76,000 names. 11,000 of them children. On this wall. My eyes scan the length of remembrance, at the Memorial de la Shoah, in Paris, France. I cannot move. I can hardly breathe. History is crushing me.
I’ve spent the last hour, wandering down quiet streets, zig-zagging my way towards an afternoon visit to Notre – Dame Cathedral. But, first, the Holocaust Memorial.
Rounding a corner I catch sight of them, a somber group of soldiers standing in front of the gates to Memorial de la Shoah. The men are stoic. Dark, serious eyes scan the gathering crowd, watching everyone and everything going on around them.
Each one is armed with an automatic weapon, which, for some reason, startles me. They are ready though, for anyone who might dare cause more disgrace to the Jews honored here.
I hand over my passport, listening for the buzzer. It’s so loud, a harsh blare that unlocks heavy doors. I’m allowed entrance.
It is heartbreaking, to think of the truth. It was not only the German Gestapo who rounded up the Jewish people, here in France. In collusion with the Nazis, as well as on their own, the French government and police began their own work, rounding up Jews for deportation, in 1941.
At first, the focus was on foreign Jews, then laser-focused on Jewish men. Then, anyone of Jewish descent. In July of 1942, an expansive, well-orchestrated sweep in Paris and the surrounding regions took place. More than 4,000 children were among the 13,152 Jews arrested that day, in what became known as the Vel’ d’ Hiv Roundup.
They were held in horrible conditions, at the Velodrome d’ Hiver, an indoor cycle track, not far from The Eiffel Tower. They had little food and water, corralled like animals in extremely crowded rooms, where the heat was unbearable.
Many took their own lives. If anyone tried to escape, they were shot on the spot. After being kept in this horror for five days, they were shipped to internment camps such as Drancy, Beaune – la – Rolande and Pithiviers, then on to extermination camps.
The wall in front of me has been engraved with the names of men, women and children who suffered the all-encompassing hatred of both Germans and French, nations working tirelessly, determined to erase Jews from the face of the Earth.
My eyes linger on so many of them. “I am so sorry. I wish you peace. Oh, God. How could we have let this happen? ” Horrified, I keep whispering these words. I’m not sure how my feet move forward.
Eventually, I make my way inside and am greeted by people at the front desk. They tell me no pictures. I nod my head. I wander away, still wiping tears that stream down my face. Oh, what horror.
Behind Plexiglas, I can see a room, used for storing the ‘Jewish Files.’ These are the written index card census gathered in September, 1940. Under stern direction of the Vichy government, with help from the French police, they serve to document and identify the Jews living in occupied France. Later, they’ll be used to locate the Jewish population with ease, in and around Paris, under ‘Operation Spring Breeze,’ July 16-17,1942.
Each room in the exhibition is intended to move visitors through history (as a whole) and individual testimonies during WWII in France. Walls are covered with informative panels and short films play continuously throughout the route.
Small, horizontal windows set in the exhibition walls, hold the image of a deported Jew. There are documents and other items that belonged to this human being. It’s hard for me to think this; that an inanimate object is all that remains of an individual’s life story.
The ragged leather handle of a gentleman’s empty suitcase touches me deeply. It lays open in one window. I can’t help but think of my father. This man was someone’s father, husband, son or brother. Wasn’t he? What happened to him? To them?
I’m not the only one walking through the softly – lit rooms. There are many visitors and we can still hear a pin drop. Every one of us is silent. Most of us are crying. We make our way through rooms of pillaging, extermination at the camps, then survival and resistance. Each more moving, the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people, in spite of the horrors, still undeniably evident.
The last section I walk to is the Children’s Memorial. Walls are covered in 3,000 images of deported Jewish children. Our future. Dead. Brutally murdered by the Germans. Unceremoniously handed over by the French. Their names and photographs are displayed neatly, in alphabetical order, forever bathed under these soft lights of memory.
Three strangers stop next to me. We stand together in silence. Thinking of the children and the peals of laughter, the joy in life they may have only caught a glimpse of, if ever. We weep.
The Vel d’ Hiv Round-up remains a dark stain on French history. It is more than 50 years after the horrors in Paris, before the French finally acknowledge the atrocities they’d taken part in. On July 16th, 1995, President Jacques Chirac, declares it time the French own up to the part they played in the persecution of the Jews during the German occupation.
On the 70th anniversary of the Round-up, President Francois Hollande offers a speech, recognizing that, indeed, the atrocities had happened, “in France, by France.”
“Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. Young and old, our sons and daughters were cut down by the sword. ” This biblical quote, written in Hebrew, can be found on the back wall of Memorial d’ Shoah’s crypt.
I welcome the sunlight on my face again. I breathe in deeply and walk the Wall of Names once more. Only 2,500 souls made it back from the French deportation. Oh, God.