PARIS, Oct. 21 (JTA) – The families of Jews deported from Bordeaux during the Nazi occupation of France were angry and stupefied after accused wartime collaborator Maurice Papon told a court that he had spent the war years helping Jews. “I spent the occupation fighting for Jews and for others. Since then, I have mourned in my heart for the deaths of my Jewish compatriots and foreign Jews,” Papon said last week, speaking for the first time at his trial, which began earlier this month. “I risked deportation, maybe even my life, by taking the names of 139 Jews off the lists,” he snapped when questioned by Arno Klarsfeld, one of 23 lawyers for the civil plaintiffs. Papon, 87, is accused of ordering the arrest and deportation of 1,560 Jews, 223 of them children, when he was a senior official for the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Nearly all died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. After proceedings against him were obstructed by French officials for 16 years, his trial for crimes against humanity, which is expected to last until the end of December, is now under way in the southwestern French city of Bordeaux. The trial of Papon – who will in all likelihood be the last Frenchman to face trial for crimes against humanity – is also seen as the nation’s last chance to come to terms with a past it has long tried to forget. His remarks provoked a wave of protests by the civil plaintiffs, many of them relatives of Holocaust victims, and their lawyers. “He showed himself for what he is – the hard, cold and cruel man who signed the deportation orders without any scruples,” Georges Gheldman, whose mother was deported from Bordeaux in 1942, said in an interview. Therese Stopnicki, whose younger sisters Nellie, 5, and Rachel, 2, were taken out of hiding, allegedly on Papon’s orders, and sent to Auschwitz, said Papon’s remarks created “the impression that the cover of a sewer has been lifted and everything inside is flowing out.” Papon also told the court that as prefect of the French Mediterranean island of Corsica in 1947, he was in charge of a secret mission to set up air bases on the island for American planes to send arms to help “the Israeli people in their struggle for independence. It is an honor for me to have always protected the Jewish community.” Papon went further Monday, denying that he ever signed arrest or deportation orders when he was a Vichy official and demanding to see proof of the charges against him. Alain Levy, the lawyer for an association of former Resistance fighters and deportees, described the testimony as “totally pernicious.” In a dramatic turn Tuesday, a historian who in 1981 helped uncover Papon’s wartime role said further research had convinced him that Papon had indeed helped Jews rather than send them to their deaths. Michel Berges said in an interview with the daily newspaper Le Monde that prosecutors had erred in their assessment of wartime documents and had turned Papon “into a political myth.” He said Papon had struck the names of more than 100 Jews from deportation lists. He also stated that Papon had in other instances merely countersigned orders decided upon by his superiors and had no authority to initiate roundups. Michel Touzet, a lawyer representing some of the civil plaintiffs, criticized Berges for making the comments before he was scheduled to testify in December. Papon, who enjoyed an illustrious political career after the war, has maintained in the past that he joined the Resistance in 1943 and remained in his job as wartime secretary-general of the Bordeaux prefect’s office – the second highest-ranking official in the region – at the anti-Nazi movement’s request. But some of the plaintiffs noted that being a member of the Resistance did not necessarily imply he was innocent of anti-Jewish actions. “People are suddenly losing sight of the objective. The defense is trying to prove that he was a member of the Resistance, a good civil servant, but the essential is the deportation of the Jews,” Stopnicki said. During the second week of the trial, the court heard witnesses for the defense attest to Papon’s character and his devotion to his work in various postwar government positions. One of them was Raymond Barre, current mayor of Lyon, who as France’s prime minister in 1978 named Papon his budget minister. Barre was questioned by a juror – a rare procedure in the French legal system – about whether he had inquired about Papon’s past before appointing him. “I did not have to ask many questions. Maurice Papon had an excellent reputation,” Barre replied. “I benefited from his devoted and efficient assistance. He showed great loyalty. I am grateful to him,” he said. Perhaps one of the most revealing testimonies in demonstrating how Papon was able to continue his career under postwar French leader General Charles de Gaulle and rise to become Paris police chief from 1958 to 1967 came from Olivier Guichard, one of de Gaulle’s closest aides. Guichard said de Gaulle had sought to readmit senior Vichy officials into government service after the war in the name of national unity. “After the liberation, General de Gaulle had a very strong desire to protect the unity of France. Thus was born the Gaullist myth which said that the Vichy regime had never existed. And the other myth was that we had won the war,” Guichard told the court. De Gaulle “did not want the conduct of France and of the French to be re-examined.” That myth was finally destroyed in 1995, when President Jacques Chirac, himself a Gaullist, acknowledged in a historic speech the role of French police and other civil servants in sending Jews to their deaths during the war. Documents incriminating Papon in the deportation of Jews were first made public in 1981, but legal proceedings were repeatedly obstructed by French officials, particularly the late President Francois Mitterrand, who did not want a trial that would force the country to re-examine the painful aspects of its wartime past. The trial is also forcing France to confront the truth about another painful period of its history – the brutal Algerian war for independence. Several witnesses referred to a demonstration in Paris by pro-independence Algerians in October 1961, when Papon was police chief. While historians agree that more than 200 demonstrators were massacred by police under Papon’s command, the official toll was two dead – although for weeks after, dozens of bodies were fished out of the Seine River.