Vichy state’s World War II role still divides France

PARIS — Some letters are decorated around the edges with flowers in colored pencil and crayon, the way little girls will do. But the words are about living in fear, and waiting for loved ones arrested because they were Jewish.

“Dear Sir … I’m calling upon your generous soul and your good heart.... I think I’ve fallen into desperation.... I am alone and there’s no one who can help us,” 12-year-old Rosette Lewenstadt carefully wrote in blue ink 70 years ago from the Drancy internment camp, north of Paris.

The faded letters, toys, photos, a yellow star sewn onto a child’s delicate white dress are on display at in Paris’ City Hall. The exhibit “They Were Children” tells the stories of Jewish youngsters sent from France to Nazi death camps during World War II, and it tells it in French.

Germany is not the focus here. The exhibit’s letters and legal documents identifying Jews, in addition to historical explanations by curators, point to the fact that the crimes described were committed in France, by French authorities working for the Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis from 1940 to 1944. (The exhibit also shows how thousands of Jewish children were hidden and saved through rebel networks; 80% of Jewish children living in Paris in 1939 survived the war.)

Although Vichy called itself the legitimate French state, many deny that it was a French entity at all, preferring to reserve the title for the Resistance, based in London. But others say France must come to terms with its past.

After years of historical work, “we’ve come to an image that is a lot closer to reality: that the French state, Vichy, made decisions it wasn’t forced to make. It acted with a certain independence, a certain autonomy in any case,” French sociologist Michel Wieviorka said. “So let’s not rewrite history in the other direction. Let’s not exonerate all the people who collaborated.”

That soul-searching attempt to define the country’s role during the war remains a delicate topic, if not heated. The issue recently resurfaced with the 70th anniversary of the 1942 roundup and deportation of more than 13,000 Jews in the Paris region, known as the Vel d’Hiv raid, which not only targeted men, but women and children.

This week, French President Francois Hollande both comforted and outraged people here by saying the raid was a “crime committed in France, by France.”

“The hard and cruel truth is that not one German soldier, not a single one, was mobilized for any of this operation,” he said. “But it is also the truth that the Vel d’Hiv crime was committed against France, against its values, against its principles, against its ideal.”

French lawmaker Henri Guaino said he was “scandalized” by the speech. “My France, it wasn’t in Vichy, it was in London as of June 18,” he said on French BFM television, referring to Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces headquartered in Britain.

Referring to the Vel d’Hiv roundup as “a horror,” Guaino said, “But France, what does she have to do with it?”

France’s Jewish umbrella group, CRIF, expressed dismay over Guaino’s comments. In a statement, the group said Hollande’s speech explained that “the crime was committed by France, that is to say, by the government in power at the time, but that it was also against France, meaning the values that form the foundation of the republic.”

Defining or even referring to “La France” during the war is almost an impossible task for many.

“I can’t say it,” said Catherine Vieu-Charier, a Paris deputy mayor, when asked whether the Vichy government was the French government.

“For me it’s not a French government, it’s a Vichy government. France is something else. They [Vichy] confiscated the word ‘France,’” said Vieu-Charier, who had the idea for the City Hall exhibit.

But French historian Laurent Joly, an expert on the Vichy era, says that by definition Vichy was considered the legitimate French government, even by early popular support, whereas the Resistance fighters “were rebels against the legal state.”

Though Hollande “simplified things from a historic point of view,” Joly said that if there had been a public referendum, the French probably would have shown approval for Vichy leader Philippe Petain when he first took power.

“You have to remember the state of France after the defeat [by the Germans].... There were thousands of people in the street; they were lost, confused.” Joly said. “Petain knew how to reassure people. He spoke to them like a father.”

Still, “we can’t lose sight of the fact that there was Nazi pressure, lists of Jewish identities were ordered by the Germans, and the Vel d’Hiv raid was organized by the Germans: These are things that aren’t in Hollande’s speech, and a lot of people lose sight of that.”

At City Hall, visitors to the exhibit instantly gathered in animated discussion at the mention of the president’s “courageous speech.”

“It’s too easy to say it was Vichy and not France. It’s too easy to erase the past,” said Georges Lagache, 84, who lost family members in Nazi death camps. “You have to accept your past, both the dark and the light sides.”

Behind one glass case was Rosette Lewenstadt’s desperate plea for help from an acquaintance of her father.

“They separated me from my mother and my older sister who is 17.... I cry when I ask myself where my parents are and cannot imagine they were able to do such a thing.”

Rosette was deported to Auschwitz with her 10-year-old brother, Raymond.

Between 1942 and 1944, 11,400 children were deported from France. Two hundred came back alive. Rosette and Raymond were not among them.

Lauter is a special correspondent.