Six weeks after the Vél d’Hiv roundup in Paris, the Vichy regime committed another unspeakable crime by arresting some 6,000 Jews in the non-occupied zone on August 26, 1942 – an event that remains little-known in France, 80 years on.
As a Resistance fighter in Lyon, rescuing Jews was at the core of René Nodot’s mission. But on August 26, 1942, he was powerless to prevent the roundup of the city’s Jews. “There weren’t any Germans in Lyon; the French police did everything – and that made it especially frightening,” Nodot recounted to the France 3 television station in 1992.
“The authorities would turn up at people’s homes and say ‘Open up – police!’ They had people’s addresses; they had lists of names,” Nodot said. “They took people straight away, just as they were.”
The Vél d’Hiv roundup – in which nearly 13,000 Jews from Paris and its suburbs were herded into a stadium in appalling conditions, then sent to Auschwitz – is now seared onto the French collective memory after the initial post-war decades of reticence to acknowledge collaboration during the Occupation.
But far less attention has focused on the mass arrests of Jews six weeks later in the unoccupied zone of central and southern France controlled by Marshal Philippe Pétain’s puppet government.
This roundup followed negotiations between the Nazi occupiers and the Vichy regime from mid-June to mid-July 1942. “The main initiator was [head of the Vichy police force] René Bousquet,” noted Alexandre Doulut, a historian specialising in the Holocaust in France.
Police targeted all foreign or stateless Jews who had entered France after January 1, 1936. “The vast majority of the victims were expelled from Belgium and the German states of Baden and Palatinate in 1940, as well as refugees who had fled Belgium, the Netherlands or the occupied zone of France [the north of the country and the Atlantic littoral] during the exodus of 1940 [when people fled south from the German invasion],” Doulut said.
Initially, there were some exceptions for military veterans and pregnant women, but Bousquet revoked them in early August because he was worried there would not be enough arrests.
Over the course of several days, numerous circulars were sent to the préfectures running the police forces in the non-occupied zone. The objective was to arrest “14,000 stateless Jews and their children”, said historian Laurent Joly. As was the case at the Vél d’Hiv, police officers turned up at people’s homes in the early hours to arrest their targets.
The victims were first taken to police stations then to various local camps. By August 28, the number of arrests had reached 6,584 people, of whom more than 5,000 were sent to the Drancy internment camp northeast of Paris before deportation to Auschwitz. This was not enough to meet Bousquet’s objective; he sent a telegram to police chiefs at the end of August: “Pay attention to the significant gap between the number of foreign Israelites registered and the number arrested. Pursue and intensify police operations currently underway, using all the staff you can draw on.”
The roundup provoked indignation in the non-occupied zone, notably amongst Christians. Catholic bishops denounced the arrests, as did members of the Protestant community. Rescue operations were mounted – including at the Vénissieux camp just outside Lyon, where the association Christian Fellowship managed to get 108 children out of the prison to safety.
“The police reports from the time suggest that – until the roundups – people were criticising Jews, accusing them of profiting from the black market,” Joly said. “But all of a sudden, people started defending them. People understood what it meant when old people, children and women were being arrested. They understood they wouldn’t be coming back.”
Nevertheless, the August 1942 roundup remains obscure in France, as the Vél d’Hiv dominates the collective memory regarding French collaboration in the Holocaust. In large part, that was because people forgot that there had been Jews living near them during the war after the exodus from northern France and the Low Countries. “Few people know that there had been Jews in their area during the war,” Doulut said. “At the time of the Liberation, they had all either returned home or been deported to concentration camps. Nobody was left.”
But the arrests in the non-occupied zone should be central to how the French remember the Second World War, Doulut suggested: It is the Vichy regime’s “biggest stain”; it was a “French initiative, which a French administration carried out from start to finish”.
“People were handed over to the enemy when they should never have been arrested,” Doulut concluded. “It was treason.”
This article was adapted from the original in French.