Two books by Maurice Rajsfus
Translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Mike Mitchell
2017. Hardcover and Paperback. 296 pages, with 11 b/w illustrations
(hc), $29.95 | (pb) $19.95
In a timely release, three companion books, Operation Yellow Star and Black Thursday (June 27, 2017) and The Vél d’Hiv Raid (September 5, 2017) bring to light one of the most traumatic events in French history during the 20th century. Written by Maurice Rajsfus, a Jewish survivor who became an investigative journalist for Le Monde and a controversial outspoken critic of the French Police, the three books offer detailed archival research and a first-hand witness account of the infamous roundup in France on July 16, 1942, in which over 13,000 immigrant Jews were arrested and detained for three days in squalid conditions at the Paris sporting stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver. The Vél d’Hiv Raid, as it is now known, was conducted by the French Police on their own initiative, without direction from the Gestapo, and is an event distinguished in history for its horrific display of local anti-Semitism under the Nazi occupying force.
Operation Yellow Star is a play-by-play retelling of the implementation of the yellow star in France after the Nazi 8th ordinance was passed in occupied France on May 29, 1942. The book presents a clear narrative of the bureaucracy and mechanisms of the German occupying forces, and the inner workings of the “law and order” society. The Gestapo depended on the French Police to control the local population, to distinguish and exclude Jews from daily Parisian life, and in that fact the book centers its cross-examination of Paris itself — the attitudes of its residents, whether resistant or collaborative or merely indifferent, the latter being an offense in the author’s clear-eyed view. The history of the yellow star is explained, from its origination hundreds of years before in the rouelles and pointed hats Jews were obligated to wear under different French regimes. The complicity and even zeal of the French Police in hunting Jews with or without stars has a chilling effect on readers in the 21st century, where immigration raids and talks of detention camps are all too present and real.
Black Thursday: The Roundup of July 16, 1942, is the author’s own account of being arrested along with his family when he was fourteen years old. The policeman who came brusquely to his family’s small apartment door was none other than a neighbor, a stinging reality that the author uses to catapult his investigation into the crime forty years after the fact. What did the local government know about the roundup? Who witnessed it? What about the mayor, the churches, the bus drivers? Why were the 13,000 primarily immigrant Jews? As one of the rare survivors of the raid, seeking answers brings the author to uncomfortable conclusions and ultimately to understand himself as one of France’s “lost children” and “a survivor of the absurd.”
The Appendix at the end of Operation Yellow Star and Black Thursday includes an interview with the author from April 11, 2016 by publisher Carrie Paterson and filmmaker Justine Malle.
Listen or download KPFA radio host Mitch Jeserich’s interview with Rajsfus translator Levi Laub on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the infamous Vél D’Hiv Raid at https://kpfa.org/episode/letters-and-politics-july-17-2017.
An unsparing indictment of Paris police during the Nazi occupation.… The author’s memory of July 16 is harrowing.… Besides commemorating his family’s murder, Rajsfus raises awareness about how “the enemies of human rights are once more gaining ground,” spouting xenophobia that is easily transferable to any minority group. A heartfelt, timely plea to remember past atrocities.
– Kirkus Reviews
Adept reporting and personal experience make for a gripping read… While each book is strong enough to stand on its own, Operation Yellow Star and Black Thursday together make an unusual, important, credibly researched, and skillfully written contribution to Holocaust literature.
– Foreword Reviews
Well researched and deeply personal, the accounts are powerful in their detail.
– San Francisco Book Review
Through his sobering, exhaustive research Rajsfus chronicles the arrests, harassment, and deportations of Jews [in France]…. Rajsfus’ eyewitness, unblinking account of the events in Vichy France is a journalistic, yet passionately written j’accuse against the French collaborators and those who want to erase the [era’s] devastating atrocities.
– Lew Whittington, New York Journal of Books
Well documented … essential for understanding and above all not forgetting. To this day there are still no pictures of the days of horror at the Velodrome d’Hiver.
– Clara Magazine (French feminist publication)
These worthy books are quite interesting…. Seventy-five years have diminished neither Maurice Rajsfus’ fury at the punctilious wartime collaboration of French police nor his distress at his countrymen’s apparent indifference…. Most disgusting to him was the frequent brushoff: “I’m not interested.” … Most telling, perhaps, is an elderly Vincennes man’s response to Rajsfus: “Ah, the Jews, it was their affair. It didn’t concern the French.”
– Neal Gendler, American Jewish World
Maurice Rajsfus has devoted his life to denouncing and combating racism, fascism, intolerance, and police brutality, while putting in his texts a good dose of caustic irony.
– Jakilea, Basque Human Rights Defense League
Maurice Rajsfus is not only a historian of the raid: he lived it in his flesh, saw it with his own eyes, and if he had not had the audacity and ingenuity of a Parisian street urchin, son of immigrant Polish Jews that he was, would have suffered the same fate as his parents, deported and assassinated in Auschwitz. Without making improper comparisons, the roundup of the Vél d’Hiv is a very current topic. Maurice Rajsfus’ narrative can help us to grasp both the logic and the implications of a policy of exclusion of populations and communities who, because of their ethnic, national or religious origin, are not protected by the State of which they are a part.
– Michel Warschawski, author of On the Border, winner of Le Prix des Amis du Monde Diplomatique (2002)
If [Rajsfus] still wishes to recall how scrupulously — and even with zeal — the French police applied Nazi orders, he also wants to warn us against certain xenophobic or discriminatory speech still heard recently that could lead to behavior of that bygone age.
– Ekaitza — weekly newspaper, Bayonne, France
Maurice Rajsfus (b. 1928) is an activist and former investigative journalist for Le Monde. He is the author of 30 books, including many examining the Vichy regime and its legacy in French police culture. He has also written about Drancy concentration camp and Israel-Palestine, as well as co-authored several illustrated books about history. In 1990, Rajsfus and several friends founded “Ras l’Front,” an anti-Le Pen association of far-left-wing organizations extremely active in the 1990s against the rise of nationalist parties in France and fascist ideas. They worked together and promoted leftist causes through a monthly publication as well as actions. He served as chairman from 1991–1999. From 1994–2012 Rajsfus created and circulated “Que fait la police,” a “Cop Watch” bulletin with press clippings detailing human rights abuses by French police. His books about the Vél d’Hiv raid and his experiences during WWII have been brought together to form the basis of a YA comic (Tartamudo editions) as well as a play written and directed by Philippe Ogouz, which was then adapted for film in 2010, Souvenirs d’un vieil enfant: La rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv (Memories of an Old Child: The Roundup of the Vel’ d’Hiv), directed by Alain Guesnier. Maurice Rajsfus lives in Paris with his wife, and has two sons as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Phyllis Aronoff (b. 1945) has won the Jewish Literary Award for translation and the translation prize from the Quebec Writers’ Federation. She was president of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada and from 2007-2015 represented translators on the Public Lending Right Commission of Canada.
Mike Mitchell (b. 1941) is an award-winning translator of French and German who has been active as a translator for over thirty years. He is the recipient of the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for translations of German works published in Britain, has won the British Comparative Literature Association translation competition three times, and has been shortlisted for many awards including the French-American Translation Prize, the Weidenfeld prize, the Aristeion prize, the Kurt Wolff prize, and the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger. In 2012 the Austrian Ministry of Education, Art and Culture awarded him a lifetime achievement award as a translator of literary works. He lives in Scotland.