© Reuters. People visit the crypt inside the Shoah Memorial as France celebrates the 80th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv conflict, in Paris, France, July 12, 2022. REUTERS / Sarah Meyssonnier
By Juliette Jabkiro and LEA GUEDJ
PARIS (Reuters) – When police knocked on the door of his east Paris home on July 16, 1942, 15-year-old French Jew Joseph Schwartz was no longer there. Forewarned, he and his father Lejbus went into hiding.
He had assumed that his mother Ruchla and younger brother Paul would be safe – several raids on Jews had taken place targeting only men.
But the authorities have cast a net. That day and the next, the entire family was robbed from their home in the largest Jewish detention camp by French police in coordination with Nazi occupiers.
About 13,000 people were taken to the Winter Velodrome south of Paris before being sent to concentration camps across Europe.
Among them were Ruchla, Paul and Lejbus, who had turned themselves in to the police, hoping it would free his wife and children – to no avail. Joseph would never see them again.
“I didn’t know where to go, I was in a changed state,” said Schwartz, 95, and one of the last survivors of the conflict.
“One day, you leave your parents, everything is fine, kissed, taken care of, the next no one.”
As France celebrates the 80th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv circuit, authorities are racing against time to gather eyewitness accounts from elderly survivors.
“How are we going to continue the memorial when there are no survivors? Not many of us were 15 years old then,” Schwartz told Reuters.
The Shoah Memorial in Paris, which collects archives of massacre victims in France, has issued a call to reach out to Vel d’Hiv’s last witnesses and survivors.
Lior Lalieu-Smadja, head of the Memorial’s documentation department, said: “We were surprised to hear from about 40 people. The last ones who come first have never told their stories before, she added. “Eighty years after the event… they said it was a mission, an urgent thing to do.”
The memorial has collected billions of archives and thousands of photographs, but many stories have been lost, Lalieu-Smadja said.
The work of preserving them is crucial, to document the past and keep the fight against anti-Semitism alive in the present, she added.
Looking back now, what shocked Joseph Schwartz the most was the fact that the police were awarded the resistance medal after the liberation of Paris.
“For people like me who have lived through this episode, it’s an affront to our dead. When you know that eight days before liberation, we’re still living in grief. scared by the arrest of the Paris police … that’s enough to feel disillusioned,” he said.