FRANCE BEGINS TO EMPTY ITSELF OF JEWS

Paris, Occupied France · May 27, 1942

On May 10, 1940, Adolf Hitler, having ended Poland’s exis­tence in Sep­tem­ber 1939, turned his wrath on the demo­cra­cies in the West. The Nether­lands and Bel­gium capit­u­lated to his war ma­chine in May. Repre­sen­ta­tives of Marshal Philippe Pétain, who had recently been named premier of the French Third Republic, signed a cease­fire with Hitler on June 22, 1940. Hitler could not have made the armis­tice cere­mony any more humili­ating for the French, occurring as it did in the same rail­way car at Com­piègne in north­ern France where Kaiser Wilhelm II’s dele­gates had signed the World War I armis­tice. Early in October 1940 Marshal Pétain’s collab­o­ra­tionist Vichy govern­ment—named after the resort com­mu­ni­ty in which his admin­is­tra­tion had settled—approved the first French anti-Semi­tic law, Statut des Juifs. Simi­lar anti-Semitic laws were quickly approved in the Vichy pos­ses­sions of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Passed largely unopposed and with­out coer­cion from Ger­man authori­ties, the French defined Jewish­ness in more encom­passing terms than did the Nazis’ in­famous Nurem­berg Laws of the 1930s, and like the Nurem­berg Laws the Statut des Juifs deprived French Jews of the right to hold public office and deprived them of nor­mal French citizen­ship. Natu­ral­ized French citi­zens had their papers revoked. Arrests of Jews in Paris began in May 1941, not long after the estab­lish­ment of a Gen­eral Com­mis­sariat for Jewish Ques­tions. In the sum­mer of 1941 the chasse aux Juifs, the hunt for Jews, began in earnest, so zeal­ously pursued by French collab­o­ra­tors and anti-Semites that even the Nazis were said to be im­pressed. The Milice (French Gestapo, nomi­nally headed by Vichy Prime Minis­ter and Minis­ter of the Inte­rior, Pierre Laval) and the French Self-Defense Corps, both largely manned by native Fas­cist thugs and released jail­birds, helped the Ger­mans round up thou­sands of Jews for depor­ta­tion. The vic­tims were taken to the newly opened in­tern­ment camp of Drancy on the out­skirts of Paris, others to a camp at Com­piègne. (In all, there were over 200 intern­ment camps in France and its over­seas pos­ses­sions.) On this date in 1942 more than a thou­sand French Jews, the first of over 75,000, were herded into cattle cars destined for Nazi camps in the east—chiefly Auschwitz—where they would be systematically exterminated.


Few accounts of wartime France and the Holo­caust have affected me more pro­foundly than Caro­line Moore­head’s heart­breaking and in­spiring his­tory of 230 women of the French Resis­tance, ages 17 to 67, who were sent by their depraved govern­ment to death camps in the east. Only forty-nine returned to a liber­ated France. Drawing from inter­views with these women and their fami­lies, and from chilling records she accessed in French, Ger­man, and Polish archives, Moore­head traces the grim 27-month odys­sey of these women in A Train in Winter. It is a remark­able testa­ment to extraor­di­nary courage, sur­vival, and the en­during power of friend­ship in a world scarcely imag­i­nable. Moore­head’s book is on my short list of books to read twice.—Norm Haskett




The French “Hunt for Jews” (Chasse aux Juifs), Paris, Summer 1941

Parisians queuing at control point Drancy internment camp, Paris, August 1941

Left: Shortly after the German occupation of France in June 1940, the reac­tion­ary, collab­o­ra­tionist Vichy admin­is­tra­tion of Marshal Philippe Pétain, en­couraged by occu­pa­tion author­i­ties, began a pro­gram of regis­tering all 330,000 Jews in France; only half were French nationals. This photo shows offi­cials examining the iden­tity cards of Pari­sians stopped at a sidewalk table.

Right: The Drancy internment camp northeast of Paris was an inter­ro­ga­tion, deten­tion, and assem­bly camp, mainly for Jews, but also for com­mu­nists, Free­masons, human smug­glers (passeurs), and other ene­mies of the Vichy govern­ment. In May 1941, when the arrest of Jews in Paris began, French police brought the first 13,000 of their vic­tims to the Velo­drome d’Hiver, or Win­ter Velo­drome, a Paris cycling sta­dium, a stone’s throw from the Eiffel tower, before busing them to Drancy.

Parisians queue at police checkpoint Buses deposit French Jews at Drancy, 1941

Left: French police arrest Jews in Paris and place them on a bus for trans­port to one of Vichy’s in­tern­ment camps for regis­tra­tion and inter­ro­ga­tion. The largest camp, Drancy, together with its five sub­camps, first fell under French police administration. In 1943 the camps became the respon­si­bility of the Gestapo Office of Jewish Affairs in France.

Right: Busloads of Jews arrive at Drancy internment camp in this August 1941 photograph.

French police process Jews Jews in France await an unknown fate

Left: French police process their Jewish hos­tages. The Ger­man Army set up in­tern­ment camps to hold Allied civil­ians cap­tured in areas it occu­pied in France. Civil­ians in­cluded U.S. citi­zens caught in Europe by sur­prise when Hitler declared war on Amer­ica in December 1941, as well as British Com­mon­wealth citi­zens caught in areas en­gulfed by the Blitzkrieg in the West.

Right: Traumatized Jews await an un­known fate. (Could any of them have pre­dicted what Hitler had in store for them?) Between June 22, 1942, and the end of July 1944, 67,400 French, Polish, and Ger­man Jews were de­ported from France in 64 rail trans­ports, mainly to Au­schwitz but some to Sobi­bór, both exter­mi­na­tion camps in Nazi-occu­pied Poland. Among them were 11,000 children, some less than two years old, including infants only days old. People over 60 numbered 9,000. The oldest was a 95-year-old woman. At the Drancy intern­ment camp just 1,542 inter­nees remained alive when Allied forces liberated it on August 17, 1944.

Vichy French Newsreels from the Early 1940s. Includes Marshal Pétain Addressing Nation