Discovered in a cupboard 20 years ago, the only surviving police archive documenting the deportation of French Jews has been opened up to public view for the first time. The contents are a treasure trove for historians.
One of the most extraordinary documents on show is "Memo 173 - 42," dated July 13, 1942 and marked "secret." ''The occupying authorities," it reads, "have decided upon the arrest and grouping together of a carchertain number of foreign Jews."
Over nine pages, the head of the Paris police details his orders for the enactment of the Holocaust on French soil. Three days later, a few hours before dawn on July 16, French police operating in groups of two - one in uniform, one in plain clothes and accompanied by a German soldier - arrested more than 13,000 Parisian Jews.
"Many, many documents of this period were destroyed at the end of the war. It's very rare. This is unique," said Olivier Accarie Pierson, curator of an exhibition that's just opened at the town hall of Paris's third arrondissement.
Mysteriously, in this district and in no other, the documents testifying to the daily life in Paris during the occupation escaped destruction. Whether it was an act of civil disobedience or administrative oversight, nobody knows why the records survived, said Accarie Pierson. But one day, about 20 years ago, they were discovered in a cupboard.
Mine of information
This is the first time the documents have been put on public view. Historians, however, have been studying them since they were put into the central Paris police archive, a mine of information on the minutiae of Parisian life stretching back to before the French Revolution.
Other documents on display are the lists of names - hundreds and hundreds of them - written in a ledger by a meticulous French policemen during the census of Jews ordered by the Germans as soon as they occupied Paris in 1940. That census was updated in 1941, when Jews were forbidden from listening to the radio and were ordered to hand in their wireless sets. The names and addresses of those who complied were taken down and used for future roundups.
Poring over the documents in this exhibition, it's difficult not to be shocked by the clipped, official language. "And yet we were talking about thousands of people!" said Accarie Pierson, men, women and children who would soon perish in Nazi death camps.
The Jews were sent to two camps - the winter cycling track ("Vélodrome d'Hiver" or "Vél d'hiv") in the west of Paris and an internment camp set up just outside the capital, at Drancy. Although no photographic evidence has survived of their interiors, conditions must have been hellish. For example, in a postwar photo taken of the inside of the cycling stadium, it's clear that the camps didn't even contain beds, according to Accarie Pierson.
In 1942 Paris, the Jews were already being treated like animals. Police chief René Bousquet collaborated directly with the Gestapo to facilitate the roundups, and the bureaucratic language sometimes lets through a glimmer of disdain for the Jews from other police chiefs.
After a few weeks in the camps, all the Jews rounded up on July 16 had been deported by train, mostly to Auschwitz. "The Vélodrome d'Hiver has been "liberated," wrote one police officer. "A few personal belongings and 50 sick people were left behind. Everything ("le tout") has now been transferred to Drancy."
"The police obeyed the German orders but they also guessed what the Germans wanted and acted accordingly before the Germans asked them to," said Accarie Pierson.
The Germans, however, were angry that the French didn't detain more Jews that week. The French police had expected to arrest slightly over 27,000 people. That they didn't get that number was thanks to the courage of individual police officers.
"A few days before the arrests, many policemen went to the homes of the people that they were supposed to arrest and said to them, 'When we come on July 16, when we knock on the door, make sure you're not there. You have to escape!" explained Accarie Pierson.
Looking for traces
Many were warned and fled, but few thought the police would arrest women and children. This explains why, out of the 13,152 arrested on that night, almost 10,000 were women or children. One of those police officers helped save the family of Moise Weinflasch. He, like many others coming to this exhibition, was looking for a trace of his family.
During the war, his parents and sister lived just down the road from the town hall, neighbors with an older woman. "They escaped because they were informed that they would arrest Jews. They had to hide somewhere and they didn't know where to go, so my mother said, 'We will ask her if she can hide us.' And this neighbor hid all the family," Weinflasch said. "Five of them in a 60 square meter flat." Weinflasch and his family are still in touch with the family of the woman who saved them.
One other extraordinary sign of rebellion against the Germans is also included in the exhibition: the mock yellow stars that some young non-Jewish Parisians made and wore to mock and protest the Nazis' racial policy. One of the stars in the show has Goi written on it - the Hebrew word for gentile or non-Jew. Others, worn by jazz fans called the Zazous, are emblazoned with the word "swing."
Eight of those mock yellow star wearers were interned with the Jews at the Drancy camp and were imprisoned there for two months. They were made to wear badges marked with the phrase, "I love Jews." As for the 13,152 French Jews rounded up that morning, all but a tiny number were killed at Auschwitz.