Anne Sinclair Sheds Light on Forgotten Concentration Camp — and Painful Family Story

The coronavirus chaos erupted just when her new book, about her family's part in a notable but unknown Holocaust story came out. But top French TV star and journalist Anne Sinclair is no stranger to tackling setbacks

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French journalist Anne Sinclair, in Belgium in 2016
Anne Sinclair. “The notables were sure they were out of danger since they were Frenchmen with ‘roots.'"Credit: John Thys / AFP
Gaby Levin

It’s hard to describe just how popular journalist Anne Sinclair was between 1984 and 1997, when she was presenting her political interview show "7sur7." On Sunday evenings, masses of French people would gather in front of their television sets in what was a virtual ritual, to watch the prime-time chat show. Senior politicians, prominent public figures and the odd artist would line up in order to be given the chance to be interviewed by Sinclair, usually on topical matters.

They all hoped to successfully wade through an hour in which she bombarded them with her intelligent and probing questions. She came well prepared, insisting on asking questions that no one else dared to ask. She spawned numerous headlines and provoked resounding declarations by politicians, keeping the viewers riveted.

In 1989, for example, Sinclair interviewed President François Mitterrand, at the height of an insider-trading scandal involving his friend, businessman Roger-Patrice Pelat. She did not hesitate to ask Mitterrand about his involvement in the affair – posing questions he was not expecting, certainly not from Sinclair who was an enthusiastic supporter of his who had even been photographed as part of his campaign in 1981. He answered in his usual manner, with “quiet force," in the words of his electioneering slogan, but during a commercial break on the show he was furious. “Did you want to entrap me?” he scolded her. “The next day he sent me flowers,” Sinclair said later.

Sinclair’s new book, “The Arrest of the Notables” (in French, published by Grasset), hit bookstores at the worst possible time – in March, on the day the lockdown began in , with all shops shuttered. In the ensuing weeks, only the online version was available, and many people purchased her book that way. When stores re-opened in May, it was almost sold out.

This isn’t the first work published by the French journalist, who still enjoys widespread popularity after a long career. She’s written five nonfiction books, two of them with biographical elements. Her latest and sixth book is based on her family history.

Collecting Picassos

Sinclair was born Anne-Élise Schwartz in New York in 1948, to a French-Jewish family that had found refuge in the United States when World War II broke out. Her maternal grandfather, Paul Rosenberg, was a well-known art collector in the 1920s and '30s, one of the first to buy and display works by Picasso, Fernand Leger and Georges Braque. He owned a gallery on 21 Rue del la Boétie in Paris.

In 2012 Sinclair wrote a book called "My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Family Memoir of Art and War," in which she describes how the gallery was seized and its contents confiscated by the , its premises later converted into an institute for disseminating anti-Semitic propaganda. Rosenberg managed to hide a small part of his collection in southern France. After the war, when he returned to France, he tried to locate the valuable paintings but found only some of them. Sinclair once said in an interview that a painting by Picasso, showing her grandmother holding a chubby infant – her mother – used to hang in Goebbel’s living room. It is currently located in the Picasso Museum in Paris.

Her father, Robert Schwartz, changed his name to Sinclair during the war, during which he went to serve in De Gaulle’s Free French Forces, in the Middle East. The family returned to France from New York in 1951, when Sinclair was 4 years old. She says that she decided on a career of journalism when she was 10, in the absence of a television set at home and after reading newspapers during the war in Algeria. After studying law and political science at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences PO), she was accepted as an intern at the Europe 1 radio station in 1973.

“The station was considered bold and contemporary at the time, the place to be despite the misogynist atmosphere prevailing there. I ran between floors carrying a tray of coffee and the chief editor, whom I respected, told me: The main thing is not to bother my journalists,” she recalls, speaking by phone from Paris with Haaretz.

After a few years in radio she embarked on a TV career, reaching prime time quite rapidly with an interview show, on which she met her future (and second) husband, . Then came the legendary "7sur7" program, which turned Sinclair into a megastar.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his then-wife, journalist Anne Sinclair arrive at the Manhattan courthouse for the hearing regarding sex crime accusations he faced, June 06, 2011.
Anne Sinclair with her then-husband Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of sex crimes, in New York in June, 2011. Credit: Natan Dvir

In 1997, when her partner Strauss-Kahn was appointed minister for economics, finances and industry in the government of Lionel Jospin, Sinclair resigned for reasons of conflict of interest. She worked for several years as an editor in various media organizations. When Nicolas Sarkozy became president and Strauss-Kahn was appointed managing director of the International Monetary Fund in 2007, she accompanied him to Washington.

And then came the big shock. On May 14, 2011, Strauss-Kahn, then a leading contender for heading France's Socialist Party and a potential presidential candidate on its behalf, was arrested. He was accused of sexual assault and raping a chambermaid at the Sofitel Hotel in New York City. Against her will, Sinclair had to face off against the world media. Like a disciplined soldier she stood with head held high beside her partner, posing stoically in front of cameras while facing invasive questions, organizing his expensive legal defense and finding a well-protected rented property in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood.

During the entire lengthy, painful and humiliating period of about a year, Sinclair remained silent, appearing to the world as a tragic figure, noble and courageous; she was chosen Woman of the Year in 2011 by the French women’s weekly Terrafemina. In November 2011, Sinclair and Strauss-Kahn returned to their Paris apartment in the Place de Vosges; she divorced him a year later. The investigation of his alleged improprieties was ultimately closed and he paid damages to the hotel chambermaid, but subsequently became embroiled in other scandals as well.

Sinclair’s new and current partner is historian and French Academy member Pierre Nora.

In recent years Sinclair has been serving as chief editor of the French online edition of the Huffington Post. She’s appeared on TV and radio shows dealing with cultural affairs, in addition to writing books. Among the offers for various senior positions that she has turned down was one by President François Hollande, to serve as his culture minister.

Thrown into the furnace

Sinclair’s new book tells a forgotten story from World War II: that of "the arrest of notables,” during which her paternal grandfather, Leonce Schwartz, was detained. On December 12, 1941, the Nazis, who had begun to occupy parts of France as early as June 1940, arrested 743 French Jews, including doctors, lawyers, judges, writers, intellectuals and artists whose families had lived in the country for generations; most of them were secular. Sinclair relates the tragic fate of the detainees, including her grandfather, who was a mere salesman of lace – not a “notable.”

The Drancy detention camp, outside Paris, in July, 1942
The Drancy detention camp, outside Paris, in July, 1942. Sinclair's grandfather, Leonce Schwartz, one of the so-called notables, was snuck out of there and survived the war.Credit: AP/Sipa

Why did you decide to write about this violent episode? Were you searching for your roots?

“I got to this topic through my family story, relating to Leonce Schwartz, whom I never knew, since he died in 1945, a few weeks after my father returned from the war. I couldn’t find any documentation about him other than one photograph, a drawing and a few letters. I vaguely knew that he had been arrested and brought to the Drancy camp, where he fell ill due to cold and hunger. My grandmother managed to sneak him out using an ambulance, first to a hospital. She later hid him until the war ended. It was totally unimaginable, since no one could smuggle prisoners out of Drancy.

"While searching the archives at the Mémorial de la Shoah [Holocaust museum in Paris], by reading notes thrown out of train windows by prisoners on their way to their death, and with the help of Nazi hunter and historian Serge Klarsfeld, I discovered the 'arrest of the notables.' This incident was known to historians, but not to the wider public, unlike the arrests at the winter stadium in July 1942, when more than 13,000 Parisian Jews were detained.

“Even though the notable prisoners were the first to be deported to Auschwitz in March 1942, that wasn’t the first round of Jewish arrests. Before that were two rounds in which Jews were arrested but not sent to death camps, although later they followed the same path. The early rounds were organized by French militias, acting under German orders. The arrest of the notables was carried out by the Gestapo, and they were taken to a Nazi camp [called Compiègne]. I’m not a historian or a researcher, but I wanted to bring their story to the broader public, by recounting my family’s past.”

What did the Nazis want to prove by arresting French-Jewish intellectuals?

“In the eyes of the Nazis they wielded influence, they were an arrogant Jewish elite. The arrests apparently came as a reprisal for assassinations of German officers by resistance groups. But they also wanted to prove that no one was protected and that every Jew was a target. It wasn’t hard to find these individuals, since after the occupation the French police, under German orders, composed a detailed list of all French Jews. They were naïve enough to come on their own to register as Jews.

Anne Sinclair. 'By reading notes thrown out of train windows by prisoners, and with the help of Nazi hunter and Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld, I discovered the 'arrest of the notables.''
Anne Sinclair. 'By reading notes thrown out of train windows by prisoners, and with the help of Nazi hunter and Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld, I discovered the 'arrest of the notables.'' Credit: NICOLA LO CALZO / NYT

"In December 1941 the notables were arrested and brought to the Compiègne concentration camp, 70 kilometers away from Paris. Since the German authorities preferred groups of 1,000, 250 'foreign' Jews were added. They were emigrants without French citizenship, who were brought there from Drancy. The final destination was of course but the notables were sure they were out of danger since they were Frenchmen with 'roots' – with war medals and good reputations. My grandfather was insulted to the depths of his soul when he [like all the others] was stripped of his French citizenship.”

One of the notables wrote in his diary, somewhat in the style of Sartre: “We’re Jewish only from the moment we’re accused of being so.”

“Yes, they were sure of themselves and did not believe the stories of the 'foreign' Jews, those who came from Eastern Europe, who had fled pogroms and had personally suffered attacks. Among the notables were famous people like the son of author Tristan Bernard, Jean-Jacques, who survived and went on to publish a book called 'The Camp of Slow Death,' which described the period of detention; Maurice Goudeket, the husband of Colette, who managed to be released due to the efforts of his wife; René Blum, the brother of the socialist statesman Leon Blum [who was later arrested and sent to Buchenwald]; the famous lawyer Pierre Masse; and many others.

“They maintained an intellectual framework, and every evening, while they still could stand on their feet, they organized lectures, recited poetry, with one prisoner named Rabinowitz, an opera singer, singing arias until his strength ran out. It wasn’t a homogenous group but they all suffered, dying of cold, with temperatures of minus-20 degrees Celsius, and of hunger and filth. The hangman is unseen, killing quietly, wrote Jean-Jacques Bernard in his diary. The Germans didn’t want to kill Jews on French soil, and, cynically, preferred it when sick people died in the hospital.

"After the Wannsee conference and the plan for the Final Solution, devised on January 20, 1942, the Nazis waited two more months before sending the notables to the death camp, in order to complete their work. Indeed, they comprised the first shipment from France to Auschwitz, in March 1942.”

Besides your grandfather, obviously, what other story touched you?

“The fate of René Blum reflects perhaps more than others the evil of the Nazis, their incomprehensible cruelty toward prisoners and what they represented. Blum was an artist in the fullest sense of the word. He directed the Monte Carlo ballet company after the death of Sergei Diaghilev; he was a friend of Marcel Proust and helped him publish the first volume of 'In Search of Lost Time,' in 1913. Witnesses later said that upon their arrival in Auschwitz, Blum was taken and thrown live into one of the furnaces. He was an example of a courageous man, fighting as an officer in World War I and then returning from the United States to fight for France.

Anne Sincalir at home in Paris. 'In the eyes of the Nazis they wielded influence, they were an arrogant Jewish elite.'
Anne Sincalir at home in Paris. 'In the eyes of the Nazis they wielded influence, they were an arrogant Jewish elite.'Credit: NICOLA LO CALZO / NYT

“Pierre Masse was a great and courageous lawyer who, when the occupation began, wrote to Marshal Petain, who headed the Vichy government, asking if he should return his brother’s citations for bravery, which he had won before dying in battle [during World War I]. Masse set up an improvised court in Compiègne in order to solve local conflicts. Serge Klarsfeld said that he established a court of justice in a place where there was none.”

'Search for scapegoats'

Your book “The Arrest of the Notables” was written in a political context in which , extremism and populism are reaching heights that have not been seen in the West for a long time. The outbreak of the coronavirus has also contributed. Does anti-Semitism pose a threat to France?

“To my delight, my book is about a period that cannot be compared to what’s happening today. There is no doubt that populism and anti-Semitism are on the rise in France, but I hope everyone has learned from the past about the dangers and will avoid a similar catastrophe such as that of World War II. Western democracies are not pursuing anti-Semitic policies, as is happening in some Eastern European countries such as Hungary, or marginally in Poland.

"In times of economic crisis, climate crisis or migration and unemployment, we witness a search for scapegoats. The coronavirus will also contribute its part in the search for someone to blame in countries that have been hit hard. What would have happened if this had taken place in the 1930s?"

Sinclair adds that she is “following tensely what is happening in Israel, a country close to my heart. Undoubtedly, it is a democratic country that needs to be protected.”

How have you managed during the pandemic?

“Like everyone else – in amazement, worrying about people who are close to me, vacillating between pessimism and optimism. As we’ve learned from history, a crisis such as the one we’ve been through and are still going through expose humanity’s beautiful and ugly sides. It evokes thoughts about life, death, the elderly, loneliness, inequality, solidarity and survival – which is a more apt word than the one used by President [Emmanuel] Macron – a battle – in order to define the coronavirus.”

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