Residents of the southern French port city of Marseille on Sunday commenced a series of events commemorating World War II roundups of Jews and suspected resistance fighters by German and French authorities.
The raids targeted thousands of people from around Marseille’s Old Port, including hundreds of Jews later sent to death camps.
At the time the city “represented everything the Nazis hated,” Marseille Mayor Benoit Payan told a crowd on Sunday.
“It was a cosmopolitan city where people of all backgrounds mingled,” he said.
After the raids in January 1943, a whole neighborhood along one side of the Old Port was razed to the ground by the Nazis, who saw it as a hotbed of the French Resistance, but with witnesses dying out, Payan said he was worried that the atrocities would not be remembered much longer.
The story of the destruction of the old quarters and the 1943 roundups “has been forgotten for too long, almost eradicated from our collective memory,” he said.
He has argued that it was comparable to the notorious Velodrome d’Hiver raids in Paris in July 1942 when more than 12,000 people, including 4,000 children, were rounded up in the French capital in less than two days.
Among the events planned this year is a photo exhibition to remind people of the horror of the raids.
In a first raid on the night of Jan. 22, 1943, French police arrested 1,865 men, women and children in an area of the port near the opera house that had a large Jewish community.
The next day German troops encircled a densely populated low-income district to the north of the old harbor that was home to dockers, including many of Italian origin, as well as bars and brothels.
French police then moved in and arrested 635 people.
Early on Jan. 24, German troops and French police woke up the whole neighborhood and evacuated 15,000 of its inhabitants by force, transferring them to an abandoned army camp about 140km east of the city.
The authorities then blew up 1,500 buildings, laying waste to an area the size of 20 soccer pitches along the harbor.
Images of the aftermath show most of the district, where 20,000 people had lived, reduced to a sea of rubble.
About 800 Jews were crammed into cattle trains after two days of roundups.
Outside Marseille City Hall on Sunday a young woman read out a statement by Elie Arditti, who was 19 at the time of the raids.
“They squashed us in to the point that we had to put our arms up in the air to make room for new arrivals,” he said.
Then “they chucked seven loaves of bread and three cans into the wagon, and a worker sealed us in,” he told researchers before his death.
Arditti managed to escape, but all the other Jews were taken to the Sobibor extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Nazi Germany “decided to destroy the neighborhood of my childhood, the cradle of this city,” said Antoine Mignemi, one of few witnesses of the events still alive.
“It took 80 years for a mayor and ministers to recognize this operation that was a crime against humanity,” Payan said.
French Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin told the crowd that French President Emmanuel Macron had asked ministers “personally to address this shortcoming” and “underline the national importance” of the Marseille events.
“The Marseille roundups and the destruction of the historic neighborhoods gets too little attention in the history books,” Darmanin said.
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