Earlier this year, France marked the 70th anniversary of one of the most painful chapters in that country's modern history: The round-up and deportation of more than 13,000 Jews from Paris.
The 1942 operation, known as the Vel d'Hiv, was carried out not by the SS or Nazi storm troopers but by the Paris police. On July 16 and 17, the French authorities rounded up 13,152 Jews in the city and its suburbs. Entire families, including many small children, were forcibly taken from their homes in the early morning hours and transported to the Velodrome d'Hiver, a winter cycling stadium in Paris, where they were held for days without food, water or information as to their fate.
Few of those captured in the raid ultimately survived. Most were deported to various Nazi concentration camps outside of France, including Auschwitz, where they were gassed along with millions of others.
For years the raid was not taught in the history books, and even today in France most young people have no knowledge of the World War II round-up of Paris Jews. A recent survey by the Union of French Jewish Students found that among the general population, only 42 percent of those surveyed had knowledge of the raid. According to the poll, among young people aged 18 to 24, the number of those unschooled about this sordid chapter of the Holocaust could be as high as 60 percent.
In July, French President Francois Hollande apologized on behalf of his country for this "crime committed in France, by France." But if we have learned anything from events in that country this past year, which have included a series of violent anti-Semitic attacks and the targeting of a Jewish school in Toulouse by an armed gunman who killed four people, there remains a powerful imperative for France to do more to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust and the lessons of the round-up are taught and instilled in young people for generations to come.
History lessons are one tool, as is survivor testimony. Yet with the numbers of survivors and witnesses from that era now dwindling, other efforts toward remembrance can help fill the void. Fortunately, the film industry has stepped into that role recently with two powerful films that, while fictionalized, powerfully recreate the events of those terrifying days in 1942 when French gendarme sided with the Nazis and against their fellow neighbors.
La Rafle (The Round Up), a French film directed by Roselyn Bosch, and featuring a stellar cast of French actors including Jean Reno, Melanie Laurent and Gad Emalehm, brings the horrifying events of those days into powerful relief.
The film at first humanizes, and then dramatizes the fate of several of the Jewish families targeted for deportation. We are charmed by their children and their love of life in wartime Paris. We see the best and worst of their neighbors, those who provide advance warning of the raid, those who help speed them on their way, and those who stand by and do nothing.
We are shocked by the suddenness of the raid, and as conditions worsen by the day in the Vel d'Hiv stadium, the scenes of suffering and deprivation are juxtaposed with those of Nazi leaders living lives of ease, while strategizing, along with officials in Vichy, with devastating precision the deportation and extermination of thousands of Jewish civilians.
La Rafle comes on the heels of Sarah's Key, the English-language commercial release produced by The Weinstein Company and based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, which also was based on the events of that period.
Both films are equally important contributions toward restoring the memory of the Paris roundup for a new generation of young people. But La Rafle, which has finally arrived in the United States and is being distributed in theaters here by Menemsha Films, could have a much more lasting and profound impact in France -- not only because it is intended to be both entertaining and educational, but precisely because it was developed with a French audience in mind.
The film looks at the situation at all angles and from various perspectives, from the doomed families, to the priests and neighbors who sheltered children and families, to the Vichy officials who plotted their round-up in consultation with Nazi Germany.
The film arrives in France at an important moment -- on the 70th anniversary of the raid -- and, notably, packaged with a two-hour educational French television program and teaching kit, so that the film can serve as an educational tool for many years to come.
As the years distance us farther away from the Nazi horror, and as the number of survivors and witnesses dwindles, we are faced with the challenge of how to impart the lessons of the Holocaust to new generations. For young people, studying World War II may seem as relevant as studying the Seven Years War.
Now, at a time when young people go online more than they go to the library, they are bombarded by as much disinformation as information. Holocaust deniers would have them believe that there were no concentration camps. Hitler's name is trivialized and his image parodied, stripping the Holocaust of meaning.
La Rafle is a valiant answer to the eroding memory of that time. The round-up -- as experienced by the Jews of France, as seen through the eyes of their innocent children, and as witnessed by a nurse moved by her conscience to help -- is a poignant and bittersweet tribute to the lives lost in this microcosm of Hitler's Final Solution.