"The greatest tragedies are those that were wholly avoidable." In an era replete with events that fall within those parameters, none fits the above definition more than the fate of the children of Pithiviers and Beaune-La-Rolande in the summer of 1942.
To understand the context in which this tragedy played out, one must briefly describe the situation in France in July 1942. The Vichy Government was, perhaps, the most assiduous of all administrations in Western Europe in co-operating with Nazi Germany with regard to its Jewish community.
During 1942 alone, according to author Serge Klarsfeld, some 6,000 children, of ages ranging from two to 17 were deported to Auschwitz, and it is to be noted that some of these had not even been requested by the Germans. The great deportations of 12,884 Jews concentrated in the sports centre known as the Veledrome d'Hiver had already taken place, starting with deportation trains from Drancy, known as the "Antechamber to Auschwitz," on July 19.
At the same time, one must point out that the original plan for the Vel d'Hiv round-up envisaged the arrest and deportation of 25,000 Jews. That only half the number were caught is due to a variety of reasons, not least the prior leaking of the plan by sympathetic French police, who gave advance warning to the proposed victims, announcing, in some cases, that they proposed to return in a "couple of hours" to arrest them.
And this brings us to one of the most important conclusions when one examines the French Jewish experience. It is as well to recall, before one rushes to a stoop on the moral high ground, that France, though occupied partially for two and a half years and wholly for another two, had the highest survival record of almost any country in Western Europe. Around 250,000 out of 330,000 Jews - about 76 per cent - survived . Only Denmark (around 85 to 90 per cent) and Italy (32,000 or 84 per cent) enjoyed better records, though these involved far fewer people overall.
With the deportation clock inexorably ticking away, the children were being talked to death
It is a level of survival that can only be explained by reference, not just to many of those in authority, especially gendarmes and police, "turning a blind eye" to Vichy's orders, but to the willingness of thousands of ordinary French people to take considerable risks to hide and help Jews "on the run".
Thus, while the activity of the French police was characterised in most cases by the diligent carrying out of the orders of Vichy or the Germans, there were many honourable exceptions. In the 16th arrondissement of Paris, Commissaire Le Brun and 15 of his police officers dished out some 5,000 false identity cards to Jews who had been marked for deportation. This is what historians mean when they describe the French story as "a mixed picture".
So by July 1942 there were, in two camps in the Loiret area called Pithiviers and Beaune-La-Rolande, some 1,800 French Jewish childrenaged from three to 16, whose parents had already been deported to Auschwitz. These children were left unsupervised and living in condtions of indescribable dirt and squalor. There is little doubt that they were destined for deportation. Indeed, this is one of those cases when Vichy, and in particular Pierre Laval, the prime minister, was asking the Germans, who had not yet asked for the children, to do so.
The existence of these children came to the attention of Admiral William Leahy, the United States ambassador to Vichy France. The US, as far as Vichy France was concerned was in an anomalous position. It had been at war with Germany since December 11 1941, but still had full diplomatic relations with Vichy France. Indeed, it was the US who were literally keeping the French alive with huge exports of food, thereby preventing starvation. As a consequence, Vichy was extremely sensitive to American wishes. It was in these circumstances that, in July 1942, the Americans asked Vichy not to deport the children (all this is fully documented in Professor Bernard Wasserstein's book, Britain and the Jews of Europe).
They then approached the British government with a proposal that, if the British would agree to send a ship to Marseilles, under seal of safe conduct, the Vichy authorities would transport the children there and embark them, bound for Britain. (There was also an understanding that, when the Atlantic Ocean was a little safer from U-boat attacks, the US would take some of the children).
The British government in response (not untypically) set up a committee, under the chairmanship of Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, to examine the proposal. The committee contained representatives of all the relevant government ministries.
To be fair, the summer of 1942 was not a very good time for Britain. In North Africa, Tobruk had fallen, and Rommel was barely 70 miles from Cairo. In Russia, the sixth army was well on its way to Stalingrad and the Caucasus; the Japanese stood at the gates of India, and in the Atlantic, U-boats were having a field day.
Against this, there was a sober appreciation that things might change quickly. The British and American governments knew that a major operation (Operation "Torch") would bring allied landings in Algeria and Morocco, a thousand miles to the rear of Rommel, which would hugely change the balance of forces against him, provided he could be held at El Alamein.
And there was something else. There was, by July 1942, the sure knowledge that the "final solution" involving the mass murder of all the Jews of Europe was well underway. The deliberations of this committee have to be seen in the context of the statement by Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, to the House of Commons, barely four months after the discussions were begun, informing the house that four million Jews had already perished. What was wholly known in December could not possibly have been wholly unknown in July or August.
Notwithstanding all this, the opening positions taken by the members of the committee were appalling. Morrison set the tone by stating that he understood the mind-set of the average Briton bette than anyone, and the arrival of 1,800 Jewish children at this time would lead to a considerable increase in antisemitism, of which, he said, there was a fair amount just below the surface), and this would be bad for the country and for the Jewish community".
This was bettered by the next contributor, who stated that if Britain took these orphans, what was to stop the Germans quickly making another 1,800 orphans, "which we would also have to take". The use of that particular word made it crystal clear that the committee knew perfectly well that deportation meant, quite simply, extermination.
What is quite amazing is that people from the Home Office, who had been hugely helpful, in the era 1933 tp 1939, in assisting in getting thousands of German and Austrian Jews, and especially Jewish Children into Britian, now sat silent or adopted negative attitudes, when deciding whether or not to admit these 1800 French Jewish Children.
A nd so this litany of reasons for inaction continued to be recited in the fortnightly meetings of the committee. Huge efforts were made by people like Otto Schiff and his friends at the Central British Fund to change their minds, but it was to no avail. With the deportation clock inexorably ticking away, the children were being talked to death.
And then, sometime at the end of September, or at the latest, at the beginning of October, the British government changed its mind. The Colonial Office began to badger the High Commissioner for Palestine to take the children. Arrangements were made for the children to be at Marseilles in the third week of November.
But all this was too late. On November 8 and 9 the Allies landed in Algeria and Morocco and, without waiting for protestations of loyalty from Marechal Petain, on the November 11 Hitler ordered the military occupation of Vichy France, thereby making the rescue of the children impossible. Predictably, they perished in Auschwitz in 1943.
Which still leaves one question unanswered; what caused the British government to finally change its mind? Part of the answer and perhaps a major part emerged in a casual conversation between myself and a former Jewish Chronicle reporter, Golda Zimmerman, sometime in the spring of 1995.
Zimmerman, who had a huge knowledge of the religious establishment, lived then in Canfield Gardens in West Hampstead, opposite the Sara Klausner synagogue, known now as the Hampstead Shtiebel; where she religiously prepared canapés for the substantial kiddush every Saturday morning:
In January 1995 I had helped to stage an event, the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, at which I drew public attention to the story of the children of Pithiviers. Later that year she said she was pleased that I had done that, and then added: "By the way I know much more about that matter than you seem to do."
I asked for an explanation; she replied thus: "I heard this story from Dayan Grunfeld, who heard it from Chief Rabbi Hertz in 1942". Sometime in September 1942, the chief rabbi asked for a meeting with the Anthony Eden and informed him that he was due to go to the US sometime in November on a lecture tour. He then said: "I have learned about the appalling delay in deciding the fate of the children of Pithiviers, and unless something is done immediately, I intend to denounce the British government in the United States, publicly, and in Times Square if necessary!"
According to Zimmerman, Eden then replied: "But my dear Chief Rabbi, you cannot possibly do that. You are, after all, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire and Commonwealth, and as such, it is impossible for you to do what you have suggested".
C hief Rabbi Hertz then replied: "You are quite right, and if we were being treated fairly, I could not and would not do it. But, in this instance, we are not being treated fairly, and unless you change your policy, I shall do as I have said I would."
This may not have been the only reason for the change of policy, but it was certainly a reason. Chief Rabbi Hertz, along with his son-in-law, Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, was hugely committed to the rescue of Jews and Jewish children, and moreover was known as someone who never made idle threats. I believe this conversation concentrated the Government's mind.
In 1998, I found myself standing in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, looking at the French section and lost in thought. I noticed a man standing next to me, a tall grey-haired American tourist, complete with camera and shoulder bag. He asked me if I was interested in the French section and when I said I was, he then asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. I said I was interested in the children of Pithiviers. He then said: "Would you like to meet one?".
I thought I was talking to a ghost. The expression "ud mutzal-me'esh" - a brand plucked from the fire - came to mind. He explained that he and three other boys aged about 14 and 15 had heard of some rescue project but when it dragged on, fearing the worst, they decided to run for it, toward the Spanish border. "But that's at least 600 miles," I said, and asked how they had managed it. "We were passed from family to family," he replied. "We had some help, reached Spain and from there got to America."
President Hollande recently described the treatment of the Jews of France in the years between 1940 and 1945 as "a crime committed in France, by France". But there were also acts of redemption.