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Betrayal in France

The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews

by Susan Zuccotti
Basic Books, 383 pp., $30.00

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.1

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 of citizens.

The mystery, of course, lies in what followed. During the next four years, from the armistice of June 22, 1940, until the liberation of the summer and fall of 1944, some 80,000 Jews in France were killed, about a quarter of the number present when the German invasion began. Most of these, about 74,000, died after being deported: of the Jews sent to the camps from France only 3 percent survived the war. Significantly, the proportion of foreign-born Jews living in France who fell victim to the authorities was much higher than that of native French: about 45 percent of foreign Jews were murdered, but only 20 percent of those with French nationality.

These figures do not of course compare to the experience of the Jews of Poland, Hungary, or Ukraine; nor did Jews in France for the most part suffer the unspeakable violence inflicted on Jews (and others) by the Ustashe regime of wartime Croatia. But of course we are not here speaking of Croatia or Poland, or even of Hungary, but speaking of France, where there was, at least until November 1942, an autonomous government, heir to the last parliament of the Republic, and where expectations were different and the chances of protection and survival commensurately greater. The Nazis could not have pursued their objectives without the active cooperation of the French authorities, a cooperation with which, as historians have now conclusively demonstrated, they were enthusiastically provided. It was the tragedy of France’s Jewish population that they believed in France, and it is the shame of modern France that this faith was misplaced. How could this have happened?

From July 1940 until November 11, 1942, when the Germans occupied the southern zone in response to the Allied landings in North Africa, France was divided in two. The south was governed from the spa town of Vichy and was effectively autonomous, while the occupied zone, comprising the north, the west, and the coastline from the Spanish border to Belgium, was under German control. Civil edicts emanating from Vichy were applicable to the whole country but they were subject to further German directives in the occupied region. For the first two and a half years of its existence, then, the Vichy regime was substantially responsible for its own choices and laws; its treatment of Jews, as of its other victims, must be understood in that light.

In her careful study Susan Zuccotti shows that, from its inception, Vichy was overtly and actively chauvinist and anti-Semitic. On July 17, 1940, within a few days after it was established, it had excluded from public service all residents not born of French fathers, a restriction further extended in the weeks that followed to the liberal professions. A commission was established to review all citizenships granted under the liberal Naturalization Law of 1927, and a 1938 press law banning racially motivated attacks on individuals was revoked on August 27, 1940. These measures significantly affected the visible and vulnerable foreign-born Jews, who had come to France in the years between 1880 and 1939, fleeing persecution in Eastern and Central Europe and quadrupling the local Jewish population in just fifty years.

Even more devastating was the Statut des Juifs, promulgated on October 3, 1940, which excluded Jews from a further range of occupations and redefined “Jew” to cover anyone with two Jewish grandparents and a Jewish spouse. It is significant that this definition was more inclusive than that applied by the Germans, and like the statute itself was produced and imposed without any German bidding. A second Statut des Juifs, dated June 2, 1941, further extended the criteria of Jewishness and restrictions upon Jews and it, too, was a product of French initiative, unprompted by German pressure or example.2

These measures might not have mattered so much (except for the moral health of the French nation) were it not that so many foreign-born and naturalized Jews were now living in the southern or “free” zone. Some had made their way there during the course of the fighting in the spring of 1940, others had escaped from the occupied zone following the armistice. But a significant number were already there before the Germans arrived, many of them in internment camps set up by the previous government to house refugees from the Spanish civil war, as well as “enemy aliens” and other undesirables. These establishments, located mostly in the foothills of the Pyrenees and around the Mediterranean hinterland, were to become notorious during the Vichy years; overcrowded, administered with bureaucratic callousness at best, cold sadism at worst, they were concentration camps in all but name. Three thousand foreign-born Jews died in them, from malnutrition, exposure, and disease—in one particularly notorious camp at Gurs, in the Pyrenees, the death rate during the winter of 1940–1941 was thirty people a day.3

Worse, these camps functioned as holding pens, from which Vichy was able to furnish the Germans with a steady supply of victims once the demand for these began in earnest in 1941. In its painstaking efforts to isolate and distinguish foreign-born Jews from the rest, Vichy at once expanded and identified a category of victims tailor-made for persecution. It is depressingly significant that the internment and ultimate deportation of these “foreigners” (many of whom had acquired French citizenship during the 1930s, only to be deprived of it retroactively by the Pétain regime) aroused almost no opposition. No bishop and only one regular priest publicly protested the two Jewish statutes and the treatment of internees. The same silence surrounded the establishment at Drancy, in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, of a huge transit camp for Jews from both zones, in anticipation of their eventual dispatch to the east, which began in March 1942. Drancy, as Zuccotti points out, was policed and run by French gendarmes and officials.

This last point bears emphasizing. The Germans in France had no means of enforcing their Jewish policy without French assistance; they did not know how many Jews there were in France, what their names were, or where they lived. Nor could they readily distinguish a Jew from a non-Jew. It was French civil servants who registered Jews in the Parisian census of October 1940 when 150,000 Jewish residents of the city pliantly provided their names and addresses, information that proved vital when it came to rounding them up two years later. They might not have been so willing to provide this data had they not been asked to do so by French authorities, whom they trusted implicitly and whose civil authority they were accustomed to obeying unquestioningly. It was a French premier, Pierre Laval, who promised the SS chiefs in Paris that he would fill their quota of Jews for deportation, and who did so by handing over not only foreign Jews but also their children, the better to claim that French Jews, like France itself, were protected by the shield of Vichy. And it was French gendarmes who arrested thousands of registered Jews in the infamous Parisian roundups of July 16–17, 1942, when some 13,000 non-French Jews were herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports stadium and kept there in appalling conditions and under French police surveillance until they could be processed through Drancy and thence to Auschwitz.

The willingness of Laval and his police chief, René Bousquet, to deport children is a particularly shameful chapter in this story.4 As Zuccotti shows, with a wealth of moving detail, the treatment of children and infants was indescribably heartless. Because Berlin had yet to issue instructions regarding the fate of Jews under twelve, the victims of the July roundups and other arrests were separated from one another: adults and adolescents were sent on to Drancy, while the children were herded, almost alone and untended, into two camps near Orléans. There 3,500 of them, the babies and toddlers dependent upon the older ones, were left for days until they, too, were shipped out to Drancy. From there they were pushed, dragged, or carried by gendarmes and other officials into dark cattle-cars for shipment to Auschwitz, filthy, starving, alone, and terrified. Not one of them survived the war.

  1. 1

    See for example Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (Knopf, 1972) and Jean-Pierre Azéma, From Munich to the Liberation 1938–1944 (Cambridge University Press, 1984; original French publication, 1979). On the experience of Jews under Vichy see Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (Basic Books, 1981); André Kaspi, Les Juifs pendant l’Occupation (Paris: Les Belles-Lettres, 1992); Richard I. Cohen, The Burden of Conscience: French Jewry’s Response to the Holocaust (Indiana University Press, 1987) and Jacques Adler, The Jews of Paris and the Final Solution: Communal Response and Internal Conflicts, 1940–1944 (Oxford University Press, 1987).

  2. 2

    At the time of the first Statut, the official German definition of a Jew was a person who had adhered or continued to adhere to the Jewish faith or who had more than two Jewish grandparents.

  3. 3

    On the internment camps, see Anne Grynberg, Les Camps de la honte: les internés juifs des camps français, 1939–1944 (Paris: La Découverte, 1991). In his memoir The Scum of the Earth (Macmillan, 1941), Arthur Koestler draws a chilling portrait of his experiences in one of these camps at Le Vernet in southwestern France.

  4. 4

    René Bousquet was assassinated in Paris on June 8 by a disturbed man who told reporters before his arrest that he had been sent by God. Following the war Bousquet lived a peaceful and prosperous life, only recently falling victim to the belated revival of national interest in the events in which he was involved. His trial for crimes against humanity had been so long postponed, however, that it was increasingly unlikely that at the age of eighty-four he would ever have had to answer for his actions. At his original trial, in 1949, Bousquet had actually succeeded in convincing the court that he had spent the war as a (secret) ally of the Resistance.

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