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.

In the southern zone, similar scenes were recorded. By August 1942, however, there were the beginnings of a reaction as Jews and non-Jews alike heard reports of the Parisian roundups and their aftermath. Rather than expose their families to the risk of deportation, with all its still-unimagined horrors, some Jewish parents being transported from internment camps to Drancy took advantage where they could of the authorities’ initial hesitation about including the very young and handed their own children over to non-Jewish guardians, often a last-minute decision involving near-strangers whom the children had never before met. Zuccotti records the reaction of one sympathetic French policeman observing these separations: “I have been in the colonies. I have been in China. I have seen massacres, wars, famine. I have seen nothing as horrible as this.”

This response, though still uncommon, suggests a shift in sympathies among the French as the treatment of Jews worsened. Laval’s instincts had in some measure been correct: what was publicly acceptable if applied with discretion to foreigners was less palatable when done openly, and with increasing frequency, to French Jews as well. Témoignage Chrétien, a clandestine Resistance paper, published articles denouncing the deportations, while in August 1942 there came the first public protest from a major cleric, Archbishop Saliège of Toulouse, who required of his clergy that they read from their pulpits an open letter from him condemning the treatment of foreign Jews. This and other protests, from Catholic and Protestant clergy and even some of Vichy’s own officials, persuaded Laval to take increasing distance from Nazi actions against Jews, the more so since these distinguished less and less between different categories of Jews. (By April 1944 the SS was arresting all Jews without regard for nationality or status.)

Even so, and right up until the eve of the Liberation, although the French puppet administration preferred not to participate actively in indiscriminate arrests and deportations of Jews, it never protested against them, nor did it withdraw the cooperation of its own police and administrative services. Indeed, when General Robert de Saint-Vincent, commanding officer of the Lyon military region, refused to allow his troops to guard a departing group of Jews, he was summarily dismissed from his command by Pétain’s order.

In telling this depressing story, Susan Zuccotti places much of her emphasis upon the distinction between French Jews and non-French Jews, and she is right to do so. It was, as we have seen, a crucial issue for the Vichy authorities and one which they took considerable pains to impress upon the Germans. The latter were mostly indifferent to the matter, except insofar as they sought, very early in the occupation, to obtain from Vichy the return of internees from Germany and Austria, men and women who were not only Jewish but often political refugees as well (Vichy’s shameful alacrity in acceding to this request resulted in the torture and death of most of these people in Dachau, Buchenwald, or Auschwitz itself). But the issue of French identity was no less crucial to Jews themselves, many of whom had proudly acquired citizenship in the interwar years and could not imagine that they might be arbitrarily deprived of it to meet a deportation quota. The substantial number of aliens and refugees, for whom France was the last best hope in pre-war Europe, found that what had begun as political asylum ended as a bureaucratic trap. Not even their locally born children, French citizens by all the traditional and time-honored criteria, were spared, since Vichy decreed that children born to a foreign-born resident (even if he or she had acquired citizenship before the child was born) were themselves foreigners and thus expendable.

French Jews, conversely, felt quite safe. Even in the occupied zone, where all Jews had to wear a yellow star from July 7, 1942, many lived quite openly until the last months of the war, convinced that their very Frenchness would provide unassailable protection. Their identification with the nation and their confidence in its solidarity are deeply touching and widely attested. Marc Bloch, the historian who was to die in the Resistance, expressed the typical feelings of such people as late as 1943, when he could have had few illusions about the fate of the nation’s Jewish community: “I have found nourishment in [France’s] spiritual heritage and in her history. I can indeed think of no other land whose air I could have breathed with such a sense of ease and freedom… I have never found that the fact of being a Jew has at all hindered these sentiments.”

The curious insouciance to which such patriotism could lead is grimly demonstrated in the history of the Union Générale des Israélites de France (UGIF), an office established by Vichy and run by French Jews. Its purpose, like that of the Judenräte of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, was to make the Jews police their own affairs for the benefit of the administration and the occupying forces (though the UGIF, unlike the Jewish Councils to the east, was not required to select candidates for deportation). The illusion of confidence, control, and invulnerability was such that the UGIF openly administered Jewish orphanages, hospitals, and old peoples’ homes; its leaders refused to disperse into the countryside the occupants of these institutions, even after it was clear that they were not much more than human supply centers, to be raided by Germans and French alike whenever a convoy from Drancy was short on its quota. One UGIF official, Armand Kohn, the director of the Rothschild Hospital, scrupulously refused to allow his patients to evade their destiny, forbidding escape and faithfully delivering his charges up to their guards upon demand. Denying to the very end that he, a French Jew and holder of a UGIF card promising him immunity, would ever be a victim, he insisted on keeping his family together and forbade his youngest son to join his older siblings in hiding. Only his own death at Auschwitz saved him from the knowledge that the child, whom he insisted on taking with him into deportation, was transferred thence to the children’s medical experiment center at Neuengamme, near Hamburg. There, in the company of other young guinea-pigs, he was horribly tortured before being taken to a cellar by his captors and hanged in order to avoid discovery by Allied soldiers as they advanced upon the city.5

It should not, of course, be forgotten that there is more to the story of occupied France than bureaucratic indifference and human suffering and betrayal. Raymond Aron, who left to edit a Free French journal in London, may have been right to observe that a conquered France “would no longer have a place for the Jews,” but there were many in France who were ashamed of this and sought to make amends.

Zuccotti is scrupulous in recounting the deeds of those who helped Jews hide or escape. And a very large number of Jews, especially French Jews, did indeed survive the war. Some 50,000 escaped into Switzerland or Spain (the latter proving distinctly more hospitable, Franco notwithstanding: Spanish internment camps were almost benevolent when contrasted to those of Vichy); 30,000 Jewish children were successfully placed with non-Jewish families or religious institutions where there were occasional attempts to convert them,6 and about the same number, children and adults alike, survived the war in semi-clandestinity in Paris. The rest spent months and sometimes years in hiding, mostly in provincial France where the peasantry proved distinctly more hospitable than their fellow citizens in the towns. Certain instances of collective support for Jewish refugees have become rightly famous, the case of the isolated Protestant community of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the Cévennes being the best known, where three thousand villagers successfully hid some five thousand Jews for most of the occupation.7

Susan Zuccotti tells this and many other stories well. Indeed her book is replete with personal histories and memories, culled from a very wide reading in the growing library of autobiographies, memoirs, and monographs dealing with this period. As befits the author of a parallel study of the experience of the Holocaust in Italy, Zuccotti is especially good when it comes to showing how different was the experience of Jews in the Italian zone of occupation (until September 8, 1943, when Italy withdrew from the war and the Germans took over their zone of France), a contrast which points up all the more acutely the responsibilities and omissions of the French themselves.8 Here as elsewhere the author is extremely well-informed, notably about the numbers of people who were arrested, deported, and killed. She very properly relies upon the work of the “Nazi hunter” Serge Klarsfeld and thereby makes more accessible to English-reading audiences a great deal of information concerning the deportees and their fate.9

Ungrateful as it may seem, however, one is forced to conclude that there is almost too much material pressed into service in Zuccotti’s book. The names, the stories, and the numbers—of dead, of deported, of rescuers and survivors—finally make of it a moving memorial, but not a work of analysis. This is a pity, since the story Zuccotti tells raises a host of troubling questions. Why did Vichy so enthusiastically do the Germans’ bidding and more? Why did the Resistance (including the Jewish and Jewish-Communist groups, which were not inconsiderable) not attack the camps, railheads, and death trains? Were the French indifferent to the fate of the Jews, and if so until when? It is not that Zuccotti is uninterested in such questions—they are, as she herself notes, among the considerations that brought her to the subject in the first place. But she is handicapped by two features of her own approach, beyond the limitations imposed by the resolutely individualizing, micro-narrative technique adopted throughout the work.

First, the tragedy of Vichy is precisely that it does not stand outside the rest of French history and cannot be explained in isolation. Some of its legislation, on internment camps for example, has its roots in the legislation of the prewar years, as does the anti-Semitism which permeated the whole regime. Contempt for Jews was distinctly fashionable during the 1930s and did not die with Pierre Laval. The insidious dislike of outsiders, which prompted Vichy’s laws and which explains the obsession with distinguishing foreign Jews from French ones, was in some measure a product of the unusually high rates of immigration—in large part from Poland, Belgium, and Italy—which followed the labor shortage after World War I and of the backlash which ensued with the onset of economic depression in the 1930s. Jews, foreign Jews especially, were the scapegoat for these xenophobic sentiments, but in a certain sense they were not their primary object.

Similarly, the paradox of continuity—that Vichy for many was both a welcome contrast to the discredited Republic and its recognizable heir—can help us to understand the response of the administration and its police to the distasteful goals they set themselves. Like so many of their Jewish victims, prefects, local officials, and the gendarmerie thought of Vichy as above all an effort to restore order and “efficiency” to a France humiliated and disrupted by defeat and occupation. To register Jews was thus to follow bureaucratic instinct, just as the decision to intern foreigners was. The Vichy government was so concerned to claim administrative autonomy and legitimacy that it would have taken an unusual effort of moral will to recognize that the transfer to German custody of some categories of “non-French” persons in the name of “French independence” was a price both unacceptably high and self-defeating. By the time some clergymen and civil servants had come to see this, it was too late, at least for many of the Jews.

Zuccotti notes, but does not fully consider, the significance of the fact that even Jewish resisters themselves often could not grasp the enormity of what was happening. For they, too, were thinking not as Jews but as Communists, or anti-Nazis, or (and especially) as simple French patriots. Just how much this was the case may be seen in the postwar years when Jews (including Jewish historians) were as ready as non-Jews to overlook or minimize the special experience of Jewish victims during the Vichy years and identify with a timeless France of the Resistance, the Republic, and universal values. The long silence surrounding Vichy’s treatment of Jews, and its collaboration with the Germans in the Final Solution, was not the responsibility of defensive French scholars alone, or even of a postwar national community wary of remembering what was best forgotten. Jews also sought to put the memory behind them and melt back into a different, better France.

A second criticism of Susan Zuccotti’s book derives from this last point. Despite her close and proper attention to the attitudes and behavior of the French, this book displays some of the usual problems of “Holocaust studies,” concentrating single-mindedly on the horror and tragedy visited upon Europe’s Jews during the Second World War. Such an approach not only risks precluding the necessary degree of concern for other aspects of French history, it also places the experience of Jews themselves in something of a vacuum. Thus Zuccotti correctly notes that many French Jews did indeed survive, that in contrast with the Jews of Hungary or Poland they could count on considerable help from the local population, and she weighs this point favorably in the balance when noting the continuing debate over French anti-Semitism and local indifference to the persecution of others. But the comparison tells us little unless we know the much higher price that had to be paid in Poland, especially by anyone caught assisting Jews. Gendarmes, mayors, ordinary citizens in France ran relatively little risk in helping a Jew if one takes account of the penalties, including execution, for such assistance inflicted on people in the East.10

Such comparisons lead to reflections on the different objectives and strategies of the Nazis in different places and at different times, and they serve to remind us just how much Jewish survival or destruction or support for Jews in danger during these years depended on decisions and concerns which had little to do with Jews themselves. Similarly, the postwar desire of Jews in other parts of Europe to escape from Judaism and Jewish memory into some other identity by taking a prominent part in the Communist movement in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, for example, suggests that the response of France’s Jews to their predicament and to the later recollection of it cannot be accounted for exclusively within the French setting that Zuccotti provides.

Nonetheless, the problem with which the author sets out, and which paralyzed and demoralized so many of her subjects, is with us still. How could this happen in France? Today, France can claim the largest extreme-right-wing electorate in Europe and the newly elected conservative government has taken as its first order of business the proposal to deny to French-born children of foreign-born residents the automatic right of citizenship. This question is thus perhaps less perplexing than it used to be—though that is hardly grounds for satisfaction. In the light of contemporary developments, that is to say, Vichy no longer seems quite so peculiar, no longer so implausible an aberration. For better or worse it is as much a part of French history as the Emancipation that it revoked or the myths which it shattered.

That France must share with the puppet regimes of wartime Slovakia and Croatia the dubious honor of having denied protection to Jews living under its own, autonomous administration is a stain on the national record that will not soon fade away. And yet, something remains. For whatever reasons, few ask how it was that such things could happen in Slovakia, or Lithuania, or Poland. It is to the credit of De Gaulle and his small circle of supporters that the image of France was sufficiently restored for its wartime record to remain perplexing. It is tempting for French politicians and historians alike to deal with the Vichy experience either by explaining it away as a matter of banal, day-to-day decisions or else by exorcising it once and for all from the “true” national story. For all its limitations, Zuccotti’s book is a timely reminder of the reasons why that temptation must continue to be resisted.

This Issue

August 12, 1993