Film Review: The Roundup
Uncommon Valor: A Tale of Two Heroes
On June 16, 1942, French police enthusiastically rounded up Jewish men, women and children, incarcerated them in the velodrome in the center of Paris for three days, then sent them by French rail to assorted concentration camps. The day has come to be known as the Vel d’Hiv, and it recently became the subject of a moving feature film called La Rafle (The Roundup). Author and director Rose Bosch, formerly an investigative journalist, spent two and a half years researching the Vel d’Hiv, and she included in her script many of the stories she uncovered in her research.
One of these was the story of Captain Henri Pierret. As head of the Fire Department, Pierret was ordered to appear at the velodrome on June 16, though he didn’t know why. He was surprised to find it cordoned off by scores of French riot police and an unidentifiable, but sinister, battalion of shadowy men in raincoats and hats. He passed through without incident, but when he entered the stadium he was greeted with the sight of 13,000 of his countrymen suffocating in the stifling heat, deprived of water for drinking, bathing and sanitation. Some had typhoid—French policemen eager to exceed the quotas set by the Nazis had grabbed them from the hospitals where they were being treated.
Pierret was outraged by what he saw, and he ordered his firefighters to uncoil the water hoses in order to supply the captives with desperately needed water. A lieutenant from the riot police immediately ordered him to fold the hoses back up. According to one firefighter who was there that morning, Pierret responded, with quiet fury, “In the absence of my superiors, I am in charge of fire safety here, and I am ordering you to step back and leave.” The lieutenant did as he was told, and Pierret demanded that the hoses be turned on.
Pierret didn’t stop there. When he discovered that his firefighters had secretly collected thousands of hastily scribbled notes, promising to deliver them to the families of the incarcerated Jews, Pierret granted his men a one-day leave, along with subway tickets, so that they might safely mail the letters from outside Paris. For his bravery, Pierret received the French Legion of Honor in 1950.
A young Jewish Pole and mother of five, though undecorated, was certainly no less brave. (Her grandchildren requested that her name remain undisclosed.) Like many Jewish families that lived east of Montmartre, this young woman and her husband had come to Paris 20 years earlier from a shtetl in Poland. They lived on the fourth flour of a shabby building and shared the bathroom down the hall with other, similar families.
In the days preceding the roundup, it had been rumored that police would take only Jewish men, so this young woman agreed to remain in the apartment with the children while her husband went into hiding. When, on the morning of July 16, she was awakened at 4:00 a.m. by the sounds of police vans and brutal shouts of “Get up! Get out!” she realized the French police were coming for her and her children, too.
Calmly, she gathered her children and told them that she was jumping out the window. She then instructed them to follow her. Terrified, the children refused. She did a quick calculation: Assuming the police wouldn’t deport children without their parents, she said to the eldest, a girl, “When they come, ask if you can take your brothers and sisters to the bathroom—then run as fast as you can.” Once she knew that her daughter understood her instructions, she turned away and jumped, ready to sacrifice her life.
The children were screaming in horror when the police arrived. Somehow, the eldest managed to remember her mother’s instructions and got permission to take her siblings to the bathroom at the end of the hall. From there the children rushed down the stairs to safety. Friendly neighbors brought them to Assistance Publique, who placed them in orphanages, where they were given French names to hide their true identities. Their mother had been right; without a parent, they were not deported.
Astonishingly enough, this woman’s self-sacrifice cost her only two broken hips. She was whisked away to the hospital, where she was allowed to stay under the care of a brilliant orthopedic surgeon. A year later she could walk again, but to little good; she was put on the list for deportation. Once more, her orthopedic surgeon came to the rescue: A member of the Resistance, he helped her escape.
She hid for the remainder of the war, making her way back to her old apartment after liberation. Unlike nicer flats, which were usurped when their Jewish owners were deported, hers had remained empty. Alone, she settled in—and that’s when she received the greatest miracle of all. Each of her five children came home, to be reunited with the brave young mother who had jumped out the window to save their lives.