At our neighborhood école maternelle is a plaque which is a reminder of the Jewish children rounded up by the French police, in collaboration with the Nazis, and sent to concentration camps to die. Over 100 children in the 16th arrondissement were killed, and 11,000 children in all of France perished along with over 70,000 Jews. In Paris you can see the plaques sprinkled throughout the city at schools where Jewish children were rounded up and sent on trains to the death camps. The Marais, the 16th arrondissement, and Neuilly, are neighborhoods that were especially hit hard and so seeing these remembrance plaques is not uncommon.
Today French Jews remember the Shoah (Holocaust), and some French officials are participating in this somber memorial event. It is really only since the mid-90s, under the leadership of Jacques Chirac, that France actually began to (reluctantly) embrace the shame of its participation in killing its Jews, nearly a century after France had framed Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Captain in the army, for alleged treason, which ironically spawned the modern Zionist movement under Theodore Herzl.
France’s historic lack of accountability for its complicity and direct participation in the annihilation of Jews is understandable, even if it is unforgivable. Francois Mitterand, for example, had associations with Vichy and even received the Ordre de la Francisque (honorific distinction of Vichy), and collaborated with Philippe Petain, the head of Vichy ultimately convicted for his war crimes in sending Jews to death and for complicity with the Nazis. Jacques Chirac changed France’s position about its collaboration with the Nazis when, on July 16, 1995, he gave a speech acknowledging, once and for all, France’s “criminal folly” with the occupying Nazi power.
Even with Chirac’s powerful role in forcing the French to accept their past, it is only now that the French film, La Rafle (The Roundup), has emerged, recalling the July 16, 1942 roundup of Jews at the Velodrome d’Hiver Sports Stadium, near the Seine in the 15th arrondissement. The film depicts the roundup of 11,000 Jews by the French police, almost all of whom perished at Auschwitz. La Rafle is showing in movie theaters throughout France, and you can see posters for it just about everywhere.
What can be lost in remembering the Shoah, but which should not be, are the French citizens who aided Jews at great risk to themselves. Thousands of Jews were saved because ordinary French citizens refused to let their neighbors die. I know of one family that was saved, and when they tried to have their French protector be enshrined by Yad Vashem as a righteous gentile, she stubbornly refused because she did not consider her act sufficiently heroic to receive the honor, and even refused to even recognize that what she did was heroic. So while we must remember these events, we must equally remember the nameless good French people who saved tens of thousands more Jews from death, resulting in France having the second largest Jewish population outside of Israel today.