French Holocaust Survivor, Police Brutality Monitor Maurice Rajsfus Dies as Protests Grip Country

Lifelong activist, also known for his pro-Palestinian positions, had kept a record of instances of police violence since 1968

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Maurice Rajfsus in Orleans, France, September 15, 2005.
Maurice Rajfsus in Orleans, France, September 15, 2005.Credit: Hébert Abd-El Krim

On Saturday, as thousands came out to the streets in several French cities to demonstrate against police brutality, holocaust survivor Maurice Rajsfus died aged 92, after a six-months-long battle against cancer, French media reported. 

The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Rajsfus was born and raised in the suburbs of Paris. In 1942, at the age of 14, his family was arrested by a policeman neighbor and imprisoned as part of the Vel d'Hiv roundup, an infamous act that led to the deportation and murder of more than 13,000 French Jews. 

His parents were sent to Auschwitz, while Maurice and his sister Jenny were among a minority of children freed. The trauma would inform his lifelong activism, and rancor against the police. 

In 1961, Rajsfus witnessed the Algerian protests massacre in Paris, during which police killed at least dozens of Algerian demonstrators against France's war in its North African colony. In 1962, he was also in a Communist-led demonstration, in which nine died and 200 were injured after a heavy-handed police response at the Charonne metro station. Both events happened under police chief Maurice Papon, later convicted of crimes against humanity for collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. Papon was held responsible for the death of at least 1,600 Jews.

A protester with the words "same blood" painted on his back faces French riot police during a march against police brutality and racism in Marseille, France, June 13, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Daniel Cole

After France's 1968 youth uprising, at the age of 40, Rajsfus started collecting instances of police brutality. Painstakingly, every night, for an hour, he had been said to file newspaper clippings recording everyday acts of violence.

He became a historian and a prolific writer, using his records to inform his research on systemic violence and police brutality. "Police violence is in the very DNA of a police officer," he told French daily Liberation in 2019. "When there is unspeakable brutality, we are just told that this is the kind of thing that gets taught in police academies."

In 1994, he founded the Observatory of Public Liberties, a civil society police watchdog. 

The wave of protests that have taken place in the United States following the death of George Floyd have resonated with many in France, where police has long been accused of racial profiling. The current demonstrations are led in part by the family and friends of Adama Traore, a young man of African descent who died in police detention in 2016. 

A proponent of the Palestinian cause, Rajsfus was known for his critical views of Israel. In a 1990 book on Israel-Palestine, he denounced the "colonialist tendencies" of Zionism, which he said had started as a generous, anti-racist movement, but had "rapidly drifted into a... racist enterprise." 

In 2004, he was nominated to run on a pro-Palestinian slate for the European parliamentary elections. He pulled out before the election, fearing that controversy surrounding the inclusion of people accused of anti-Semitism would detract from the aims of the list.

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