French landmark housed prisoners during WWII
By MIKE LEBOWITZ
French tennis officials have increasingly found themselves in the rare position of having to defend the legacy and honor of one of the most admired sporting complexes in the world.
At the very least, the Roland Garros tennis stadium is acknowledged to have been a makeshift home for political prisoners and suspected dissidents during World War II. At worst, the revered home of the French Open near Paris is said to have been a holding facility for French Jews before they were moved eastward to the Nazi concentration camps. The question regarding what exactly happened at the stadium during World War II has quietly made its rounds in recent years across various media and Internet outlets.
"For a part of the period when France was occupied, Roland Garros was used as a temporary prison for Jews before they were taken east to their deaths," stated open-tennis.com, a popular and respected tennis information Web site. "These incidents, although harrowing and rarely associated with the French Open, should never be forgotten or ignored."
In fact, the story of occupying German forces using the French landmark as a transit station for Jewish Holocaust victims has found its way onto the pages of the New York Times, as well as into a BBC story.
While some of these outlets displayed criticism for a longstanding French silence on the matter, officials from the French Tennis Federation told the Jerusalem Post that the stadium was never used by the Nazis in that capacity.
Stephanie Bonno, president of the association, suggested that writers may have confused Roland Garros with the infamous Valedrome sports stadium where about 13,000 French Jews were held in 1942 before being shipped to the camps.
"The cultural director of our federation has confirmed that he had already read articles mixing, wrongly, these two facts," Bonno said. "No French Jewish citizen has ever been gathered at Roland Garros."
Although no clear historical record exists regarding actions at the tennis stadium complex directed specifically toward Jews, it is known that the site did house political prisoners of both the French government in 1939 and the collaborationist Vichy regime after the country's fall to Germany. This fact is acknowledged by the French Tennis Federation, although official federation informational items regarding Roland Garros do not mention the stadium s wartime activity.
"They were German, Austrian and Italian," federation cultural director Jean Christophe Piffaut said of the prisoners held at the stadium. "France at this time was terrified to be spied on by the enemies. As soon as the French authorities had verified the reality of the activities of the people that were in this curious camp, they let them free."
The most famous account of the use of the stadium as a makeshift prison was detailed in an autobiography by Arthur Koestler, a Jewish-German journalist and ardent communist who found his way to Paris after a stint in Jerusalem. "At Roland Garros, we called ourselves the cave dwellers, about 600 of us who lived beneath the stairways of the stadium," he wrote. "Few of us knew anything about tennis, but when we were allowed to take our walk in the stadium, we could see the names Borotra and Brugnon on the scoreboard."
Named after a French aviation pioneer, Roland Garros stadium was built in the late 1920s during the golden era of French tennis. The home of the annual French Open, one of four Grand Slam events, the stadium is known for its clay surface and upscale atmosphere. This year's French Open is set to conclude on Sunday.
The issue ranging from political prisoners to questions surrounding Jewish transit in one of the most respected and admired sports venues in the world elicited shocked reactions for some.
"I worked for NBC Sports and traveled to Paris to cover the French Open a number of times," recalled Yuval Karutsi, manager of the Jerusalem Tennis Center. "I used to take my family there, but never knew that anything like that went on. Roland Garros is the most beautiful and greatest of all the Grand Slam events, including Wimbledon. But 60 years later you see the kind of behavior over there, which shows that it is not just the ground that is involved. Just five minutes ago [on Tuesday], Serena Williams finished and the crowd showed so much animosity toward her. I don't know if it was because she was an African-American or what, but I haven't seen something like that in a long time."
Since play resumed at Roland Garros after World War II, the venue has been the scene of a number of acclaimed tennis matches.
The major monuments standing on the expansive stadium grounds include four statues dedicated to the memory of star players from the heyday of French tennis. There is, however, no official acknowledgement that prisoners were housed on the grounds.
"If these claims are true, it doesn't surprise me," said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "The events of the Holocaust took place in so many countries and so many venues. Do I think that the stadium should be destroyed based on the activity of an occupying power? No. But I do think it should be recognized and noted."
When contacted at the French Open on Tuesday, Tima Bell, a Jewish architect from Los Angeles added that if the stadium was indeed used to precipitate murder, a subtle memorial should be constructed.
"I'm actually quite a bit stunned," he said upon learning of the stadium's history. "[But a memorial] should not dominate the place. France, especially Paris, is quite a mausoleum already, and currently, Roland Garros is a place of competition and worldwide interest in tennis."
The French government demolished the Velodrome stadium after the war, creating a memorial to the Jewish victims known as the Square of the Martyrs.
But while it is quietly accepted that the Roland Garros stadium housed political prisoners, French tennis officials reiterated that a memorial is not warranted.
"There is no plan for a memorial here, considering that Roland Garros has never been used as a gathering area for French Jews," Bonno said. "If such a terrible thing had happened here, we would definitely have honored the memory of these people in the stadium."
Despite the questions as to the extent of the tennis complex s use during the war, the connection between sports stadiums and atrocities is not limited to France.
For example, a rare display of protest arose in the early 1960s near Kiev when Soviet officials announced that they wanted to build a sports stadium over the site of a mass grave of about 100,000 mostly Jewish victims who were killed by Nazi forces. A memorial was erected instead in 1976. More recent uses of sporting complexes for political reasons include the Taliban s daily executions in venues such as Kabul Stadium before that government was driven from power in late 2001.
As for French involvement in World War II crimes against Jews, Zuroff stated that the government is slowly dealing with the facts.
"Over the past few years, the French government has shown a willingness to confront its past and deal with the crimes of the Vichy government which resulted in the murder of Jews," he said.