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France 'come to terms' with Holocaust role

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France 'come to terms' with Holocaust role
Photo: Ghetto Fighters' House
14:10 CEST+02:00
France has finally come to terms with its role in the deportation of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps, President François Hollande said Friday as he inaugurated a new Holocaust memorial centre.

"Now our duty is to shape the spirit of the generations to come," Hollande said in a speech at the opening of a major new educational centre next to the site of the infamous Drancy transit camp from where some 70,000 people were sent to their deaths.

"Teaching the past is the only way to prevent it from being repeated."

Hollande drew a line under decades of dispute over the extent to which the deportations were aided and abetted by the French state, police and ordinary citizens.

"It is no longer about establishing the truth, it is about passing it on," the president said in a speech delivered in the presence of representatives of France's Jewish community who included a handful of survivors of the camp.

Drancy, an internment camp improvised from a block of social housing about 15 kilometres (nine miles) from central Paris, had been the site of an "abominable crime," Hollande said.

Of the six million Jews sent to the death camps, 76,000 of them came from France and 63,000 of them were deported from Drancy, he said.

"Of all ages, of all origins and nationalities and from every social class, they only had one thing in common, they were targeted for one sole reason: they were Jews. That was enough for them to be sent to their deaths."

Among those deported from Drancy were the vast majority of 13,152 Jews rounded up in Paris on the 16th and 17th of July, 1942 and detained in the Velodrome d'Hiver in the city.

Ordered by Nazi officers and carried out by French police and civil servants, the Rafle du Vel-d'Hiv was one of the darkest moments in the country's history.

The role of the French state and police was only finally fully acknowledged in a public apology issued in 1995 by then president Jacques Chirac.

Hollande went further within a month of being elected president. "The truth is that it was a crime committed in France, by France," he said in July.

The new glass-fronted centre at Drancy was designed by the Swiss architect Roger Diener and financed by France's Holocaust Memorial Foundation with funds recovered after being confiscated from Jews at the time.

It is a five-storey structure with a conference hall in the basement. The floors above the ground-floor reception are filled with teaching rooms, a large collection of documents related to the camp's history and, on the top floor, a permanent exhibition.

"The idea was to create a place of education aimed at as wide an audience as possible," said the centre's director, Jacques Fredj.

The extent to which France remained in denial for decades over its wartime history is illustrated by the history of the Drancy camp.

The concrete blocks in which internees were detained in appallingly insanitary conditions with only straw for bedding resumed their previous role as social housing in 1948, three years after the end of World War II.

A first memorial was finally installed in 1976 and, in 1988, one of the train carriages used to carry out the deportations was placed between the buildings.

Fredj said that with the last survivors of the Holocaust now nearing the end of their lives, it was important to keep the memory of what happened alive.

"Teaching the history of the Holocaust is not a vaccine against antisemitism but it is a basis for fighting all types of racism."

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