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France remembers its horror of sending 13,000 Jews to Nazi death camps during Vel d’Hiv deportations

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Family by family, house by house, French police rounded up 13,000 people in central Paris on two terrifying days in July 1942. Then they sent them to Nazi death camps simply because they were Jewish.

Eight decades later, France is honouring the victims and trying to keep their memory alive.

A week of ceremonies marking 80 years since the Vel d’Hiv police roundup on 16-17 July 1942 ended on Sunday with a speech by President Emmanuel Macron at the railway station where the Jews were sent to their deaths in Nazi Germany.

The raids were among the most shameful acts undertaken by France during World War II and one of the darkest moments in its history.

Over those two days, police herded 13,152 people -- including 4,115 children -- into the Winter Velodrome of Paris, known as the Vel d’Hiv, before being sent to Nazi camps.

It was the most extensive roundup of members of the Jewish community in western Europe. The children were separated from their families, and only a very few survived.

Survivors ask, 'Can you imagine?'

In public testimonies over the past week, survivor Rachel Jedinak described a middle-of-the-night knock on the door, and being marched through the streets of Paris and herded into the velodrome in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

She recalled her desperate mother shouting at the police. Some neighbours informed on Jews, while others wept as they watched them corralled like livestock, she said.

Chantal Blaszka’s aunts and uncle were among the children rounded up: 6-year-old Simon, 9-year-old Berthe, and 15-year-old Suzanne. Their names are now engraved on a monument in a garden where the velodrome once stood, along with some 4,000 other children targeted in the raids.

Photos of the children hang from tree trunks, the result of years of painstaking research to identify and honour the long-anonymous victims.

Of the children deported from the winter velodrome in Paris where they were gathered, only six survived.

"Can you imagine?" Blaszka asked, pointing at the names and shaking her head. "Can you imagine?"

Serge Klarsfeld, a renowned Nazi hunter whose father was deported to Auschwitz, spoke on Saturday in the garden, calling it an "earth-shaking testimony to the horrors lived by Jewish families."

He stressed the urgency of passing on living memory. "The youngest of us are in our 80s," he said of the children of deportees.

Anxiety has worsened for some since the far-right National Rally party made a surprising electoral breakthrough last month, winning a record 89 seats in France’s National Assembly.

Party co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has been convicted of racism and downplaying the Holocaust. His daughter Marine, who now leads the party, has distanced herself from her father’s positions, but the party’s past still raises concerns for many Jews.

"The policy, from 1942 onward, was to organize the murder of the Jews of Europe and therefore to organize the deportation of the Jews of France," said Jacques Fredj, director of the Paris Shoah Memorial.

"Most of the time, the decisions were made by the Nazis and implemented by the French administration," he said. "But the management was French, Gendarmes or policemen were managing and supervising."

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