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70 years later: remembering Vél d’Hiv

Labour MP Denis MacShane writes for Haaretz about the 70-year commemoration of the roundup of 13,000 Parisian Jews, who were taken to the Vél d’Hiv cycle racing stadium for transport to death camps in Poland.

The Jews were left in the stands of this revered velodrome to swelter in the summer heat. The glass roof had been painted dark blue as part of black-out procedures, and the windows were shut tight. A single tap provided water for the victims. Children were separated from their parents. The whole operation was carried out with scarcely a German uniform in sight.

This was French anti-Semitism organized as state action by French civil servants, police officials and other public functionaries. The Jews were later taken to German extermination camps on Polish soil. But the historic importance of Vél d’Hiv is that the horrible sequence of hatred was initiated by French citizens in the name of France.
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Of all Western European countries, France remains the one where the gravest anti-Semitic incidents take place. It is also a country where the dominant intelligentsia prefer to find any word other than “anti-Semitism” to describe the Jew-hate that remains alive and active there. A key object of these anti-Semitism deniers is to devalue, downgrade and diminish the detention, deportation and deaths of French Jews.

Jean-Marie Le Pen – still the dominant figure of the xenophobic right in France – famously dismissed the Holocaust as a “detail.” The concept of Holocaust denial or ‘negationisme,’ as it is called in French, was first developed as both history and ideology by French intellectuals in the 1950s.

For Israel-haters, it is important to convert the Jews from victims of European anti-Semitism into occupiers and oppressors. For the anti-Israel lobby – which has a powerful presence in European and British politics, media and intellectual life – the less people know about the history of anti-Semitism, the better.

Unfortunately, the battle over the memory of Vél d’Hiv was largely won long ago. After 1945, French political leaders simply erased the event from the national political discourse.

Although the velodrome was owned by the man who organized the Tour de France, the Tour has refused to hold a memorial for the 70th anniversary – just as British political leaders refuse to pressure the Olympic Games organizers to commemorate the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics 40 years ago.
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In 1995, French President Jacques Chirac, who refused all political contact with Le Pen’s National Front party, became the first French president to visit Vél d’Hiv. He broke a taboo by declaring that the roundup of Jews had been conducted by fellow French citizens in the name of decrees handed down by the government of the day.

Now [Francois] Hollande – whose government probably has more French Jews as senior ministers than any European government in history – has declared his and France’s solidarity with the victims of the Vél d’Hiv. His visit and the extensive media coverage it received in France is part of the continuing process of informing people about European history and the dangers of bigotry toward a racially or religiously defined minority.

Anti-Semitism deniers were silent in France last week. But they will be back.