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Saturday, February 17 2007
France/ A dark haired little boy
The Vichy police sent my brother to Auschwitz in 1942. He was almost nine years old. Maurice Papon, one of the Vichy officials who oversaw the round up of Jews, passed away today near Paris. He was almost ninety seven years old.
I can't help but look at the picture, these days. What would this little big brother of mine think of Maurice Papon's carreer as a French senior civil servant and minister - and final conviction, in 1998, for crime against humanity ? What would he say about Papon’s repeated appeals to higher courts, including the European Court of Human Rights, or the special law that a Socialist-dominated parliament voted on March 4, 2002 in order to set him free, and his natural death at the age of 97, on February 17, 2007 ? The boy on the photograph keeps smiling. He knows the real answers. All I can do, however, is to rely on the many testimonies I have heard for years from many survivors, including my parents. And read again the many scholarly books summing up this incredible tragedy, the Jewish Holocaust in Europe.
What is clear to me, all in all, is that Papon, the general secretary of Bordeaux préfecture throughout the war, was no small fish and was bound to know quite a lot about the fate of the local Jews he managed to get arrested and handed over to the Germans. What is equally clear is that anti-Jewish work was part of his daily routine. He set up sixteen trains for Jews from Bordeaux to Drancy in a period of twenty-three months. The last one was organised in June, 1944, when no doubt could be entertained any more about the imminent defeat of Germany.
Yet the same Papon was to switch sides almost instantly in August, 1944, from Vichy officialdom to the new administration of liberated France. He was appointed préfet of the Landes département near Bordeaux by the Free French gouvernment on August 22, just days after the Germans withdrew from South-West France, and then served as chief of staff to Jacques Soustelle and Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury, the High Commissioners of the Republic for Aquitaine. This, in turn, was the starting block for his subsequent carreer as préfet in Corsica and Algeria, préfet de police in Paris, chairman of the aeronautics company Sud-Aviation, member of the National Assembly, head of the Assembly's Finance Committee and finally minister of the Budget under President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Prime Minister Raymond Barre. Quite puzzling, to say the least.
Papon contended that he had used his position at the Bordeaux préfecture during the German occupation for the best interests of the Resistance and of the Allied cause, and that everybody in the Resistance knew. The argument is not as far-fetched as it may seem to be. Many Vichy officials played double jeu and were duly praised for that after the war. A very popular movie, Le Père tranquille (Quiet Old Man), explicitly dealt with this issue : it told the story of a typical small-town pro-German old gentleman who turned out to be the head of the local Resistance network. I know it by heart : throughout the late fifties ans the early sixties, it was deemed politically correct enough to be screened every year in December at the Christmas Tree for the children of Resistance fighters and Concentration camps survivors . I was duly attending, at my father's request.
Still, Papon's case was a bit different. There is overwhelming evidence that most of the French, including most of Marshall Pétain's early supporters, were repelled by the anti-Jewish persecutions after the mass round-ups of July, 1942. The popular outcry was so strong in Paris that the local police refused to get involved in further operations against Jewish families. The Catholic Church issued stern protestations on July 21 and then on August 23, 1942. Large-scale networks were active all over the country to help rescuing and hiding Jews, especially children and teenagers. Even the citadel of Vichy State antisemitism, the High Office for the Jewish Question, was apparently sabotaged from inside for five months in 1944 by his last High Commissioner, Charles du Paty de Clam, the son of a rabid Anti-Semite but himself a devout Catholic. About two thirds of the then Jewish population of France were thus spared, a quite remarkable proportion by all accounts in Holocaust Europe. Two other brothers of mine, as well as my mother, were directed to Western France until the end of the war. They survived.
I believe this is the ultimate reality against which the Papon case is to be assessed. Admittedly, even the Resistance had to play with Realpolitik. But on the other hand, the French nation as a whole - Right and Left, Catholic, Protestant or secular - understood much more clearly than some préfecture officials what the anti-Jewish policies were about, at least after 1942, and resisted them with remarkable fortitude.
© Michel Gurfinkiel, 2007
(An earlier version of this article was published by The European in 1998).
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