Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Interview with Survivor of the Grande Rafle - Pithviers and Drancy
[Photos added to enhance the text]
“My parents came to Paris from Poland in 1930 and had twelve years of very difficult life. Mother had a grocery, at night she went to Les Halles, and in the morning she did her baking. My father worked in a butchers, they each did an eighteen-hour day.
I had a brother who was much older than I, he was twenty-five, married with a child. He was arrested in 1941 and interned in Pithviers. It begun like that, life was very perturbed.
We sent him parcels – his wife and child had not been taken. I know my sister (Sarah) and I were due to go to a holiday camp by the sea. My parents had bought us each a little suitcase to pack our holiday clothes in, and those suitcases served us for our arrest. I was ten, Sarah was five.
On July 16 the French police knocked at our door and asked us to prepare. We’ll be back to fetch you in two or three hours, they said, we’re taking you for checking your papers.
It is untrue that many people understood what this meant, did not wait for the return of the police, but escaped. It is probable that some policemen did not do it light-heartedly, but very few gave a warning that lives were at risk.
My parents were very religious, observant: they were people of great probity. They decided they would wait – they had done nothing wrong and there was nothing to reproach them with.
So they stayed got dressed, and prepared a small bundle. My father went to the synagogue to fetch a scroll, the Torah, which a pious Jew ought to have on him, if he is going away.
The police returned and took us on foot, about 500 metres to a collecting place in the Rue des Rosiers. We lived in the fourth arrondissement, at 18 Rue Saint-Croix de la Bretonnerie. There we were escorted into buses, along with thousands of children who were crying, and old people, some being dragged in pitiful states of health.
We were driven to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a big arena for bicycling races, and there we remained in the most atrocious conditions. There were a few Red Cross helpers, but we were under the French police.
Rumour and propaganda was out of control, people screamed all night long. Women threw themselves off the top of the stands. I still hear the screams. I can see the scenes today. We stayed there eight days, the conditions were dreadful, the lavatories were the worst, blocked and the smells and the filth was pestilential. There was no room, we were cramped together.
Then we were taken again in buses to the station and piled into cattle trucks, one on top of the other. The journey to Pithviers lasted a few hours. There my father and another brother, age thirteen were separated.
My mother, a sixteen -year old sister the little one and I were put into huts. After two or three weeks there was an assembly, and my mother and sisters saw my father and brother. Their heads had been shaved. That was the departure for Auschwitz.
We were separated again, this just my little sister and me, I can see the roll call of the crowd. My father wore a beard and it had been cut off too – it was an atrocious sight. They were taken off in transports whose destination nobody knew. Not one of them came back.
My sister and I were born in Paris, we had French nationality, and this time they were taking foreign-born Jews. We stayed for weeks with a multitude of children at Pithviers, until we were taken to Drancy, where we lived for some weeks in terrible conditions.
I don’t want to relate the horror of it – sleeping on disgusting mattresses, eating disgusting food which made everyone ill. The diet was a soup composed of things which had no nutrient value, and our intestines couldn’t absorb it.
We were over-run with lice and skin diseases. We must have looked a sight. But we continued to correspond with an uncle outside. He had an Ausweis and tried to free us. It sustained our morale. People did get out occasionally.
Every morning there was a roll call. One day the roll call included us. We were terrorised. The uncle had said he’d fetch us, but we wouldn’t be there for him. We climbed onto the bus. Then I had a reaction – I can’t explain – I took my little sister by the hand and led her back into the camp. She was crying that they would come and shoot us.
The miraculous occurred -a few days later the order to release us arrived. We were taken to the gate of the camp and told we were free. The order might well have come too late.
My uncle crossed into the unoccupied zone. An organisation coping with Jewish orphans had us placed in the Sarthe with peasants who were paid to look after us. We are among the very few who escaped.
As soon as we had been arrested, the French came into our apartment and looted it all. My sister remembers a detail from Drancy. One day I stole a carrot from the kitchen, and I was confined in a cellar. My sister came and shouted down the ventilation shaft, “I want to get you out – get the warden to let you out.”
At Drancy too, we had been searched that day.My mother had slipped me a little ruby before we got there – it must have been all she had. The French searchers found it and said, “Give it here – it’s no business of yours to have a thing like that.”
It was miserable for me to hand over all I had left from my mother.
-Gitla Szapiro nee Rosenblum
Her uncle Haim Rosenblum was also present at the interview and he added:
“On May 14 1941, I was interned at Pithviers. The Prefecture de Police had summoned me for a check of my papers. It was a swindle – they simply laid hands on everybody.
If I’d suspected that they were capable of such behaviour, I’d never have gone. After three months at Pithviers, I got out. I escaped while on a pass.
As an activist and a Zionist I had a lot of contacts. At the Prefecture I knew an Inspecteur Henri. He got me an Ausweis to say that I was called a Wirtschaftswertvoller Jude, or economically valuable Jew, supposedly working in the fur trade.
Some of my family were covered by that Ausweis. My brother had been arrested, and I tried to save him through two Jews who had been brought from Vienna by the Gestapo to supervise Jewish communal life, one of them a friend of mine since before the war.
Then when the big round –up took place, I wanted to save my sister-in-law. I spoke to this man and he said that I was to telephone after tomorrow, which I did, to hear that the parents had already been deported but the two little girls were still there, and on this Ausweis I could get them out.”
Paris in the Third Reich, by David Pryce-Jones, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston New York 1981
Jewish Foundation for the Righteous
French National Archives
Copyright. Chris Webb H.E.A.R.T 2009