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La Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (The Vel d’Hiv Round Up)

Photo Source: 1st Art Gallery

Every Holocaust survivor – every ghost of those who did not survive - has a story to tell. Each story is unique, yet equally tragic. Some we have heard more than once, while others lay silent, buried in the dusty pages of a nation’s shame…

Occupation and Anti-Semitism
14 June 1942 marked the two-year anniversary of the Nazi occupation of Paris. By this point, many French had joined the Résistance, while others felt it in their best interest to collaborate with the Nazi regime. Many Jews had fled France, and those who remained behind lived in chronic fear. The Jewish Decrees (France's version of the Nuremberg Laws) saw the Jews of Paris stripped of their livelihoods, property, and rights. As in other occupied areas of Europe, the French Jews were required to wear the yellow stars of David. Inscribed with a single word in the center, Juif (Jew), the badges had to be sewn neatly on the left side of the chest. Failure to do so could land a person in jail – or worse.  There are accounts of people being arrested because their star was an inch too low, or was too wrinkled – whatever was the momentary whim of the officer who stopped the person.
 Monsignor Mayol de Luppe, chaplain of the Legion of French Volunteers, speaking at the rostrum of the Velodrome d'Hiver, Paris 15th Arrondissement. France, 18 April 1944. Photo Source: CDJC
By late June of 1942, SS Councilor for Jewish Affairs Theodor Dannecker had vowed to free France from Jews as quickly as possible. He demanded from Pierre Laval (Vichy’s number two in command) the transport of 32,000 Jews in France.

Anti-Semitism was not new to Paris (and France in general) in 1942. One only need think of the infamous Dreyfus Affair of the late 19th- early 20th C. to know that anti-Semitic sentiment was alive and well in France prior to the arrival of the Nazis. Nazi presence merely gave French anti-Semites carte blanche to wage their war of hatred against the Jews. People like the fascist Jacques Doriot and his party the Parti Populaire Français (PPF, or French Popular Front) were more than happy to collaborate with Nazis on ridding France of the “Jewish problem.”

16-17 July 1942 - Paris, France
And so on 16 July 1942, the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv began – not at the hands of the Nazis, but at the hands of the French. The Vel d’Hiv, short for Vélodrome d’Hiver (Winter Velodrome) was an indoor bicycle racing track and stadium. Located in the 15th Arrondissement near the Eiffel Tower on rue Nèleton, the structure was built during the 1900 World’s Fair, but did not become a sports arena until 1909. In addition to bicycle races, the Vel d’Hiv hosted ice hockey, roller-skating, boxing, and circuses, and in 1924, it was the location of several sporting events for the summer Olympics. In short, it was a place associated with life, laughter, and fun. That was all about to change.

On 12 July 1942, Paris Director of Police, Émile Hennequin, gave orders that the operation must be “effected with the maximum speed, without pointless speaking and without comment." A combined force of 4,500 French police and young volunteers from Doriot’s PPF party carried with them 27,388 carefully prepared index cards with the names of the Jews that were to be arrested. Not all police were comfortable with this, so it is not surprising that days before the actual roundup began, rumors began to circulate that something ominous was afoot. Hélène Berr notes in her journal that on 15 July, a M. Simon came to warn her family that there was to be a roundup of 20,000 Jews in two day’s time. An excerpt from her journal describes the despair of those days in July 1942:

Some of the children they took had to be dragged along the floor. In Montmartre there were so many arrests that the streets were jammed. Faubourg Saint-Denis has nearly been emptied. Mothers have been separated from their children…In Mlle Monsaingeon’s neighborhood, a whole family, the father, the mother, and five children, gassed themselves to escape the roundup. One woman threw herself out of a window. Apparently several policemen have been shot for warning people so they could escape. They were threatened with the concentration camp if they failed to obey…

Opération Vent Printanier, or Operation Spring Breeze, was put in motion one day after M. Simon’s warning to the Berr family. At four o’clock on the morning of 16 July 1942, French police, along with 3,400 young volunteers from Doriot’s PPF (fascist) party gathered 13,152 Jews:  1,129 men, 2,916 women, and 4,115 children. This was to be a roundup of foreign Jews between the ages of 16 and 65; however, children much younger than 16 were forced to go with their parents. Pierre Laval would later try to justify this action by claiming it was a “humanitarian” effort to keep families together.

Although the French police and PPF sent some Jews directly to Drancy concentration camp, they put most of the Jews (an estimated 8,000) in a holding area - the Vel d’Hiv. Once all were present, the intention was to send the remaining Jews to the transit camps of Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande, Pithiviers, and Compiègne. From the transit camps, they would be deported to death camps. In fact, there was a direct rail line from Drancy to Auschwitz.
At the Races...the Vel in happier times. Photo Source: Life Magazine
For five days, Jews from Paris and its suburbs suffered unimaginable conditions. Since it was mid-July, the already hot temperatures in the Vel d’Hiv were intensified by two factors. First, the glass ceiling was coated in dark blue paint to deter bombers. Second, the windows were locked to prevent escape. There was not sufficient water or food and people were forced to sit in their own waste as most of the toilettes had been sealed off because their windows offered a means of escape. Escape was next to impossible and if a person was caught, he or she was immediately shot. 

A few doctors, nurses, Quakers, and Red Cross workers were permitted inside but they could not physically tend to the thousands of people who needed help. Conditions became so unbearable that five people committed suicide in the Vel d’Hiv.
Collaborators arrested during the liberation of Paris, sitting on the steps of the Velodrome d'Hiver, Paris 15th Arrondissement. France, 09/1944. Photo Source: CDJC, courtesy of La Mémorial de la Shoah

Hélène Berr wrote on 19 and 21 July 1942:

Françoise (Bernheim), who came round this evening told us that at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where they locked up thousands of women and children, there are women giving birth, infants bawling, all of them lying on the ground… it’s hell. Many deaths already, sanitary facilities blocked up, etc…so crowded together they can only squat, they get trodden on. Not a drop of water, the Germans have cut off the water and gas mains. The ground has turned into sticky, gluey mud. Among them are sick people hauled out of hospital, people with tuberculosis wearing ‘contagious’ signs around their necks. Women are giving birth right there. No medical help. No medicines, no bandages. It takes an infinite number of applications and permits to get inside. In any case first aid is being stopped tomorrow. They will probably all be deported.

This is backed by reports in the August-September 1942 edition of the publication Mouvement de libération nationale, Combat:

The Vél d’hiv looked like a scene from hell. Eight thousand Jews were camping there, living literally in their excrement, with nothing to eat or drink for three days. Men died. Women gave birth. The clamor raised prevented the neighborhood’s residents from sleeping for three nights.

Buses and police cars used to transport Jews at the Velodrome d'Hiver during the raid, parked outside the stadium, Paris 15th Arrondissement. France, 16/07/1942. Photo Source: CDJC, Coll. Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris.

After five miserable days, the Jews that had been rounded up were sent to deportation camps around the Paris area: Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande or Pithiviers. Upon their arrival, children were ripped from their parents by French police. Men and women were separated, and within days were on their way to Auschwitz where most were sent to the gas chambers. 

The children often stayed weeks at a time in Drancy and other French camps without proper food or medical care. Many infants and young children died from starvation and brutal treatment from the French police. When these poor souls were finally sent to Auschwitz, they were, upon their arrival, immediately gassed. estimates that more than 6,000 Jewish children from all the regions of France were arrested and transported to their deaths between 17 July and 30 September 1942.
 Greeting deportees returning from the camps at the Velodrome d'Hiver, Paris. France, Spring 1945. Photo Source: CDJC
The Aftermath of the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv
The Vel d’Hiv alone accounted for over a quarter of all Jews deported. Of the 42,000 French Jews deported to Auschwitz, only 811 returned. The Vélodrome was destroyed by a fire in 1959, and the French seemed satisfied with the fact that the heinous Rafle du Vel d'Hiv had been carried out by the Vichy government, not the French Republic. Despite various trials, very few of the people who carried out Operation Spring Breeze were punished. Once those Vichy officials with the most power paid their debt (Pétain was incarcerated for life and Laval was executed) the French appeared content to close this ugly chapter in their history and move forward.

Commemoration of the roundup of 16 July 1942. Presence of former deportees in striped uniforms. Velodrome d'Hiver (Paris XV), after the war. Photo Source: CDJC, Courtesy of La Mémorial de la Shoah

Over 50 years would pass in which the French kept this skeleton locked away in its closet. Other than a small plaque where the Vélodrome d’Hiver had once stood, it seemed that the victims of the Vel d’Hiv were doomed to be forgotten. Finally, in 1993 President François Mitterand commissioned a memorial be built at the site. A sculpture now stands in memorium where the Vel d’Hiv did in 1942. 
It wasn’t until 16 July 1995 that the French government apologized for the role of the French police in the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv. Then President Jacques Chirac addressed the crowd at the memorial:

These black hours will stain our history forever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was assisted by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations... France, home of the Enlightenment and The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.
The memorial at the Velodrome d'Hiver roundup, quai de Grenelle, Paris (15th arrondissement). France, 1994. Photo Source: CDJC/Coll.Ghislaine Spitzer, Courtesy of La Mémorial de la Shoah

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Berr, Hélène. The Journal of Hélène Berr (translated by David Bellos). Weinstein Books, New York, NY (2008).

Carrier, Peter. Holocaust Monuments and National Memory - France and Germany since 1989. Berghahn Books (2005).

JewishGen (an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage). “Drancy” (January 18, 2011)

Klarsfeld, Serge.  Memorial to the Jews Deported from France 1942-1944, (New York: Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, 1983)

Laffitte, Michel, The Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence (2008). “Case Study: The Velodrome d’Hiver Roundup, July 16 and 17, 1942.” January 17, 2011.

Zuccoti, The Holocaust, The French, and the Jews, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).


A special thanks to La Mémorial de la Shoah for graciously sharing these photos with me.


Lori said…
I just learned of the Round Up and the Vel D'hiv and am so saddened and disgusted. Why were we not taught about this in school? Thank you for your blog and helping us to remember and not forget what happened to these families.
Sher said…
Thanks for the great information on Vel d'Hiv. I am just learning about it through a book of historical fiction, Sarah's Key. If you haven't already read it I highly recommend it! I am going to France next month and would love to stop by the memorial, but I am having a hard time finding a physical address. Any suggestions?
Thanks and I look forward to learning more about France from your site.
Jennifer said…
@ Sher - I have read Sarah's Key, and it is amazing! If you haven't been to Paris before, you are going to LOVE it! You can find the Vel d'Hiv memorial by taking the #6 Métro line to Bir-Hakeim (very close to the Eiffel Tower). The memorial is close by the station. I believe you want to look for rue Nélaton & Blvd. Grenelle (that is where the velodrome used to stand). If you want to learn more about the Holocaust in Paris, I would recommend going to the Mémorial de la Shoah. You can check out their website online and get directions there. Have a great trip!
Jean. said…
I have just finished reading
Sarah's Key. I was 8yrs old when WW.2 started, living in Birmingham England , and though having to spend nights in air raid shelter. this was nothing to what these poor souls in The Vel d'hiv and many other camps suffered. I have said that the history & events should be taught in schools .not to lay blame on any particular country, but to show what suffering racial prejudice causes
Dor said…
Thanks for the data. well done.

I am reading Sara's Key now and looked for a reference.

Best regards,

Megan said…
I am reading Sarah's Key now and had no previous knowledge of the roundup that occured. What a complete and utter tradgedy. Sometimes there are no words to what humankind can do to one another. Thank you for your information about this. We all need to learn from the past to ensure that things like this never happen again.
Amanda said…
Thank you, Jennifer. Have just seen the extraordinary film, 'La Rafle.'

Your blog is informative and beautifully produced. I am grateful for it.
thorntonville said…
thanks sooo much for the info and nicely organized and well done blog:}
Rebecca said…
I just finished reading Sarah's Key and am horrified by what the government of France did in 1942. I am a proud Canadian and don't ever remember learning this in our history classes in school.
It is all very sad but makes me want to learn more.
Hi, Jennifer

I'm from Brazil and going to spend only 3 days in Paris next january. I saw Sarah's key film and its how I knew about the Vel D'hiv. I can say that I have an unexplainable interest in matters of WW2. This part of the history makes me really sad, but I can not ignore it. So I want to visit the Vel D'hiv memorial. Thanks for the information about the location. There is just one thing that I can not understand, how could one person be so cruel and manupulating so many people.

My best regards!

Anonymous said…
My mother and I just came from seeing "Sarah's Key". My mother was close in age to Sarah and was in Free France during that time period. Though she was well aware of the German camps, she was unaware of the Vel D'Hiv. My mother (Jewish survivor) was hidden with a a French family. She was educated in France and never learned this part of French history.
The fact that we were not taught this in school does not surprise me. I was doing research for a class in college when I stumbled across our dark history with the treatment of Japanese Americans.
Next trip to Paris, this is on my itinerary.
I am so happy to find your blog! I, too, am totally obsessed with France. I just can't help myself! Merci mille fois!
Emanuel Lima said…
Jennifer, I'm a Brazilian writer and have written some books about Jews and their influence on Brazilian culture - since 16th century. I hope to publish them some day. I'm reading the book "Sarah's key" in Portuguese language. As a teacher, I tell my pupils that we're luck to live in the Third World. Civilization is no good. My best regards.
Emanuel Lima
Taguatinga, BRAZIL
Denise R. said…
Dear Jennifer-thank you for bringing to light the atroscities that occurred on July 16th, 1942 in Paris,France. I've long admired the French, but now my view of them have indeed changed because of their cowardice in trying to keep this awful secret for so many years. I will still enjoy Parisian culture, but I would NEVER say,"Vive la France!" I will make sure as many people as I can, know of and read 'Sarah's Key', and I will NOT FORGET!! Denise R. U.S.A.
Jennifer said…
To Denise R. - please don't let this spoil your image of the French as a whole. While I focused on those who carried out such atrocities in this article, there were many French who HELPED. I have been fortunate enough to speak with several survivors of the Holocaust. One in particular survived in France because a neighbor risked her life and the life of her family to hide him as a child throughout the Occupation. He told me that he wants people to know that there were more good people than bad during that time. And to help put things in better perspective, our own nation is not without its shameful past. Think about what our government did to the Native Americans, African Americans...and even to women. Hitler wrote that he got his idea for the elimination of the Jews from President Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears. The important thing is that we learn from our past so that we do not repeat it. France has actually issued a public apology and there is compensation available for deportees and even orphaned children of deportees.(see: for more info) I am so thankful that you will never forget the Vel d'Hiv and those who perished in the Holocaust, and I hope you can make peace with France's past.
Mary Tipping said…
Jennifer, I too, just read the book "Sarah's Key", which I read in one day. How I was sadden to think that such atrocities where allowed to take place by the hands of the French people. I just can not wrap my mind around the idea that France would allow this to happen in their country, along with how our nation allowed the treatment of the Native and African Americans. Thank you for your blog and information. Our family will be visiting Paris in the fall and I will take the time to pay my respects and learn more.
Marie said…
I've just seen the French movie "Sarah's key" ( 'Elle s'appelait Sarah"). I am a French woman who has been living in the US for 17 years. I met my Jewish husband here. I am not a Jew myself. I was born in 67 and was 10 years old when I learned about the Holocaust in history class. I'll never forget it. It changed my safe little world for ever. This story is a very shameful and difficult reminder of the role of the Petain government and of some of the French in the extermination of the French jewish community. As you point out in your wonderful response to Denise R. a lot of my fellow French risked their lifes saving Jews. It was a terribly scary time. It's easy to blame the French cowardice, and there is certainly plenty to blame. Would I have done better or worse? I just hop I'll never be put to the test...

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