Drancy is a suburb northeast of Paris. On the road that connects the capital to the Charles de Gaulle Airport, travelers might notice the exit leading to it. In all likelihood few nowadays would know that during the German Occupation of France, a vast, half-built housing complex in the small town was a concentration camp for Jews. The camp assumed the name of the suburb, and for the Jews of France, the name Drancy evoked horror and dread.
From a historical perspective, the importance of the Drancy prison cannot be overstated. Almost all of the seventy-nine convoys from France to death camps, usually Auschwitz, March 1942 to July 1944, were loaded and left from Drancy. They account for about 67,000 of the approximately 76,000 Jewish men, women and children in France who were deported from France during World War II. Of those, approximately 73,600 were murdered, most within days after arrival.
To the prisoners, Drancy undoubtedly appeared to be a thoroughly French institution, and in most respects, that was an accurate perception. Although conceived and requisitioned by German officials, the Drancy prison camp was French in virtually all other respects. The police who guarded (the Prefecture of Police, Paris) and administered (the Prefecture of the Seine) the camp were French. Until the arrival of Aloïs Brunner in June 1943, the third SS officer to take command of Drancy, prisoners encountered few if any Germans. It was French police who imprisoned, and even arranged and supervised the deportation of the hapless Jewish inmates.
Seriously ill prisoners might have been sent to Drancy’s infirmary, where doctors and nurses, themselves Jewish prisoners, did the best they could with a minimum of equipment and supplies, under the direction of a hostile non-Jewish French doctor from the Prefecture. Some of the gravely ill, weak, or elderly were transferred to the Rothschild Hospital on the rue Santerre in Paris’ XIIth arrondissement. Most pregnant women prisoners were sent to Rothschild to give birth, then returned to Drancy and deported six months later with the newborn infants.
Drancy has been rightly called the “antechamber of Auschwitz,” and the Rothschild Hospital was Drancy’s annex.
Some historians and survivors describe the Rothschild Hospital during the war as a concentration camp. Guards were stationed there, barbed wire was installed, doors and windows were barred, and punitive measures were adopted to prevent escapes. Here too, French police, not German soldiers, served as both guards and disciplinarians. And when there were periodic roundups at the hospital, it was Frenchmen, not Germans, who forcibly returned Jewish patients to Drancy, from where they were later sent to the death camps. Some of those taken from the hospital were doctors and workers suspected of aiding escapes or committing minor infractions of Vichy law. But most were elderly patients, or infants and children.
At no time during the German Occupation did Germans provide surveillance at the hospital. On the occasions that high ranking SS officers in Paris visited the hospital – for example, Theodor Dannecker, Ernst Heinrichsohn and Aloïs Brunner – the results were disastrous, as will be explained below.
The story of the Rothschild Hospital is a microcosm of the story of the Jews of France under German Occupation and the Vichy government. The Jewish population in France at the end of 1940 was about 330,000, or which 195,000 were French citizens and the remaining 135,000 non-citizen immigrants. It is deeply ironic that France, the first European country formally to emancipate Jews by decree in 1791, reversed course in 1940 and 1941 by enacting racial laws that rescinded or drastically reduced Jew’s freedoms. Many who had immigrated to France to escape persecution in their native countries were among the first to be deported from France to their deaths. Indeed, in the end, many of the long established, assimilated French Jews – Israelites they called themselves – were not spared. Almost a quarter of France’s Jews died in the Holocaust, and of these, about half were French citizens Jews and about half were non-citizen immigrants.
Without the direct, indeed enthusiastic complicity of the Vichy government, French officials and French police, this disgraceful destruction of humanity could not and would not have occurred. It clearly should not have occurred. It is an indelible mark of shame in the history of France.