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‘How Vichy Made it Worse’

In response to:

Jews: How Vichy Made It Worse from the March 6, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Yes, Vichy made it worse and anti-Semitism was strong in France in the 1930s and during the war. But if we stop here, how can we explain that 75 percent of the Jews survived the Holocaust in this country?

In his review [“Jews: How Vichy Made It Worse,” NYR, March 6], Robert Paxton unfortunately forgets to mention that I first give credit to the Jews themselves: my book explores their capacity to circumvent Vichy and Nazi persecutions and their ability to escape arrests. I tell the stories of seventeen individuals and families, French and foreign Jews: How did they react when the first anti-Jewish German and French laws were issued? When the mass arrests started, what did they do to protect their children? Some were successful, others not, like Saul Friedländer’s parents (who were arrested and exterminated). My book is full of moving stories and it is not a sweetened history of the rescue in France.

One can object: Why would Jews in France be more resourceful than Jews in Belgium or the Netherlands? We need to take into account other factors such as the geography of France and its political culture (Christian charity, republican heritage, patriotic spirit).

In the summer of 1942, people were shocked by the police’s mass arrests of women and children. Historians agree on this: these events were a turning point in public opinion, expressed by the voice of an old, almost disabled man, the Toulouse archbishop, Jules Saliège, who found the courage to say openly in his cathedral, on August 23, 1942: “Jews are men, Jews are women, not everything can be done against them” (reported by The New York Times on September 9). Then during these most terrible years 1942–1944 (years of mass deportation), small gestures of protection multiply toward those persecuted as Jews. They came from ordinary people: the concierge, the teacher, the policeman, the farmer. I portray them in four characters: the host, the guardian angel, the falsifier, and the smuggler.

Have anti-Semitic prejudices disappeared? Certainly not. But some people were ready to help the Jews not because they loved them but because they wanted to do something against the Germans.

This type of aid was not always selfless. It coexisted with other behaviors of indifference to persecution or even denunciation until the end of the Occupation. Contrary to Paxton’s allegation, I do not consider those gestures (including silence) as resistance, but they were crucial to protect lives.

Jacques Semelin
Paris, France

Robert O. Paxton replies:

Was the glass half-full or half-empty? One would have welcomed the first five words of Jacques Semelin’s letter if they had appeared in his book. I intended for my review to make it clear that M. Semelin has eloquently, movingly, and accurately recounted all the ways Jews could survive in Vichy France, always by their own efforts, often with the help of French people, sometimes even with the help of Vichy civil servants. One would need a companion study of equal care and thoroughness of the other kind of story to have the whole glass full. Given the many opportunities available in France for escape, the question is not why so many survived, but why so many perished.

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