieze was an "act of intolerable cowardice" which reflected the "refusal of many French people to accept their country's complicity in the deportation of Jews during the Second World War".

By coincidence, France's highest appeal court, the Cour de Cassation, rejected on Saturday a final attempt by the war criminal, Maurice Papon, 93, to appeal against his conviction for complicity in "crimes against humanity". M. Papon was found guilty in 1998 of organising the round-up of Jews in the Bordeaux area in 1942 and 1943 - the same period that the frieze was painted, 200 miles away.

The painting was rediscovered in 1999. For several decades after the war, the Rivesaltes camp was allowed to fall into ruin. The frieze, on the wall of a former Swiss welfare centre at the camp, had been painted at the suggestion of a Swiss nurse, Friedel Reiter, to amuse the children during the long hours of waiting. Its neglect reflects the long period in which France preferred to ignore the arrest of thousands of Jews by the collaborationist Vichy regime. M. Papon also escaped retribution for his actions - and even rose to become the French budget minister - until his wartime activities were uncovered in the early 1980s.

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