France’s Holocaust Shame
“I love Hitler,” slurred fashion designer John Galliano last October. “People like you would be dead today. Your mother, your forefathers would be fucking gassed and fucking dead.” The remarks were made at La Perle, a bar and bistro in Le Marais—a district in Paris that once played host to a thriving Jewish community—and prompted Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman to release a statement saying, “I hope at the very least, these terrible comments remind us to reflect and act upon combating these still-existing prejudices that are the opposite of all that is beautiful.”
At 4:00 a.m. on July 16, 1942, French police scoured Le Marais and the surrounding neighborhoods as part of Opération Vent Printanier (Operation Spring Breeze), rounding up 13,152 Jews, including 5,802 women and 4,051 children. Some were then transferred to an internment camp in the northern suburb of Drancy, while most were held captive in the Vélodrome d’Hiver—an indoor velodrome (cycle track) within shouting distance of the Eiffel Tower. After five days with no lavatories, very little food, and only one water tap, all the prisoners were taken to transit camps in Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande, and Pithiviers, and then sent to Auschwitz for extermination.
The Vel’ d’Hiv roundup is brought to tragic life in Sarah’s Key, a film adaptation of the bestselling novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, which has sold more than 5 million copies in 38 countries. Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, it stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris who, frustrated by her younger colleague’s ignorance, lobbies her magazine to do a 10-page spread on the 60th anniversary of the roundup.
“For so long, nobody talked about this, and we French people weren’t taught about this in school,” said de Rosnay in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I chose to see this through the eyes of a modern woman today, and perhaps to convey more emotion in relation to the taboo that has lasted for so long with this terrible tragedy.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the French began to address their shame over collaborating with the Nazis. The quasi-surrealist 1976 film Monsieur Klein, directed by blacklisted filmmaker Joseph Losey, included scenes of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, and Sarah’s Key used the same location to shoot its velodrome scenes. France didn’t issue a public apology until 1995, when then-President Jacques Chirac gave a widely televised speech and said, “France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners." For many, it was their first time hearing of the roundup.
Through her research, Jarmond soon learns that the Parisian apartment in Le Marais she and her husband inherited from his parents was once the home of 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) and her family, who were rounded up at the Vel’ d’Hiv before being sent to the Beaune-la-Rolande transit camp. Caught up in the chaos of the roundup, Sarah had locked her 4-year-old brother inside a closet in the family’s apartment, and is desperate to free him before it’s too late.
Paquet-Brenner discovered Sarah’s Key in French Premiere magazine, in a monthly column recommending books that could be adapted into movies. It was a very personal subject for him, since his maternal grandfather was a Berlin Jew who died in the Majdanek death camp. “I lost my grandfather, his brother, and his father there,” said Paquet-Brenner in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I was very sensitive to the subject. I thought someday I’d try to make a movie about it, but I never thought I’d do it at such a young age. The book helped me make it a reality.” He added, “But I don’t want to ask people to pay $12 for my family’s sacrifice. It’s really to get people talking about it.”
Harvey Weinstein, who is distributing Sarah’s Key through his Weinstein Company, is no stranger to Holocaust fare. During the 2008 Oscar season, which saw six Holocaust-themed films released in theaters, Weinstein’s The Reader emerged victorious, earning five Academy Award nominations and one win—a long-overdue best-actress Oscar for Kate Winslet as a repentant former Nazi concentration-camp guard. But Sarah’s Key holds a special place in his heart.
“It really ranks strongly with me because the subject matter is so personal,” said Weinstein on Piers Morgan Tonight. “This is a story that educates … but it’s a real thrilling movie, and one of the movies that I’m most proud of.”
Today, according to de Rosnay and Paquet-Brenner, anti-Semitism is still a problem in France, and while the once-thriving Jewish community of Le Marais has been largely reduced to the Pietzl (“Little Place”), a tiny quarter in the Fourth Arrondissement, the rest of the district has become a fashionable neighborhood—similar to Chelsea in New York City—replete with art galleries, trendy restaurants, and fashion houses. And after a fire destroyed most of the Vélodrome d'Hiver in 1959, the rest of it was demolished, and the Ministry of the Interior now stands on the site. A statue was unveiled down the road from the ministry in 1994 depicting children, a pregnant woman, and a sick man, in remembrance of Vel’ d’Hiv, followed by a memorial plaque in 2008 dedicated to the victims at the Bir-Hakeim station of the Paris Métro.
“It’s not just about the facts but also about the consequences on future generations. What does it mean for us today?” asked Paquet-Brenner. “I’ve heard so many complaints about how I’m making another movie about the Holocaust. Kids today aren’t really interested in history because they have so many problems right now, but it’s important because the past is what you build your future on.”