France Wary of the Past in War Crimes Trials : History: The specter of the Vichy regime’s persecution of Jews lurks in background in today’s prosecution of suspected collaborators.
Rachel Ewenczyk remembers when two French plainclothes policemen banged on the door, looking for her husband and father-in-law who had fled the night before.
It was September, 1943, and efforts by the collaborationist Vichy regime to hunt down and deport Jews to Nazi death camps had been intensified.
“The policemen didn’t want to go back empty-handed, so they decided to take my mother-in-law instead,” recalls the 79-year-old widow.
“I wasn’t afraid because the policemen were French and so am I. It didn’t occur to me they would try to arrest me,” said Mrs. Ewenczyk, whose father, sister and brother perished in Auschwitz.
The next day she joined her family on the run, just in time. The French police returned--this time with the Gestapo.
The chilling specter of the Vichy government’s persecution of Jews is reopening decades-old wounds as French courts haltingly move toward prosecuting former functionaries of the wartime regime that collaborated with the Nazis.
Rene Bousquet, 81, is charged with ordering the arrest and deportation of thousands of Jews--including infants--to the gas chambers while he was national police chief during World War II.
Maurice Papon, 80, a prominent government official in postwar France, has been charged with crimes against humanity allegedly committed while he was a top-level police chief in the Bordeaux region.
The trial of either man would mark the first time a French official was brought to justice for the Vichy government’s cooperation in Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
Many high-ranking Vichy officials, including Marshal Philippe Petain, who headed the government, stood trial after the war for treason and collaborating with the enemy. Petain went to prison, and Pierre Laval, his prime minister, was executed.
But no Frenchman was ever held accountable for participation in mass murder.
Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon who was tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987, was German, not French.
As Yves Jouffa, president of the French League of Human Rights, put it, Barbie’s case was “the trial of Nazi Germany, not collaborationist France.”
A concentration camp survivor who headed an international inquiry into the stalled cases, Jouffa accused the French Establishment of trying to protect its own. Both Bousquet and Papon long enjoyed privileged relations with the governmental, corporate and banking elite.
“This milieu does not want to see its dirty laundry washed in public,” Jouffa says.
Nearly 76,000 Jews were deported from France to Nazi death camps. Only about 2,500 survived. Most were arrested between April, 1942, and December, 1943, by French gendarmes, bailiffs, detectives, even students from the police school.
“Jews, even in the free, unoccupied zone administered by Vichy, came to fear French gendarmes more than German soldiers,” said Serge Klarsfeld, a lawyer and noted Nazi hunter.
“Nine out of 10 Jews deported from France were arrested by French police.”
To Robert O. Paxton and Michael R. Marrus, co-authors of “Vichy France and the Jews,” the Vichy government was “publicly and conspicuously anti-Semitic.”
“It wanted to solve in its own way what it saw as ‘a Jewish problem’ in France. Without direct German prompting, a local and indigenous French anti-Semitism was at work--a home-grown program that rivaled what the Germans were doing . . . and even, in some respects, went beyond it,” they wrote.
But, until the mid-1970s, it was commonly thought in France that Jews were arrested by Gestapo agents. Until 1983, French history books made no mention of Vichy’s enthusiastic cruelty toward Jews.
Even today, access to wartime police archives remains extremely difficult.
Brilliant, self-assured and dapper, Bousquet hobnobbed with elite SS officials and thrived in his immense power. Though he was found guilty of war crimes by a special court set up after the liberation to judge former Vichy functionaries, he always maintained his innocence.
He spent only three years in jail, and his sentence--loss of civil rights for five years--was suspended for “actions accomplished in favor of the Resistance.”
Although Bousquet’s lawyers say he cannot be tried twice for the same crime, Klarsfeld says the persecution of Jews was hardly mentioned in the 1949 trial.
He says the case pending is based on new evidence, which includes a long memo dated July 2, 1942. Published in the newspaper Le Monde last fall, it outlined Bousquet’s “readiness to order the arrest through mass, nationwide roundups of foreign-born Jews,” on the condition French Jews were spared. The Germans eventually broke the agreement, and French policemen hunted down French Jews as well.
Klarsfeld claims that he has uncovered a second document that he says implicates Bousquet further in crimes against humanity. It’s a telegram dated Aug. 18, 1942, signed by Bousquet, lowering the age requirements for deporting Jewish children from age 5 to 2.
With the exception of a few notorious Jew-haters in the Vichy regime, historians agree that France’s goal--unlike Hitler’s--was not outright extermination, but rather to preserve and strengthen its so-called administrative independence and authority.
But, in the end, entire families were sent to sordid camps administered and guarded by the French. Adults were sent on almost immediately to Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland, while thousands of children, including toddlers and infants, were left alone and untended for many weeks, until they, too, were shipped east to the gas chambers, again at the request of French authorities who did not know what to do with them.
The case of Papon, Paris police chief and former budget minister under former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, has been pending since 1983 when he was charged with crimes against humanity.
He dropped out of public life entirely after the satirical Le Canard Enchaine exposed his wartime activities, but he recently came forth to defend himself.
Proclaiming that he was “unwilling to die charged” (with crimes against humanity), he filed a libel suit against a leading news magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, for calling him “a French accomplice to genocide.”
A civil court ruled in Papon’s favor, saying it was not the role of the magazine to determine Papon’s guilt or innocence.
Also awaiting trial is Paul Touvier, a former militia chief who worked closely with Barbie in Lyon. Arrested in 1989 in a Catholic priory in Nice after more than 40 years in hiding, he is charged with the 1944 murder of the French president of the League of Human Rights, Victor Basch, 81, and his wife.
Charges of crimes against humanity were filed against Bousquet in 1989, a few months after the death of Jean Leguay, his deputy. In 1979, Leguay became the first Frenchman to be charged with crimes against humanity committed during World War II.
His case dragged on for 10 years, and he died of cancer, at 79, just as the court was about to give the green light for his trial to begin. At the request of prosecutors, the court published statments elaborating his role and responsibilities in the deportation and deaths of about 13,000 Jews, including hundreds of children under 12.
When Leguay died, Klarsfeld decided to go after Bousquet, Leguay’s superior. On Jan. 31 of this year, an appeals court finally cleared the way for Bousquet’s trial to begin. The Cassation Court, one of France’s highest appellate courts, rejected Bousquet’s motion that an ordinary criminal court did not have jurisdiction to try him for crimes against humanity.
That motion, first upheld by a lower court and then overturned by an appellate court last November, sought to derail efforts to try him for his actions as head of the national police 1942-43.
Bousquet maintained that only the defunct High Court of the Liberation, formed in 1944 to prosecute officials of the Vichy regime, had the authority to try him. The court was disbanded decades ago, and prosecutors feared that Bousquet would die before it could be reconstituted.
The Cassation Court upheld the appellate court ruling that Bousquet can be tried by an existing criminal court, enabling state prosecutors to pursue investigations into the charges. If they come up with enough evidence, the case will go to trial.
Touvier’s arrest warrant listed six charges of crimes against humanity, including the murder of Basch and his wife. Investigators have determined that when Touvier’s militiamen arrested the two in January, 1944, they were “judged too old to be deported and were killed on the spot.” Touvier is also charged with ordering the execution of seven Jews on June 28, 1944, shot in reprisal for a Resistance raid. He has denied all the charges.
Touvier’s trial is expected to raise questions concerning the role of the Roman Catholic Church during and after the war.
Lawyers and human rights activists have repeatedly denounced the slow pace of the French courts in these cases.
For the first time, some lay some of the blame on President Francois Mitterrand.
Recent reports in Le Monde suggested the president worries that public disclosure of Bousquet’s and Papon’s complicity in the Holocaust would “disrupt civil peace.”
Deputy Justice Minister Georges Kiejman, himself the son of a Jewish deportee, has argued against bringing Bousquet to trial.
“Besides the necessary fight against forgetting, it could be important to preserve civil peace,” he said. “There are other ways besides a trial to denounce the cowardice of the Vichy regime.”
Retorts Klarsfeld: “The president doesn’t want to destroy the legend that he entered the Vichy regime as a Resistance fighter, which simply isn’t true.”
Klarsfeld said Mitterrand began government service in 1942, fully aware of the Vichy regime’s racial laws defining Jews, barring them from many professions and confiscating their property. Mitterrand, he said, earned the respect of his superiors and received the highest medal of achievement, Le Francisque , from Petain himself.
Mitterrand, who once wrote an article for the collaborationist magazine, France, Review of the New State, left the Vichy government in 1943 to join the Resistance.
Mitterrand’s office refuses to comment on the issue, saying it does not wish to interfere in pending court cases.
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