Part Four in a Series about the Second World War and the Jews
Part One: British and French Appeasement of Nazi Germany
Part Two: Soviet Russia as ally of Nazi Germany
Part Three: United States Isolationism from Nazi Germany
They say that you can judge people by the company they keep. The same is true about nations. Judaism believes that ultimately God will judge people or nations based on the choices they make. Good choices have good results and bad choices have bad results. Of course having the right value system helps. During the Jewish people's long history, true Jewish values have been rooted in the Torah, such as its Ten Commandments. Judaism, and by extension God, Who expects people and nations to make the right choices even, or perhaps especially, when being tested by challenges and even wars. This is what makes the difference between real heroes and despicable villains.
The history of France prior to and during the Second World War (1939–1945) is a very sad and disappointing one. Yet, miraculously, with the help of God, three quarters of France's Jews survived the Holocaust in spite of the evil intentions of the German Nazis and their Vichy French partners. France started out as part of the Allies with Britain, making sure that Germany would not become an international trouble maker as it had been during the First World War (1914–1918).
France was on the winning side after the First World War, and the Treaty of Versailles officially ending the war was held on its soil. France was unrelenting in its demands that Germany pay heavy reparations for the war damages it had caused to France and its people. Germany was forced to bow its head in shame and defeat, but within a little more than twenty years, Germany would turn the tables on France and make it eat its hat instead. To add insult to injury France was not just defeated by Germany in the Second World War but it actively and consciously collaborated under the notorious fascist French Vichy Government run by General Petain, a highly decorated French World War One hero who became a German puppet in World War Two.
What makes matters worse was that the Vichy French worked hand in hand with Nazi Germany in the destruction and annihilation of a huge part of French Jewry that numbered approximately 350,000 before the Holocaust. Half of them were stateless refugees from other countries.
Wikipedia: "The Holocaust in France was the persecution, deportation, and annihilation of Jews between 1940 and 1944 in occupied France, metropolitan Vichy France, and in Vichy-controlled French North Africa, during World War II. The persecution began in 1940, and culminated in deportations of Jews from France to Nazi concentration camps in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Poland. The deportation started in 1942 and lasted until July 1944. Of the 340,000 Jews living in metropolitan/continental France in 1940, more than 75,000 were deported to death camps, where about 72,500 were murdered."
340,000 minus 72,500 means that 267,500, well over a quarter of a million French Jews survived. Not enough research has been done to explain this miraculous God-sent phenomenon. In a 2022 article "How three-quarters of French Jews survived the Holocaust, despite the Vichy regime" we read: "The fate of France’s Jews during World War II...a revisionist candidate’s widely debunked claims that the Nazi-allied Vichy regime offered them protection...historian Jacques Sémelin, whose latest book sheds light on the real reasons some 200,000 French Jews survived the Holocaust...Contrary to the claims made by Éric Zemmour...French Jews who managed to avoid wartime deportation do not owe their survival to Pétain’s regime, says Sémelin...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...Sémelin 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, Sémelin rejects the notion of a profoundly antisemitic French public."
Paradoxically it therefore seems that French Jews' assimilation and integration into general French society saved them from total destruction. As in other Western European nations such as Germany and Britain, there was a high rate of intermarriage as well, that in the case of the French seems to have helped the Jews hide during the war unlike in Germany, where intermarried Jews were ferreted out by the notorious Nuremberg Laws.
So as far as France goes, it's a very mixed bag. On the one hand, it is tragic to see a nation that was officially part of the Allies, originally a partner with Britain, a leading Western nation that was one of the key homes of Democracy, turn around so completely and become a willing collaborator with the Totalitarian Nazis. On the other hand, evidenced by the survival of about three quarters of pre-war French Jewry, it is a testament to the fact that even when there is a murderous genocidal Holocaust of Jews blazing away in Europe, there can be bizarre exceptions to the rule of the near total genocide of a country's Jews by the Nazis, as in the case of France.
There is no one "rational" rule or explanation for such an event. All one can say that it is God's Will, as we say in the High Holiday prayer of Unetanneh Tokef recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: "On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity mitigate the severity of the Decree."
Looking at France going from being a proud conqueror of Germany during the First World War to a self-abased shameful collaborator with Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (1906–1980) spoke about and wrote a seminal article in 1977 "Holocaust— A Study of the Term and the Epoch it is Meant to Describe" where he touches on what happened:
"The French Revolution, in that first 18th century burst of dedication to equality and freedom, had granted equal rights to Jews as citizens, although nothing to Jews as Jews. The Treaty of Versailles  had gone even further and granted rights to minorities as minorities, including Jews as Jews. Of course, these promises were later nullified or retracted, and heard from no more." Not just that, but during the Holocaust, Vichy France turned into a partner with the Axis and assisted Nazi Germany with the genocide of a quarter of the French Jews. It was a grand "twist of fate" meaning a pure act of God's mercy, that three quarters of French Jewry were spared the gas chambers. In hindsight, and with knowledge of the Nazis' intentions of a Final Solution to the Jewish Question, it is a miracle that so many French Jews survived German and French machinations during the war.
France previously had an admirable history fighting for the rights of its non-Jewish ordinary citizens to enjoy more Liberty, Equality, Fraternity following the French Revolution of 1789, yet when it came to its Jews it had a proven dark side with a very long history. Anti-Semitism in France has a more than a thousand year long history. Jews suffered in France during the Crusades and during the Middle Ages Jews living in France were expelled in 1182, 1306, 1394 and each time were later allowed to return.
Wikipedia: "In the run-up to the Revolution , France had a Jewish population of around 40,000 to 50,000, chiefly centered in Bordeaux, Metz and a few other cities. They had very limited rights and opportunities, apart from the moneylending business, but their status was legal....Jews gained equal rights to French citizenship when the National Assembly voted it in on 27 September 1791. An amendment was added later, removing certain privileges granting some autonomous rule to Jewish communities; these were removed, in order that Jews as individuals have the same rights as any other French citizen, neither more nor less....Orthodox Rabbi Berel Wein claimed that Napoleon was interested primarily in seeing the Jews assimilate, rather than prosper as a distinct community: 'Napoleon's outward tolerance and fairness toward Jews was actually based upon his grand plan to have them disappear entirely by means of total assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion.'"
Before the Holocaust, the depth of anti-Semitism in modern France came to the fore during the notorious Dreyfus Affair (1894–1906) that showed to the world the hatred that so many French people had for even its most loyal French citizens. Wikipedia: "Antisemitic riots predated the Dreyfus Affair, and were almost a tradition in the East...But the antisemitic riots that broke out in 1898 during the Dreyfus Affair were much more widespread. There were three waves of violence during January and February in 55 localities: the first ending the week of 23 January; the second wave in the week following; and the third wave from 23–28 February; these waves and other incidents totaled 69 riots or disturbances across the country. Additionally, riots took place in French Algeria from 18–25 January."
Dreyfus himself was eventually vindicated and found to be innocent of the trumped up charges of spying for Germany aimed at him and like most loyal French Jews went on to serve France loyally during the First World War but the events surrounding the Dreyfus Affair show the depth of visceral anti-Semitism in France leading up to World War One. The interwar years were tumultuous, with Europe in turmoil, the rise of Bolshevism and Fascism and in particular the Nazis in Germany who would march on to conquer France during the Second World War and then diabolically tap into the hatred that many of the French had for the Jews.
Ironically, the Dreyfus Affair in France proved to be a catalyst in the founding of modern Israel because as a journalist Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) witnessed the events surrounding it and became inspired with the idea of the need for a Jewish state. This is noteworthy because like Herzl, who was Austro-Hungarian, the majority of Jews in France during the time of the Dreyfus Affair had become very assimilated into French culture. But many Jews all over the world who were reading about the trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus in the papers were beginning to conclude "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help." (Psalms 146:3).
In many ways the Holocaust was a culmination of historical patterns in France and Europe that had been evolving and manifesting themselves for more than a thousand years if not longer than that, if one takes into account the events such as the persecution of the Jews during the Black Death (1348–1351) and the anti-Semitism of the Church and its Inquisitions against the Jews.
Vichy anti-Jewish legislation was vicious. Wikipedia: "The statutes were aimed at depriving Jews of the right to hold public office, designating them as a lower class, and depriving them of citizenship. Many Jews were subsequently rounded up at Drancy internment camp before being deported for extermination in Nazi concentration camps." The law on the status of Jews of October 3, 1940 "...provided a legal definition of the expression Jewish race, which was used during the Nazi occupation for the implementation of Vichy's ideological policy of 'National Revolution' comprising corporatist and antisemitic racial policies. It also listed the occupations forbidden to Jews meeting the definition.
The law was signed by Marshall Philippe Pétain and the main members of his government." "Le Juif et la France (Jews and France) was an anti-Semitic propaganda exhibition that took place in Paris from 5 September 1941 to 15 January 1942 during the German occupation of France in the Second World War...and attracted around half a million visitors...A film version of the exhibition came out in French cinemas in October 1941."
The Vichy Holocaust collaboration timeline ran from 1940 to 1944. Wikipedia provides a timeline of deportations of French Jews to death camps from March 27, 1942 to August 17, 1944, stating that "The overall total of Jews deported from France is a minimum of 75,721." Roundups of French Jews were particularly brutal such as the Green Ticket Roundup in Paris on May 14, 1941; the Vel' d'Hive Roundup in Paris on July 16-17, 1942; Marseille Roundup January 22-24, 1943. Not just Jews but also their places of worship were attacked such as the 1941 Paris synagogue attacks.
The USA struck one of the first major strategically important blows against the Nazis and their Vichy French collaborators during Operation Torch from November 8-16, 1942 in North Africa when American forces attacked and defeated the Nazi allied Vichy French armies in Morocco and Algeria. Eventually this would lead up to the Americans and British liberating Italy starting with operations in July 1943, and then liberating France with the Allies' D-Day Normandy landings starting on June 6, 1944 that sealed the fate of Nazi Germany and put the final nails into the coffin of Hitler's doomed Third Reich.
The relatively early liberation of Vichy controlled Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in 1942 and 1943 by the Americans and British was a God-send to the more than 500,000 Sefardi Jews living in those countries who had already lost their rights as citizens and faced mounting anti-Semtic discrimination from the Vichy French administration of those territories. They were saved from an even far worse fate of a Final Solution in the Holocaust by the Vichy puppets and their Nazi German masters.
Mercifully France itself was eventually liberated by the Americans and the British, joined by some Free French units, from Vichy and Nazi rule following the successful invasion of France starting with the Normandy landings of D-Day June 6, 1944 continuing until the end of the war in May 7-8, 1945 when France was finally rid of Nazi Germany's occupation.
One would think that people in France would learn from their mistakes, as the Vichy French and the Nazis were on the losing side, but anti-Semitism continued in France after the Second World War. Notable attacks against Jews and Jewish property are the 1980 Paris synagogue bombing, the 1982 Goldenberg restaurant attack, continuing with rising anti-Semitism in 21st century France.
Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers College–Columbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach – Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 1988–1995, a Trustee of AJOP 1994–1997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 1995–2015. He is also a docent and tour guide at The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Downtown Manhattan, New York. He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy. Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at[email protected]