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Oral History with Marcelle Duval

Duval
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, courtesy of the Jeff and Toby Herr Foundation

When the German invasion of France reached Paris in June of 1940, a young French woman named Marcelle Duval fled to the south of France with her family. When Duval returned to Paris in September, she was confronted with the realities of the German occupation and the collaborationist Vichy regime.1 Inspired to help, Duval and a group of her friends decided to become nurses for the French Red Cross. She began taking classes in nursing and social work at a Red Cross school in occupied Paris and joined a team providing emergency medical aid to bombed cities and towns. 

In the featured testimony, Duval describes working fifteen-hour-long shifts for three days to provide emergency medical aid to the Jewish victims of the Vél d'Hiv roundup. Early on the morning of July 16, 1942, the Red Cross drove her and several of her nurse friends to a large indoor stadium near the Eiffel Tower called the Vélodrome d'Hiver (Winter Bicycle Track, or Vél d'Hiv). Duval and her team arrived to find hundreds of French police and thousands of people already crowded inside. The confused nurses were told that mass arrests were taking place, and they began setting up their small aid station.

Approximately 7,000 Jews living in the greater Paris area were arrested by French police and held for days at the Vél d'Hiv before they were deported to Nazi concentration camps and killing centers.2 The German occupation had planned the arrests with representatives of the Vichy regime and the French police, but no one had made arrangements for food, water, or sanitary facilities at the Vél d'Hiv. Although Duval was horrified by the hunger, thirst, and unhygienic conditions, the overwhelmed young woman concluded that these concerns were "not our duty as nurses."3 She recalls that the detainees wore yellow Stars of David, but Duval says that she did not realize at the time that the arrests targeted Jews.

Duval's claim seems to contribute to postwar French narratives about World War II that often minimized French collaboration with the Nazis and awareness of the Holocaust.4 According to Duval, however, she "was not very interested" in the events of the war. Duval says that she did not read newspapers, she did not think at all about the collapse of the French Republic while in the south of France in 1940, and she did not think about the fate of her patients at the Vél d'Hiv. Could this have been a coping strategy that the busy young nurse used to help her through her difficult work?5

Duval's testimony also raises questions about the professional roles and responsibilities of medical practitioners who encounter abuse and atrocity. She notes that she and her fellow nursing students had been taught never to talk about the horrible things they saw while performing their duties. Duval explains that "we had the habit of not speaking." It seems that Duval's understanding of her professional role as a nurse guided her reactions and helped to shape the way she processed the events at the Vél d'Hiv.

After the armistice between France and Germany was signed in June 1940, a new collaborationist French government formed in Vichy. For more on the German occupation of France and the Vichy regime, see Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981); Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940–1944 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972); and Richard Vinen, The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006).

Another 6,000 Jews arrested during this time were sent directly to the Drancy transit camp northeast of Paris before being deported. For more on the persecution, deportation, and murder of French Jews in the summer of 1942, see the related item, Report on the Situation of Jews in France.

For more on the Vél d’Hiv roundup, see Claude Lévy and Paul Tillard, Betrayal at the Vél d’Hiv (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969); and Joseph Weismann, After the Roundup: Escape and Survival in Hitler's France, translated by Richard Kutner (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017). Weismann's memoirs also inspired La Rafle, a 2010 French film that depicts the chaotic events of the Vél d’Hiv roundup.

For more on postwar French national narratives of World War II and the Holocaust, see Peter Carrier, Holocaust Monuments and National Memory Cultures in France and Germany since 1989: The Origins and Political Function of the Vél d’Hiv in Paris and the Holocaust Monument in Berlin (New York: Berghahn Books, 2005); Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991); Caroline Wiedmer, The Claims of Memory: Representations of the Holocaust in Contemporary Germany and France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999); and Olivier Wieviorka, Divided Memory: French Recollections of World War II from the Liberation to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).

In another item featured in this collection, Dr. Leo Eitinger suggests that one had no choice but to deny the grim realities of the wider situation in order to overcome the futility of providing medical aid to doomed people during the Holocaust. For more on coping strategies practiced by medical practitioners during war, see Christine Hallet, Containing Trauma: Nursing Work in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).

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Q: Those three days you stayed until late evening?

A: We arrived at 7am and left at 10:00pm. They were frightening days.  

Q: And this lasted for three days?

A:  Yes, on the third day it ended for us. I do not know, but probably during the night the evacuation was completed. On the third day there were significantly less people.  

Q: Were those people evacuated?

A: Most likely, but during the night.

Q: Did you know where they were going?

A: No, nobody knew. Maybe they were going to their home country. We did not understand at all it was because they were Jews. Yes they wore the yellow star. Many hid them sot hey were not visible. An idea of deportation of a race did not enter our mind.  

Q: At the time did you think of urgent problems?

A: A problem of foreigners being sent to their country. As simple as that. We did not think at all about what would happen to them.  

Q: People were evacuated rather quickly‐ three days?

A: I think it was so people would not notice at night. One could not leave home between 10pm and 6am. It was the curfew. Therefore at 2‐3am buses would come to pick them up. No witnesses and no news in the papers.  

Q: Did you speak about this to your family?

A: No, there was an edict that we were taught: never talk about what you do. You see too many horrible things and it is not necessary to speak about them. We never did and preferred not to.  

Q: But this was an exceptional situation and you did not talk about it?

A: Yes, but we had the habit of not speaking. The question of discretion in the profession. We did not speak...

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, courtesy of the Jeff and Toby Herr Foundation
Source Number 2001.5.3
RG Number 50.498.0003
Date of Interview
September 27, 1999
Duration 00:02:51
Time Selection 17:57–20:48
Interviewee
Marcelle Duval
Language(s)
French
Location
Unknown
Reference Location
Paris, France
Interview Type Oral History
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