The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews
For a generation following the Liberation, the French slept uneasily upon their wartime experiences. Its victorious opponents dismissed the regime of Vichy as the work of a small coterie of fascists and collaborators, marginal to the national community and unrepresentative of it. For its defenders, Marshal Pétain’s government was the maligned shield behind which France had regrouped its forces, protected from the worst ravages of occupation. Few had the desire or reason to reopen old wounds. Then, beginning in the early Seventies and building to a crescendo a decade later, there came upon the country a revival of memory, both popular and scholarly. The initial product of this reawakening was a series of scholarly accounts of the true character of the Vichy experience, which made clear the extent of its contemporary support as well as its roots in earlier French history. These, in turn, led to more searching investigations into the most neglected subject of all: the experience of Jews in occupied France and their treatment at the hands of the collaborationist regime of Vichy.
This growing literature and the anguished public debates it has now aroused contrast strikingly with the initial silence which surrounded the subject, just as the modern critical history of the Vichy regime itself marks a break with the distracted embarrassment or half-truths which once passed for the official account of France’s recent past. Both the occupation years in general, and the Jewish catastrophe in particular, have been the object of serious and sustained attention, not least by foreign scholars. The story that Susan Zuccotti recounts in her new book is now a familiar one, at least to specialists.
And yet it remains, in one special sense, a mystery. In the early years of the Revolution, France became the first Western European nation-state to emancipate its Jews. French Jews took an active part in the country’s public affairs, shaping the cultural life of mid-nineteenth-century Paris and figuring prominently in artistic and professional affairs through to the outbreak of World War II. This was especially true of the Jews of Sephardic origin, many of whose families had been settled in southern and southwestern France for centuries; but the offspring of Ashkenazi families from Alsace could rise to equal prominence; witness the careers of Emile Durkheim, Léon Blum,…or Captain Alfred Dreyfus. In contrast with the United States (or Great Britain), republican France offered its Jewish citizens equal access to almost all the glittering prizes. Not only did Jews rise to the highest ranks of the academic elite, but by 1939 they made up nearly one third of all Parisian bankers, and 12 percent of the accredited journalists in the French capital. In 1939 Jews in France numbered at most 330,000 (about 8 percent of the total population), and 40 percent of them were recent immigrants with limited French and few resources. In view of this, the social and cultural achievements of France’s Jews testified to their successful integration into a republic …
‘Betrayal in France’ October 21, 1993