Izieu remembers its children. But many in France had forgotten, until Barbie trial

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Gestapo came at breakfast time on April 6, 1944. Before the children could finish their hot chocolate and croissants, soldiers dragged them, kicking and screaming, into two waiting trucks. One youngster managed to leap out of a window of the orphanage and escape. Another child, the only one who was not Jewish, was freed. The rest - 44 children between the ages of three and 13, and seven adults - never returned from Auschwitz.

For almost four decades, most French Jews forgot the tragedy in this small village set among the foothills of the Alps. No longer. Witnesses at the trial of former Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie in nearby Lyon recalled the incident Wednesday.

``It took the Barbie trial for us to remember,'' says Marc Aaron, president of Lyon's 30,000-strong Jewish community. ``When I became president in 1975 ... I didn't know anything about Izieu.''

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Historical and psychological reasons explain this lapse of memory. Before World War II, French Jews rapidly assimilated. Many even denied they were Jewish. What Jewish establishment did exist was largely dominated by the celebrated Rothschild family. Whenever the ugly face of French anti-Semitism raised its head, as during the Dreyfus case, where a French Army officer convicted of treason was later exonerated when proved to be the victim of anti-Semitism, the Rothschilds depended on private diplomacy rather than noisy public lobbying to help Jews.

This low profile lingered long after the war. Some 70,000 French Jews were deported to concentration camps and exterminated. The returning survivors remained wary of discussing their experiences.

``When my father came back from the camps, he just wanted to forget,'' says 23-year-old Eric Munz. Mr. Munz is different from his father. He has taken six weeks off from his job in a Paris advertising agency to direct the temporary Holocaust museum in Lyon. ``I want to know the truth,'' he says.

In part, the simple passage of generations explains this new-found hunger for the truth. Like many other young French Jews, Munz finds pride in his Jewish identity.

In part too, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of North African Jews is responsible for this Jewish renaissance. They arrived in the 1950s and '60s after France granted independence to Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. As a result of this influx of new members, the French Jewish community today counts up to 700,000 members, making it the world's fourth largest behind the United States, Israel, and the Soviet Union.

These North African Sephardic Jews lived a more traditional Judiasm than the predominately Ashkenazic Jews of East European origin. By the beginning of this decade, the Sephardim dominated French-Jewish leadership, and instead of being shy or scared to talk about Jewish issues in public, they began imitating the outspoken American Jewish community.

As part of this new assertiveness, French Jews began uncovering Izieu's forgotten history as soon as Barbie was expelled from Bolivia to France in 1983. A commemorative plaque in Izieu was amended to include the fact that those killed were Jews. Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld began a worldwide hunt to track down photos and documents for each of the victims. In 1984, he published a book, ``The Children of Izieu.''

Marie Thibaudier, who has lived in the former orphanage since 1950, says, ``Before Barbie's return, almost no one came here. This past April, on the anniversary, more than 1,000 people were here.''

To Jews, the Izieu roundup is morally different from the other crimes for which Barbie has been accused. Although Barbie allegedly captured and tortured hundreds of Frenchmen and deported many to almost certain death, these are considered crimes of war rather than crimes against humanity. In contrast, the Izieu deportation constitutes a crime against humanity, because the children were targets only because they were Jewish. In no way, says Serge Klarsfeld, did they threaten ``the safety of the army of occupation.''

French Jewish leaders now want to make sure their fellow Frenchmen never forget. ``This trial is to educate France,'' says Marek Halter, a writer and spokesman for Jewish causes, ``and we have to make sure it is not used for destructive purposes.''

Mr. Halter and other French Jews fear that the trial could coincide with renewed anti-Semitism. During the war, Vichy France passed anti-Semitic laws and French police rounded up Jews. In 1980, Robert Faurisson, a professor of literature at the University of Lyon, wrote a series of articles and a book arguing that the Nazi gas chambers never existed. And just last week, vandals defaced the plaque in Izieu.

``This trial is a judgment on what the French people did, as well as the Nazis,'' Mr. Klarsfeld said during a recess of the Barbie trial, where he is the civil plaintiff representing the children of Izieu.

``French Jews are a dynamic community,'' he says. ``They will never again forget the children of Izieu.''

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