C’étaient des enfants

I’ve gotten in the habit of checking out the special exhibits at the Hôtel de Ville because they are always excellent – and free. (Each quarter (Arrondissement) has its own city hall, but this is the central one for all of Paris.) This year’s exhibit, however, had me on the brink of tears throughout. C’étaient des enfants (seteh dayz ohnfahn) means “They were children.” The exhibit, which runs until October 27, 2012, honors the memory of all the children in Paris who were rounded-up and sent off to camps during the Nazi occupation and the Vichy collaboration.


Seventy years ago this month, le rafle de Vel d’Hiv took place; this was the first of several massive sweeps of Parisian Jews and it was the first that targeted whole families instead of “just” adult males (14,000 on this one occasion). The exhibit focuses on images, letters, and official documents, and memorabilia of the children who vanished in these purges. At the end of each paragraph about a particular child, they repeated the same phrase: “Il avait six ans,” (He was six years old) or “Elle avait onze ans” (She was 11 years old). One photograph in particular moved me; it was a kindergarten class of 26 little girls – all of whom died in the camps. Gone. Forever. They were basically the same age as my parents during the war, but they didn’t get the chance to grow up and have children and grandchildren of their own.

There were displays of little gifts that people in the camps made for their children who were left behind, like the little doll bed here. There were also examples of toys that children somehow made in the camps, like an array of hand-made paper dolls and dresses with little rooms drawn that represented life on the other side of the barbed wire. None of the little paper dresses had yellow stars, unlike the dresses on the children in the photos or the actual little dress in a display case. Did you know that the Jews had to buy their own stars to sew on their clothing? Since most of the men had been taken in the earliest days of the war, the wage earner was gone, so the need to buy the detested stars to sew on one’s own clothing really added insult to injury. (They could also make their own, but they had to be exactly perfect or there were repercussions.)

enfants juifsThere was a more positive side to the exhibit as well. Those people who courageously put themselves in harm’s way to protect Jewish children were celebrated. Thanks to many brave people, 80 percent of the Jewish children of Paris did survive the war. The exhibit also recounted the post-war experience of the children who survived. But even the survivors were a mess in many cases. They felt guilty for having made it through when every member of their family did not. This isn’t a light, fun exhibit, but it is extremely poignant. My only criticism is that it is exclusively in French, so those who aren’t fluent will be excluded from appreciating it fully.

Betrayal at the Vel d’Hiv’

About Patricia Gilbert

Patricia Gilbert is a French teacher. She's Canadian, lives in the United States, but dreams of living in France. Follow her on Instagram @Onequalitythefinest and on Twitter @1qualthefinest.
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7 Responses to C’étaient des enfants

  1. I won my fellowship in Paris from a man who was a leader in the Resistance, Philippe Viannay. It is an amazing story and makes us North Americans realize how lucky we were to be so distant from these horrors.

  2. I wish I was in France to see this exhibit.

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