The worst and the best of mankind


OnLine Opinion
September 5, 2012

An anniversary occurred recently which raised barely a murmur. It was the 70th anniversary of an episode so single-minded in its efficiency, so chilling in its brutality, that it warrants a moment’s notice.

Known as The Round-up, it was the largest mass arrest of Jews in France. It involved 7000 French police – with not a German soldier in sight. Fifty buses were provided by the Paris Public Transport Company, plus 10 coaches with sealed windows. The instructions were clear: no discussion with those being arrested; pets and keys to be handed to the concierge or neighbour.

Working from lists which they had compiled, the gendarmes arrested 13,152 Jews – 5919 women, 4115 children, 3118 men. Single adults and couples were transported to holding camps, while families were interned for five days in the Velodrome d’Hiver (Winter Velodrome) bicycle stadium.

The episode involved almost one-third of the 42,000 French Jews sent to the death camps in 1942. A total of 76,000 were deported; 2500 survived.

Jewish doctors were permitted into the Velodrome, as were nurses and Quakers who provided soup, serving it directly into cupped hands.

The doctors’ authority to recommend hospitalisation was limited to “life-threatening haemorrhaging”, “contagious epidemic illnesses”, “amputations of at least one leg” and “women more than four months pregnant”. This meant 300 children suffering scarlet fever, measles, tuberculosis and appendicitis were refused evacuation; many died as a result.

The only level surfaces were the field in the centre of the Velodrome and surrounding track; these were forbidden to the Jews, who were restricted to the spectator benches, subjected to harsh light and vulnerable to contagious disease. Five committed suicide.

Remarkably, the inhumanity was kept from the public. Media looked away. Seemingly, no-one took photographs, captured footage or saw anything amiss. A month later, L’Humanité Clandestine reported bizarrely that a “monstrous round-up” had spared “Jewish millionaires”. And Combat, published by the National Liberation Movement, wrote: “The [Velodrome] looked like a scene from hell. 8000 Jews were camping there, living in their excrement with nothing to eat or drink for three days. Men died. Women gave birth. The clamour prevented the neighbourhood’s residents from sleeping.”

The Vichy regime decreed that children should not leave with their parents, and after traumatic separations all were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the 13,152 seized in The Round-up, 811 survived.

Another anniversary is currently being marked. Recognised by Prime Minister Gillard in Melbourne recently and by Premier Barry O’Farrell in NSW Parliament House this week, It is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg – a Swedish businessman who utilised a diplomatic posting in Nazi-occupied Hungary to save 100,000 Jews by issuing false passports and hiding Jews in rented buildings which he declared to be Swedish territory.

Sweden and Hungary have designated 2012 “Raoul Wallenberg Year” to recognise those who possess the courage to confront bigotry.

While the circumstances are entirely different, the focus on Wallenberg is timely in view of the upsurge of far-right groups across Europe – Svoboda in Ukraine, Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece – as well as in the Austrian, French, Italian and Dutch parliaments.

Germany, Norway, Italy and Britain report increases in antisemitism, while an Anti-Defamation League survey found that antisemitic attitudes are at “disturbing levels” in 10 European countries, rising in Hungary from 47 to 63 percent since 2009 and in Britain from 10 to 17.

A Jobbik MP recently invoked a centuries-old blood libel, while desecrations of synagogues have occurred in Croatia, Greece, Lithuania and Poland, and a synagogue in Malmo, Sweden, has been fortified to be not merely bullet-proof, but rocket-proof.

Days ago, French President François Hollande delivered an inspirational address at the site of the original Velodrome. Acknowledging that France had betrayed its people and its values, he said: “Across time, beyond grief, my presence bears witness to France’s determination to protect the memory of her lost children and honour these souls who died but have no graves, whose only tomb is our memory.

“We’re here to fight the battle against oblivion and testify what barbarity is capable of. Ignorance is the source of many abuses.”

Guaranteeing Holocaust education in France’s curriculum, he continued: “The Shoah was not created from a vacuum and did not emerge from nowhere. True, it was set in motion by the terrifying combination of single-mindedness in its racist frenzy and industrial rationality in its execution. But it was also made possible by blindness, stupidity, lies, hatred. It was preceded by warning signs, which failed to alert consciences.

“No nation is immune from evil. Let us not forget this verdict by Primo Levi on his persecutors: `Save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces’. Let us remain alert so that we detect monstrosity under its guises. Being silent about antisemitism, dissimulating it, explaining it, already means accepting it.The safety of France’s Jews is not just a matter for Jews, it is a matter for all French people.”

The Round-up and Raoul Wallenberg encapsulate the worst and the best of mankind. The lessons of both resonate to this day.

Original article here.

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