French director Roselyne Bosch (file photo)
French director Roselyne Bosch (file photo)

French movie goers have been rushing to theaters to see a popular new film that recounts one of the most painful episodes of France's recent history - its role in the Holocaust under the World War II-era Vichy government.

Titled La Rafle, or The Roundup, the film takes a look at one of the darkest moments of France's World War II-era collaboration with Nazi Germany: the July,1942 arrest of 13,000 Parisian Jews. French police packed the Jews into a vast stadium near the Eiffel Tower where they languished for days with almost no food or water. They were then sent to an internment camp in central France before being shipped east to Nazi concentration camps. Almost all those deported died, including 4,000 children.

The film's director, Roselyne Bosch, said she wanted it to address France's new generation.

In an interview on French radio, Bosch says there was no film footage documenting that 1942 roundup, no pictures of the Jews at the French internment camp. But she was able to get witness accounts - from the nurses who cared for them.

One survivor of the roundup, 77-year-old Annette Muller, recounted the experience on French radio.

Muller remembers hearing violent knocks at the door of her Paris apartment late one night. She was nine years old at the time. She remembers her mother on her knees, begging French police to take her but to spare her children.

The family was hauled off to the stadium and then to the French internment camp of Drancy. Muller's father managed to buy her freedom and that of her younger brother. But Muller's mother was shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp and never heard from again.

Serge Cwajgenbaum is secretary-general of the Paris-based European Jewish Congress. "Historically it's one of the most important parts of the period of World War II in France, the roundup - the rafle du Vel dHiv - is a symbol of collaboration between the French police and the German occupying authorities," he said.

Altogether, the Jewish Congress estimates about 75,000 Jews were deported from France during World War II. Only about 2,000 survived.

For years, France has had difficulty confronting its wartime past. It was not until 1995 that former French President Jacques Chirac became the first French leader to officially admit the state had played an active role in the Holocaust.

All the more reason, Cwajgenbaum says, for a film like La Rafle - so French and Europeans do not forget the Holocaust's lessons. "It's very appropriate because today we speak about Europe as a global entity and a democratic entity. But Europe is based on what Europe calls 'common values.' And the common values were established after the war by the founding fathers on Europe on the 'never again," he said.

Sixty-three-year-old Cwajgenbaum says La Rafle could be his own story. His parents survived the war. But most of his family was deported and killed at Auschwitz.