Square Leon Serpollet & 700 Jewish Children

A huge, cool, leafy emerald, in the middle of the 18th arrondissement, Square Leon Serpollet is a park situated directly behind Rue Ordener on Rues des Cloys. Named after the inventor of the steam-car, Léon Serpollet, the park sits upon the site of his old workshop. It has another history, one sharply at odds with the constant splashing, children’s voices and million decibel screams of boundless joy that can be heard each day, dusk until dawn from my balcony.

Lily pads in Square Leon Serpollet

Peugeot’s Prototype & Square Leon Serpollet

On April 13, 1902, Leon Serpollet, broke the land speed record with an impressive 75 mph. His brand new steam power system was used to beta test Peugeot’s tricycles as they hurtled around the cobbled streets of Montmartre.

Spread over numerous terraces, the park is home to a concrete canal, children’s playground, table tennis tables, a fountain and basketball courts. It has belonged to the community of Montmartre since 1981.

Take a stroll on a cool morning and you’ll find that the park is a sanctuary of sorts. Elderly women practise Tai Chi amongst the lavender, old men sit, reading their newspapers under cherry trees. Birds sing and insects busy themselves. In the post dawn hours of a new day you’ll see the park keepers grumpily watering the iris and yucca. At first glance, it’s just an ordinary park on an ordinary Parisienne street.

An hommage to Serpollet?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the park is simply an hommage to Serpollet. In a way, it is. It has another history, one less obvious. Walking through the park, a soft wind whispers through the birch trees, turning and twisting the facets of glistening leaves in the sunlight. The park is so peaceful. It’s hard to imagine that this place hasn’t always been such a haven. Two small, square, opaque green, glass plaques are all that’s left. The only reminder of the events that took place here, one day in mid July over seventy years ago.

Propaganda & Yellow Stars

It was 1942. France was defeated and occupied by Nazi Germany. The country was governed from Vichy as Nazi forces made their way across Europe. Antisemitic propaganda poured out from government sources. Prejudice against Jews was positively encouraged. Bigotry had become almost as necessary as membership of the Nazi party in Germany, if you wanted to get ahead. Jews were forced to wear the yellow star of David sewn into their clothes.

It will be Seventy seven years ago, to the day on 16th July next week when the Vichy government ordered the Vel d’Hiv roundup of Paris’s Jews. The occupied authorities chose this park. Somewhere both mundane and horrifying in equal measure, to round those children up. Only the small, green, glass plaques tell of the historical significance of Square Leon Serpollet on that day. 

Operation “Spring Breeze”

Acting on Nazi orders, the French police began rounding up Jewish citizens and their children, in each arrondissement. Code named Opération Vent printanier (“Operation Spring Breeze”) the orders were to round up jews in each neighbourhood in one of many attempts to eradicate the Jewish population. Victims were later to be crowded into Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor cycling track, just a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower. The velodrome had no sanitation, no food, no water. Records show that 13,152 Jews were arrested, including more than 4,000 children. Their crime? Being Jewish.

The second green plaque in the park, lists the name and age of all the children who were held captive there. Scrolling through the list you can see brothers and sisters from the same family, taken together. Some families, one child, others more. Minister, Pierre Laval justified the taking of children under 16 upon “humanitarian” grounds intended to keep families “together”. The youngest child on the list in the park is 6 months old.

11000 children were deported from France in 1942. 700 of them lived in the 18th Arrt. 86 of them never had the chance to go to school. I’m sat in the park’s shade under a cherry tree on a sunny afternoon. It’s impossible, now, to imagine what those children were feeling as they were herded in here with no comprehension of what was to come.

Rue Ordener, Rue Labat

Before I came to live on Rue Ordener, I read Rue OrdenerRue Labat, a book by the French philosopher, Sarah Kofman. She tells the story of her childhood on this ordinary street during the occupation.

Her father, Bereck Kofman, a local Rabbi, was warned by the French police that there was to be yet another round of arrests. The roundup was delayed for two days due to Bastille Day on 14th July, amidst fears of uprisings. On principle, Bereck chose to ignore the tip off. Despite frantic pleading from his wife, he refused to hide.

Sarah describes the scene. The police storming up their narrow Haussmann staircase. The ransacking of the house. Policemen grabbing and throwing furniture out of the windows of their small apartment. Her mother screaming as she watches their belongings smash into pieces when they finally hit the pavement below. There are so many incomprehensible facts to digest. I am ashamed at the one pedestrian thought that sticks in my head. Those stairs are steep and narrow, there is precious little space to manoeuvre. They have to be climbed in single file. It must have taken them so long and so, so much effort to get any piece of furniture up to their apartment without a lift. I cannot fathom why anyone would feel the need to throw it out of a window.

Sarah’s story is about her life between the two streets, hidden by a neighbour on nearby Rue Labat who passed her off as her own daughter. She saw her father for the last time on July 16, 1942. After being rounded up with Communists and Gaullists, he died at Auschwitz.

After a prolific and successful career, Kofman committed suicide in 1994 on Nietzsche’s 150th birthday. She died the same year that she wrote the book.

Living on Rue Ordener has given her story a new reality. The school over the road. The boulangerie on the corner. Le Nord Sud where I sometimes drink my morning coffee. As I walk up the four flights of stairs to my apartment. Drifting in over my balcony on the clouds of perfume that waft up from the street as stylish Parisiennes make their way to work. They are everywhere. And nowhere. I wonder who were they? What were their hopes? Who did they love? Who loved them? What had they done with their lives? What were their disappointments? Their regrets? Is some, small part of them still here? An imprint somewhere? A worn brass door handle. The place where they had their first kiss. Their loathed school. A chip of paint off a wooden stairway. A favourite cafe or preferred shady spot under a tree in the park. Somewhere. I hope.

Rue Ordener Today

Yesterday saw protests by the Gilets Noir in France, occupying the Panthéon. In the US there were vigils and ‘Light for Liberty’ protests calling for ICE Detention centres across the country to be closed. Amongst the ‘Never again’ ‘Close the Camps’ and ‘Love wins’ placards one reads ‘The Holocaust was legal. Those in power make the law. We must challenge them.’

Late 2018 saw a new spate of anti semitic graffiti on Rue Ordener. Someone daubed “Jewish scum live here.” adding “Notably on the third floor” on the opposite door. The graffiti was cleaned off on the same day.

Marie Ottavi‏ @marie_ottavi (photo from Twitter attributed to Marie).

I ask myself where would I go? There would be nowhere to run and few places to hide. How many people would risk themselves to help? Not enough. I reflect on the rise of the far right across Europe. The questions I used to have as a child studying history at school. The whys. I no longer have those whys. They don’t exist any more.

I see communities polarising, opinion dividing people to the point of violence. Political views that I would have dismissed as fringe twenty years ago becoming mainstream. It all feels more possible now. More plausible. So much nearer than it felt as a child when I could relegate it to some battered old history book in a lesson that bored me.

I walk down Rue des Cloys each morning to get to the gym, passing the park. On 16th July I’ll take time out and head to that cool, leafy emerald space to sit and listen to the children playing. I’ll remember those 700 children of the 18th arrondissement along with the 86 who were never afforded the chance to go to school. Sometimes love doesn’t win.