There is a journalist in London, quite a well-known figure and author of several books, who once began an article in a leading magazine with the sentence, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the destruction of Israel.” This is exactly what the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad likes to repeat whenever he gets the chance. At a literary occasion this week, I happened to run into this English journalist, and the very next day, by coincidence, I was invited to a press showing of La Rafle, or The Round Up, a French feature film dramatizing the German campaign to destroy the Jews in wartime France.
If our journalist and the ayatollahs had their way, then there would be more atrocious scenes of the kind shown in this very sobering film. Of course one cannot help wondering what the would-be Iranian mass-murderers owe emotionally or ideologically to the actual European mass-murderers of the Second World War.
For a long time the French have been unable or unwilling to face their collaboration with the occupying Nazis. Marcel Ophuls’ pioneering film Le Chagrin et la Pitié was for years virtually boycotted. The films Au revoir les Enfants and Lucien Lacombe broke the taboo, and French historians at last began to research occupation and collaboration. The Round Up is based on the reality of the first mass arrest of Jews in Paris in July 1942. The Germans did not have the manpower or the desk-work intelligence for this, but relied on the French authorities, the police and the transport systems, to do it for them. The Vichy politicians, Marshal Pétain and Prime Minister Laval, are depicted in this film as the deliberate accomplices in crime that they were. Jean Leguay was a civil servant who organized the eventual deportations to Auschwitz, and he too is portrayed here truthfully. He’s the sole Frenchman ever accused of crimes against humanity, but he managed to escape justice. When I interviewed him for my book Paris in the Third Reich he was still trying to excuse and justify himself.
Annette Monod was a heroic and devoted nurse, a Protestant assigned by the Red Cross to help the Jews. Her eye-witness account of that July round up and deportation is a moving document in itself, and serves as the peg for the film — Melanie Laurent impersonates her beautifully and the well-known actor Jean Reno magisterially plays the part of the Jewish doctor with whom she works. In the film, as in real life, children were separated from their parents, and deported by themselves, some too young to know their names. This horror could not be hidden completely. Pastor Boegner, head of the Protestant church, protested to Laval who knowingly lied that the children were to be agricultural workers in Poland. Boegner left a rebuke which should be remembered, “Je lui parlais meurtre, il me répondait jardinage,” that is, “I was speaking to him of murder, he answered about gardening.”
And here they go again, speaking as though the destruction of this whole people were a perfectly normal process that anyone might anticipate.