FRANCE BEGINS TO EMPTY ITSELF OF JEWS

Paris, Occupied France March 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, Belgium, and Luxem­bourg capit­u­lated to his war machine in May. Repre­sen­ta­tives of Marshal Philippe Pétain, who had recently been named presi­dent of the Coun­cil of Minis­ters 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 new collab­o­ra­tionist Vichy govern­ment—named after the resort com­mu­ni­ty in Central France in which his admin­is­tra­tion had settled—approved the first of 26 French anti-Semi­tic laws, Statuts des Juifs. The laws, together with 30 decrees published through September 1941, affected over 300,000 self-identi­fied Jews in France, of which 200,000 lived in Paris and its environs. Simi­lar anti-Semitic laws were quickly approved in the Vichy North African 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 Statuts des Juifs deprived French Jews of the right to hold public office, regu­lated their member­ship in the medi­cal and legal profes­sions, and deprived them of normal French citizen­ship. Natur­alized French citi­zens had their papers revoked, thereby rendering them state­less. By the end of October 150,000 Jews had obedi­ently regis­tered with the Parisian police, and Jewish busi­nesses com­plied with the law that required them to place bilingual signs in their windows identifying them as Jewish owned.

Arrests of Jews in Paris began in May 1941, one-and-a-half months after Vichy created the Commis­sariat Général aux Questions Juives to coor­dinate repres­sion of Jews in both the German mili­tary zone in the north and west of France (zone occupée) and the Vichy-admin­istered central and south­central part of France, the so-called “Free Zone” (zone libre). 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 cynical Nazis were said to be impressed. Munic­i­pal police, the Milice fran­çaise (a right-wing para­mili­tary militia nomi­nally headed by Vichy’s Prime Minis­ter and Minis­ter of the Inte­rior, Pierre Laval), and the French Self-Defense Corps, the latter two organ­i­za­tions largely manned by native Fascist thugs and, in the case of the Milice, released jail­birds, all did the bidding of Germans to round up French Jews for even­tual depor­ta­tion to Nazi Germany. Their initial target: the Jews of Paris. Hardest hit were arron­disse­ments (admin­is­tra­tive districts) that brimmed with Jewish estab­lish­ments and families, many foreign-born or poor. Searched right down to their gen­i­tals in the case of males, their victims were taken to the newly opened intern­ment camp of Drancy on the out­skirts of Paris, others to camps at Com­piègne, Pithiviers, and Beaune-la-Rolande. In all, there were over 200 intern­ment camps in France and its overseas possessions.

On this date, March 27, 1942, more than 1,100 Jews, the first of between 75,500 and 76,000 Jews residing in France, were placed in third-class cars with seats (later into cattle cars each holding 80–100 people) provided by the French state railway system, SNCF. Their desti­na­tion: Nazi death factories in the East—chiefly Auschwitz-Birkenau—where the the great majority of them would be system­atically exter­mi­nated. Fewer than 3,000 of these deportees returned alive.


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 résistantes 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, 1941–1942

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 care­fully examining the iden­tity cards of Parisians stopped at a side­walk table. Many Jewish Parisians easily “passed” for Aryans (non-Jewish Caucasians). Occa­sion­ally encoun­tering public distain or harrass­ment, they and other Jews some­times felt uncom­fort­able, even humil­i­ated being forced to wear the yellow Star of David on the left side of their outer­most garment, as legis­lated in late May 1942 for Jews age six and over. As for the iden­tity card, depending on the sex of a person a Jew’s card bore an official red stamp in bold that read “JUIF” or “JUIVE.”

Right: Formerly a low-income housing project, the Drancy intern­ment camp north­east of Paris was an inter­ro­ga­tion, deten­tion, and assem­bly camp, mainly for Jews, but also for com­mu­nists, Gaullists, Free­masons, human smug­glers (passeurs), Jewish sympa­thizers, and other “enemies” of the Vichy govern­ment. Barbed wire, search­lights, machine guns, and police senti­nels ringed the camp. In mid-July 1942, when French author­ities launched a massive arrest of Jews in Paris, code­named Opéra­tion Vent printanier (Opera­tion Spring Breeze), police brought the first 13,000 of their victims, among them 4,501 children and 5,802 women, to the Vélo­drome d’Hiver (Win­ter Velo­drome), a massive indoor cycling sta­dium known by locals as the Vel d’Hiv, a stone’s throw from the Eiffel tower. (The July round­up by roughly 4,500 French police­men is com­monly called the Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv or La Grande Rafle, the Big Roundup. The infamous sweep neces­si­tated importing young pro­vin­cial police­men to bolster the work of the piti­less Paris police.) Five days later the police bused the detainees to Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande, and Pithiviers internment camps near Paris.

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

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

Right: Busloads of Jews arrive at Drancy internment camp in this photograph from August 1941, the month when, on German orders, Paris police conducted their second rafle (roundup) of Jews, some 4,300. The first Paris rafle, on May 14, 1941, had swept up about 4,000 Jewish men, mostly Polish immigrants. A third Parisian roundup occurred in December and was the first and only time Germans took the lead. French police, strictly moni­tored by Vichy’s sinis­ter and brutally anti-Semitic Commis­sariat Général aux Questions Juives, conducted more than 90 percent of the arrests of Jews during the Occu­pa­tion. Police went so far as to arrest some Jewish children in their nurseries, kinder­gartens, and class­rooms. Other children were simply aban­doned to the streets, penni­less, after police had arrested the parents and hauled them away.

French police process Jews Jews in France await an unknown fate

Left: Wearing dark blue kepis 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 at this point in time? Not until June 2 and June 26, 1942, did Euro­pean lis­teners to BBC radio broad­casts hear dread­ful reports from Polish under­ground sources describing the murder of 700,000 Jews in German death camps in the East. But could these reports be credible? 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. (Cruelly, children were required to leave their beloved toys behind.) People over 60 numbered 9,000. The oldest was a 95‑year-old woman. At Paris’s Drancy intern­ment camp just 1,542 in­ternees remained alive when Allied forces liberated it on August 17, 1944. Also in Paris, 40,000 Jews sur­vived to wit­ness the expul­sion of the German Occu­pier, thanks in many cases to the support of sympa­thetic and coura­geous Gentiles and even Jewish acquain­tances, others to sheer luck, savvy, forged documents, and bribes.

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


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