Grief Tourism

Travel to areas affected by natural disasters, places where people were murdered, etc.

Drancy – The Tragedy, the Grief, & the Embarrassment

28th July 2009

We are all familiar with the Holocaust, known as the Shoah or the Hebrew word for calamity, and the unspeakable tragedies that occurred at concentration camps. Unfortunately, there were other places filled with sorrow and grief that served as temporary deportation stations; Drancy is one.

The Jews had lived quietly and unobtrusively in Paris up until the Vichy government replaced the Republic, and the systematic selection and categorization of Jews began. Created by the government of Philippe Pétain and controlled by the French police, anti-semitic propaganda circulated freely. Many of the French citizens were unduly influenced by the powerful Vichy regime, which persuaded them to accept Nazi control. As early as October 1940, a set of laws for the Jews in France to follow had already been established. In effect, they were required to register with the local police, and by doing so, virtually lost their rights as citizens of France. Jewish children over 6 years old were sent to school wearing the yellow six-pointed Star of David, as a mark of shame, to further identify and segregate them from the rest of the populace.

By August 20, 1941, massive citywide raids were rounding up thousands of these so-called “undesirables, and housing soon became a problem. A convenient solution was to include the low cost public housing project, La Cité de la Muette in the suburb of Drancy located about 4 miles from the center of Paris. Although La Cité had not been fully developed, Drancy had been used as an internment camp as early as 1939, and it was easy to incorporate the partially constructed buildings of La Cité as temporary housing From a public holding place for criminals, the Roma people, and other outcasts of society, Drancy now became an interim detention center, a barbed wire, heavily guarded camp managed by the French police and SS Captain Dannecker. Full control of the camp was eventually turned over to Alois Brunner, the righthand man of Adolph Eichman, who served as the administrator from June 1943 until its liberation. (Brunner, a recognized Nazi war criminal, was responsible for sending over 140,000 Jews to the gas chambers.)

At times, over 4,000 Jews were crowded into an area designed for only 700 people, where they were treated like animals, subject to the most inhumane brutality and substandard living conditions with little food and water. Families were immediately separated, as long lines of women and men were loaded like cattle onto boxcars. While convoy after convoy of human freight left Drancy for Auschwitz, children starved and died, and those left behind awaited an unknown fate and despaired of ever seeing their relatives again. Some 40 prisoners, former members of the Resistance, failed in a desperate attempt to escape through a 115-foot tunnel they had dug, which was soon discovered by the Nazis. Of the 70,000 or more Jews who were brought here, it is estimated that only 2,000 managed to survive the nightmare of Drancy.
As Hitler’s megalomania raged on, so did mass genocide and the size and frequency of these raids. No Jew was exempt, and no distinction was made among the registered and non-registered, the commoner, or the prominent citizens of France such as Max Jacob, Tristan Bernard, and Rene Blum. By far, the most infamous of these raids was the Grande Rafle du Vel’ d’hiv when an estimated 13,000 Jews were rounded up on July 16 and 17, 1942, and herded into the Vélodrome, a large sports stadium. From here, they were further categorized and sent to Drancy and other detention camps.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Vel’ d’hiv was in the number of children who were taken before their lives had hardly begun. The age limit of 16 or over had been changed, and in less than three months’ time, 6,000 or more children of all ages were collected and eventually put to death. On occasion, a few young boys were handpicked from the camp and sent to schools and training as future Nazi soldiers. The notorious SS Lieutenant Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” sent over 300 young boys, ages 14 to 19, which he had taken from a children’s home, to Drancy and on to the gas chambers.

Fortunately, the insanity of Hitler’s “final solution” ultimately failed, but not before at least 25% of the Jewish population in France were virtually eliminated. Some years after the war had ended, only a few attempts were made by the French government to make amends and recover from the overwhelming embarrassment of this deplorable time in the eyes of the world. Even before WWII began, however, the French regime had offered refuge to those fleeing from Franco’s Fascist Spain, but then later turned them over to the Nazis for extermination. Although Petain and many others who were put on trial claimed no knowledge of these events and the persecution, it is hard to refute what history has told us.

In 1976, a Polish Jew Shlomo Selinger designed an interesting statue consisting of 3 large blocks to be erected on Charles-de-Gaulle Esplanade. There is considerable significance and reference to the Jewish religion and culture in the intricate details of his sculpture, including the letter Shen for Shaddai, the words used over doorways of Hebrew homes to signify God or the Guardian of Israel’s Doors. Ten figures in the center of the statue represent the gates of death, with 10 being the required number for religious prayer. Two more at the top form the letters for Lamed and Vad, which combined represent the Lamedvavniks, the 36 who save the world from destruction. Two sets of 7 steps, representing the degrees of Hell, lead to the “path of martyrs” and across the street to an old freight car that features an exhibition narrating the tragedy of deportation.

Years passed and still there was no apology from the French government until 1994 when former President Mitterand authorized the construction of a memorial to be sculpted by architect Azagury and Walter Spitzer, whose family had survived deportation. In a special tribute to Vel’ d’hiv, the statue features a sick man, a pregnant woman, and several children. The words on the monument are worth noting: “The French Republic in homage to victims of racist and anti-semitic persecutions and of crimes against humanity committed under the authority of the so-called ‘Government of the State of France’.” Since 1995 when Chirac formally acknowledged the guilt of the French police and others who collaborated with the Nazis during the Occupation, the president of France has held a ceremony here each year.

Visitors to the former camp at Drancy will find only a small area of public housing, as much of the Vélodrome was destroyed by fire in 1959, and what remained was demolished. In May 2001, the Minister of Culture, Catherine Tasca designated La Cité de la Muette as a national monument, which houses a small conservatory of documents, a few memorial plaques including one to Max Jacob, and three more collectively dedicated to 100,000 Jews and other French and British soldiers held at Drancy.

Further tributes to Holocaust victims in France can be seen in the Wall of Names, dedicated in 2005, which is located at the entrance of the Shoah Memorial in Paris. The stone wall is engraved with the names of 76,000 Jews who were deported to Nazi concentration camps from 1942 – 1944, and of these, over 11,000 were children. The Memorial serves as the Centre for Jewish Contemporary Documentation, and is dedicated to the Unknown Jewish Martyr, with a crypt in the basement that holds ashes of only a few who died in the death camps.

Within the Memorial, small family photographs and drawings made by the children are the saddest part, perhaps, of it all. These are the faces of children who were victims of terror and the tragedies of war, faced with the unimaginable loss of parents and family, and the horrors of punishment and death. Surrounded by circumstances beyond their control, many too young to understand, they lived in fear of what lay ahead. For the few who did manage to survive, their lives would never be the same.

Shoah Memorial, 17 rue Geoffrey l’Asnier, Paris
Hours: Sunday – Friday, 10am to 6pm; Thursday to 10pm. Closed Saturdays, national, and Jewish holidays – April 9 & 15, May 1 & 21, & July 14th.
Admission: Free
Guided Tours: Free on Sundays (in French), 3pm, second Sunday of the month (in English). Handicap accessible, book/coffee shop, underground parking nearby.

A visit to Drancy will remind us all that evil does exist in this world, and tragedies such as this can never be forgotten

Sharon L. Slayton

Comments are closed.