Auschwitz’s antechamber

The point of departure for condemned French Jews was the banal banlieue of Drancy, outside Paris

Rosie Whitehouse

In a country with the world’s third-largest Jewish population, surging hostility is spreading alarm. President Emmanuel Macron warns that anti-Semitism in France is at its highest level since the Second World War. And yet as that conflict fades from living memory, the critical need to preserve the record of the more than 70,000 Jewish men, women and children who were deported to Nazi death camps has proved a challenge.

I discovered this first-hand, last year, when retracing the steps of Edith Müller. My husband’s grandmother, in whose memory we named our daughter, was one of 63,000 Jews deported from the transit camp in the Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis.

Ten miles northeast of Paris, this banlieue in France’s 93rd department grew up around 19th-century factories conveniently at arm’s length from the elegant Parisian boulevards. To this day, for most Parisians, the 93rd means decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment and Muslims. It is best avoided.

Across the road from the bus stop at Drancy stand, incongruously, three giant granite columns. Behind them is a wooden wagon on a short piece of railway. The pillars were put up in 1977; the cattle car was added 14 years later. Few memorials could be more unassuming: nothing explains to the passer-by that this was the antechamber of Auschwitz; the descendants of France’s Jewry looking for a public commemoration of their ancestors’ tragic fate must travel to Jerusalem, where the name “Drancy” is engraved on the floor of the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.

A stone’s throw away, a U-shaped, grimy low-rise housing estate stretches around a small green. It is called, appropriately, the Cité de la Muette, the City of Silence. The green has replaced the exercise yard, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, where guards lined up the Jews before deporting them to the extermination camps. Among them, in October 1943, was Edith Müller.

The housing estate now comprises over 500 residents, mostly immigrants from Africa, nearly all single. Back in 1943, the unfinished 29m2 studios housed up to 50 people although they are now deemed too small for families. Originally designed as a workers’ paradise, Drancy was only completed by the municipal authorities during the post-war housing crisis. The first free residents arrived in 1948.

Apart from modern PVC-framed windows, little has changed. The stairwells are filthy and the paint on the stairs is badly scuffed. Some walls still bear graffiti carved by the Jewish prisoners. An abandoned mattress lies not far from the stairwell where Max Jacob, the poet and painter, died. In 1943, sanitation was dire: many perished of hunger and disease. The ground floor units, intended as shops, doctor’s surgeries and nurseries, are mostly boarded up. Everything is in disrepair.

The Cité de la Muette became a national monument in 2001 but remembering the Holocaust here is not easy. A small museum, the Mémorial de la Shoah Drancy, a sister organisation of the main Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, opened opposite the estate in 2012. Though the design was chosen to be “neither flashy nor arrogant” according to its director, Jacques Frei, locals complained that the past was attracting more interest than their present problems.  Visitors can look down on the Cité de la Muette through large glass windows, a step away from reality. “A transparent place,” Frei called it. Indeed, it is so discreet, we almost missed it.

I park on the verge of a noisy main road. Empty cans and excrement litter the ground around some derelict but inhabited caravans. A small steep staircase hidden by the trees leads down to Bobigny station. It is fenced off; the door is locked. Further along on the bridge over the wide railway junction, plaques describe how 22,453 Jews were deported to Auschwitz from here between 1943 and 1944.

Below the bridge is the station built in 1928, its doors bricked up and windows boarded. In 2016, Bobigny council announced a €2.5m (£2.1m) renovation project to transform the site into a major Holocaust memorial. An appeal was made for €480,000 in private donations but only €30,000 was raised. The project stalled.

It is hard for local councils to justify spending the money on memorials, the writer Pierre Assouline explains: “There are many Muslims. They are immigrants and this is not their story . . . they don’t want to know.” Nor is the Jewish community united. “It is predominantly Sephardi from North Africa, like me, and this is also not their story, in the way it is yours.”

My husband’s grandmother spent almost a month in Drancy. Karen Taieb, the archivist at the Paris Mémorial of the Shoah, says she may have been arguing against her imprisonment: her carte d’identité did not have the tell-tale “J” for juive stamped on it. I like to think of her arguing with Nazis.

An index card shows she was imprisoned in stairwell 10, room 1. The number is crossed out and replaced by 9,2: the room where she was held the night before the deportation. 

On the morning of October 28, 1943, 20 buses on loan from the Paris Métro drove 1,000 prisoners, Müller among them, from Drancy to Bobigny station. One of the few people to survive this, Roger Perelman, says guards with barking dogs herded the Jews into the cattle trucks.

Prisoners were loaded into the wagons in groups of 50 in alphabetical order. The journey took three days and nights. Müller travelled with a magazine seller from Livorno, a woman born in Oswięcim, and a pretty four-year-old called Arlette Orenstein, the youngest. Three were selected to work but did not survive the war. Everyone else was gassed on arrival, as was Edith Müller. She was 46.

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