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Jews: How Vichy Made It Worse

Persécutions et entraides dans la France occupée: comment 75% des Juifs en France ont échappé à la mort [Persecutions and Mutual Help in Occupied France: How 75 Percent of the Jews of France Escaped Death]

by Jacques Semelin
Paris: Seuil-Les Arènes, 901 pp., r29.00 (paper)
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AFP/Getty Images
Jewish deportees at the Drancy transit camp outside Paris, 1942

It’s called “the French paradox.” On the one hand the Germans, with the assistance of the actively anti-Semitic Vichy government and of a certain number of actively anti-Semitic French citizens, deported a shocking number of the Jews living in France between 1940 and 1944 to their deaths. On the other hand, the proportion of Jews deported from France was much smaller than that deported from the Netherlands, Belgium, or Norway. Is it not curious that among the Nazi-dominated countries of Western Europe the country reputedly most anti-Semitic had one of the highest survival rates? In that region only Denmark and Italy lost a lower proportion of their Jewish population.

About a quarter of the Jews who were living in France between 1942, when the deportations began, and 1944 were murdered. Double that proportion—roughly half—of the Jews living in Belgium and Norway during the same period were killed. The loss in the Netherlands was a catastrophic 73 percent. Why such disparities? What set France apart?

Jacques Semelin contends that the answer is assistance by French individuals, along with voluntary organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, rooted in a generally sympathetic public opinion. Much of his long book consists of a detailed analysis of the manifold ways Jews survived in France, either by their own ingenuity or with the aid of others, during the deportation period: from the first train, on March 27, 1942, to the last, on August 17, 1944. The basic raw material consists of personal testimonies: diaries or notes kept during the occupation period by six persons (not all of whom survived) plus postwar written and/or verbal testimonies by seventeen survivors: ten French citizens and seven foreign or stateless Jews who lived in France. About sixty other eyewitness statements are used to illustrate particular points.

Rescue efforts undoubtedly helped save many thousands of Jewish lives in occupied France. It is impossible to determine an exact number, of course, because some of the people involved were no longer living when studies were carried out, or did not care to speak about that painful time. A total of 3,654 French people have been inscribed as “Righteous Among the Nations” at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, as non-Jewish persons who aided Jews in danger of death at some risk to themselves, in third place behind only Poland and the Netherlands. The French government has proudly memorialized them with a plaque in the Pantheon. That number is surely only a small sample.

But did French people aid Jews more frequently than other Western Europeans? Semelin never says so outright, to be sure, yet he seems to imply as much, since he claims to be looking for “traits specific to French society.” No detailed comparison of rates of rescue efforts seems to exist, but no country affected by Nazism lacked such efforts. In one German province (Düsseldorf) where police records survive, there are 203 files on Germans who aided Jews, thirty for those suspected of the same offense, and forty-two on Germans who expressed public opposition to the persecution of Jews, mostly following the events of Kristallnacht in November 1938. Surely others escaped detection.1 An early and active Belgian resistance seems to have hidden about 25,000 Jews out of a total of about 70,000, almost all foreign, likely a higher rate than in France. A late start to rescue efforts in the Netherlands enabled only about 25,000 to be hidden out of a larger total of 140,000.

Semelin defines assistance far more broadly than simply hiding people, however. He is simultaneously a scholar and a militant proponent of nonviolent resistance to dictatorships and to mass-based genocides. In Unarmed Against Hitler he wrote that “petits gestes” were more effective than armed resistance.2 Whereas the latter set off spirals of violence and reprisal without really weakening the dictator, he argues, generalized nonviolent refusals (such as those of the Dutch doctors and the Norwegian clergy) produced awkward challenges that created divisions within the occupation regimes.

The danger here is making one’s concept of resistance too broad. Even silence can be an act of resistance, if it means not reporting a hidden refugee to the Gestapo. Semelin is less convincing, however, when he includes the indifferent among the resisters. He means people who refused to be mobilized by anti-Semitic propaganda, but indifference usually means something negative, a selfish preoccupation with one’s own everyday problems to an extent that allows the dictator a free hand.

If we accept Semelin’s broad definition, aid and assistance to Jews swells in his book to become in the summer of 1942 “an important movement of social reactivity.” A section entitled “Hommage au français moyen” (In praise of the average French person) makes it sound almost unanimous. Semelin implies two questionable conclusions here—that courageous actions of assistance to threatened Jews were ordinary, and that sympathy to threatened Jews was the norm in France.

Semelin does not neglect the reality of French popular behavior harmful to Jews. Many denounced hidden Jews to the authorities, though Semelin quite properly rejects the figure of two or three million French informers sometimes suggested. The most careful study accounts for several hundred thousand instances in which people acted as informers during the occupation (a majority of them not against Jews).3 Despite Semelin’s gestures toward balance, however, the dark side may be hard to remember during many pages of happy outcomes, especially in view of his conviction that most of the French population was sympathetic.

The heart of the matter is French public opinion. Semelin dwells, quite appropriately, on the profoundly negative reaction of many French people to the public arrests of thousands of Jews, some forcibly separated from their children, in the summer of 1942. In Paris, on July 16–17, 1942, 13,152 foreign Jews were rounded up by French police; most of them were held for five days in a bicycle-racing stadium, the Vélodrome d’hiver, without enough food, water, or sanitary facilities, before being deported to the new extermination center in Nazi-occupied Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In the unoccupied zone, between August 6 and September 15, 1942, the Vichy authorities rounded up or took from refugee camps slightly more than ten thousand foreign Jews, transported them to the occupied zone, and handed them over to the German authorities there. This action, taken at Vichy’s own initiative, was particularly shocking since it meant that French police delivered Jews to the Nazis from an area outside German occupation. There was no other case like this in Western Europe, and few in Eastern Europe.4

The strong public revulsion these actions aroused is well documented in police reports and other contemporary documents. Five bishops denounced them from the pulpit (though they blamed the Germans, and a majority of the French bishops remained silent). That individual and group actions to save Jews, especially children, became widespread in France starting in the summer of 1942 is beyond dispute.

But what about French opinion of Jews before that turning point, between the defeat of 1940 and the summer of 1942? Semelin thinks that if so many French people responded to the arrests of summer 1942 with outrage and assistance, the degree of anti-Semitism in France between 1940 and 1942 must have been exaggerated. His evidence to the contrary is the diaries and testimonies of Jews who had fortunate outcomes. These witnesses recalled the sympathetic French people who helped them. But a companion volume based on testimonies from the doomed, if such could be found, would evoke rather different French people: the betrayers of hidden Jews who wanted to obtain an apartment or get rid of a competitor; the bounty hunters paid by the head for Jews turned over to the Gestapo; some 50,000 purchasers of Jewish properties at less than real value, often neighbors; zealous officials of Vichy’s Police aux Questions Juives or the Milice; magistrates who judged Jews more harshly than others in petty criminal cases.5

Semelin rejects the kinds of evidence that most scholars have used to assess French public opinion: the monthly reports by the prefect of each department, based on the prefects’ personal knowledge as well as on clandestine police scrutiny of mail and telephone conversations. Contrary to Semelin’s assertion that the prefects reported what their boss, the minister of the interior, wanted to hear, the prefects had strong motivations to report accurately so that the minister of the interior might not receive an unpleasant surprise later on. Notably, the prefects told Interior Minister Pierre Laval that his speech of June 22, 1942, expressing hope for German victory because otherwise Bolshevism would triumph had been very badly received.

The most authoritative work on French public opinion during the occupation relies upon the prefects’ reports, and concludes that in 1940 anti-Semitism “impregnated a large part of the French population, right and left, among Catholics, in every profession.”6 Semelin admits the existence of French popular anti-Semitism, especially following the defeat of 1940, but he is convinced that it was readily outweighed by compassion. This is surely the most controversial aspect of his book.

Human aid was not the only thing that helped Jews survive in France. The broad expanses of thinly populated rural France offered more opportunities for dispersal and concealment than were available in the Low Countries. One could melt into the French population if one spoke French well enough. Most children of Jewish immigrants did, for Vichy did not have a policy of expelling them from school (with the significant exception of Algeria). Fascist Italy, by contrast, removed all Jewish children from public schools in 1938.

It helped in France if one bore no resemblance to abstract images of the shtetl Jew. Resourceful individual Jews could pursue a host of strategems to save themselves in France, often aided by neighbors or even by officials. The existence of an unoccupied zone in southern France should have made things easier until it was occupied in November 1942, but Vichy sent the ten thousand foreign Jews already mentioned from the unoccupied zone into Nazi hands, including children younger than the Nazis wanted to receive. Semelin thinks that having French offi- cials in place was advantageous, but the Germans governed through local offi- cials in every occupation regime in West- ern Europe. If the French officials were sympathetic to Jews this would help, but that was only sometimes the case.

A more important advantage of the French unoccupied zone was the relative freedom enjoyed there, at least for a time, by nongovernmental relief organizations. Many of these had religious ties, particularly Jewish (the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants and the international emigration agency HICEM) and Protestant (the Quakers and the French Protestant aid organization CIMADE). Money came from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and from the twenty-five-member Coordinating Committee at Nîmes, directed by the American YMCA official Donald Lowrie.

Some foreign individuals, such as Suzanne Spaak, the wealthy sister-in-law of the Belgian statesman, and the American Varian Fry, were able to organize rescue work in unoccupied France for a time. As for the official Union générale des Israélites de France, funded by money confiscated from French Jewish charities and individuals, it furnished some aid and shelter but later became a trap when its orphanages and offices were raided by the Gestapo. The open role of NGOs in Jewish relief and rescue was another special feature of the French unoccupied zone, and Semelin does not ignore it. In Central and Eastern Europe, by contrast, it was mainly pity by individual gentiles that saved some Jewish children.

  1. 1

    See Sarah Gordon, Hitler, the Germans, and the “Jewish Problem” (Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 211–215. 

  2. 2

    Praeger, 1993. Other works in a similar vein by Jacques Semelin include Resisting Genocide: The Multiple Forms of Rescue, edited with Claire Andrieu and Sarah Gensburger (Columbia University Press, 2011) and Résistance civile et totalitarisme (Paris: André Versaille, 2011). 

  3. 3

    Laurent Joly, La Délation dans la France des années noires (Paris: Perrin, 2012), p. 12. 

  4. 4

    Romania handed over Jews from Russian territories they invaded, or killed them outright. Hungary handed over some Jews from Russian territory. Slovakia delivered its own Jews to Nazi forces in Poland although it was not occupied. Bulgaria (whose record otherwise was good) handed over Jews in captured areas of Thrace and Macedonia. 

  5. 5

    The nearly universal severity of French magistrates toward Jews in criminal courts has been recently demonstrated by Virginie Sansico, “‘Mon seul défaut est d’être de race juive’: La répression judiciaire contre les Juifs sous le régime de Vichy,” in Pour une microhistoire de la Shoah, edited by Claire Zalc, Tal Bruttmann, Ivan Ermakoff, and Nicolas Mariot (Paris: Le genre humain/Éditions du Seuil, 2012), pp. 265–284. 

  6. 6

    Pierre Laborie, L’Opinion française sous Vichy (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1990), p. 134. Semelin otherwise praises Pierre Laborie’s work. 

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