The Round-up at Vélodrome d'Hiver: Background information when reading The Nightingale

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The Nightingale

by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2015, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2017, 592 pages

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Beyond the Book:
The Round-up at Vélodrome d'Hiver

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In the early morning hours of July 16, 1942, the French police took Jews living in Paris into custody. In the two days that followed, over 13,000 Jews were arrested – 4000 of those were children – in what became the biggest arrest in France during World War II. Seven thousand of these people were taken to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, a bicycle velodrome and sports stadium, to await deportation to Nazi death camps.

Jewish WomenThe Vichy French government (established in 1940 after Germany occupied France) worked closely with Germany in order to maintain even a modicum of sovereignty. And on September 21, 1940, a German ordinance forced Jews in the occupied zone to register their religion. And so, in 1942, when Germany exerted pressure on France to deport Jews, the government not only agreed, but they had the records to carry out the deportation. The first proposal suggested that both French and foreign adult Jews be deported, but after debating the embarrassing nature of deporting their own citizens, the proposal was amended to deporting only foreign Jews (primarily from Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union) – however, children were then also included. The reason for adding children was two-fold: first, authorities predicted terrible scenes of separation if only adults were deported; and second, the issue of orphans loomed large. As a result – in a move that was perhaps logical, but even more inhumane, both children and adults became the targets of the arrests.

Jews in the Vélodrome d'HiverThe round-up was planned in secrecy and included about 9000 police and other authorities. Some Jews managed to escape (and some of the Resistance found out about the plan and helped in those escapes), but most left their homes and accepted being taken to the Vélodrome d'Hiver. The conditions there were horrific, and only got worse as the days progressed. No food was provided and the only water available was unsanitary. There were no working bathrooms in the stadium. After five days, victims were taken to secondary waiting stations and were then sent to Auschwitz.

The French reaction to the round-up was a profound silence. Shame and denial left citizens closing their eyes to the whole ordeal. But in 1995, President Jacques Chirac finally provided a much-needed public apology. He said, "These black hours will stain our history forever and are an affront to our past and traditions ... the criminal insanity of the occupiers was assisted by the French, by the French state."

Jewish FilesHolocaust survivor Cecile Widerman Kaufer, author of Goodbye For Always: The Triumph Of The Innocents is one of the few children who survived the round-up. Her answer to why she decided to let her story be public – after initially not wanting anyone, especially her children, to know about her traumatic deportation, escape and ultimate survival? She said, simply, "I want people to know my family."

There was so many families, like hers, who were never known.

Two Jewish women in Occupied France just weeks before the deportation, courtesy of Wikipedia
Jews inside the Vélodrome d'Hiver, courtesy of austinhealy,hub pages.com
The files of Jews living in Occupied France, now in the Mémorial de la Shoah, courtesy of Charvex

This article was originally published in February 2015, and has been updated for the April 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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