Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Network


 France Amasses Bitter Evidence 5 Decades After Holocaust

New York Times, October 6, 1997


PARIS -- Georges Gheldman was 11 when the French police in Dax, acting at the bidding of the Germans then occupying southwest France, came for his mother on July 16, 1942. Coming home from school that day, he found a handwritten note that said, simply, "Come quickly and meet me at the police station."

 He went, and police kept him overnight before letting him go to a friend of his mother the next day.

 "Dear Aunt," he wrote that day to his mother's sister, in French with a terrified child's misspellings and factual and grammatical mistakes, "I'm writing you now to tell you that they came to get Mama to take her to a consentration camp to work. I crying so much that I have no more tear and my heart is melted. They tore me away from Mama after spending the night in the German prison, there were 10 people and two children and this morning she left with other Jews to Merignac where they are going to consantrate them and then they will go to Germany."

 Berthe Gheldman did go to Germany, on July 19 -- then to Auschwitz, and her son never saw her again.

 But it was French police, not the Germans, who sent her on her way.

 And it was Maurice Papon, French prosecutors say, who as secretary general of the Gironde Prefecture between May 1942 and August 1944 signed scores of orders to French police to satisfy German demands by rounding up hundreds of foreign-born Jews like Mrs. Gheldman and sending them to a French concentration camp at Drancy, north of Paris, the first stop on the way to Auschwitz.

 On Wednesday, Papon, now 87, will go on trial in Bordeaux on charges of complicity in Nazi crimes against humanity by ordering the deportation to death camps of 1,560 Jews, including Berthe Gheldman. Her son, now 66, will testify to her arrest by French police, providing one small link in a chain of 50,000 pieces of evidence that lawyers, victims' relatives and prosecutors have amassed.

 The evidence against Papon also includes arrest reports to his superiors.

 Papon has said he did not have direct authority over police and in any case did only what the Germans or his French superiors ordered him to do. He has also said he spared the lives of French Jews by trying to limit arrests and deportations to Jews from foreign countries.

 Maurice Papon is not just any defendant, and this is not just any trial. He will be the highest-ranking French official during the German occupation to go on trial on charges of complicity in crimes against humanity, and only the second French citizen to be tried on those grounds since World War


 Paul Touvier, chief in Lyons of a thuggish organization modeled on the Nazi SS, was convicted in 1994 of ordering the execution of seven Jews and got a life sentence. He died in prison last year.

 But Papon also claimed to have been a member of the Resistance, and the French authorities recognized his claim after the war. He served as prefect of police and later budget minister in Paris, until his past came to light in 1981.

 "I was secretary general of a prefecture, with above me a deputy prefect and above him a regional prefect," he told the French daily Liberation last year, in one of his few public statements on the charges against him. "It was a very secondary post, very obscure, an administrative post. Why is a secretary general on a secondary level singled out this way? Because after the war he had an extraordinary career he has not been forgiven for."

 France did not come easily to willingness to go through with his trial, which examines a subject that was long taboo -- crimes committed in the name of France not just by egregious collaborators and disgraced Vichy leaders convicted of treason like Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, who died in prison, and Prime Minister Pierre Laval, who was executed, but by anonymous civil servants and other French functionaries who stayed at their jobs.

 Many did terrible things that were later enfolded by a collective loss of memory in a nation all too eager to forget. For most of the last half-century the French, encouraged by the Resistance leader, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, president of France from 1958 to 1969, and other postwar leaders, cherished the belief that the ultimate responsibility of the Nazi occupiers and the illegitimacy of the Vichy regime absolved France from complicity in the crimes of the Holocaust.

 That has now clearly changed, as the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in France showed last week in a statement of contrition asking forgiveness from the Jews of France for the church's silence on measures taken against them during the war.

 A moving ceremony last month to honor 18 foreign Jews arrested in a village near Grenoble after a French informant tipped off the Gestapo provided further evidence of the change.

 For much of the last 50 years, people told themselves that civil service functionaries who kept the country running during the war did the best they could, sparing French Jews from even worse excesses, mollifying occupiers whose plans for eliminating all the Jews of Europe they had no inkling of.

 No, they comforted themselves, most French officials must have done what they were told only when they had no choice, while courageous men and women in the Resistance and elsewhere salvaged the honor of their country by combating or sabotaging the orders of the jackbooted occupiers.

 "Auschwitz, we didn't know about -- Drancy, we knew," Papon told Liberation. "If you want to put Vichy on trial, I have nothing against that. I just don't want the trial to take place on my back."

 His trial on charges connected with Nazi war crimes, expected to involve 115 witnesses, historians and French officials who knew him, is planned to last until Dec. 23. And because it is taking place so long after those events, it will almost certainly be the last of its kind.

 Vichy, the seat of government in France after the Germans defeated the French army in 1940 and occupied half the country, had much to answer for even before the Nazis occupied the rest of France in 1942.

 Even before the Germans demanded measures against Jews, Vichy excluded them from public office and certain professions even in the unoccupied zone in October 1940. Later, to meet German demands, the Vichy authorities deprived foreign-born Jews in the occupied zone of French citizenship if acquired after 1933, and of the right to hold property or own businesses, even extending the ban on business ownership to the unoccupied zone in 1941.

 Some Jews escaped, through their own efforts, luck or help from French neighbors. One of them was Felix Rohatyn, now American ambassador to France, whose family came from Vienna to Biarritz in 1940 hoping to get through to neutral Portugal. They failed, but managed to reach unoccupied southern France later that year, and from there on to Casablanca, when a German guard at the zonal boundary turned to light up a cigarette instead of checking their papers as they drove through.

 The Vichy police made French Jews wear the yellow star in the occupied zone, and they carried out deportation orders on 74,721 of the 330,000 Jews who were living in the country before the war. Nearly all of those deported died.

 It was not until two years ago that a French president, Jacques Chirac, could finally bring himself to acknowledge that when the Vichy police, at Nazi instigation, rounded up thousands of Jews in the Velodrome d'Hiver stadium in Paris on July 16 and 17, 1942, it was not just Vichy but France itself that had committed the unpardonable.

 Previous leaders, from de Gaulle to Francois Mitterrand, the first postwar Socialist president, had insisted that Vichy was not France.

 Among the foreign-born Jews swept into the Velodrome d'Hiver that July was Srul Gheldman, Berthe's husband, who went with her on the fatal transport to Auschwitz.

 "I was born French and have lived in France all my life," their son, who worked for Air France as a steward before he retired, said in his second-floor walkup apartment in a western suburb of Versailles the other day. "I feel as French as Mr. Tout-le-Monde. But I will never understand how French people could do what they did to my parents, even with the Germans breathing down their necks."

 Reluctance to ask that question, let alone answer it, may explain why it took so long to bring Papon to trial after Michel Slitinsky, the son of another deportee from Bordeaux, and the lawyers Serge and Arno Klarsfeld first published evidence against him.

 He was first indicted in 1983, and then again in 1984, but the investigation was annulled for technical reasons in 1987. A second investigation procedure led to an order early this year to go to trial.

 "Papon was an executant," Serge Klarsfeld said in an interview, "the French official responsible for Jewish questions in the Gironde, put in the position of being expected to help the Germans get the Jews. But he came from a rich family; he didn't need to stay in his job to survive. He could have resigned. He is a symbol of a French administrative system that was concerned mainly about its own professional survival. We say that resistance started with saying no."

 Therese Stopnicki, a 61-year-old medical assistant from Alsace, said she was impatient to take the witness stand against Papon. She saw him on a television program in 1990, she said, arguing that the transporting of Jewish children to Drancy in 1942 was a humanitarian measure to reunite them with their parents, and it nearly broke her heart.

 Two such children were her younger sisters, Nelly, 5, and Rachel, 2, who had been living with their parents in Salles, a suburb of Bordeaux.

 Chil and Esther Stopnicki, Polish Jews who had settled in Lorraine, had fled when the Nazis marched in in 1940, and they were taken, by the French police, in the same roundup that caught up the Gheldmans on July 16, 1942. They left a note to their landlady, a Mrs. Descat, asking her to please pick up their children from a nearby hospital and take care of them until they could clear things up with the police. Instead, like the Gheldmans, they were sent in special trains to Drancy, then shipped on to Auschwitz on July 19.

 "Mrs. Descat did get those children," said Therese Stopnicki, who had been sent to live with her maternal grandparents and an aunt in Bellegarde, near the Swiss border, where they lived out the war years in hopes of getting across the mountains to safety. "She took care of my sisters for a whole month."

 But the German authorities were pressing French officials in Bordeaux to arrest the children left behind in the July sweep and send them to Drancy as well. According to documents assembled by the Klarsfelds, Papon stalled for time and asked his superiors for instructions, eventually getting them: "There are grounds to carry out the instructions of the SS," he told the police.

 "All I did in this affair was take a telephone message," Papon said later.

 A result, Therese Stopnicki said, was that on Aug. 20, the French police put the two little girls into a taxi with instructions to take them to the staging area at Merignac. The taxi company sent the 350-franc bill to Papon's office in Bordeaux.

 On Aug. 26, the Stopnicki girls went by rail to Drancy, and from there they were sent on to Auschwitz on Aug. 31, never to return.

 Therese Stopnicki, 6 at the time, did not learn until four years later that she was the only member of her immediate family left alive. She and her aunt, whom she refers to as "my mother," rebuilt their lives in Alsace. She did not even know that it had been the French police who took her family away, until she finally found the courage to go to Bordeaux in 1989 to give a deposition in the investigation of Papon.

 "He doesn't regret anything," Miss Stopnicki said, and then bitterly mocked Papon's defense. "He just did his duty, which was to send kids 2 and 5 years old to Drancy and then Auschwitz so they could be reunited with their parents."

 "Just breathing the air in Bordeaux made me feel ill," she said, tears coming into her eyes when she remembered the most painful moment of the interrogation.

 "The investigating judge asked me, 'Are you testifying out of vengeance?'" she said. "I said no, all I can hope to do is to help establish the truth."

 The truth about this period of the French past is learned differently by every French generation.

 The wartime generation experienced it personally and went through a settling of scores after the Allied victory, when 300,000 French collaborators were arrested and 7,037 sentenced to death.

 Then there was a long period of silence until the 1960s, when the 25th anniversary of the war stimulated re-examination by the young French men and women born afterward. Now, 25 years further along, some young people, their interest stimulated by the Papon trial, are looking at the past as unexplored territory, in some cases very differently from the way their parents and grandparents saw it.

 One of them is Delphine Deroo, 24, who recently got a degree in political science from the University of Grenoble.

 "In the schools, they talk about Vichy, they talk about what the Gestapo did, but they don't teach much about what the French did," she said.

"There are plenty of people in France today who think only the Germans have anything to answer for about the war."

 "I can't talk with my grandparents about what happened during the war," when they were in the occupied north of France, she said. "There's just a barrier between us on the subject."

 But she herself became interested in the little-explored subject of what French Jews had done during the war to try to resist the barbarities imposed on them, and did her thesis on that subject with research from the files of the Museum of the Resistance and Deportation in Grenoble.

 Buried in the archives was a document about an event that had sunk into oblivion: the roundup by the Gestapo of 18 Jews who had been hiding in the mountain village of La Martelliere on the outskirts of Voiron in 1944.

 On the night of March 23-24, the files showed, an anonymous tip from a villager led the Gestapo to a farmhouse where Marie Bugajski, her two sons, 15 and 18, and 15 other mostly foreign-born Jews whose ages ranged between 7 and 21 were staying with a Jewish resistance group led by Rabbi Zalman Chneerson.

 All were sent to Drancy, where one, Marcel Gryc, 19, escaped before the rest were transported to Auschwitz on April 13, 1944.

 Miss Deroo's "discovery" was not entirely new; Serge Klarsfeld had made a brief reference to it in a book of remembrance about the atrocities of the period in the early 1980s. But with the Papon trial imminent, the local authorities in Voiron thought they had a duty of conscience to fulfill, and they organized a ceremony to commemorate the event and its victims.

 They, too, made a discovery -- one of those young Jews from long ago, Erwin Uhr, 72, had survived Auschwitz, and was living in Belgium. His 9-year-old brother, Karl, had not been so lucky.

 So, on a clear Sunday morning this September, as a breeze blew down from the Alps and roosters crowed, Uhr came to say Hebrew prayers for his brother and the others with several hundred villagers assembled for the unveiling of a plaque listing their names on the wall of the local agricultural school.

 "You have to talk to the young people about what happened, so that it never happens again," the bearded Uhr said through his tears.

 For it was not a comfortable occasion. "We have no idea who the Gestapo's informant was," said Nathalie Papon, one of the organizers of the commemoration and no relation to the accused. "All the neighbors knew there were Jewish kids there, and probably somebody told the Militia, which passed it on to the Gestapo."

 Mayor Philippe Vial addressed the point in his speech, one of about a dozen that morning.

 "How could a man, how could a woman among us do such a thing, an act that would end with the execution or murder of 16 people?" he asked. "Something unjustifiable was definitely committed here. It mattered little, really, that the Gestapo may have thought they were seizing Resistants and not young Jews."

 Of Uhr, the mayor asked forgiveness for the long period of what he called "local amnesia" about the event, no secret when it had happened in 1944.

 As for Miss Deroo, who lifted the veil from memory, she was so moved by what she discovered that she converted from Roman Catholicism to Judaism and, after getting her university degree, now plans to make her life in Israel.

 "It was difficult for my parents to accept," she said. "But I found I had developed a sense of family and of shared values with the Jewish people."

 "Maurice Papon was not the only person responsible for terrible things in France during the war," she said before she left for Israel. His trial, she hoped, would lead the French people to question themselves about their own collective responsibility. "It's a continuing process, and people are gradually becoming more aware," she said.


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