France races to record memory of Jewish roundup

STORY: When the Paris police came knocking on July 16, 1942, Joseph Schwartz, then 15 years old, was no longer at home.

Forewarned, he and his father Lejbus had gone into hiding.

Earlier roundups of French Jews had only targeted men, so he assumed his mother Ruchla and younger brother Paul would be safe.

But the net had widened. That day and the next, entire families were snatched from their homes in the largest mass detention of Jewish people by French police in collaboration with Nazi occupiers.

Among them were Ruchla, Paul and Lejbus, who turned himself in to police, hoping it would spare his wife and child. Joseph would never see them again.

“I didn’t know where to go. I was in an altered state, I didn’t know where I was at. You leave your parents one day, everything is fine. They kiss you, they tell you, ‘take care of yourself,’ and the day after, there is nobody left.”

Around 13,000 people were taken to the Winter Velodrome south of Paris before being sent to concentration camps across Europe.

As France commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv roundup, authorities are in a race against time to collect witness accounts from elderly survivors like Schwartz.

“There aren't many of us left, people my age. I was 15 at the time, I am 95 now.”

The Shoah Memorial in Paris, which collects archives on France's holocaust victims, has launched an appeal to reach the last witnesses and survivors.

Though many stories have been lost, they keep coming in, says Lior Lalieu-Smadja, who is head of documentation.

“It’s a bit crazy because we always think we’re done obtaining documents. At the memorial, we have millions of archives, thousands of photographs, but documents keep coming in. The last witnesses we had were people who had never talked about it - we’re 80 years after the events, and we can wonder, ‘Do they still have memories of all that?’ Yes, they still have memories of all that, it’s extremely fresh.”

Looking back on it now, the thing that shocks Schwartz most is the fact that the police were granted medals for resistance after the liberation of Paris.

"Preserving the memory is always necessary for a nation. Hiding the dark days of a country brings nothing to the future of that country."

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