As the 80th anniversary of the French roundups of Jews during the Holocaust approaches, a handful of survivors have added their testimony to the body of eyewitness reports documenting the heinous crimes of the Vichy regime.
The collaborationist French government that served the Nazis, Vichy forces helped deport more than 76,000 Jews to Nazi death camps between 1940 and 1944.
The eyewitness accounts of six survivors of the notorious July 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundup, all of them children at the time, recall the shock and horror of those days, and the miracles that enabled them to escape deportation to Nazi death camps.
In moving interviews conducted by France 24 to mark the 80th anniversary of this catastrophe, each survivor displayed a cherished object – a leichter, family photo, parent’s wallet – imbued with memories of their loved ones, and preserved against all odds during the desperate war years.
Excerpts from interviews with survivors follow in the sidebars below.
Unmasking the Collaborators
The crimes of the Vichy regime that held power for four years during WWII were ignored in France for decades. But in the 1990s, an era of “Holocaust house-cleaning” in European countries was sparked by the Clinton Administration, leading to revelations of a shocking level of collaboration of various European governments with the Nazis.
Under prodding by the United States, those findings culminated in Holocaust survivor settlements in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other countries, as well as a spate of additional new research into this era of horror.
In 1992, French researchers discovered a “Jewish register” from the Holocaust era that was used in arrests and deportations of Jewish men, women and children across France. Research showed this register was compiled by French officials during the war, on their own initiative, without orders from the Nazis.
The long-buried document pointed to France’s prominent role in the Nazi genocide. But it wasn’t until 1995 that a French president actually admitted this fact.
“Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state,” said past president Jacques Chirac,” according to the NY Times. “These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions.”
More recently, French president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech on France’s role in the genocide, disputing those who claim the Vichy regime was a hapless puppet of the Nazis, unconnected to the French people.
“It is convenient to see the Vichy regime as born of nothingness, returned to nothingness. Yes, it is convenient, but it is false. We cannot build pride upon a lie,” Macron said.
In the shadow of these comments by French leaders, the tale of France’s betrayal of its Jewish community during the anguished Holocaust years began to surface.
In 2012, the Paris police opened their archives on the ‘Vel d’Hiv Roundup’ and a new exhibition marking the largest roundup of Jews in occupied France was put on display.
According to the exhibit, 8,160 Jews, including more than 4,000 children, were locked up in the Vel d’Hiv stadium in terrible sanitary conditions before being transported by train in cattle wagons to transit camps and deported. None of the children survived.
Although French police had already begun arresting both foreign and French Jews in 1941, the raids in July 1942 were the first ones in which women, children and the elderly were also taken, the French curator of the exhibition, Olivier Accarie Pierson, pointed out.
“Intelligence from the time shows that the population found the roundup shocking,” he told AFP. “Many policemen had leaked the information the day before; the Germans were furious. They had hoped to arrest 27,427 Jews in and around Paris, but eventually they ‘only’ arrested 13,152,” Pierson added.
This figure includes the arrests from a simultaneous round-up, during which nearly 5,000 adults were sent to the Drancy transit camp and deported. Many tens of thousands more would be arrested and deported before the Allies liberated France in 1944.
Anti-Semitism Rooted in French History
In exploring this tragic chapter, a brief glance at the historical roots of French anti-Semitism sheds light on how the country of “liberty, equality and fraternity” could have aligned itself during the war with the genocide policies of Nazi Germany.
By 1939, France was home to Europe’s second biggest Jewish community – 330,000. About half were recent refugees from countries in Europe, “convinced that they would be protected by France’s commitments on political and religious asylum,” according to a BBC report.
By the turn of the century, however, anti-Semitism was being promoted by a strong political movement called Action Francaise, which had a strong following in the Catholic Church, as well as in the army and the judiciary. This movement drew on long-simmering anti-Semitism that exploded during the 1894 Dreyfus Affair.
The Action Francaise movement supported extremists who believed that Jews could never integrate into a Christian country and harbored traitorous leanings.
In 1936, the election of Jewish Leon Blum as head of the socialist “Popular Front” government of France, intensified a virulent anti-Semitic campaign across the country. Blum’s appointment stoked fears of an imminent Bolshevik revolution, purportedly aided by Jews, and this dominated French political echelons throughout the war period.
On June 22, 1940, within weeks of being overrun by German soldiers, France had signed an armistice with Adolf Hitler.
After taking 2 million French prisoners of war, the Germans divided the country into two zones. The northern zone was controlled by the Nazis from their headquarters in Paris.
The officially “free” zone in the south, encompassing two-fifths of the country including Lyon and Marseilles, was ruled by the collaborationist Vichy government under Phillipe Petain, who had been voted into office by a huge majority of the French parliament.
An 84 year-old WWI war hero as well as a pronounced anti-Semite, “Petain dissolved the French parliament and set up a quasi-police state,” writes The Smithsonian in its study of the Vichy regime. The new head of state arrogated to himself the fullest possible range of executive, legislative and judicial powers.
Under Petain’s regime, the press was censored, phone calls were monitored and critics of the government were imprisoned and often executed. The expunging of the French Constitution left Petain free to enact hundreds of anti-Semitic laws against the Jews of France, progressively stripping them from their rights, their property and their professions.
Vichy Regime Did Not Wait For German Orders
As the Nazis’ tentacles kept encroaching farther and farther south, the Vichy regime, infected with Jew-hatred and adulation for the Nazis, often didn’t even wait for German orders: they implemented decrees on their own, designed to identify and isolate the Jewish population.
The Nazis gave directives that Jewish adults should be deported; they gave no orders regarding Jewish children. The Vichy government deported entire families—including more than 11,000 children.
By then about 150,000 Jews had crossed what was known as the Demarcation Line to seek protection from Vichy in the unoccupied south – only to find they were subjected to fierce persecution mirroring the Nazis’ vicious policies in the north.
It was the French police, not German ones, who rounded up Jews, holding them in the Vel d’Hiv stadium for transportation to Poland and the death camps. Historians note that before the Nazis ever demanded the Vichy government participate in anti-Semitic policies, the French on their own initiative had enacted policies that removed Jews from civil service and began seizing Jewish property.
“The Vichy French government participated willingly in the deportations and did most of the arresting,” historian Robert Paxton says. “The arrests of foreign Jews often involved separating families from their children, sometimes in broad daylight.”
Pierre Laval and the Milice (Militia); More Feared Than the Gestapo
Petain’s minister of state, Pierre Laval, outdid Petain himself in slavish loyalty to the Nazis. Laval collaborated with the Nazi programs of oppression and genocide, and increasingly became a puppet of Hitler.
Under Petain and Laval, Jews were eventually banned from the professions, show business, teaching, the civil service and journalism. After an intense propaganda campaign, Jewish businesses were “aryanized” (confiscated) by Vichy’s Commission for Jewish Affairs and their property was confiscated.
More than 40,000 refugee Jews were held in concentration camps under French control, and 3,000 died of illness, exposure and mistreatment during the winters of 1940 and 1941.
During 1941 anti-Semitic legislation was tightened in both zones. French police carried out the first mass arrests in Paris in May 1941, interning almost 4000 Jewish men and boys. Two more sweeps took place before the first deportation train provided by French state railways left for Germany under French guard on March 12, 1942.
By this point, Laval had succeed in endearing himself to Adolf Hitler to the point where he eclipsed the elderly Petain and became the supreme authority in the Vichy regime. Laval would later become the leader of the dreaded Milice, the anti-resistance Militia that became more feared than the Gestapo.
On July 16, 1942, under Laval’s direction, French police arrested 12,884 Jews, including 4,000 children and 5,800 women, in Paris during the La Grande Rafle (‘big round-up’). Most were temporarily interned in a sports stadium, without food and water, in appalling sanitary conditions.
A Paris lawyer, Georges Wellers, who witnessed it, described the “inhumanity beyond belief” to a BBC correspondent.
“All those wretched people lived five horrifying days in the enormous interior filled with deafening noise … among the screams and cries of people who had gone mad, the hungry and thirsty, the injured and those who tried to kill themselves—impossible to describe,” testified Wellers.
Within days, detainees were being sent to Germany in cattle-wagons, and some became the first Jews to die in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
In the summer of 1942, French police were sent to hunt down Jewish refugees. Families were seized in their houses or captured in dragnets across the countryside and interned in Drancy, the main transit center for Auschwitz. Children as young as three were separated from their mothers, before being sent to Germany under French guard.
Roughly 43,000 Jews caught in these roundups were shipped to death camps in Poland and Germany. And during the following two years, the regime deported about 33,000 people. The last train left in August 1944, as Allied troops fought their way into Paris.
After the liberation of France, Laval was forced to flee east for German protection. With the defeat of Germany in May 1945, he escaped to Spain but was expelled and went into hiding in Austria. In late July 1945, he finally surrendered to American authorities and was extradited to France, where he was convicted of treason by the High Court of Justice in a sensational trial.
Condemned to death, he attempted suicide by poison but was nursed back to health in time for his execution by firing squad, on October 15, 1945.
Out of 76,000 Jewish men, women and children shipped to the camps under Laval and Petain, fewer than 2,000 survived.
France Offers Reparations
In 2019, under a US-France agreement, the French government offered $60 million to Jewish survivors of the forced deportations to Auschwitz and other Nazi camps by SNCF, France’s state-owned railway corporation.
The settlement was reached after numerous lawsuits, and a failed PR campaign that falsely portray SNCF as having resisted orders to deport Jews. With its legal options exhausted, the railway corporation for the first time offered an apology to survivors for its collaboration with the Nazis.
This was followed by a reparations settlement, according to which the French government set aside $60 million for reparations. In return, survivors waived their right to sue the French government in U.S. court. The funds were to be disbursed in two major installments of $30 million each, beginning in 2016. The last of the funds were disbursed in 2019.
A Survivor’s Lonely Battle
The apology and reparations from France took place after Vienna-born Leo Bretholz (later of Maryland), who escaped in 1942 from a French train bound for Auschwitz, fought in court to prevent SNCF from bidding on a Maryland rail system.
In 2011, Leo testified in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and later in the Maryland state legislature, about the key role SNCF played in the deportation of the Jews.
As his testimony shed light on SNCF’s role in carrying French Jews to their deaths in tightly packed cattle cars, his campaign to bar the railway company from winning a multi-million contract gained significant momentum.
The revelation that the state-owned railway charged the French government for each victim’s “seat” among the suffocating mass of humanity in the cattle wagons stirred public disgust. Public pressure mounted on the government to compensate survivors for their unspeakable suffering.
In 2014, Bretholz’s litigation finally bore fruit and the settlement negotiated by the U.S. government with France was finalized. It went a long way toward correcting the distortions of history that for decades has allowed the French to shrug off accountability for the destruction of 76,000 French Jews and the plundering of their property.
Harrowing Holocaust Journey
Leo’s personal story is recounted in a gripping memoir, Leap Into Darkness. He was only 17 when he began his flight from the Nazis, following the 1938 German annexation of Austria. He first fled to Belgium. On the heels of the Nazi invasion of that country, the young man made his way with tens of thousands of refugees to France just before the Germans stormed over the border.
Leo lived in the city of Luchon in southern France until Aug 1941, when the French police of the Vichy regime began arrests and deportations of Jews from this town. Alerted by the mayor of Luchon about the impending roundups, Bertholz hid with his uncle overnight in the Pyrenees, returning the next day to find half of the ghetto’s population deported.
In October 1942, he fled across the Swiss border with his cousin, only to be stopped by a Swiss Mountain Patrol and deported back to France.
Arrested by French police, Leo was shunted to several French internment camps before being herded to Drancy, a large-scale deportation camp in the suburbs of Paris, a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum interview documented. From there, a 20-car convoy of SNCF cattle trains, each one packed with 50 Jews, shipped their anguished human cargo to the death factories of Auschwitz.
Leo and a friend escaped the train, leaping through the window after feverishly bending apart the bars. Staying with two priests on subsequent nights, he and his friend were given train tickets to Paris with a set of false identification papers.
His harrowing odyssey continued with his re-arrest upon entering Paris, imprisonment in Septfonds internment camp, and another escape from a death train in the fall of 1943.
Leo finally managed to join an underground resistance group, surviving the war until the allies liberated Paris in 1944. He then worked with fellow refugees on the Jewish Committee for Social Assistance and Reconstruction, before receiving his immigration papers to the United States in 1947. He settled with his aunt and uncle in Baltimore, Maryland.
Leo Bretholz married in 1957 and raised two daughters with his wife. At the age of 77, he authored his Holocaust memoir, Leap Into Darkness. He continued sharing his riveting wartime saga before audiences until 2014, when he passed away.
‘My Mother’s Leichter’
In one of the France 24 interviews with survivors of the French roundups of 1942, Renee Boritzky told of a harrowing story of flight from the Nazis, two years of hiding, and her family’s miraculous survival.
She was born in Paris in July 1936 to Mordcha and Bluma Sieradsky, Polish Jews who had settled in France in 1931. Their lives were turned upside down in May 1941 when her father was instructed to report for a “status check” at a gymnasium in eastern Paris—a trap to catch unsuspecting refugees.
Renee’s father was arrested on the spot, along with some 3,700 other non-French Jews. He was taken at first to an internment camp in Pithiviers, south of Paris, and later deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
On July 16, 1942, Renee’s 6th birthday, and the day before her father was deported to Poland, she and her mother miraculously escaped the Vél d’Hiv roundup. When police came knocking on their door, she and her mother managed to slip into a neighbor’s apartment, before finding refuge with a cousin in a Paris suburb.
They hid there for several days, until a woman whom they barely knew offered them shelter. For the next two and a half years, mother and daughter lived in a storage room at the woman’s home, sharing a single food voucher between the three of them.
After the war, Renée was among the few enfants cachés (hidden children) to experience the joy of seeing a parent return from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Until his death in 1983, her father was a tireless spokesperson for Holocaust victims.
In her interview with France 24, Renee displayed her grandparents’ beautiful silver leichter. “It was a custom passed down for generations among Polish Jews that when a young girl got married, she received a leichter from her parents, to use for candle-lighting Friday night to usher in the Shabbat,” Renee explained. “My mother took these candlesticks with her on the day of the Vél d’Hiv roundup. How did she do it? I have no idea. But that is what she chose to save.
“While we were in hiding,” Renee went on, “she sold everything to get us food, even her wedding ring. But she kept her leichter. It is the only link I have today with my grandparents who died in the war. When I light it, I feel like they are there with us.
Death Train, French Style
In his memoir, Leap Into Darkness, Leo Bretholz, whose lawsuit against the French railway that deported Jews to their death instigated a landmark settlement in 2014, recounted his ordeal in the death train as an 18-year old boy.
For the entire 3 to 4-day duration of the journey, he related, each passenger received a small piece of cheese and a single piece of bread. There was no water, no room to lie down, and one bucket for human waste, which swiftly overflowed.
As the journey entered its second day, Leo and a friend reached the conviction that they were being taken to their deaths.
“The inhumanity and degradation was clearly a prelude to something horrific,” he wrote. “There were people on crutches in the train, elderly and sick people who obviously were not intended for any kind of labor force. They were collapsing all around me. So the story about being sent to a work site in the east just wasn’t consistent with what was going on. It had to be lies.”
What kept people from seeing through the ruse was the receipt each one had received from the French police, as their jewelry and valuable were taken from them, Bretholz said.
“One ring, one watch, a cigarette case… Everything was meticulously recorded. ‘And be sure to hold on to your receipt,’ we were told, ‘because without it, you will not have your valuables returned,’” Bretholz recalled in disgust.
The courageous survivor of so many French prison camps and death rides did not live to personally benefit from France’s reparations for which he was the driving force. His children and grandchildren, however, received a generous share, according to former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Eizenstadt, who negotiated the agreement.