Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2002 / 19 Tishrei, 5763

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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A skewed sense of compassion | Call Maurice Papon the man who went along. The man who, like water in a jar, shaped himself to his environment, however it changed.

So that after his country was overrun by Nazi thugs in 1940, the French bureaucrat dutifully cooperated with occupying forces as an official of the puppet government. Then, as the war turned against the Nazis a few years later, he reversed course and joined the French resistance.

It is, though, something he did in the interim years that has rendered him infamous: Papon signed deportation orders that sent more than 1,500 Jews to Auschwitz.

After the war, he continued his career as a government functionary. It wasn't until the early 1980s that his wartime activities were made public and it took another decade and a half before he was tried and convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity. The sentence was 10 years.

He served three. This week, a panel of French judges set him free. At 92 years of age, frail and beset by kidney, circulatory and cardiac ailments, Papon was, in the eyes of the court, too old and too sick to serve his time.

I have one word for the judges' compassion:


Where is the compassion for the man with the numbers tattooed on his forearm, for the woman whose child left this life as flakes of black ash swirling from a crematorium chimney? Where is the compassion for dreamless people, for the residents of permanent nightmare, for those who lost their hope, their faith, their G-d, those who have only to close their eyes to return to Holocaust once more?

The French judges would want you to know they had little choice but to rule in Papon's favor. France recently instituted a law requiring that a prisoner be set free in the event two doctors certify that continued incarceration would endanger his or her health.

What, they don't have prison hospitals in France?

It's a bad law. I have no objection to cutting short the sentence of some ailing old guy who did some stupid, impetuous thing years ago in another life. On the other hand, if I'm a Parisian crime lord, I'm out recruiting geriatric hit persons even as we speak. Of course, that's France's problem.

Mine - "ours" - is the criminally short institutional memory of nations that passed through this crucible 60 years ago, only to forget the lessons learned there.

In recent years, Jewish leaders have decried rising anti-Semitism in Europe, the United States and the former Soviet Union. But you don't need expert testimony to sense that something is amiss. Just listen to the unguarded conversations that begin, "I don't have anything against the Jews, but ..." Just note how frequently criticism of Israeli foreign policy - criticism that may even be merited - slops over into crude Jewish caricature.

Suddenly, ancient stereotypes and coded language enjoy new cachet and intellectual cover. It's as if we've forgotten where this road leads. Not simply for Jews, but for us all.

They say Maurice Papon walked out of jail smiling broadly with his head held high. They say a crowd gathered to yell "Murderer!" as he passed. They say he's never expressed remorse for the slaughter to which he signed his name.

You wonder what message his victory - for what else can you call it? - sends to a watching world. What does it say to neo-Nazis lining up to enlist in the cause of hate? What does it say to schoolchildren who have never heard the word "Holocaust"? What does it say to the man with the tattoo on his forearm?

Maurice Papon is not some poor old guy who did an impetuous, misguided thing in another life. He is, rather, a moral weakling who made a calculated choice to preserve his own skin at the cost of more than 1,500 others.

He was the man who went along. Thanks to an ill-considered French law, he is now, also, the one who got away.

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