Jewish Responses to Persecution: The Case of France

On the eve of the Second World War, 330.000 Jews lived in France (0.7% of the population). They were a complex community, made up of recent immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe (42%), of "Israelites" who were of French nationality for generations (27%), and some who had acquired French nationality since the 1927 law or who were descendants of immigrant families, born in France, and thus French by birth under the ius soli. The social, material, cultural and political differences between these groups were vast, and their degree of integration within French society varied widely.

After the debacle of 1940, this diverse community found itself split: on the one hand, German occupation extended from the North of the country to the Atlantic coast and on the other hand, the authority of the Vichy government, in the Southern, so-called "Free" Zone. Before providing its assistance to the application of the Final Solution as of 1942, this government adopted autonomous antisemitic legislation; it was however complementary to the one imposed by the occupiers.

Subsequently, three waves of arrests led to the internment of 8.000 Jews- mostly foreigners- in two camps of the Loiret in May, in Drancy in August, and in Compiègne in December 1941. [Document D02 and Document D03] The Jews of the "Free" zone were also turned into second-class citizens by Marshal Pétain’s government. In February 1941, there were 40.000 foreign Jews in the camps south of the demarcation line, who had been interned through administrative means. In both zones, all these measures led to the extreme impoverishment of the Jews. They were excluded from an increasing number of professions, depriving many of their family’s means of existence, and their property was looted. The German presence in the north of the country, especially in Paris, increased the anxiety of the Jewish population, subject to a registration as of the autumn of 1940. In their uncertainty of the future, a majority had registered, and were later shocked by the successive waves of arrests.

The mandatory imposition of the yellow star, as of 7th of June, 1942, led to an increase in population transfers that had begun as soon as France was defeated, with the passing of many Jews south of the demarcation line, where they hoped to be out of the Germans’ reach.

Organizational Structures: The Consistoire Central, the Comité de Bienfaisance and the Union générale des Israélites de France (UGIF)

It was also into the Southern Zone, to Lyon or Marseille, that the majority of the Jewish organizations had transferred their headquarters. While the social activities of mutual assistance and of relief to the camp internees became a priority for all, each acted according to its specialization. The efficiency of the assistance provided was increased with the creation of a unitary body, the Nimes Committee, which coordinated the work of the Jewish and the non-Jewish charitable organizations, some of which (the Joint, the Quakers or the [Speleo]-Secours Swiss) had their central headquarters in the United States or in Switzerland. While some leaders believed for some time that Pétain protected the French Jews, others were not fooled but continued to exploit all legal loopholes in order to alleviate their plight. They increased the official protests, while ensuring they would comply with all the laws, despite protesting against their legitimacy.

On November 29, 1941, under German pressure, the Vichy government established the UGIF (Union générale des israélites de France; General Association of Jews of France), an organization that was to replace all existing organizations, which were dissolved and subject to the control of the General Commission on Jewish Questions.

The Central Consistory managed to remain independent from this new institution. The other organizations - under different conditions in both zones and conscious of their responsibilities towards the Jewish populations - gave way to the new law. This measure led to the transition into clandestine activity of several of the previous structures or of the actions performed behind this legal apparatus.

When the roundups and deportations began in the summer of 1942, first in the Northern Zone, then in the Southern Zone, these events/urgencies forced new strategies, on both the individual and organizational levels. The Jews left the cities and dispersed in the countryside. While denunciations caused its fare share of victims, an increasing gap developed between the Vichy government and the French population which, worried about the requisitioning of young men sent to work in Germany, was more inclined to welcome the Jews in its midst. When the Germans invaded the Southern Zone, in November 1942, after the Allied landing in North Africa, 30.000 Jews fled east of the Rhône, into the zone allotted to the Italian occupation forces.

It was then, that the planning of rescue of the Jews was fully organized. The diversity of Jewish responses, expression of the composite character of the pre-war Jewish communities, could also be seen in the multiple modes of engagement within the different forms of resistance.

Individual Jewish Résistants

Jewish men and women were numerous in the various Resistance movements. They were among the first to reach London, from Raymond Aron to André Weill-Curiel. They were among the founders of the group of the museum of men (Groupe du musée de l'Homme) that was organized as early as 1940, publishing its first edition of the newsletter Résistance on December 15, 1940. There were three Jews among the six founders of Libération in July 1941. Jean-Pierre Lévy created and directed Franc-Tireur. Robert Salmon was one of the two founders of Défense de la France. We could add many more who played a leading role in the Communist Resistance, without fully taking into account a massive, early Jewish presence in all movements and in positions of responsibility.

This was a personal commitment that did not differ from the one of the French non-Jewish compatriots. "Enlistment in the Resistance, was the deliberate choice of France, the French nation, with its misfortunes, its splendour and its struggles," wrote Leo Hamon (Leon Goldenberg), born in Paris of Jewish parents who had fled Tsarist Russia. Hamon continued in the political tradition, which was anchored within French Judaism. As a community, the Jews were obligated to political neutrality and thus had to conceal their opinions. On an individual basis, they often intervened in political debate, in the pursuit of objectives defined as French, and within frameworks of non-Jewish organizations or movements.

Under the orders of the Communist Party

Apart from individual efforts, the Jews contributed greatly to the organized resistance of the French Communist Party. The PCF had tried, before the war, to rally the immigrant workers under its banner, Jews and non-Jews alike. The Immigrant Workforce Movement (Francs-tireurs et partisans - Main-d'œuvre immigrée; FTP-MOI), created in 1932, joined up/united Jews who spoke Romanian, Hungarian, Polish and also Yiddish. These groups developed considerably during the war, particularly in reaction to the roundups and deportations, and Jewish Communist structures multiplied.

Their activities included social assistance for the persecuted (which was mainly the domain of Solidarité in the Northern Zone) propaganda, and also military action. The MOI created four detachments of Francs-Tireurs Partisans, among which the first two specialized in military actions. The contribution of Jewish groups is impressive: For example, 90% of those in the first detachment of FTP-MOI, made up of Romanians and Hungarians, were Jewish, and in February 1943, out of 36 actions led by the 4 units of the FTP-MOI in the capital, 15 were carried out by the only Jewish unit. In addition, the Jewish groups were practically alone in Paris from June to November 1943; thus Joseph Epstein (Colonel Gilles) was appointed head of all military action led by the Communists in Paris. The MOI provided weapons and information to the different units, an action which also reached the Unoccupied Zone, in Grenoble from September 1943 to March 1944 and in Lyon after May 1944. In Toulouse Marcel Langer’s group was the instigator of numerous armed actions. Because of the efficiency of the Vichy police, a heavy price was paid for this activity: mass arrests in November 1942, March 1943, and June-July 1943, as well as the massacre of November 1943. In February 1944, following directives of the PCF (Parti communiste français) the Jewish Communists of the capital organized specific patriotic militias. 

The particularities of the action led by these Jewish Communist groups appeared mostly in the rich and diverse clandestine press. Printed in Yiddish or in French, addressing Jews or the French population in general, published by Solidarité (Unzer Wort) or by the National Movement against Racism - a French organization created by Jewish Communist immigrants- (with titles J’accuse in the Northern Zone and Fraternité in the Southern Zone), or as of June 1943 by the organization of young Jewish Communists (Jeune Combat), all these papers and others, along with numerous tracts, repeated similar themes while adapting to the public they addressed. Solidarity with the USSR, the victories of the Red Army and the heroism of its soldiers, the reproduction of the central themes of the illegal Communist press (the necessity to open a second front in Europe or denouncing the Germans as responsible for the Katyn massacre; the battle against the departure - "deportation" - of French workers to Germany or antisemitic attacks of other movements etc), occupied a central place. In addition, this press presented a precise description of the antisemitic persecutions in France and an exceptional quantity of information on the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis in «the slaughterhouse of Poland»

This flow of information was exceptional, especially since the underground press as a whole kept silent on these topics. No other illegal publication emanating from the French Resistance (with the exception of Témoignage Chrétien) considered it important to refer to such themes.

In addition to the military and political activity that they could leverage, the Jewish Communists attempted to retain a predominant position within the French Jewish community. Echoing the politics of the National Front led by the PCF, a unitary organization was established in Paris at the end of April 1943: The Jewish Union for the Resistance and Mutual Aid (l’UJRE), joining up all the illegal Jewish Communist organizations.

This first step was a turning point towards all French Jews. It was the first step of a strategic policy that placed the Jewish Communists at the forefront of representation of all Jews of France. They would, however, have to contend with other political forces within the Jewish world.

Helping the Jews

Clearly, Jews from immigrant backgrounds were not all influenced by the Communist Party.  Faced with antisemitic legislation, many first turned towards the social organizations inclinedto provide them with some assistance. However, while the Communists pursued the active solidarity of the French population with the persecuted Jews, the Zionist organizations focused on intra-community solidarity. As early as 15th of June, 1940, the social activists in Paris allied themselves with the Zionists, of all persuasions, as well as the Bundists (Jewish Socialists) in order to create the Amelot Committee (named after the street where the dispensary was located, under whose auspices they gathered), and in order to provide assistance to the Jewish population. Soon, the illegal methods exceeded the legal assistance. The organization thus found itself implicated in assisting the Jews who were attempting to cross the demarcation line, in the placement of children who they were able to get out of the Poitiers camp, and in the clandestine dispersion of threatened children, in the fabrication of false identity papers, and finally in the distribution of relief to those who could not turn towards the legal organizations. This double face between legality and clandestinity, which characterized the work done by the Committee, weakened the position of its leaders. As Jews, they were by default suspected and monitored. The arrest of two key figures in 1943 led to the abandonment of the organization’s legal façade and at the same time, of the policy of active rescue. The only activity that was maintained was the clandestine support of those who had already been rescued.

In the Southern Zone, there were several organizations, such as the Federation des Societes Juives de France (Federation of Jewish Societies in France) – the largest organization of immigrants – or new structures like the Zionist Youth Movement (MJS) which united all young Zionists since May 1942, as well as other groups specialized in a specific form of aid such as the Children`s Relief Organization (OSE).Ideological groups like the MJS or others preoccupied with cultural and educative objectives like the Israelite Scouts of France (EIF) evolved in parallel with Amelot street, in that they shifted from social, cultural and educative action to clandestine rescue. This transformation was dictated by persecution. The OSE, for example, began by multiplying the amount of children’s homes, and it engaged itself in having children liberated from the internment camps, after which it placed more and more Jewish children with non-Jewish families and planned the general dispersion of children’s homes and organized clandestine transports towards Switzerland. A fragile network of dispersed Jewish children under the threat of deportation was put into place starting in the fall of 1942 that covered the entire Southern Zone. In addition to the network of assistants responsible for reporting to the parents, another network was added which maintained contact with the hidden children. Relief organizations and religious or secular institutions offered a refuge to the children while also offering a cover for the 29 assistants who were provided with an official function. The true identity of the hidden children was transmitted to Switzerland, so that at the end of the war, no matter what, they could be found. A total of 1,500 Jewish children were hidden in this way in the Southern Zone.

As of April 1943, the OSE began systematically exploiting a second path, that of clandestine emigration, first in Switzerland, then in Spain. The candidates for clandestine emigration were mostly the children of so-called aspécifiques who because of their religious convictions, were more difficult to integrate within a Christian environment. Thanks to the mediation of the Bourgogne Resistance network, the person responsible for the passage into Switzerland made contact with smugglers and traffickers of Savoie in the Annemasse region. Facilitated by the Italian occupation of the area, 1,069 children from France reached Switzerland with the OSE from the fall of 1943 to July 1944.

The Spanish channel was more difficult to use. Passing over the passes of the Pyrenees was not easy for groups made up of children. It was the Zionist Jewish Army (Armée Juive; AJ), on the verge of becoming the military branch of the EIF, under the name Jewish Combat Organization (Organization Juive de Combat; OJC) that created under the circumstances, the Office of Evacuation and Regrouping of Children (Service d'Evacuation et de Regroupement d'Enfants; S.E.R.E.). From April 1944 until the liberation, this service helped to bring Spain, between 85 and 134 children. 79 among them boarded the Guinée headed to Palestine, in October 1944.

While the Jewish Communist groups benefited from the infrastructure of the French Communist Party, the OSE was dependent on numerous other organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish for many of its activities. The establishment of a clandestine network for the emigration of children towards Switzerland was realized thanks to the intervention of a resistance network. The escorts of the children and the production of false identity papers could never have been organized without the help of the young Israelite Scouts of France - who were also organized in a clandestine movement, or of members of the MJS concealed under the enigmatic name  "Physical Education".

Funding of this activity could not have been possible without the support of the Joint and its representatives in France. The passages/journey/travel to Spain could only be established after the Jewish Army (Armée Juive; AJ) created the technical structures to support them.

At Liberation

It is misleading to put a number on the participation of the Jews in the French Resistance, just as it is difficult to distinguish by statistics Jews saved by organizations specialized in rescue or those who individually found ways to escape the roundups. Little is known other than the number of victims: 80.000 Jews. Once the camps were liberated in April 1945, 25% of the Jews had been eradicated. The reorganization of the Jewish political society incorporated those who had proven themselves in the Resistance, as was also the case of French political groups in general.

A new organization, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France; CRIF), which was created during the last months of the occupation, included representatives of the Communist and Zionist factions. The Central Consistory became an organization destined to politically represent the entire French Jewish community, the French Jews as well as the Foreign Jews.


Renée Poznanski