The Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah was set up by a French government decree in 2000, when awareness of the French State’s responsibility in the Holocaust was rising.
Its purpose was to transmit and spread knowledge about anti-Semitic persecution and human rights violations during the Second World War. However, its missions quickly broadened to encompass solidarity with Holocaust survivors, preserving the Jewish culture that the Nazis tried to destroy and raising awareness of other genocides. Since 2015, the Foundation has also backed projects to fight anti-Semitism and foster intercultural dialogue.
The outcome of a rare political consensus, this private foundation with public utility status keeps alive a calmer memory of not only the Holocaust, but also other genocides, without claiming to compete with them.
What is the Shoah ?
Shoah is the Hebrew word for “catastrophe”. This term specifically means the killing of nearly six million Jews in Europe by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the Second World War. The English-speaking countries more commonly use the word Holocaust, which is Greek for “sacrifice by fire”.
Source : Shoah Memorial - Paris
1945-1995: building a memory of the Holocaust
The specific nature of the Jews’ fate was unacknowledged for years after the Second World War. Holocaust survivors spoke up, but few listened to them. The plight of Resistance members and political deportees cast a long shadow over the memory of the deportation. Moreover, during the postwar period heroes were glorified and Vichy was portrayed as a mere parenthesis in French history in order to foster national reconciliation.
Since the 1970s, the combined efforts of witnesses, historians and organizations has gradually led to the general public’s awareness of the specific nature of the fate that befell the Jews as such.
In 1978, lawyer Serge Klarsfeld published Le Mémorial de la déportation des Juifs de France, which he based on the list of deportees, classified by transport.
The 1970s and 1980s saw an upsurge of historical research on the Vichy regime, collaboration and the French State’s involvement in the Holocaust.
The 1985 release of Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, entirely made up of testimonies, was a bombshell. Its title has entered common parlance as another name for the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, the trials of Klaus Barbie (1983-1987) and Maurice Papon (1997-1998), among others, allowed witnesses to testify about the crimes against the Jews during the Second World War. They still stoke controversy about the French State’s responsibility in the Holocaust.
1995: recognition of the French State’s responsibility in the Holocaust
During the commemorations of the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup on July 16, 1995, newly elected French president Jacques Chirac publicly acknowledged the French State’s responsibility in the Holocaust:
Those dark times forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions. We all know that the occupier’s criminal madness was aided and abetted by Frenchmen and the French State. […] Passing on the memory of the Jewish people, the suffering and the camps; testifying again and again; acknowledging the mistakes of the past and the errors committed by the State; and casting light on the dark hours of our history is quite simply a way of upholding a certain idea of man, his freedom and his dignity. It contributes to the struggle against dark forces that are still at work.
Fifty years after the war ended, the Vel’ d’Hiv’ speech marked a major turning point. President Chirac’s solemn statement paved the way for other symbolic gestures. The government stepped up its efforts to encourage recognition of aspects of history, whether the Vichy regime’s role in the persecution of Jews or the rescue actions by the Righteous of France, that had been missing from the national narrative until then.
1997-2000: the creation of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah
In that context, in March 1997 Prime Minister Alain Juppé appointed Jean Mattéoli, a former Resistance member and the president of the Economic and Social Council, to lead a fact-finding mission on the spoliation of France’s Jews from 1940 to 1944.
Historians and qualified figures sat on the Mattéoli Commission, which was tasked with determining the scale and extent of the spoliation, studying postwar restitution measures and making proposals on the disposal of unreturned property.
On April 17, 2000, Jean Mattéoli presented Prime Minister Lionel Jospin with the Commission’s findings. The report said that postwar restitution was substantial but incomplete. Stressing the significance of memory, it concluded:
Of course, the material aspects involving the spoliation of France’s Jews and restitution matter, but they are not the main thing. Spoliation was about more than money. It was a form of persecution with extermination as the endpoint. No history will ever convey the fear, humiliation and misery these men, women and children endured every day. Granted, that happens in every war and others also suffered, but not as the result of discriminatory laws and regulations that isolated them from the national community just for being born who they were. What happened during the war is an unprecedented exception. We must all ensure it never happens again.
The Mattéoli Commission’s recommendations led to setting up the Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation (CIVS), tasked with reviewing individual compensation claims, and the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah. The public and private institutions concerned pay the Foundation unclaimed funds resulting from spoliation of every kind. The initial endowment was €393 million.
Since 2000: history, education and solidarity
The Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah was officially set up by a French government decree on December 26, 2000.
Its creation marked a key step in strengthening the memory of the Holocaust in France. Chaired by Simone Veil and, since 2007, David de Rothschild, it is administered by representatives of the government and major Jewish institutions as well as by qualified figures.
This private foundation with public utility status contributes to the development and dissemination of knowledge about anti-Semitic persecution, the victims of that persecution and the conditions in France that allowed most Jews to escape deportation.
The Foundation also has an important solidarity component, in particular by funding initiatives that provide those who suffered under anti-Semitic persecution with moral, technical or financial support.
The Mattéoli Commission’s recommendations also stressed the need to preserve and pass on Jewish culture, entire swathes of which vanished during the Holocaust.
Considering reflection on the sources and mechanisms of hatred primordial, the Foundation soon expanded the scope of its work to include other genocides and crimes against humanity.
A commission tasked specifically with fighting anti-Semitism and promoting intercultural dialogue was set up in 2015.
The Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah has funded nearly 3.000 projects in its 15 years of existence.