The 1987 French Film, Au Revoir Les Enfants, tells a story of courage and betrayal involving the round up of Jewish children hidden in a Catholic boarding. Though it was 43 years since the roundup of Jews in France occurred, it was revolutionary at the time in causing France to, for the first time, really reflect on its role of the deportation and extermination of one-third of its Jewish population. Not until 1995, however, did French President Jacques Chirac offically take homage of France’s direct role with the Nazis in killing its Jews.
The Hotel de Ville of Paris now has an official exhibition about the roundup and exterminaton of Jewish children in France, focusing particularly on the large Jewish population in Paris. Over 30,000 Jewish children lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France, and over 4,000 were killed as a result of the French Vichy complying with Nazi orders to round up the Jews, most recently featured in the French film La Rafle (The Roundup), when during the hot days of July, 1942, Jews were taken from their homes and placed in the Hippodrome before being deported through Drancy to the Nazi concentration camps.
The exhibition is free, and has gripping photos of children, as well as heart-breaking artwork that survived the war. Anyone who saw Au Revoir Les Enfants, and those who did not, surely should not miss this telling exhibition. As sad as these events were, they are also mixed, given that unlike in Poland, the Ukraine, Austria or Germany where the Jews were exterminated wholesale so the local population could profit by stealing their homes and businesses, two-thirds of France’s Jewish population survived, and many French people saved thousands of Jewish children by hiding them. This explains why over 10,000 children survived the war, without their parents, becoming orphans, many of whom were saved by Catholic convents.
French courage was selfless, as told to me by a Hebrew school student of mine whose mother was hidden by a French neighbor, and saved from the Nazis and Vichy. The woman refused any recognition, including the family request that she be inducted as a righteous gentile at Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Museum). The woman simply saw it as her duty to save the child. There are many French people who did the same, and while the cruel slaughter of so many French Jews — especially children — is unforgivable, no one should forget that many French helped save so many Jews, including children.
At several ecole maternelles, Jacques Chirac had plaques placed in front of the schools to commemmorate the roundup of French children. Many ecole maternelle, including some within a block or two of Hotel de Ville, have these plaques placed prominently adjacent to the front door. They are a reminder of the roundup of Jewish children, so the French never forget. While these plaques are a stark reminder of France’s past, walking the streets of Le Marais, includng Rue des Rosiers, are a more poignant reminder of the impact good and courageous French people had during these times, with vibrant Jewish life enduring, freely, and proudly, in the heart of Paris.