How Guilty Were the French?

Vichy France and the Jews

by Michael R. Marrus, by Robert O. Paxton
Basic Books, 432 pp., $20.95

During the first week of October 1940, the Vichy government, without coercion by the Germans, enacted laws that excluded French Jews from various professions, including teaching, journalism, the officer corps, and high positions in the civil service. Algerian Jews were deprived of their citizenship. Prefects were authorized to detain foreign Jews in camps. In June 1941, Jews were required by Vichy to register with the police. Their property was frequently “aryanized.” Under German pressure, Vichy in November 1941 forced Jews to organize a French Judenrat, the Union Générale de Israëlites de France, which in effect acted as a conduit for German persecution.

Then, in July 1942, 9,000 French police rounded up 12,884 Jews in Paris and packed 7,000 of them into a sports arena for five days without food, water, or sanitary arrangements. Nearly all of them died in Auschwitz, as did also 7,000 Jews arrested and deported in August 1942 from the unoccupied zone at Pierre Laval’s orders. Many of Laval’s victims were children, though the Germans had specified that the deportees should be able-bodied adults. It would be cruel, said Laval, to break up even Jewish families: Travail, Famille, Patrie. Jewish property was pillaged. When German troops occupied all of France after the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942, Jewish internees in the southern zone were handed over to the Germans. The ration cards of Jews were marked Juif or Juive, making them easy prey. Jews were steadily deported to Auschwitz on one or two trains a month.

So heartless had Vichy’s policy become that ten to fifteen thousand foreign Jews fled from the unoccupied zone controlled by Vichy to the Italian-occupied parts of France, where they were afforded a measure of protection by Mussolini’s regime. In Savoy, Jews whom Vichy officials had rounded up for deportation were forcibly released by Italian soldiers. Italian sentries were posted to guard the synagogue at Nice.

Very few Frenchmen seemed to notice what was going on. A small number of people criticized Vichy’s policies in the spring of 1941, but the first public and unequivocal protests were made only in the summer of 1942. Prominent Catholic priests denounced Vichy’s Jewish policy from the pulpit, but gradually such pronouncements became more rare. No one resigned from the Vichy government as an expression of disagreement with the deportations. The trains to Auschwitz left on time, and the communist-led Resistance network of railway men did nothing to keep them from getting there.

Only in the summer of 1943 did Vichyites begin to lose heart: the French police became more and more unreliable about rounding up Jews for shipment to the east. Though violations of the Statut des Juifs were still being duly registered by the police as late as July 19, 1944, a month before the liberation of Paris, instances of dramatic collaboration had slackened off earlier. In 1943, 44,000 people were arrested in France—Jews and non-Jews—for political crimes …

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