Speech of President Jacques Chirac, on July 16, 1995, during the commemoration of the Vel d’Hiv roundup
Mr. Chief Rabbi,
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the life of a nation, there are times that are painful for the memory and for one's conception of one's country.
It is hard to speak of these times because we sometimes struggle to find the right words to recall the horror and express the sorrow of those who lived through this tragedy: they are forever marked in their soul and in their flesh by the memory of those days of tears and shame.
It is hard to speak of these times also because these dark hours have forever soiled our history, and are an insult to our past and our traditions. Yes, it is true that the criminal insanity of the occupying forces was supported by some French people and the French State.
Fifty-three years ago, on July 16, 1942, four hundred and fifty French police agents and gendarmes, acting under the authority of their leaders, responded to the Nazis’ demands.
That day, in the capital and the Paris area, nearly ten thousand Jewish men, women, and children were arrested in their homes at dawn and held in police stations.
Horrible scenes were witnessed: families torn apart, mothers separated from their children, elderly men, some of whom were veterans of the First World War and had spilled their blood for France, were callously thrown into Parisian buses and police vans.
People also saw some police officers turn a blind eye, allowing some to escape.
For all these people who were arrested, there then began the long and painful journey into hell. How many would never see their homes again? And how many, were feeling betrayed at that moment? How great was their distress?
France, land of the Enlightenment and of Human Rights, land of hospitality and asylum, France, on that day, committed an irreparable act. It failed to keep its word and delivered those under its protection to their executioners.
Taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the victims had to wait for days in what we know were terrible conditions before being led away to one of the staging camps – either Pithiviers or Beaune-la- Rolande - opened by the Vichy authorities.
But the horror had barely started.
Other massive roundups and arrests were to follow. In Paris and in the provinces. Sixty-four trains were to depart for Auschwitz. Seventy-six thousands Jews deported from France would never return.
Our debt to them is inalienable.
The Torah assigns to every Jew the duty to remember. The sentence that is always invoked runs: “You shall remember that you were a stranger and a slave in the land of Pharaoh.”
Fifty years after, in keeping with its law, but without any spirit of hatred or revenge, the Jewish community remembers, and France as a whole with it. So that the six million martyrs of the Shoah may live. So that such atrocities may never happen again. So that the Holocaust may become, in the words of Samuel Pisar, the “blood of hope.”
When the spirit of hatred, whipped up on one side by fundamentalism, and fed on the other side by fear and exclusion, and when right here on our own doorstep, certain small groups, certain publications, certain teachings, and certain political parties show themselves more or less openly to be purveyors of a racist and anti-Semitic ideology, then this spirit of vigilance which guides you, and which guide us, must show itself more forcefully than ever.
In this domain, nothing is insignificant, nothing is commonplace, nothing is dissociable. Racist crimes, the defense of revisionist ideas, and provocations of all kinds – little comments and quips – are all drawn from the same sources.
In passing on the memory of the Jewish people and of its sufferings, and of the camps; in bearing witness again and again, in acknowledging the errors of the past, and the errors committed by the State; in concealing nothing about the dark hours of our history, we are simply defending an idea of humanity, of human liberty and dignity. We are struggling against the forces of darkness which are constantly at work.
The endless combat is mine as much as it is yours.
The youngest among us, I am encouraged to say, are sensitive to everything that relates to the Shoah. They want to know more. And with them, there are increasing numbers of French people determined to face their past head on.
France, as we all know, is far from being an anti-Semitic country.
In this moment of solemn meditation and memory, I want to choose hope.
I want to remember that this summer of 1942 which revealed the true face of "collaboration", whose racist nature became perfectly clear after the anti-Jewish laws of 1940, was for many of our compatriots the wake-up call, the starting point for a vast movement of resistance.
I want to remember all the Jewish families who were hunted down and who were sheltered from the merciless searches being carried out by the Germans and the militia by the heroic and fraternal efforts of so many French families.
I like to think of the fact that a month earlier, at Bir Hakeim, the Free French under Koening had for two full weeks bravely stood up to German and Italian divisions.
Certainly, there are the mistakes that were made, there are the offenses, there is a collective error. But there is also France, a certain idea of France, upright, generous, and faithful to its traditions and its spirit. That France was never present in Vichy. It had long since been absent from Paris. It was in the sands of Libya and everywhere the Free French fought. It was in London, embodied by General de Gaulle. It was present, whole and indivisible in the heart of those French, the “righteous among the nations” who, at the risk of their lives and in the darkest hour of the storm, as Serge Klarsfeld has written, saved three-quarters of the Jewish community living in France and gave life to the best in this country: the values of humanity, liberty, justice, and tolerance. They are the foundation of the French identity and our obligation for the future.
These values, which are the keystone of our democracies, are presently being flouted right before our eyes here in Europe, by the practitioners of ethnic cleansing. Let us learn the lessons of History. Let us refuse to be passive onlookers, or accomplices, of the unacceptable.
That is the meaning of the appeal that I have made to our chief partners in London, Washington, and Bonn. If we want to, together, we can put a halt to an undertaking that destroys our values and which gradually risks threatening Europe as a whole.