How three-quarters of French Jews survived the Holocaust, despite the Vichy regime – FRANCE 24 English

Posted By on January 30, 2022

The fate of Frances Jews during World War II has become an unlikely topic of debate in the run-up to the French presidential election, exhumed by a revisionist candidates widely debunked claims that the Nazi-allied Vichy regime offered them protection. FRANCE 24 spoke to historian Jacques Smelin, whose latest book sheds light on the real reasons some 200,000 French Jews survived the Holocaust.

Smelins quest began more than a decade ago, following an interview with the late Simone Veil, the revered politician and Holocaust survivor who was recently inducted into the Panthon of French heroes. During their conversation, back in 2008, Smelin found he could offer no easy answer to the following question: How is it that so many Jews were able to survive in spite of the Vichy government and the Nazis?

Of the roughly 320,000 Jews established in France at the start of the war, an estimated 74,150 most of them foreign nationals were deported by Nazi Germany with the complicity of its allies in the Vichy regime, according to data compiled by the renowned French historian and Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld. The figures translate into a survival rate of 75 percent, one of the highest in Nazi-dominated Europe, well above the 25 percent documented for the Netherlands or neighbouring Belgiums 45 percent.

Understanding this French exception is the focus of Smelins recent book, "Une nigme franaise, pourquoi les trois quarts des juifs en France nont pas t dports" (A French enigma, why three-quarters of Jews in France were not deported), based on 10 years of painstaking research on the fate of Western Europes largest Jewish community at the time.

Since 1995, when President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the French state's role in rounding up Jews and handing them over to their executioners, few have challenged the notion that the Vichy regime led by Marshal Philippe Ptain colluded in the arrest, deportation and mass murder of Jews. However, some revisionists continue to minimise the regimes guilt, claiming it sought to protect Jews who were French nationals.

Contrary to the claims made byric Zemmour, a far-right candidate for the French presidency, French Jews who managed to avoid wartime deportation do not owe their survival to Ptains regime, says Smelin.

Such claims are nonsense. There is absolutely no archival evidence to back them up, says the historian, whose book recalls Vichy Frances own antisemitic laws, enacted independently of Nazi Germany, as well as the active role of French police in the arrests and round-ups that preceded deportations. He adds: Zemmour is simply playing on peoples ignorance of the matter.

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To understand why a majority of Frances Jews were not deported during the Holocaust, Smelin combined archival research with witness accounts of wartime France. These included extensive interviews with Jews who were able to avoid deportation, many of whom were either ignored after the war or reluctant to share their personal stories.

There is a sense of guilt among survivors. At first, a lot of them told me they had nothing to say. But when we sat down for a chat, tongues would loosen and their stories eventually unspooled, says Smelin. My aim was to restore the voices of Jews who were persecuted in France by the laws of the Vichy regime. They experienced anguish, separation and displacement. They also suffered.

The first and most obvious escape route for Jews was to cross into the so-called zone libre (free zone), the southeastern part of the country, covering roughly two-fifths of the entire French territory, that was controlled by Vichy but not occupied by the Nazis at least not until November 1942. There, many Jews were able to hide in remote corners of what was still a predominantly rural country.

Two-thirds of Frances Jews fled to the zone libre and scattered across the territory, says Smelin. Stressing that those who spoke French and were better off financially had the best chance of hiding. Still, as late as the spring of 1944, some 40,000 Jews continued to live in Paris, according to the historian, whereas the Jewish communities of Warsaw or Amsterdam had by then been practically wiped out.

Smelin says French Jews best ally during the war was the web of social relationships which they were very much part of. French Jews were highly integrated and had friends, neighbours and colleagues they could call upon. Without minimising wartime collaboration with the Nazis, Smelin rejects the notion of a profoundly antisemitic French public. He cites the more than 4,000 French citizens recognised by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations for their role in saving Jews from deportation. He also points to the multiple round-ups of Jews, including the infamous Vel dHiv round-up of July 1942, which fell short of Nazi targets.

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When the Vel dHiv round-up took place, something unexpected happened, he explains. The Nazis and their Vichy allies were counting on the arrest of 27,000 Jews, mostly foreigners. In the end, they had to settle for 13,000 though obviously it was still 13,000 too many. More than half the targeted Jews were able to avoid arrest, largely because their fellow Parisians gave them advance warning and helped them to hide. Smelin adds: A large part of the public was outraged that police were going after women and children.

With the unprecedented mass arrest of Jewish women and children, the Vel dHiv round-up marked a turning point in France, exposing in part the sinister motives of the Nazis. It triggered the secretive establishment of rescue networks across the country, including by Catholic and Protestant clergy. Some prominent figures publicly spoke out against the treatment of Jews, including the archbishop of Toulouse, Monsignor Salige, who urged worshipers to respect human dignity in a sermon delivered on August 23, 1942.

Children, women, men, fathers and mothers being treated like a lowly herd; members of a single family being separated from each other and carted away to an unknown destination it is our age which was destined to see this dreadful sight, the archbishop said. Jews are men and women. Foreigners are men and women. One may not do anything one wishes to these men, to these women, to these fathers and mothers. They are part of the human race; they are our brothers, like so many others.

The sermon, which was carried by the BBC and the New York Times, had a considerable impact on the public, says Smelin, who ranks himself among those who believe Monsignor Salige has not been given the recognition he deserves. His words still resonate.

Fourteen years on from his conversation with Veil, Smelin has come up with a detailed, 224-page answer to her question. Establishing historical facts is also the best answer to those who attempt to fabricate history, he says, referring to Zemmours claims. His book helps clarify why a much higher proportion of Frances Jews survived the Holocaust than in other Nazi-occupied countries. It does so without forgetting the 74,150 Jewish men, women and children who were deported from France most of whom perished.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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How three-quarters of French Jews survived the Holocaust, despite the Vichy regime - FRANCE 24 English

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