Andreas Whittam Smith: To understand modern France, you really must see <i>La Rafle</i>

Chirac accepted the French state had supported the persecution of Jews
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The Independent Online

The memory of France's most shameful wartime episode, buried deep for 30 years and then only grudgingly recognised, has finally come fully to the surface. For the appalling fate that the French state inflicted on thousands of its Jewish people one morning in July 1942 has become the subject of a film made with serious and respectful intent, a sort of documentary with actors. It is titled La Rafle (The Round-up). It opened last week in 775 cinemas throughout France. The telling is vivid and leaves one shaken.

In Paris at 4am on 16 July 1942, the French police began to take Jews from their homes, 13,152 of them in total, of whom 5,800 were women and 4,000 children. The police herded them into the Vélodrome d'Hiver, a cycle track not far from the Eiffel Tower. At the stadium the lavatories had been boarded up. The only water available was brought in by charitable organisations. There was no food.

Five days later these prisoners were sent to transit camps outside Paris. From there they were transported by rail to Auschwitz. Only a handful survived. None of the children came back.

By 1942 the victorious German army had been occupying northern France and the coastal districts for two years. Marshal Pétain, who had negotiated a deal under which central and southern France would be administered along Nazi lines, governed from Vichy in the centre. The "rafle" was conceived and planned by the secretary-general of the French national police and other Vichy officials together with the German authorities. The French as well as the Germans were strongly anti-Semitic.

There were no reports of this atrocity by newspapers or radio at the time. If the news sheets published by various resistance groups covered the story, it was soon overlaid by fresh events. Then at the Liberation in 1944, the victorious General de Gaulle gave a version of contemporary history that flattered his fellow citizens by omitting unpleasant details. In his defence it has been said that he was editing the truth to bind the wounds of the nation and restore a sense of self-confidence. In the event De Gaulle's account became the received wisdom for many years.

De Gaulle's opening move was to cast the Second World War as the final phase of a 30-year war that had begun in 1914 with the shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. This had the effect of taking ideology out of the long conflict (including anti-Semitism) and reducing it to national rivalries. Second, De Gaulle also denied the legitimacy of the Vichy Government and it became hard to believe it had ever existed, let alone carried out the "rafle" of the Vel' d'Hiver. Unsurprisingly the Second World War was not taught in schools until 1962, and even then without mentioning the hounding to death of thousands of Jews.

As a matter of fact, during the 1940s and 1950s, the great majority of French Jews had little desire to claim a special place among the heroes or the casualties of the war. As a book just published in France ( La Mémoire Désunie by Olivier Wieviorka, Seuil) shows, their preoccupation was to re-integrate themselves into the national community from which they had been excluded. Jewish associations were more concerned with mutual aid than lobbying.

Thus for many years, nobody at all seemed to want to know about the "rafle". Curiously the trials of leading Nazi sympathisers in 1945 and 1946 failed to jolt the nation out of its amnesia.

Until, that is, in the 1960s the resistance fighters who had been neither Gaullists nor communists began to speak out and reveal that the political parties of right and left had given misleading accounts. Then in 1972 came publication of the groundbreaking book by the American scholar Robert Paxton, Vichy France, Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, based on German sources. He argued that Vichy collaboration with Germany was willingly undertaken. The French Government opened the archives in 1979. Charges of crimes against humanity were brought against French officials who had avoided punishment for their role in the "rafle".

Finally, in 1995, President Chirac publicly recognised that the French state apparatus had supported the German occupier in persecuting the Jews of France. The "rafle" of the Vel' d'Hiver could longer be denied. France had, "delivered those it should have protected to their executioners". The new film completes the process.

Teachers were invited to previews all over France. At the same time the French Government has sent background material to 11,000 schools. Now France will never forget those violent knocks on the doors of Jewish homes in Paris at 4am on 16 July 1942.