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Release of Papon Closed Door on Era, but Scars of War Linger

March 7, 2003
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As the lawyers who helped put him behind bars see it, there will be no more Maurice Papons, no more faithful civil servants to be brought to trial for doing their administrative duties while 6 million Jews went to their deaths across Europe.

Last month, in a development that angered many Holocaust survivors, Papon did not even need to turn up at the Paris appeals court that upheld a decision to free him after he served only three years of a 10-year sentence for complicity in crimes against humanity.

According to Arno Klarsfeld, one of the lawyers who succeeded in obtaining that conviction in 1998, Papon did no more than “what his government asked him to do.”

“And that government was the legitimate government of France. Papon did it like a good civil servant,” Klarsfeld told JTA.

Klarsfeld is the son of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, who have fought a decades-long campaign to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. They also have forced the French state to acknowledge the role it played in collaborating with the Nazis in the deportation of more than a quarter of French Jewry to Auschwitz.

As Arno Klarsfeld freely admits, that campaign is over — and it has been won.

“After the main perpetrators were condemned, my father set to work to put the main accomplices on trial,” Klarsfeld said. “Having made German society come to terms with what it had done, my parents then turned their attention to France.”

The view is shared by Alain Jakubowicz, another of the lawyers who helped put Papon behind bars.

“There are no more survivors. Papon is the last one left,” Jakubowicz, currently president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews in the Lyon region, told JTA.

Papon’s trial represented the third and most important stage of the French state coming to terms with its role in the deportation of the country’s Jews, Jakubowicz said.

“The first stage was putting” Lyon Gestapo head Klaus “Barbie on trial, which held the Nazis to account. Then the trial of” Vichy regime militia officer Paul “Touvier showed the active role played by some French people in carrying out the Nazi policy,” he said.

“But the most important stage was with Papon, because the immense media coverage of the trial allowed French people to see that not only Germans were involved in the deportations,” Jakubowicz said.

Papon’s involvement in the deportations was clear. A senior official for the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshall Philippe Petain in the southwestern Bordeaux region, Papon signed the documents that led to the deportation of more than 1,500 Jews to Nazi death camps.

Papon was part of a group of administrators who enabled the Vichy state to collaborate with the Germans — and more than 70,000 French Jews paid for such complicity with their lives.

But even for Klarsfeld, Papon did not deserve life in prison.

“He wasn’t like Bousquet,” Klarsfeld said, “and there was nothing anti-Semitic in his file. He just did what he was told to do,”

Rene Bousquet, Vichy’s national police chief and Papon’s superior, was killed by a deranged gunman in 1993 on the eve of his war crimes trial.

Papon was one of many who managed to change sides before the end of the German occupation, and his administrative prowess enabled his earlier crimes to go unpunished for many years.

After the liberation, Papon went on to an illustrious postwar career, serving as police chief of Paris between 1958 and 1967 and as budget minister in the French Cabinet during the 1970s.

Legal action against Papon began in 1981 after a newspaper article detailed his past.

But proceedings against him were repeatedly obstructed by French officials reluctant to see a trial dredge up embarrassing memories of France’s collaboration with the Nazi occupiers.

His trial, which began in October 1997 and was delayed several times by Papon’s health problems before ending in April 1998, was one the longest in French postwar history.

Papon’s trial and conviction was part of a long process that saw France finally come to terms with its role during the Holocaust.

It took until 1995 for a French president to formally recognize that the deportation of French Jews was aided and abetted by the French state itself.

Speaking then at the memorial to the mass round-up of Jews at the former Velodrome d’Hiver bicycle stadium in Paris, President Jacques Chirac accepted that the Vichy regime was the legal French state at the time of the Holocaust, and therefore bore direct responsibility along with the Nazis.

“The crime of the occupier was seconded by French citizens, by the French state,” Chirac said.

On July 16-17, 1942, French officials herded 13,152 Jews into the Velodrome d’Hiver, from which they were deported to Nazi death camps.

Speaking last year at the 60th anniversary of the roundup, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said, “The French state, in organizing these round-ups, betrayed the founding principles of our nation.”

Such words were virtually unthinkable only two decades earlier, Klarsfeld said.

For those Jews deported during World War II, the appeals court’s decision last month upholding freedom for Papon was difficult to endure.

Julia Wallach lives in the same apartment in Paris’s 11th District where she was arrested and deported in 1943. For Wallach, there is no question that Papon should not have been let out.

“He should die in prison,” she told JTA. “How many Jews did he let go?”

The decision to free Papon was distressing for many victims, said Jeanette Morrud of the Association of Former Jewish Deportees in Paris.

“It took a long time for France to accept what went on under the occupation, but the trials were still very important for the families — even if it took so long,” she said.

The 50-year wait to bring war criminals to justice didn’t surprise people like Rafael Feigelson.

The founder and president of the Association of Jewish Resistants, Feigelson told JTA that France had never truly exorcised its Vichy past.

“There was always a bit of esprit de corps among former Vichy administrators after the war. They should have gotten rid of the lot of them after the liberation,” Feigelson said.

“Some of them I can understand; they apologized for what they did,” he added. “But Papon? He has never showed remorse, and he has always been indifferent to the suffering of Jews.”

Papon could still return to prison if future medical reports find him physically fit enough to continue his sentence, but Klarsfeld said this is highly unlikely.

Nevertheless, a court in Papon’s home county in the Paris suburbs has already instructed the Vichy official to undergo further medical tests.

But while the period of trials and convictions is now over, the battle to retain the memory of the Holocaust goes on.

“With time, the victims will disappear,” Klarsfeld said. “The tragedy of the Holocaust will enter history and it will become like the destruction of the Second Temple. At the same time, to make it history, we must transform the personal memories into the collective memory of the people.”

Was the Papon trial, then, something of an educational message for future generations? Perhaps. But for those like Feigelson who were deported and tortured by the Nazis, there remains something of far greater importance.

“We didn’t do it for education,” said Fiegelson, who was decorated with France’s highest military awards and its most prestigious Legion of Honor. “We did it for justice.”

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