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Circus at French Holocaust Site Sparks Squabble Among French Jews

November 25, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

For years, French Holocaust survivors have been coming to a memorial in the Paris suburb of Drancy to mark the site from which tens of thousands of French Jews were shipped to their deaths at Auschwitz.

In the years since, the memorial also has become the site of a housing complex and a traveling circus, which sets up a show once a year across from the memorial.

Most Holocaust survivors didn’t seem to have a problem with sharing the site — until last week.

On Nov. 20, a few dozen members of the Sons and Daughters of French Jewish Deportees showed up at the Drancy transit camp for the 60th anniversary of the departure of Convoy No. 62. The convoy, one of around 50 that left the site in 1943, consisted of 1,199 Jews bound for Auschwitz.

When the group arrived, they found a few local Jews accompanied by Drancy’s mayor, Jean-Christophe Lagarde, protesting the circus.

Last week, the Council of Jewish Communities in Seine Saint-Denis — a region in the capital’s eastern suburbs that includes Drancy — said the presence of the traveling circus at the site “represented a real desecration of the principal site to the memory of the ante-room of the Shoah.”

In a statement, the council’s president, Sammy Ghozlan, called for the circus “to be dismantled without delay and before the ceremony commemorating the departure of Convoy 62 by the Sons and Daughters of French Jewish Deportees.”

The CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews also condemned the presence of the circus encampment “as an outrage which cannot be tolerated.”

However, the founder of the Sons and Daughters group, Serge Klarsfeld, said neither he nor his organization had been contacted by Ghozlan, and said he never had been bothered by the circus.

The grounds the circus uses are controlled by the La Muette housing complex, built on the site after World War II.

Klarsfeld says that seeing people shopping and going about their daily lives while he reads out the names of deported Jews does not detract from the commemoration.

“The fact that people live here means that the buildings are protected,” Klarsfeld said. “If they weren’t here, they’d be destroyed.”

“Here Jews suffered, and today people are not suffering. This is a living site. There are 450 apartments there. People eat and drink, they make love in the evening,” he said. “It has never bothered us.”

The circus has come to the site every year since 1989, according to a spokesman for the nearby housing complex, but there were no protests there until this year.

When Lagarde arrived at the site last week for the protest, he and Klarsfeld got into an argument, with Klarsfeld accusing the mayor of exploiting the circus’ presence for political gain.

Klarsfeld is not the only one making that charge.

Until March 2001, the Drancy municipality, like many other local councils in the area, had been run by the Communist Party, which still heads the Seine Saint-Denis regional council and therefore the Drancy site.

Drancy’s mayor had led a campaign to obtain national memorial status for the Drancy site, according to the director of the mayor’s office, Dominique de Pontfarcy. Drancy became an official national memorial site in March 2002.

“This is being used for political reasons by the right-wing mayor of Drancy to get at the Communist regional council,” said Jeanette Morrud of the Auschwitz Memorial Foundation. “It’s disgusting that it is being done on the backs of dead Jews.”

But De Pontfarcy said the regional council did not care about the Holocaust.

“For them, the Shoah is not important,” he said.

De Pontfarcy said the housing association “said last year that this was the last time for the circus, but it suddenly appeared again last week without authorization and without security clearance.”

The housing association says that it contacted Drancy’s mayor and a number of Jewish organizations in April 2002 to discuss the circus.

“We’ve had the circus every year for 14 years and there have never been any complaints,” said Guy Gerard, the housing association’s managing director. “The mayor told us last year that he had no objection in principle to the circus, only that it should not take place on three specific dates,” national or international days commemorating the Holocaust.

After last week’s brouhaha, Gerard said the association had decided to cancel the circus.

“There’s no point in continuing this political polemic,” Gerard told JTA.

But Jewish organizations are still sparring over the issue.

“I told the mayor I was a lot more troubled with him never coming to any of our ceremonies than about the circus,” Klarsfeld said.

Klarsfeld said the local Jews who showed up to protest never had bothered to come to commemoration ceremonies, but Ghozlan said that’s because the ceremonies have been held on Shabbat or Yom Kippur.

Klarsfeld denied those charges.

“There have been 48 ceremonies this year, and I think two were on Shabbat,” Klarsfeld said. “We hold them on the exact date that the convoys took place. We never held one on Yom Kippur.”

Ghozlan said he is happy that “finally there’s a mayor in Drancy who is doing something about the circus.”

Henri Bulawko, a Holocaust survivor and a CRIF vice president, said, “The bottom line is that there should not be a circus at Drancy. There’s a big difference between the local life around the camp and holding festive events at the site.”

Bulawko said the dispute over the circus was “indicative of today’s climate.”

“Maybe 10 years ago we wouldn’t have bothered about something like the circus, but today Jews in the Paris suburbs live on edge with all the anti-Semitic acts,” Bulawko said. “It’s only natural that they are very susceptible and they want to react to every provocation.”

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