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 French anti-Semitic law, Statut des Juifs. 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 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, 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 the Nazis were said to be impressed. 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, 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, March 27, 1942, more than 1,000 French Jews, the first of nearly 70,000, were herded into cattle cars destined for Nazi camps 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.
The French “Hunt for Jews” (“Chasse aux Juifs”), Paris, Summer 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: Formerly a housing complex, 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 mid-May 1941, when the arrest of Jews in Paris began, French police brought the first 13,000 of their victims 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, before busing them to Drancy.
Left: French police arrest Jews in Paris and place them on one of the city’s green-and-beige 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. In 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.
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. 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