A Muted Anniversary: Are Europeans Forgetting the Holocaust?

Limited public and media reaction to news events rooted in World War II atrocities raises concerns that societies may be starting to forget the dark, hard lessons of the Holocaust

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Some 13,152 Jews were removed from their homes in Paris by police forces in July 1942 and taken in buses to the Vel d'Hiv cycling stadium in southwestern Paris

On Monday, France marked the 70th anniversary of the notorious July 1942 roundup and deportation of over 13,000 Jews in Paris. That so-called Vel d’Hiv operation was one of the biggest wartime mass arrests in France — sweeps that collectively sent around 76,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps. The vast majority of those deportees never returned.

The Vel d’Hiv roundup occupies a uniquely dark place in France’s somber occupation history. In 1995, then President Jacques Chirac stunned the nation by reversing the previous official French position of blaming Vel d’Hiv on German forces that controlled most of France at the time. The Nazis in charge, that view held, compelled French officials and police to enforce Germany’s anti-Jewish edicts. Instead, Chirac acknowledged Vel d’Hiv as having been the responsibility of the French officials who ordered the operation on their own and used obedient Paris police officers to carry it out. “France, on that very day, accomplished the irreparable,” Chirac said as he recognized the role of French officials — and thereby the French state — in assisting Nazi persecution of Jews. “[France] delivered those she was to protect to their murderers.”

Yet not only has the thunderbolt of Chirac’s speech been largely forgotten by many in France today; so too has Vel d’Hiv itself. According to a poll published on Monday, about 42% of French people don’t know what Vel d’Hiv refers to or about the roundup it describes. The level of awareness drops with age — despite the fact that the history of France’s occupation, and Vel d’Hiv in particular, is a major topic in French education. Fifty-seven percent of people ages 25 to 34 said they were unaware of the Vel d’Hiv roundup — a majority segment that rose to 60% for 18-to-24-year-olds and 67% for people ages 15 to 17.

Some French polling experts caution that testing name recognition of historical events often produces misleadingly low scores compared with actual (albeit vague) knowledge. Some pundits also noted it isn’t stunning the overall awareness score was weighed down by responses from younger people who were children or not yet born when Chirac’s recognition of Vel d’Hiv as a fully French crime stunned France. But Holocaust historian and French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld seems to view that as part of a wider process of individuals — and societies — allowing even the most important and dramatic lessons for humanity to dim as their immediacy grows more remote through time.

“History no longer has much importance,” Klarsfeld told Europe 1 radio on Monday, criticizing the waning emphasis on history instruction in schools. “Before, people learned [history] by heart, memorized dates. Today, that’s changed … The tragedy of Vel d’Hiv will take its place in history alongside that of St. Bartholomew.”

Klarsfeld also noted the minimalist public response to the July 15 news that the world’s most wanted World War II criminal had finally been located in his native Hungary. The Simon Wiesenthal Center revealed on Sunday that 97-year-old Laszlo Csatary — who has been accused of complicity in the deaths of nearly 15,7000 deported Jews — had been identified residing in a Budapest apartment. Csatary has reportedly lived openly in Hungary since 1997, when he returned home after Canada revoked his citizenship. During the war, Csatary allegedly served as a police officer in the Slovakian city of Kosice. He has been charged and tried in absentia with a wide variety of war crimes committed in Kosice, where he acted as an official commanding the Jewish ghetto.

Oddly, however, word that the most wanted World War II fugitive had been tracked down generated relatively little attention in the media. It also prompted little public reaction in Europe, where scars from the war are often still apparent and sensitive. A lot of European coverage that did arise was based on the secondary concern that Hungary’s current right-wing government may be unwilling to deliver Csatary to justice. Those worries grew stronger when Csatary vanished after British reporters — acting in partnership with the Simon Wiesenthal Center — confronted the fugitive at his two-room apartment on Sunday. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly defied the E.U., which worries about his commitment to democracy. Many observers fear that Orban may shelter Csatary rather than hand him over. “I am not sure there will be legal action taken by this conservative government,” Klarsfeld told the AFP.

Klarsfeld added that he didn’t expect any public outcry to arise in Europe to force Hungary to deliver what he called a “subaltern” Nazi collaborator to international justice. With all the most notorious World War II criminals having either been convicted or reported dead while in hiding, Klarsfeld suspects people now generally view remaining fugitives from that era like Csatary as murderous lackeys now too old to bother with. “Thirty years ago, he would have been 3,500th on the list,” Klarsfeld said. “In my opinion, he did not have major responsibilities, he must have been a stooge.”

A stooge who may have the blood of over 15,000 deported victims on his hands.