08 January 2017

The "Veldeev"

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you've probably noticed that I'm very much interested in history.  It was my minor as an undergraduate; it was my love of writing--and my desire to "become a writer"--that steered me into an English Literature major.  I don't regret that choice because--as you've probably noticed--I love literature, too.  

Sometimes I think another reason I didn't major in history and pursue further formal study in it was that I sensed, somehow, that I would have to learn it on my own.  I knew that even with the best of instructors, so much would be omitted or edited out.  Sometimes, I would learn, the instructors don't even know what was omitted or censored.

Now, of course, the same can be said for literature. The difference, though, is that literature or writing classes cannot, by definition, be all-inclusive.  There are simply too many writers, works, genres and other factors to consider. 

 Also, when we edit or omit a reading list for a literature course, it doesn't have the same consequences as it does with a history class. That is not to say there are no consequences:  As someone who earned her undergraduate degree at a time when "the canon" consisted entirely of DWMs--Dead White Males--I know, at least somewhat, what it's like to be left out of what's considered "culture" or "education".  

Still, my assigning Macbeth instead of Othello or Hamlet in an intro to literature class does not shortchange my students in the same way as, say, teaching students that Hawai'i became our 50th state the year before, ahem, Obama was born in it while failing to tell them something about the Islands' pre-American history.   Or mentioning the times we came to the aid of allies during times of war while failing to point out, say, the US occupation of Haiti (which I learned about from one of my students during my second year of teaching).

OK, so why am I talking about all of this on a bike blog?  Well, it relates to something in my cycling life.  

During my first European bike tour, I passed through Paris before returning to it two months later.  During that first sojourn, I stayed in a hostel just outside the city.  There, I heard someone mention something about "Veldeev". 

A six-day race at the "Veldeev".  By Henri Cartier-Bresson

At first I thought that person was using some sort of slang they don't teach in American French classes.  Indeed it was: the expression was short for "Velodrome d'Hiver".  (The "h" is silent, and the "i" is pronounced like a long "e" in English.)  So I asked that person where I might find it.

"La rue Nelaton, pres de la Tour Eiffel.  La metro Bir-Hakim."

On the rue Nelaton, near the Eiffel Tower.  (She wasn't lying about that!)  And, as people in Paris often do, she gave me the nearest subway station:  Bir-Hakim.  But of course, I didn't take the Metro.  I could see the Tower, about seven or eight kilometers away, from the hostel, so I just pedaled in the direction of it. And, when I got there, a gendarme gave me a clear response to my "Ou est la rue Nelaton?" It must have been clear: At that time, I don't know whether my French or navigational skills were worse, but I still got to the site.

One problem, though:  there was no Velodrome there.  The young woman I met in the hostel, who was from Belgium, probably thought I was on some sort of Holocaust pilgrimage. Perhaps I was, subconsciously.

At one time, "Veldeev" was one of the world's most important bicycle racing tracks.  It had a glass ceiling (How would I have felt about that if I'd had more of a feminist consciousness at the time?) , making it one of the first such facilities capable of hosting events year-round:  hence the name. ("Hiver" means "winter".)  At that time, there was just a non-descript plaque on an even more non-descript building commemorating a non-cycling event that took place there.

I am referring to "La Rafle du Velodrome d'Hiver", or "The Velodrome d'Hiver roundup".  It had been scheduled for 14 July 1942, but apparently someone realized that it would be terrible public relations to hold such an event on Bastille Day.  So, it was postponed by two days, but that re-scheduling did not blunt the horror of what happened there.

For two terrible days, thousands of Parisian Jews were taken from their homes and workplaces and brought--in French buses driven by French drivers and guarded by French police officers, in an attempt to keep up the fiction that these workers, and therefore the nation, was not under the control of the Nazis--to the race track.

It was bad enough that there wasn't enough room for the internees to lie down.  But, as the name indicates, the track, with its glass ceiling, was intended for winter racing.  The captives were held there on some of the hottest days of what was one of the hottest summers in Paris history.  And the glass had been painted dark blue to avoid attracting the attention of bomber navigators.

 As if that weren't bad enough, exits and other facilities (including bathrooms)that could have provided ventilation--in their captors' eyes, a means of escape-- were sealed off.  So, people were getting sick from heat exhaustion, combined with the lack of sanitary facilities and food:  Only food brought by the Quakers and other groups, as well as a few doctors and nurses from the Red Cross, were allowed in.

After their confinement in a facility where motion--in the form of racing--had been celebrated, 13,152 people were herded--in some cases, more dead than alive--onto buses to the half-completed tower blocks of Drancy, just northeast of Paris, then packed into trains, mainly to Auschwitz.  Only 400 survived.

Even that first time I saw the "Veldeev" plaque, I couldn't photograph it or the site.  On subsequent visits, as I came to know more about the event, it became even less possible for me to make an image of it, or the memorial that was built to it on the nearby Quai de Grenelle:  any photo I could have taken would have seemed banal in comparison to the suffering that took place.

As for the Vel d'Hiv itself: Events, cycling and otherwise (There had been everything from circuses to boxing matches to theatre performances inside the track's oval.) were less frequent after the war, and it fell into disrepair.  During the last six-day race (featuring Jacques Anquetil and other top riders) held there, in November 1958, electrical cables hung from loops.  And, before that race, the roof had leaked when rain fell.

The following year, fire destroyed part of the "Vel" and the rest of it was razed.  There has not been a velodrome in Paris proper since then.  


  1. Beware. Let us not allow even a shadow of "birtherism". The fact that Hawaii became a state a year before Obama's birth is not relevant. Berry Goldwater was born in The Territory of Arizona in 1909. It became a state in 1912. There was no "birther" question during the election of 1964. Hawaii became a US territory in 1898.

    And recall that every president before Tyler (1841) was not born in the United States, but in the British colonies of North America. The entire "birther" question is unique in US history. Nobody has ever stooped so low.


  2. Justine, Thank you for your this.

  3. Chris--Thank you.

    Leo--You bring up a point I've never heard before, in any history class or even a casual conversation in which the Presidency, Barack Obama or Donald Trump comes up.

    Also: The Panama Canal Zone was a US territory in 1936, when 2008 Republican Presidential candidate was born there. Funny how nobody raised the "birther" question about him. Of course, McCain when came from a military family and was a POW in Vietnam, in contrast to Obama, who was sired by an African Muslim who didn't stay in his life and was raised by a single mother who was an itinerant researcher.

    1. Check out The Constitution of the United States, Article II, Section 1: qualifications for the office of president.


  4. L--Thanks.

    Pardon the typpoes ;-) in my previous comment. I started writing the first two sentence one way and changed my mind in mid-sentence.