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Vel’ d’Hiv: Springtime for Hitler (and Bicycles)

A few weeks ago, I started pulling together a bicycle-themed playlist. I’d hoped it would motivate me to train for a late-April metric century bike ride in Chico, California, which due to some feat of bike snobbery or hippie irony is known as the Mildflower.

The ride was terrific. Unfortunately, my playlist never got past a zippy little Yves Montand number called “Vel’ d’Hiv.” The song is named after a Parisian sports stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, used for indoor bicycle track racing until its demolition in 1959. Just to prove they were really in Paris, the stadium’s final night featured Salvador Dali exploding a miniature Eiffel Tower.

“Vel’ d’Hiv,” while not as well-known as Montand’s “A Bicyclette,” is a fine little bike song. But my bicycle playlist ground to a halt when I found out Montand recorded the song in May 1948. That’s less than six years after the same bicycle stadium was the site of one of the most horrifying episodes in French history, the Vel’d’Hiv Roundup. On July 16 and 17, 1942, French police arrested more than 13,000 Jewish men, women and children. Most of those arrested were held in the Vélodrome d’Hiver. The victims remained there for five days with no open bathrooms and almost no food or water. Then it got much worse. Under orders of the Vichy government, the detainees were handed over to the Nazis, who sent them to their demise at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

Long-hidden details of the roundup are featured in a recent novel and film, Sarah’s Key, and a moving documentary, La Rafle. The Vichy government’s secretary-general of the police, René Bousquet, personally refused to spare children from the roundup. He managed to avoid major legal consequences after the war, and later became a friend and financial supporter of a prominent French politician. Someone from the LePen family, perhaps? Surprise, it was actually Francois Mitterand.

Back to music: a fascinating site called Music and the Holocaust has an intriguing section on the “double life” of jazz during Vichy France. Performers often used “Frenchified” American titles and substituted French names for those of American composers (Louis Armstrong’s songs, for example, were attributed to Jean Sablon). This dubious makeover, which seemed to bring jazz closer to French nationalism, may also have helped keep the music alive and under the political radar during the war.

Others couldn’t conceal themselves so easily. It took a “miracle” for Gypsy innovator Django Reinhart to survive the war. He actually was captured, and escaped only because the commander happened to be a fan.

Yves Montand, “Vel’ d’Hiv”

From → Diatribes