Paris: Monuments to the Deportation to the Velodrome d'Hiver
by Samuel S. Gruber
Paris is a city of monuments - some better known than others. In 1993, a monument was created to commemorate the round-up of 14,000 Jews in Paris and their detainment in the Vélodrome d'Hiver an indoor velodrome (cycle track) at the corner of the boulevard de Grenelle and the rue Nélaton in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Eiffel Tower. The deportees, many of whom were women and children, were held in the velodrome for several days before their deportation to transit camps, leading in turn to their removal to Auschwitz, and their deaths.
In 1959, a fire destroyed part of the Vélodrome d'Hiver, and the rest was demolished. A block of flats and a building belonging to the Ministry of the Interior now stand on the site. Since then, a series of markers have been installed in the area to remember the deportation and commemorate the victims. In 1959, a recent plaque that was placed on the track building was moved to new structure at 8 boulevard de Grenelle. This commemorative plaque, seen below, facing the Bir-Hakeim métro station, mentioned for the first time the numbers and fate of Jews who were held inside the Vélodrome d'Hiver.
On 3 February 1993, the President, François Mitterrand, commissioned a monument to be erected on the edge of the quai de Grenelle. Near where the Velodrome d'HIV stood.
Polish-born Holocaust survivor Walter Spitzer was engaged as the sculptor and Mario Azagury the architect. This is added a Holocaust-themed sculptural work to the already rich commemorative landscape of Paris that includes scores of figural sculptures recalling people, places and events of the past.
In 1943 Spitzer, when 16, was deported to the Blechhammer camp, a subcamp of Auschwitz – Birkenau.I He survived in part by making portraits and drawings which he traded for bread. He also made clandestine drawings of forced labor, but most of these did not survive. In January 1945, he was part of the death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald, where he was liberated. In late 1945 Spitzer relocated to Paris, where he studied at the Academie des Beaux-Arts. Spitzer attributed his survival to drawing. In his autobiography, Sauver par le dessein, he writes that at Buchenwald, he was summoned to appear before the German (anti-Nazi) political prisoner in charge of his barracks who he stuck him from the transport list when Spitzer promised, if he survived, to “tell with your pencils all you have seen here.” http://rogallery.com/Spitzer_Walter/spitzer-biography.html
The Paris statue refers to all deportees but especially commemorates the victims of the Vel' d'Hiv. The figural sculptural group emphasizes children, and includes a pregnant woman and a sick man. The curved concrete shell on which the bronze group sits is meant to represent the curve of the velodrome track. In fact, deportees were in the stands and the throughout the entire complex, but there is no contemporary visual documentation of the scene.
The words on the monument are: "The French Republic in homage to victims of racist and antisemitic persecutions and of crimes against humanity committed under the authority of the so-called 'Government of the State of France.'"
The monument was dedicated on 17 July 1994, and since then a ceremony is held at the site every year. At the ceremony in 1995 then-president Jacques Chirac, successor to François Mitterrand, spoke about the guilt of the French police and gendarmerie who collaborating with the Germans in the deportation. The monument is on land given by the city of Paris and paid for by the Ministère des Anciens Combattants (Veterans Administration [Am], Old Soldiers [Br]) and is cared for by the Ministry of Defense.
In the tradition of many artist-survivors who in their art have chosen to bear witness through narrative or expressive realism, Spitzer created a tableaux of realistic figures with whom the viewer can identify and perhaps empathize. This is not a new strategy. Rodin did something of the sort in his great monument The Burghers of Calais (visible a short walk away at the Rodin Museum). But while Rodin depicted anxiety and suffering through dramatic and even exaggerated gesture and facial expression, Spitzer prefers a quieter style in which the figures expressions are introspective, and their gestures turn inward as group embraces. The feeling is one of calm - either from uncertainty or expectation. These figures - unlike those of Rodin - face their martyrdom (anticipated at least by the viewer) with stoicism and familial love.
Spitzer's work also responds to the commemorative monuments by sculptor Nathan Rapoport, especially the iconic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument that has been the center of Holocaust commemoration in Poland since 1948, something reiterated this year at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. like, Rodin, Rapoport was inspired by Michelangelo, and his great bronze figures are like Rodin's, actively posed, albeit more heroically. On the rear of the monument Rapoport has depicted the deportation of victims. These figures, while also active, have in their desolation more in common with Spitzer's victims of the Velodrome d'HIV.
For a very different commemorative approach, also much influenced by Rodin (but more his Gates of Hell) see Kenneth Treister's giant Holocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, dedicated in 1990.
In 2008 more a more descriptive and informative narrative placed at the nearby Bir-Hakeim station of the Paris Métro.
See more photos of the markers and monuments here.