The Righteous in France

At the end of 1939, almost 300,000 Jews were living in France. One-third were born in France and around 70% had acquired French citizenship. The remainder, about 120,000, were newcomers – Jews from eastern Europe who had immigrated in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The vast majority, more than 200,000, lived in Paris.

The number of Jewish residents in France grew markedly following the outbreak of World War II, when Jews from countries occupied by the Third Reich flowed into France in search of refuge. In May 1940, around 40,000 Jews arrived following the Nazi invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg. 

The Third Reich began the invasion of France on 10th June 1940, which ended with the signing, on the 22nd June, of a separaist truce. France was divided into two zones – the northern occupied zone, which would remain under German control and the southern (non-occupied) zone under the control of a new French government based in Vichy. The vast majority of French Jews then left the north of the country and moved to, what they considered to be, the safer south. In the middle of June 1940, 22,000 Jews from Reich-occupied French provinces (Alsace and Lorraine) were deported to the unoccupied part of France, In October, almost 7,700 German Jews, from Baden and the Saar-Palatinate, were also deported there. At that time, there were now 165,000 Jews in the occupied zone (148,000 in Paris) and 145,000 in the unoccupied zone. 

Anti-Jewish regulations were already introduced by 1940. To 1942, i.e. until the abolition of the demarcation line, edicts directed against the Jews and issued by the Vichy government were also in effect in the occupied zone. However, laws enacted by the German administration only affected the German-controlled zone. Regulations against Jews, issued from September 1940, related to both economic matters and racial separation. A regulation, proclaimed on 27th September 1940 in the occupied zone, defined who was a Jew in accordance with the Nuremberg Laws and announced the registration of all Jews and the aryanisation of all Jewish property. One week later, on 3rd October, the Vichy government published the Statut des Juifs, effective in both zones, in French colonies, in the French protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco and in the French mandate of Algeria. The legislation specified who is to be regarded as a Jew, based on the Nuremberg Laws, and, at the same time, expelled Jews from the civil service and from professions associated with culture. On the basis of a Vichy government law dated 4th October 1940, Prefects gained the right to establish living areas for two categories of Jews – foreigners and stateless. They could also send them to six special internment camps which existed until 1941.

The first deportation took place on 14th May 1941. At that time, 3,747 Polish, Czechoslovakian and Austrian Jews from Paris were sent to camps in Pithivers and Beaune-la Rolande. On 20th August 1941, around 4,200 Jews were arrested in Paris and sent to a camp in Drancy. That same fate befell more than 700 French Jews and 250 foreign Jews who were arrested in December 1941 in revenge for an attack on German soldiers. By September 1942, about 20,000 Jews had been placed into internment camps – Jews from the Reich, Austria, the Protectorates and Poland.

During 1941, more anti-Jewish regulations came into effect in both zones. On 28th May 1941, the Wehrmacht commander issued a directive under which Jews lost the right to dispose of funds in their possession. On 2nd July 1941, the Vichy government  announced the second Statut des Juifs. Among other regulations, it limited access for Jews to industry, trade and the liberal professions. On 22nd July 1941, an aryanisation came into effect within the unoccupied zone. Between 8th August 1940 and 16th Septemmber 1941, the Journall Officiel published 26 laws, 25 directives and 6 regulations relating to the Jews. On 29th November 1941, the Vichy government issued a regulation dissolving all Jewish organisations, with the exception of religious bodies. In their place, it established the General Union of Israelites in France (Union Generale des Israelites de France - UGIF). This was comprised of two separate organisations – one in the northern occupied zone headed by André Baur and the other in the Vichy government controlled zone and chaired by Raymond Raoul Lambert, a supporter of cooperation with the authorities and their concept of saving French Jews at the cost of deporting foreign Jews.

After 20th January 1942 (i.e. following the Wannsee conference), pressure intensified from the Third Reich on the Vichy government to put into practice German policies regarding the Jews. However, on 29th May 1942, when it became obligatory, in the occupied zone, for Jews to wear a yellow Star of David bearing the word Juif,  the Vichy government blocked this requirement in its own zone.

At that time, plans were already being drawn up for the first deportations to the extermination camps. They included a first phase concerning the so-called foreign-Jews. On 27th March 1942, the first transports of Jews left France, heading for KL Auschwitz. The biggest manhunts for French Jews took place on 16th and 17th July. The targets were Jewish immigrants, as well as persons of unspecified origins. At that time, 13,152 individuals were arrested, among them 5,082 women and 4,051 children, all of whom were herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver – a Paris cycling velodrome. At first, couples and individuals ended up in a camp in Drancy. They were later reunited with their families at the Vélodrome d’Hiver. There, in shocking conditions, those arrested remained for five days, after which they were sent to  transit camps (Drancy, Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande), from where they were then sent to KL Auschwitz.

Throughout 1942, 42,655 Jews were deported from France. This was followed by 17,041 in 1943 and 16,025 in 1944. The last transport left on 17th August 1944. In total, more than 75,000 Jews were deported from France, of whom two-thirds had been arrested in the occupied zone (mostly in Paris). Of that number, around 24,000 had French citizenship, 26,300 came from Poland, 7,000 from Germany, 4,500 from Russia, 3,300 from Rumania and 2,500 from Austria. The majority of those deported perished in KL Auschwitz (70,000), Sobibor (3,000), Majdanek (1,000) and Kovno (1,000).

The Attitude of the French Towards the Jews

In his work France, the Dark Years 1940-1944, Julian Jackson describes the attitude of French non-Jews towards the Jews during the first two years of occupation as ranging from indifferent to hostile. In his opinion, the introduction of the first German anti-Jewish regulations did not make any particular impression upon the French people. Interestingly, during this period, on 26th March 1941, Pastor Boegner wrote a letter to the Chief Rabbi of France in which he protested againt the Statut des Juifs.

In 1941, Frenchmen also organised a campaign aimed at discouraging the community from taking over, in trusteeship, Jewish assets being confiscated by the Vichy government.

Some Frenchmen showed their solidarity with the Jews, following the regulation which mandated the wearing of the Star of David. In protest, Frenchmen themselves wore a star or a badge of remembrance. Jews who disobeyed this regulation, as well as Frenchmen who supported them, were interned into special camps.

Actual French public opinion regarding the fate of the Jews became apparent in the wake of the mass arrests in the summer of 1942. Jackson writes that, in July in Paris and in August in southern France, people were shocked by the terrible scenes of arrested children screaming for their parents.

The Catholic Church protested against the deportation of the Jews. On 23rd August 1942, the Archbishop of Toulouse, Cardinal Saliége, issued a pastoral letter in which he told priests, from the pulpits in their parishes, to protest against the deportaion of the Jews. The letter was interpreted as an appeal to help Jews. Other bishops followed the Cardinal’s example - Bishop Delay of Marseilles and Bishop Moussaron of Alba. At the direction of Pierre Laval, head of Marshall Petain’s government, numerous priests from the Lyon diocese were arrested for reading these protests from their pulpits and for hiding Jewish children in their churches. Amongst those arrested was the high-ranking Jesuit Pierre Chaillet, the right-hand of Lyon Archbishop Gerlier. Chaillet was accused of hiding eighty Jewish children. Chaillet, as well as, Abbot Alexandre Glasberg, were active in Amitié chrétienne, an organisation which aided refugees and which hid Jewish children within Catholic families. When the Prefect of Lyon demanded that the children be given up, the priests refused. Nuns from the Congregation of Our Lady of Zion (Notre-Dame de Sion) placed around 450 Jewish children into Catholic families throughout the region. Nuns from Lyon prepared false documents for the children. Père Marie-Benoît, a French Capuchin monk, smuggled about 4,000 Jews into Switzerland from the German occupied zone.

The Jewish organisation UGIF also attempted to rescue Jewish children. They believed that placing them into orphanages provided them with a chance of survival. This proved to be illusory and many of them ended up in extermination camps anyway. At the beginning of 1943, from around 1,500 children who were cared for by the UGIF, some 1,100 found refuge with foster families or in various institutions. Active in these UGIF activities were, among others, Josèphine Getting and Juliette Stern, who maintained contacts with convents with the aim of hiding children.

Personnel from various underground organisations were also active in the saving of Jewish children, such as Suzanne Spaak, active in the National Movement Against Racism (MNCR) and the Communist Red Orchestra. At the beginning of 1943, Spaak was involved in hiding of over sixty children destined to be transported to KL Auschwitz. In October 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo and, in August 1944, she was murdered, just days before the liberation of Paris.

Protestant churches were also involved in helping Jews. The best known is the story of help Jews received from the people of the village of Le Chambon sur Lignon, located on the Vivarais mountain in Haute-Loire, in the Auvergne district of central-northern France. From December 1940 to September 1944, more than 3,000 villagers, under the leadership of Pastor Andre Trocmé, his wife Magda and his assistant Pastor Edouard Theis, helped more than 5,000 Jews. Within this isolated village, they hid them in their own homes, in hotels, in schools and in their workplaces. They prepared new identity papers for them and guided them across the border into Switzerland. In explaining these villagers’ motivations, Jackson wrote, “As Protestants from this area watched as the Jews were being persecuted, they saw their own centuries-long history of persecution at the hands of the French Catholic Church.”

Another organisation to help refugees was CIMADE. It cooperated with the villagers of Cévennes, located in Languedoc. Between 800 and 1,000 Jews were hidden there. The success in hiding so many Jews was due, in large measure, to the village’s geographical location – its isolation meant that, in winter, the roads were completely closed off and the thick forests facilitated hiding. The police and gendarmerie were afraid of entering as they might encounter concentrated opposition. The region’s population also solidly supported the underground. In the hotel of the village Saint-Germain-de-Calberte, eight Jewish families found a hiding place – they were Greek, Russian, Hungarian and Polish. Four Jews were hidden by the local teacher and, when one non-Jewish family reported that Jews were being hidden, their letter was held up at the local post office.

French Jews and Jewish refugees, who found themselves in France at that time, could count not only on help from institutions and on organised assistance, but individual Frenchmen also decided to help, despite the fact that the lightest penalty for helping Jews was a fine, while the heaviest was being sent to a concentration camp. Moreover, the Germans offered high rewards for anyone who could point out a hiding place or who could lead those in hiding to a predetermined location. During the manhunt for Jews in the autumn of 1943, the Prefect of Alpes Maritimes, Jean Chaigneau, took several persecuted families into his own home and also destroyed a list of Jews which was to be used as the basis for preparing a deportation transport in January-February 1944. Camille Matthieu, a security guard in the Drancy camp, helped Simon Fuks, a tailor from Paris, to escape. He then hid Simon’s entire family in his own mother’s villa. A local librarian hid well-known historian Saul Friedlander in the Catholic school in Neris-les-Bains. During the winter of 1943-1944, Emmanuel Ewenczyk and his parents hid in the small mountain village of La Ruchėre, near Grenoble. He rented a home from one of the local families, passing himself off as an escapee from Alsace. It was only after the War that he discovered that everyone in the village knew that he was a Jew.

Public figures were also involved in saving Jews. The Brazilian Ambassador to France, Luis Martins de Souza Dantas, in contravention of Brazilian regulations, organised visas for hundreds of Jews in France. The Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, did likewise. Despite the ban on providing visas for refugees from France (especially Jews), introduced by the Portuguese government on 10th May 1940., he decided to help those who wanted to leave France. He prepared and signed transit visas for Jews. As a result of this action, he was dismissed from his position. The religious leader of the Islamic Centre in France, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, also organised false identity documents for more than one thousand Parisian Jews and also helped to find hiding places for many Jews inside the Paris mosque.

The list of Frenchmen, who rescued Jews during the War and have been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, numbers 3,925 (as at 1st Decemmber 2016), but there were many more who provided help. According to Sussan Zuccotti, of the more than 300,000 Jews living in France in 1940, more than 75% survived. Of those, around 30% survived in Paris and 50,000 escaped to Switzerland and Spain. Thanks to help from Jewish organisations, who placed those under their care (mainly children) into non-Jewish homes, another 20,000-30,000 Jews survived. Throughout the whole of France, around 140,000-150,000 were in hiding, either using their own initiative or through organised assistance, and survived to see the end of the War. 


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dr Aleksandra Namysło / English translation: Andrew Rajcher