A French Holocaust site that is home to immigrants

Boxcar donated by SNCF at Drancy  photo: Brett Kline

The annual ceremony at the former internment camp at Drancy was sparsely attended, but the place carries a unique message.

There were several deportation memorial ceremonies last Sunday in the Paris area, including the most publicized one at the former site of the Vel d’Hiv bike racing stadium, but what arguably should have been the most real and the most painful took place in the northeastern suburb of Drancy. It was instead an event that could have had much more feeling, to say the least. More must be done to bring together the past and the present in multi-cultural France at the site of the former Drancy internment camp.

Some background facts: more than 12,000 Jewish men, women and children were rounded up on July 16, 1942 by French police and dumped in a velodrome in the western part of Paris. Hence the infamous name, La Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (the winter velodrome round-up). Buses with blacked-out windows then took the thirsty, famished prisoners to a horseshoe-shaped housing project in the northeastern Paris suburb of Drancy. Some 74,000 Jews in France (of both French and foreign nationalities) were interned for various periods of time in the Drancy housing block, and were eventually put on trains and deported to concentration camps, mostly to Auschwitz. 2,550 survived.

The velodrome was knocked down years ago and an upscale apartment complex, typical of the neighborhood, now occupies the site. The Vel d’Hiv ceremony takes place in a small park along the Seine River across the street. Attendance is by invitation-only, and access to anywhere near the park on all sides is blocked by police.

But the Drancy housing complex northeast of Paris, known as Cité de la Muette, is a French national memorial site, and is still standing. Down the road from a busy intersection in the town, it features a huge statue and an old boxcar donated by the SNCF national railroad. Access is unhindered and open to all.

Including the gendarme-police honor guard, local French government officials and several Jewish organization representatives, and a few survivors and their families, not more than 100 people attended this ceremony. There were two journalists and a photographer present.

First, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish army and gendarme-police chaplains (these are national police, the same as carried out the round-up orders throughout World War II) offered words of wisdom and prayers. Then the préfet from the area, the interior ministry’s local representative, gave a speech. "The round-ups by the French police are still an open wound in the souls of the French people," he said.

Then wreaths were laid near the old freight-train car that today holds photos from the war era. One was laid by Rabbi Moshe Levin, representing the Grand Rabbi of France, who was unable to attend. Levin also attended as the rabbi of a nearby town with a dynamic Jewish population, Le Raincy, and as a chaplain with the gendarmes.

"Frankly, this ceremony was missing a soul," he commented. "There were no speeches by elderly deportees, and we know that every year, fewer and fewer of them will still be alive. And there were very few young people. Most of the kids present came with me from Le Raincy. This should be a learning experience for them."

In fact, high school classes come regularly to the Drancy camp site. The students are shown around by members of the Association for the Auschwitz Memorial Foundation, which is based in the complex. "There were no classes present for the ceremony," noted association official Lucien Tinader, aged 84, "and very few people altogether. There are perhaps two reasons. First, Drancy is far from Paris, and second, the descendants of deportees are less and less interested. And of course, school is out for summer, but there are still classes."

Tinader has a direct link to Drancy. "Fifteen family members were deported through the camp here, including my mother. Only one returned to France…not my mother," he said.

At age seven, he was placed with a French family in Normandy, the Passard family, in a village called Colonard le Buisson. "I am trying to re-establish contact with their descendants," he said. "I visited the village last year."

The ceremony felt very sterile…. except, of course, that from this very housing complex some 74,000 ordinary men, women and children were deported to Auschwitz, only because they were Jewish. There are plaques along its length explaining what took place,

And there is something extraordinary about the place. Though the former internment camp is a national memorial site, today it's a housing project occupied by low-income residents.

"This may be the only memorial site in the country with by people living there," commented Tinader. "They are poor people, numbering perhaps 600, a few recently released from a local psychiatric ward, but mainly immigrants from Africa. We would never even think of trying to remove them. This is their home, where they were placed by the state. And if they were ever kicked out without finding other housing, it would be something else to blame on the Jews!!"

"Yes, it is odd, people living in a memorial site, but then again, how many memorial sites are housing projects?" asked Rabbi Levin. "Of course, they should stay here. Imagine, the programs we could organize, bringing together deportees and their families, youth groups and immigrants living here. Don’t forget, many of the deportees were also immigrants, from Eastern Europe and Russia."

As a local elected congressman, Hamid Chabani also laid a wreath during the ceremony. He teaches in a nearby middle school and has brought classes to the site. "Bringing young people here breaks down all the fantasies they might have, and all the prejudice about Jews, for example," he said. "They listen. It is disturbing for them. We must bring groups of young people to this annual ceremony. And it’s good that people live here," he added, "because it shows that life continues after death. But yes, it is strange."

The ceremony ended with the sound of music…from the film "Schindler’s List". "Instead of this, we could have a youth orchestra playing, with the residents, with others," commented Rabbi Levin. "We need imagination and creativity to move this ceremony up a few levels."

Everyone mentioned they have heard that some residents feel the phantoms of deportees from the former camp. Such is not the case for Kamara. This young man from Mali has lived here for four years. "I don’t see or hear phantoms," he said, "but at first, this place was shocking. People here know what happened during World War II. We read the plaques outside. Nobody deserves to be deported and killed like the Jews were here. It is shocking. But after living here a while, you get used to the history. What can I do? This is my home."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 29, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Boxcar donated by SNCF at Drancy  photo: Brett Kline
Boxcar donated by SNCF at Drancy photo: Brett Kline
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