Monday, February 19, 2007

Maurice Papon died a free man

My grandfather's sister was Chaya Silberman. Her and her husband, Muni Getter came to France in the late 20s to escape from war torn, antisemitic Przemysl, Poland. Life was good until the Nazis invaded and occupied in 1940. Soon thereafter, with the aide of efficient French collaborators like Maurice Papon, Jews were rounded up and and put on cattle cars, headed back to Poland for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Just before Chaya and Muni were taken, they managed to hide their 13 year-old daughter Florine in convent in Grenoble--yes, there were righteous Frenchmen.

Chaya was murdered, probably not long after arrival at the Birkenau camp. Forced to strip naked and disgorge all valuables, she was gassed with Zyklon-B in a sealed room with hundreds of others before being incinerated in specially designed ovens.

Muni miraculously survived Auschwitz and returned to France in 1946 to find his daughter. Months later they were reunited and soon sailed to America where they lived for a time with my grandparents in the Bronx.

Muni died in the 70s, while Florine passed away a few years ago.

Why do I care that Maurice Papon lived to be 96 and died a free man, protected by the French government, living in the lap of luxury? Here's why:

Chaya Silberman Getter - born June 6, 1906 in Przemysl, murdered 1942 in Auschwitz:


French Nazi-era collaborator Papon dies

By ELAINE GANLEY, Associated Press Writer Sat Feb 17, 6:11 PM ET

PARIS - Maurice Papon, a former Cabinet minister who was convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity for his role in deporting Jews during World War II and became a symbol of France's collaboration with the Nazis, died Saturday. He was 96.

Papon, who underwent surgery on his pacemaker at a clinic east of Paris last week, died in his sleep on Saturday, said his lawyer, Francis Vuillemin.

Papon was the highest-ranking Frenchman to be convicted for a role in the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.

The April 2, 1998, guilty verdict was the culmination of a trial that offered a painful look at one of the darkest periods in modern French history.

However, Papon — who at one point fled France to avoid prison — lived out his final years a free man, released from Paris' dour La Sante prison on Sept. 18, 2002, because of failing health.

In a February 2001 letter to the justice minister, Papon said he had neither "regrets nor remorse for a crime I did not commit and for which I am in no way an accomplice."

Papon served only three years of a 10-year sentence for ordering the arrest and deportation of 1,690 Jews, including 223 children, from the Bordeaux area to Nazi death camps.

"We fought ... so that he would pay," said Michel Slitinsky, a Bordeaux historian who narrowly escaped a Papon-ordered roundup and who uncovered documents implicating him. "He paid. Sadly, he only spent three years in prison, a golden prison, at that."

When Papon was released, the Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld said that the decision to free him showed that "part of the French establishment does not admit that a man like Papon can die in prison."

Papon's lawyer, Vuillemin, said Saturday his client "fought till the end."

"He died a free man," Vuillemin told LCI television.

Papon had been a civil servant par excellence. During the war, he held the No. 2 post in Bordeaux' Gironde region in southwest France from 1942-44. Trial documents showed Papon, responsible for Bordeaux's Jewish Affairs department, was greatly appreciated by the Germans for his "efficiency and reliability."

After the war, Papon enjoyed a brilliant political career, easily slipping into the machinery of the postwar state. He rose to become Paris police chief under then-President Charles de Gaulle in 1958, holding the post until 1967. He was named budget minister in 1978 under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and kept the post until 1981.

It took 16 more years to bring the case against Papon to court in France, which struggled for decades to come to terms with its collaboration with the Nazi occupiers.

While found guilty of complicity, Papon was absolved of guilt in the deaths of the Jewish deportees, most of whom perished at Auschwitz. The jury accepted the defense argument that Papon was not aware of the Nazi plan to exterminate Jews.

Papon relentlessly proclaimed his innocence, arguing that he was only carrying out orders. On his final day on the stand, he said he was a victim of "the saddest chapter in French legal history."

He fled to Switzerland after the guilty verdict and was apprehended a week later. Papon had said that exile was the only way to maintain his honor. Then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin called Papon's flight a "final sign of indifference, contempt and provocation with regard to all victims of the Holocaust."

Papon was promoted five times during the war, becoming police supervisor in the Gironde from 1942-44. Afterward, he became cabinet director of Gaston Gusin, named by de Gaulle to administer Bordeaux when the Germans pulled out in August 1944.

He later headed Algerian affairs in the Interior Ministry and went on to head prefectures in Constantine, in eastern Algeria — then part of France — and in Corsica.

Papon would have slipped quietly into retirement after President Giscard's defeat in 1981 were it not for Slitinsky's perseverance.

Slitinsky, whose father perished in Auschwitz, stumbled on documents revealing Papon's role and gave them to a newspaper for publication. Klarsfeld, the Nazi hunter, then fought to bring Papon to trial.

Slitinsky said the former minister "carried on his shoulders the responsibility for 1,600 arrests, including 250 children."

Because of Papon's credentials, and efforts at the highest levels to shield him, the case dragged through France's legal system. In 1994, President Francois Mitterrand admitted he had intervened to stall the case.
[cross posted to LearJet SWAT Team]

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