The Righteous of France, the nearly 3,000 individuals who risked their lives to save Jews from mass deportation during the Nazi occupation, were honored by the French nation at a ceremony on January 18. The tribute at the Pantheon in central Paris was led by French President Jacques Chirac, who unveiled a plaque commemorating these heroes of the French Resistance.
“In the worst collapse of our history,” Chirac solemnly affirmed, “great numbers of French men and women were to show that the values of humanism were rooted in their souls. Everywhere, they took in, hid, saved – risking their own lives – children, women, men persecuted because they were Jews.”
Chirac called upon France to continue the work of the Righteous.
“Now more than ever,” he concluded, “we must heed your message: the fight for tolerance and fraternity, against anti-Semitism, discrimination, and racism in all its forms is one which is being fought continually.”
At the ceremony, Chirac called Holocaust denial a “crime against truth” and “an absolute perversion of the soul and the spirit.”
Jacques Chirac was the first French president to acknowledge publicly the French state’s responsibility during the Nazi occupation. The ceremony was the first official tribute to the Righteous of France, whose members are part of the Righteous Among the Nations – the nearly 21,000 non-Jews worldwide credited with saving Jews during the Holocaust.
Simone Veil, president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, former French politician and the first woman president of the European Parliament, also attended the ceremony. Now nearly 80, she has waged a sustained fight against anti-Semitism in France and elsewhere. The daughter of a Jewish architect in Nice, Veil, together with her family, was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 but lived to see the liberation of the camp in January 1945.
In her speech at the Panthéon, she emphasized “that there was the France of Vichy, responsible for the deportation of 77,000 Jews, of whom 11,000 were children, but that there were also all those men and women thanks to whom three-quarters of the Jews of our country escaped the Nazis, the highest proportion in Nazi-occupied Europe.”
A few days later she was at the United Nations in New York to give the opening speech for UN Remembrance Day in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. She met with representatives of the Jewish community in New York and talked about anti-Semitism. She underlined the actions France has taken to keep memory alive.
“There is not a day when we do not think of the Holocaust,” said Veil. “It is not true that we cannot talk about it at school…. We speak about it everywhere. And the children, even at a very young age, are interested. They want to know, to understand.”
On March 3, Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and French movie director Agnes Varda met at the French Consulate in New York with leaders of the Jewish community for the screening of Ms. Varda’s recent movie on the Righteous of France, which will eventually be part of an exhibition in the United States.
Now more than ever, we must heed the message of the Righteous: the fight for tolerance and fraternity, against anti-Semitism, discrimination, and racism in all its forms is one that is continually being fought. Anti-Semitism raged in the 1930’s and 1940’s because it was not condemned firmly enough. Because it was, in a way, tolerated as one opinion among others. That is the lesson of those dark years: if we compromise with extremism, we must realize that we offer it a breeding ground and sooner or later we will pay the price.
Faced with extremism, there is only one attitude: rejection, intransigence and zero tolerance. And we must fight mercilessly against Holocaust denial, a crime against the truth, an absolute perversion of the soul and spirit, the most heinous, most contemptible form of anti-Semitism.
What the Republic’s collapse in June 1940, the tragic illusion of turning to Pétain, and the dishonor of Vichy also teach us is just how fragile a nation is. Today, comfortable in our certainties, many feel that France is eternal, that democracy is natural, that you can boil solidarity and fraternity down to our social security system.