After the Roundup
INTRO LETTER to Remember.org:
“During the night of July 16-17, 1942, twelve thousand eight hundred forty-four Jewish men, women, and children were rounded up by the French police in Paris and the surrounding area. 8,160 of them, including 4,115 children, were taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, or Vel’ d’Hiv, a cycling stadium in Paris, where they were kept for days in unspeakable conditions before being transported in cattle cars to internment camps throughout France. The rascally Joseph Weismann, barely eleven years old, was one of them.
Joseph and his family were taken to the camp of Beaune-la-Rolande, sixty-five miles south of Paris. Two weeks later, his parents and sisters were brutally torn away from him and sent to Auschwitz, and he was left behind in the camp with about 1,000 other children, who were told that they would be reunited with their parents “to start a new life.” Based on what he’d seen so far, he found this impossible to believe, and his daring escape with another boy made the two of them the only two survivors of Beaune-la-Rolande.
In 2010, a feature film, La Rafle (The Roundup), directed by Roselyne Bosch, portrayed his experiences from the time the French police came to his apartment to arrest his family to the moment of his escape (made to look far easier in the film than it was in reality). Shortly thereafter, Joseph wrote a memoir about his experiences, Après la rafle (After the Roundup), which I had the honor of translating for Indiana University Press in 2017. It describes these terrifying events but then goes on to relate what happened to Joseph after his hair-raising escape. How was he going to survive the rest of the war and construct a life for himself? It wasn’t going to be easy.
Joseph Weismann, now 88, lives in Le Mans, France. He has won many awards from the French government, and it is his fervent desire that through education and remembrance we can prevent history from repeating itself.
Thank you for all you are doing to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.”
CHAPTER 3 PART 1
JULY 16, 1942
“What are you doing outside? It’s not good for Jews to be in plain sight today! Didn’t anyone tell you? Go, run home to your parents!”
Papa left two hours ago. He went to take the subway, at Rue Lamarck, so he could deliver a suit to someone in the sixteenth arrondissement. Do I need to worry about him? If this man, just outside my building, told me to stay away from the Germans today, it’s because the yellow stars are in danger. And obviously, Papa is wearing one. It would never occur to him not to … Because those are the rules now.
I had barely climbed back upstairs to our apartment when Papa returned, still carrying the suit. Mama began to question him, visibly distressed.
“Don’t worry, I’ll deliver it tomorrow. A guy in the subway told me not to spend too much time outside. A factory worker, not Jewish. He approached me, at the end of the platform, with a strange look on his face, as though he was afraid someone would see him talking to me.”
“A man told me to go home, too, Papa.”
Charlotte raises her eyes from her book. Rachel is forming a square with her jacks and a few pebbles she must have picked up in the park. We look at one another in silence. The window overlooking the courtyard is open, and there’s not a sound from the street. We can barely hear a neighbor doing her dishes, the music of the spoons banging together in the sink and of the dishes piling up in the drain board. In the next building, a baby cries for a minute, then stops. He must have fallen asleep. Mama takes up her needle again, Charlotte returns to her reading with a frown, and my little sister picks up an empty spool of thread. She slides a piece of string through the opening, attaches it to her wrist, and begins to walk an imaginary dog.
“Joseph, did you remember my cigarettes today?”
I take two cigarette butts I found on the sidewalk out of my pocket. Two dark ones and two light ones, a good harvest. Since rationing began, my father has been suffering a forced weaning from smoking that makes him suffer even more on days when he’s anxious. He used to smoke Gauloise after Gauloise and now is forced to reconstitute cigarettes from butts we find in the street. The fishing is better in fancy neighborhoods. Whenever the occasion presents itself, I walk a few meters from the Germans. They exhale their smoke noisily, send their butts flying with a flick of their fingers, and I rush to pick them up. But they smoke only blondes, made of good Aryan tobacco, as the joke goes, and they’re not Papa’s favorites. He’s not really fussy, though.
He opens a little metal box where he stores his cache, slips in the day’s find, and takes out enough tobacco to roll a cigarette. The atmosphere is tense in our apartment. I keep walking around the table, eager to go back outside.
“Papa, can I go out? Please?”
“I don’t mean to punish you, Joseph, but I think it’s better for you to stay inside today. You never know.”
Mama intervenes. “He’s only a child. What could happen to him?”
“Papa, please! I won’t hang around outside. I’ll go to Charret’s.”
My friend lives on the Rue Constance, where his father is a shoemaker. He has a little, old shop with a red wooden boot hanging outside. You can see it from far away. It’s one of the rare businesses that are not doing badly because of the war. Since it’s impossible to buy new shoes, people have their old ones repaired …
“Joseph, I’m sorry, but it’s impossible.” He smiles at me tenderly. There’s nothing that will change his mind … It’s going to be a long day. Papa seems resigned. He spreads out a few strands of tobacco on a piece of newspaper, taking all the time he needs. He uses the same precise gestures for making his cigarette that he does for cutting out the pieces of a jacket from a roll of woolen fabric. He’s right. No reason to rush today. We’re not welcome in cafés or parks—we’re barely accepted in the street and can wait on line at stores only at certain times. This Thursday, July 16, 1942, is just the next stage in our forced isolation from French society.
We’re confined to our homes by a silent threat, urged to shut ourselves away by people we don’t know. I hate them for their concern. I pour a little water in the flowerpot I put on the windowsill. Inside is a bean seed they gave me in science class. It’s starting to germinate, but I don’t find it to be growing very quickly. It seems as bored as the rest of us. I flop into a chair with a sigh. Papa kisses Mama on the forehead and leaves. We hear his footsteps in the stairway climbing up to the seventh floor, then the door of his little workshop closing. The baby starts to cry again—but is it the same one? Charlotte is turning the pages of her book, and Rachel has caught her dog’s leash in the table legs. I think I hate the Germans even more than the schnorrer.
Around noon there’s a knock at our door. The table is set, and Mama has been standing over a pot for the last few minutes. All our eyes converge on her with a questioning look. It can’t be Papa—he would have entered quietly. Two more knocks. Charlotte goes to answer the door and immediately steps back. A uniformed policeman and a man in civilian clothes come in quickly and rush to the window to close it.
“Yes, that’s me. Why are you closing the window? It’s hot!”
“Several women have thrown themselves onto the sidewalk already today. We don’t want another incident.”
They’re dressed in black, and even on a stormy, humid day like today, the police officer is wearing his cape.
“Get your things—a few articles of clothing and enough food for two days. You’re under arrest.”
“You’re arresting me?”
“The children, too.”
The other man, who up to now hasn’t said a word, asks, “Where’s your husband?”
Mama hesitates, or else she didn’t understand—I don’t know which. She holds Rachel against her legs and mumbles something in Yiddish, so quietly that none of us can hear it.
Suddenly the cop shouts, “Where is he?”
My mother’s incredulous look suddenly turns toward me. “Joseph, go get Papa.”
I move toward the door under the gaze of the two increasingly impatient men.
“Pack your things. And hurry up!”
By the time Papa and I get down to the fifth floor, our miserable boiled cardboard suitcases are already packed. We have several, but they’re all small. They look ready to burst, as though if we lift them by their handles, the bottoms are going to give way, and our belongings will be scattered all over the floor. A few articles of clothing and enough food for two days, that’s what they said. I’m not even sure that the soup is ready for tonight. What do these morons think? That my parents are hiding cans of beans under their mattress? That some breaded turkey cutlets are waiting patiently to be sautéed in a pan? That our cabinets are filled with jars of jam? What cabinets? We don’t even have any! Joe, don’t lose your temper. And don’t think about food: that’ll get you even more upset … Papa seems so calm. He caresses Mama’s shoulder and comforts Charlotte with a nod of his head that means “Don’t worry, I’m here. Everything will be OK—I’m in control of the situation.”
My poor father’s not in control of anything. He lifts his head and sticks out his chest. Although he’s not tall, he pulls himself up to his full height to show everyone that he’s not afraid. That he’ll keep his dignity whatever happens, because he’s an honest man with nothing to reproach himself for.
“Gentlemen, where are we going?”
“You’ll see when we get there. Follow us.”
“I fought in the war for France, sir. I certainly have the right to know where you’re taking us!”
“A bus is waiting for us downstairs. What happens after that, we don’t know. Those are our orders, that’s all.”
At school, when a classmate refuses to do something that requires a little courage, we say he’s chicken. I can sense that this police officer belongs to the next category, the worst: the cowards. He wants us to believe that he’s only following orders. And he takes us for a bunch of idiots. To be sure, he’s following orders, but not without knowing where we’ll be spending the night. I can already imagine him safe and warm in his bed.
We grab our cardboard suitcases and close the door behind us. Immediately, one of the men places a wax seal on the doorframe, another on the wooden panel, and stretches a ribbon between the two. I don’t know exactly what this thing is; I don’t understand—except that we’ll have to pull it all down to get back into our apartment.
Our procession begins to make its way down the stairs. A silent procession, punctuated only by the sound of our torn-up shoes on the wooden steps. Our guards must have better soles than ours: their shoes make sharper sounds, louder, crisper. It looks as though we’re the only Jews at 54, Rue des Abbesses, or at least the only ones being arrested. The concierge’s little room is closed. We hardly know Madame Auger. She’s a discreet woman who conscientiously sweeps the hallways and the courtyard and watches over who enters the building during the night. On her door is written: “Please give your name after 10:00 P.M.” Since the curfew began, it’s been a long time since anyone has gone out at night, though.
I’m finally outside, but not the way I had hoped. I feel as though I’m in one of my comic strips. Give yourselves up, you’re surrounded! Only this time it’s a lot less funny. My parents’ faces … expressionless, defeated, desperate … Papa is serious, and Mama is crying in silence. In Charlotte’s eyes, however, I can detect anger. She’s furious at being taken away, enraged at this offense to her family. She holds her breath, her chin thrust forward slightly, jaw tense as if she were ready to bite someone. I seem to be seeing her for the first time. So my big sister is not just an annoying girl, always too well behaved to disobey—even to have the idea enter her head? And me? Joseph, who brags all the time, the eleven-year-old rascal who doesn’t even weigh 65 pounds, who can run hundreds of yards behind the milk truck and not be outdistanced?… I should have saved my energy: no cheese ever fell out, and now I’m a prisoner like the others.
We walk toward the Place des Abbesses, indifferent to the passers-by, who don’t look at us, either. I try to see myself through their eyes. What kind of spectacle are we providing for the grocers, the tobacco sellers, the deliverymen whom we’ve frequented every day for years? The image of a hopeless family, shoulders bent, eyes filled with tears. Accompanied by two good Frenchmen appointed by the Vichy government, one in front and the other behind–two honest, upright men who don’t doubt for a moment the usefulness of their mission–we’re five doomed people carrying, in our pitiful cardboard suitcases, the little—so little—we’ve ever possessed.
When we get to the corner of Rue Durantin, we stop for a moment. It suddenly occurs to me that I could take off in a flash, up to the top, in the labyrinth of stairs that climb up to Sacré-Coeur. I can run fast, and by the time the two guards decide which of them has the responsibility to catch me, I’ll already be far away … I don’t do it. I look at my dear mother and father, both of them so distraught; I look at Rachel, hanging onto Charlotte like a shipwrecked person to his raft. I feel no stronger, no less worried than they. And, quite simply, I love them. Honestly, what would I do without them? I get into the bus.
We don’t make this trip alone. On the way, the driver picks up several other families escorted by the police. So many people are rounded up that there isn’t enough room for everyone to sit. Parents place their little ones on their laps, and we leave the seats for the old. We’re ushered into the town hall of the 18th arrondissement, where other Jewish families are waiting, with their stars on their chests and the same suitcases at their feet. From there, we have to board another bus. No one says a word until the vehicle stops, and a man standing in the front exclaims, “It’s the Vélodrome d’Hiver! I recognize it. It’s the Vélodrome d’Hiver!”
And so it is.
The bus parks in front of the entrance, and we’re too dejected to annoy our guards with questions. But what’s going to happen now? Papa wipes his brow every two minutes, the women’s foreheads are glistening, and the men have large sweat stains under their arms. Not unusual—it’s hot, the sky is getting dark, and you can feel a storm approaching.
I’ve never been inside the Vélodrome d’Hiver, but I know what usually goes on there. I’ve often read about boxing matches or bicycle races there in the newspaper. When I was first learning to read, it was good practice. I would sit under a table at Père Fabri’s, Papa would play belote, and I would decipher the words on the sports pages. So this is where it all happened … I doubt that we’ve all been brought here to enjoy a sporting event.
Two more vehicles park behind us in the Rue Nélaton. Maybe we’ve been waiting for them. Anyway, it’s time. They make us get out. Special security officers already there form a line on each side of the street. We proceed down the sidewalk and make our way through a passageway that ends at a pair of wide swinging doors. People are crying all around me–children, too, probably. I don’t know: I can’t see very much since I’m only four feet six. All I can see are bent backs, worn-out pants seats, leather belts around women’s dresses soaked with sweat, and stretched-out sweaters, completely useless in this heat.
We go in and are assaulted by a deafening tumult. Instinctively, we move closer to one another. There are five of us: Papa, Mama, Charlotte, Rachel, and me. But we’re only one body compared to the ear-splitting mass before us. Pushed from the rear, we move ahead until the doors close behind us: today’s delivery, several dozen people, three busloads.
I never realized that the Vélodrome was so big. I could have never imagined that it contained so many rows of bleachers, so wide and so high. And I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that once all the seats were occupied, the space could continue to be filled with human beings–exactly like stuffing a suitcase with shirts that you’re not afraid of wrinkling. But shirts don’t feel anything. They don’t need air to breathe; they don’t need to stretch their legs or lie down. Whether they’re old or new, it doesn’t matter: They don’t feel pain. For them, human dignity doesn’t exist.
Mama exclaims fearfully, “How many of us are there in here?”
Throughout the month of May, there were rumors around Paris that hundreds of Jews had been arrested. Policemen had knocked on their doors, just like at our house a short while ago, and taken the men away.
Papa commented on the situation, trying to reassure us: “Yes, I know that there are roundups, but they’re not for insignificant people like us. They’re for important Jews—Blum, Mendès France. And it’s the intellectuals that the Germans fear the most. But the rest of us … They’re not threatened by us, the tailors, the painters, the shoemakers, the chair caners, the penniless workers. So it’s logical that we’re not running any risk with them, either!”
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon in the Vélodrome. Papa was wrong. Obviously, since this morning, there have been buses, there have been deliveries of Jews, and not only politicians and university professors. Families like ours, insignificant people like us, plenty of them. We’re among our own kind here, and there are thousands of us.
AFTER THE ROUNDUP
END CHAPTER 3 Part 1
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Forever Alert – German Child Survivors in Action Before 1945 and Beyond by Philipp Sonntag
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