The recent french film, "Sarah's Key," released in 2010, and based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, portrayed accurately the willing participation during World War II of the French Vichy State, its authorities and police in facilitating the Holocaust. The book and the film presented a harrowing picture of the single darkest chapter in the infamous treatment of Jews in France during the World War II: La Rafle (The Raid), the round up euphemistically code-named Operation Spring Breeze (Opération Vent Printanier), which took place on July 16-17, 1942. During those two days the French police, acting on the basis of lists they themselves had drawn up, arrested 13,152 Jewish men, women, and children living in Paris. Childless couples and single people were interned in Drancy, a suburb of Paris, which was equipped with watchtowers and barbed wire fences, and which served during the war as a transit point for the deportation of more than 67,000 Jews to their death.
Of the other Jews, more than 8,100 of those seized, were put in the Vélodrome d'Hiver, the bicycle stadium in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, where they suffered inhuman conditions before they were deported to extermination camps. From the Vel d'Hiv, the French gendarmerie escorted the Jews to the internment camps, Beaune-la Rolande and Pithiviers, before their final destination of the death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau. Not a single German soldier was mobilized to take part in this Vel d'Hiv event.
The Jews incarcerated in the Vel d'Hiv were part of the total of 76,000 Jews sent to those death camps. It took a considerable number of years for French officials to acknowledge this sad episode in French history. However, Jacques Chirac, then President of the French Republic, on the anniversary of Vel d'Hiv on July 16, 1965 admitted and apologized for "the dark hours which will forever tarnish our history."
Similarly, François Hollande, now President of the Republic, acknowledged, in a moving speech on July 16, 2012, that the Vel d'Hiv roundup and deportation of Jews was "a crime committed in France by France." After laying a wreath at the site of the Vélodrome, which was demolished in 1959, Hollande spoke of ""a crime against France, a betrayal of its values," "the horror of the crime," the "dark hours of collaboration" and of France's responsibility. He told his audience, "We are also here to pass on the memory of the Holocaust."
In view of a recent poll that revealed that 42% of French people today did not know of Vel d'Hiv event, nor did 60% of the youth between the ages of 18 to 24, his words should be heeded. In view of the availability of the novel Sarah's Key, and the film based on it, the forthright speeches of two French presidents, and several TV documentaries on the France during World War II, it is surprising that such a large proportion of the French population confessed to be unaware of the Vel d'hiv atrocity.
It is commendable and a sign of change in France that the Jewish victims, along with other victims, particularly gypsies, are being remembered in France in various ways. These memorials include a national Day of Commemoration, the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, the Commission for the Compensation of Spoliation Resulting from Vichy Antisemitic Legislation, and a museum at Drancy, among other tributes.
Yet, the only true monument to the victims is the retention of the memory of the crime by present and future generations. Based on the recent polls, schools in France, as in other countries, need to instruct pupils about the unique horror of the Holocaust to a greater degree than presently exists. This should be accompanied by refutation of falsification of history -- especially the denial or minimizing of the Holocaust currently present in books, TV programs, and on college campuses. That refutation of Holocaust denial or revisionism, already attempted by the French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet in his 1992 book, Assassins of Memory, needs to be sustained together with the confrontation of antisemitism in all its forms.
The recent death in June 2012 of Roger Garaudy -- known as an intellectual and a brave resister in World War II, but also an extreme Communist, who became a Catholic, and then a fervent Muslim — is a reminder of the need for this. He became a Holocaust denier, rejecting the avalanche of proof that gas chambers were used by the Nazis to kill Jews during the war. A similar argument was made by Pat Buchanan on March 17, 1990 in the New York Post, where he inaccurately wrote that it was impossible for Jews to have died in gas chambers of the Treblinka death camp because the Diesel engine used did not emit enough carbon monoxide to kill anyone.
It is disconcerting to read the results of a survey by the IPO in March 2012 of the degree of antisemitism in ten European countries. In response to the question if "Jews still talk too much of about happened to them in the Holocaust," the positive answer ranged from 63% in Hungary and 53% in Poland to 24% in Britain.
President Hollande has behaved commendably not only by his strong speech at the Vel d'Hiv site, but also by his action in August 2012, depriving John Galliano, formerly of the House of Dior, of the decoration as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor that he received in 2010. Galliano had been convicted of making racist and antisemitic remarks while drunk in a Paris café.
The uniqueness of the Holocaust and the evils associated with it cannot be forgotten. One should reject the argument that "too much attention to the Holocaust would cause political problems." One should expose and refute those such as Pat Buchanan, who in his article spoke of the "so-called Holocaust survivor syndrome, group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics." François Hollande has shown the right way to deal with revisionism of this kind. This involves two things. One is to highlight the singularity of the Holocaust, the attempt to eliminate all the Jews on the European continent. The other is to seek to control the virus of antisemitism, regrettably still active in France as elsewhere, and to unmask and discredit those who manifest the intolerance and fanaticism induced by it. No future political leader fifty years from now will then have to apologize, as President Hollande has nobly done, for past acts of "blindness, stupidity, lies, and hatred."
Michael Curtis is author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community.