I have just finished watching an engrossing film called 'Sarah's Key'. This novel by Tatiana de Rosnay is based on real events which took place during the Second World War in Occupied Paris, France.
On the 16th and 17th of July 1942, a total of 13,152 Jews were forcibly rounded up by the French police (under the orders of the French authorities in collaboration with the German occupiers) and taken to a stadium formerly used for bicycle racing (The Velodrome d'Hiver). Here the Jews were held for up to a week in appalling conditions with virtually no food, water or sanitation before being transported to transit camps and eventually Auschwitz. 75% of those removed from their homes were women and children. Because the film explores an aspect of the Occupation that I had hitherto been unaware, that the French themselves had collaborated in the deportation of the Paris Jews, I started to research online about the 'Vel d'Hiv' story. To my astonishment I discovered that I had once lived in the very neighbourhood of where the stadium had stood.
The map above shows the former location of the Velodrome d'Hiver. As you can see it was very close to the Eiffel Tower and in the very heart of the city, on the corner of Boulevard de Grenelle and Rue Nelaton. During my second year as a student at Winchester School of Art we were encouraged to take work placements, and as I was the only student who could speak French I spent 3 wonderful months working in a design atelier in Paris. Through some friend of a friend of my mother I ended up sharing an apartment with a French woman, a young primary school teacher. Her 3rd floor flat stood on the Quai de Grenelle, overlooking the River Seine. I used to walk along Rue Nelaton on my way to the supermarket and the launderette. A fire destroyed part of the stadium in 1959 and it was subsequently pulled down.
This 'Monument to the Victims of the Deportation to the Velodrome d'Hiver' stands on the Quai de Grenelle, right opposite the apartment block where I lived in the summer of 1993. Although the flat I shared faced to the back, I walked in and out of the lobby on the Quai de Grenelle several times every day, so I asked myself why I had not noticed it. But although it was commissioned in February 1993 by the then French President Francois Mitterand, it was not erected until 1994.
The memorial was designed by Walter Spitzer, himself a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.
Underneath it reads:
The French Republic in homage to victims of racist and antisemitic persecutions and of crimes against humanity committed under the authority of the so-called 'Government of the State of France' 1940-1944
Never let us forget
When J and I stayed in Paris a few years ago we rented a tiny apartment in Le Marais. Back in the 1940's Le Marais was the poor immigrant Jewish quarter of the city, not the fashionable up-market district of today. Due to a mix-up over street names we originally tried to enter our apartment through a door on which I noticed a plaque had been placed adjacent, stating that behind this door lay the secret headquarters of The French Resistance during World War 2. Just around the corner from our flat were several kosher shops. Had our flat once been home to a Jewish family rounded up on that terrible day back in 1942, and who never returned?