"There are moments in the life of a nation that hurt the memory and the idea one has of his country....Yes, the criminal folly of the occupier was assisted by French, by the French state.....France, homeland of the Enlightenment and of human rights, land of welcome and asylum, France, on that very day, accomplished the irreparable. Failing her promise, she delivered those she was to protect to their murderers." (Jacques Chirac, July 21, 1995 during a speech on the occasion of commemorating the Raids that took place 16th / 17th July 1942)
France’s part in carrying out Hitler's anti-semitical policies during WWII has always been somewhat confused in its facts. It is true, however, that concentration camps were set up in France and that Jews were deported from here to extermination camps such as Auschwitz. Perhaps the most notorious concentration camp in France was based at Drancy, a large northeastern suburb of Paris. In fact, most French victims of the Holocaust passed through Drancy on their way to Auschwitz. More than 70 000 individuals have been accounted for – which made up around 67 different convoys.
Drancy had actually been built in the 1930s, and then, acting on orders by the German Nazi government, it was used as a camp for POWs and then on the 20th August 1941, finally became a concentration camp for Jews under the control of the French police. When the first anti-Jewish raids began around 1941 the victims were transferred to Drancy. It has been suggested that the treatment of prisoners by the French guards here was brutal and inhumane. The general living conditions were difficult – lack of food, sanitation and extreme over- crowding. Around 3000 inmates died in the French camps as a whole due to lack of medical care or as a result of starvation.
The first year
Following a raid on the 11th arrondissement of Paris ("rafle du 11e arrondissement") on the 20th August 1941, 4232 Jews were taken to Drancy. But the camp had not been suitably equipped to deal with such a large intake – tragically resulting in starvation and deaths. 800 inmates were actually allowed to go free towards the end of November that year because the camp simply could no longer cope. Authorisation was also given for those remaining inmates to receive a food parcel. During this first year, Drancy was officially under the control of the German Dannecker. Below him would be a French civil servant appointed by the Police administration who ran the camp on a day-to-day basis. French police took the roles of external and interior guards. During this first year the inmates consisted exclusively of men, but from July 1942 onwards women and children were also taken there. Some children arrived here as orphans because their parents had been part of an earlier convoy to the extermination camps.
The Velodrome d’Hiver was a stadium in Paris designed for bike races. On the nights of the 16th / 17th July 1942, a raid took place now known as "La Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv" (The Great Raid of the 'Vel d'Hiv'). This operation had been carefully planned between Pétain's Vichy government and the Nazis own administration within the occupied territories of France. All the arrests made during those two nights were made by the French police under the control of French police officials. During initial discussion, it had been agreed to only arrest those over the age of 16, but following a suggestion by Prime Minister Pierre Laval, it appears that this was ignored, and subsequently children of all ages were included. The figures are shocking – in total 12800 Jews were arrested – consisting of 3031 men, 5802 women and 4051 children – aged between 2 and 12. They were transferred to the Velodrome d’Hiver and were kept there for 5 days without food or medical attention. From there they were transferred to three different camps – Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande or Pithiviers. At Drancy, the French police separated the children from their parents. The adults were taken to Auschwitz and gassed. Meanwhile, the children remained at Drancy with little regards to their general well-being – resulting in the deaths of children and babies due to malnourishment, illness or the brutality of the guards. Those that survived this were later taken to Auschwitz and gassed upon their arrival. More than 6000 Jewish children from all the regions of France were arrested and transported to their deaths between July 17th and September 30th, 1942.
From 2nd July 1943, a team of 5 Germans led by Aloïs Brünner took charge of Drancy. The French police officers now only took the roles of external guards. During this time, a small resistance group of camp inmates attempted to construct a tunnel with plans of a mass escape. The tunnel was discovered, fourteen members of the resistance group were arrested by the German guards and were interrogated under torture. They made up part of the 62nd convoy to the extermination camps on the 20th November 1943. However, twelve of the group managed to jump from the train and went on to join the Resistance proper.
The camp was in service as the main French anti-chamber to the extermination camps for about 3 years, finally closing 17th August 1944.
Recognition of complicity
As France tries to finally put its dark history to rest, it finds that it is necessary to first admit that what had been hidden for so long actually did happen. In 1995, President Chirac finally publicly admitted the responsibility of the Vichy regime in the final solution. Also in 1995, a film was released "Drancy: A Concentration Camp in Paris, 1941-1944" directed by Stephen Trombley which deals with such issues. In Drancy today, a monument had been erected to commemorate all those Jews that passed through the camp on the way to their deaths.