The Rescue and Survival of Jews in Occupied Western Europe – A Reappraisal

It can be argued that the historiography on the survival of Jews in Western Europe has skewed our understanding of how Jews managed to escape deportation to the killing centres of Eastern Europe. Two separate strands have emerged. One highlights the role of non-Jewish rescuers in helping Jews to evade Nazi persecution, and one other stresses Jewish resistance and self-help. There are many testimonies of survivors but in most cases, their narratives only record the personal experiences of each individual author, sometimes those of their families. They seldom reflect upon the wider context of their survival. Moreover, Jewish fugitives often had only a limited knowledge of the individuals or organisations that supported them. In identifying ‘Righteous among the Nations’, Yad Vashem has served to foreground non-Jewish help in the discussions on Jewish survival. However, its testimonies concentrate on individual rescuers and pay little attention to the geographical or political context in which their activities took place, or to any wider analysis of why they chose to become involved. The use of ‘righteous’ rescuers as the basis for sociological studies on the origins of altruism, and on the highlighting of Christian motivations behind particular acts of rescue has accentuated this trend. More recent works have compared and contrasted behaviour patterns in an attempt to draw overarching conclusions about the impact of Christian belief and moral values on this behaviour as well as analyses of altruism.

This concentration on non-Jews as the central factor in rescue has also served to downplay the role of Jewish self-help and resistance in both local and national contexts. These elements have usually been considered as a discrete topic, yet they both contributed to the overall story of Jewish survival. Indeed, some of the most successful examples of rescue occurred when Jewish and non-Jewish agencies co-operated. This feature can be seen in France, Belgium and Denmark, while it is less apparent in the Netherlands. Doing justice to the sheer diversity of rescue across the countries of Western Europe is all but impossible, as each individual narrative of rescue, whether successful or not, involves some unique factors. However, some broad categorisations can help to structure our understanding of the ways in which Jews avoided capture and deportation.

Escape and Evasion

Jewish escape from Nazi controlled areas took many different forms. Many thousands fled in advance of the German Armies in May 1940 and joined the millions of refugees on the road southwards, with the vast majority ending up in Southern France. Only a very small number had the ability or the resources to move further afield – to belligerent or neutral states such as Britain, Switzerland or Spain. At this stage there was little outside help. Jewish organisations were themselves in turmoil and state agencies and private charities struggled to cope with massive levels of social dislocation. However, even in these early months, groups and individuals sheltering soldiers escaping from German internment also helped Jews on the road, as did the embryonic resistance movements in Belgium and Northern France, in some cases reactivated from the Great War and involving some of the same personnel. In Belgium, many of the older generation clearly remembered the occupation of 1914-1918 and needed no prompting to re-engage in clandestine activity after 1940.

But organised help also predated the German occupation of 1940; in the aid to refugees from the Spanish Civil War and for political activists on the run. Early escape networks involved priests and local farmers that grew up to help escaping Belgian and French soldiers after defeat. Many of the problems of helping Allied soldiers and airmen on the run; of appearance, language and lack of identity papers – were also to be evident in helping Jews later in the occupation. Some of the more famous networks such as Varian Fry’s organisation in Marseilles and Jean Weidner’s Dutch-Paris helped both Jews and non-Jews but there were also some that specialised. [Document E01] Many others attempted to travel and cross frontiers independently, harnessing the help of local passeurs when necessary. These were inherently risky enterprises, fraught with the dangers of having to trust strangers and even criminals. [Document E02]



After the first shock of the German invasion of Western Europe, and the attempts at flight, most Jews had no choice but to remain and try to adapt to the changes enforced by the occupiers and the indigenous bureaucracies. Registration, isolation and pauperisation followed, and the poor material position of many urban Jews provided few opportunities to evade the increasing pressures. In Paris, some parents took advantage of the traditions of sending children to the countryside for the summer to make such arrangements semi-permanent, with sons and daughters being left in the care of the ‘foster parents’ and registered in local schools. Probably a very small number also made some provision to go into hiding away from the districts where they were known, but for the vast majority, the first mass deportations in the summer of 1942 became the prompt to find ways to evade call-ups and the concomitant police raids.

In this initial phase, most Jews looked towards non-Jewish friends, neighbours and workmates for help. In some cases, this was volunteered and in other cases requested. In apartment blocks, it might be the concierge who would be able to find temporary or sometimes even permanent hiding places within the building. Middle-class families with domestic servants could sometimes be invited to move to the home of their employees’ parents, almost invariably in the countryside [Document E03]. Children could also be the catalyst through their non-Jewish classmates or through the teachers. Nearly all these initial examples of gentile help resulted in an unknown number of private arrangements, but the number of offers, requests and refusals can never be fully quantified. Most hosts required some form of financial recompense, if only to offset the costs of buying food illicitly on the black market, but there were also cases of rampant profiteering and instances where the ‘debts’ were being paid off years after the war was over. Perhaps crucial to an understanding of the dynamic involved here is the fact that in 1942, neither the hosts nor the guests had any idea of how long the arrangement was likely to last.

A different form of evasion was hiding ‘in plain sight’. Every country in Western Europe employed some form of identity card and ration card system but this meant it was possible to live under an assumed name if one could beg, borrow or steal the necessary papers and then relocate from districts where one’s Jewish identity was known. In the initial stages of the deportation period, some people could be persuaded to hand over their papers and then apply to the authorities for replacements, claiming that they had been lost. Others were stolen from coat pockets or handbags if the opportunity arose. Latterly, a whole industry grew up to provide false papers, using both forgers from the criminal underworld and sympathetic civil servants who would ‘lose’ batches of blank papers [Document E04]. Such a systematic approach to clandestine living took time to emerge and was pioneered primarily by resistance groups rather than by those sheltering Jews, although both were ultimately beneficiaries.

It is also worth reflecting here on the experience of hiding. Some fugitives lived underground – sometimes literally – for anything up to three years, and would only have been aware of possible liberation a few months before it took place. The prominence given to the story of Anne Frank leaves the impression that Jews found a hiding place and then remained there, but the experience of many was of persistent movement as refuges became unsafe or overcrowded. Perhaps even more pertinent, but largely undiscussed are the extreme tensions experienced by both guests and hosts – of cultural and political clashes between them, but also of living under the permanent threat of discovery and arrest [Document E05].


The Role of Jewish Organisations

Comparison between France and Belgium on the one hand and the Netherlands on the other shows how the existence of independent Jewish organisations during the occupation could benefit Jewish survival. While French Jews dominated the Consistory and the communities’ secular organisations, the foreign Jews developed their own organisations; chief among them being the Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée (MOI), a manual labour association for immigrants organised by the communists.

After the armistice, many fled south. Only the Jewish Communist Party and the MOI remained active in Paris, albeit underground. The Consistory leaders decided to stay in Vichy, and the vacuum in Paris was filled by what became known as the Amelot Committee, made up from three political groups, (the Bund, and the left and right wings of Poale-Zion), and two other organisation, the Fédération des Sociétés Juives de France (FSJF) and the Colonie Scolaire both of which had been active in Jewish welfare before the occupation. While the communists continued to operate separately, the Amelot Committee effectively formed the basis for a still legal communal response to the plight of the immigrant and refugee Jews in the occupied zone, co-operating with both the Consistory and the communists. Later on, the Organisation Juive de Combat (OJC) brought together the previously antagonistic Zionists and Jewish Scout Movement (EIF), and later the Union des Juifs pour la Résistance et l’Entraide (UJRE), and the Comité Général de Défense des Juifs to help those in need in both occupied and unoccupied zones. They provided an essential counterweight to the collaborationist Union Général des Israélites de France (UGIF).

Perhaps more important than the co-operation between different Jewish groups in France were the links forged with other Christian groups, such as the Quakers, YMCA and the Protestant Comité Inter-Mouvements Auprès d’Evacués (CIMADE) through help for those interned in Southern France after 1939. After the major raids of 16 and 17 July and the incarceration of 12,000 non-French Jews in the Vel d’Hiv, Solidarité and the Amelot Committee began to look for more outside help. The communists responded to the first deportation convoys in June 1942 by identifying 200 Catholic and Protestant institutions likely to hide Jews and the Amelot Committee began widening its contacts with non-Jewish social workers.

The importance of Jewish self-help is even more marked in Belgium where there had been a number of secular left-wing organisations devoted to helping the Jews. The communist Main d‘Oeuvre Étrangère (MOE) helped all immigrants whereas Solidarité Juive had been created in 1939 specifically to help Jewish political refugees from Poland. These became unified as the Comité de Défense des Juifs (CDJ) under the umbrella of the Independence Front (FI), a resistance movement founded on 15 March 1941. It emerged more or less simultaneously in five major cities, albeit centred in Brussels, and in response to the first threats of deportation in July 1942. Its long-time leader was Hertz (Joseph/Ghert) Jospa, a communist of Rumanian/Bessarabian origins but also included radical Catholics as well as middle-class Jewish industrialists, Bundists and liberals. Although many of the bourgeois elements involved in the creation of the CDJ were wary of becoming involved with left-wing organisations and apostate Jewish communists like Jospa, they were prepared to stifle these fears in pursuit of an organisation that would help the community as a whole. All this was in stark contrast to the Netherlands where immigrant Jewish organisations were all but non-existent and there was no counterweight to the collaborationist and all-embracing Amsterdam Jewish Council.

In Belgium, the level of integration and co-operation between Jewish and non-Jewish resistance and rescue organisations is remarkable, even when compared with France. The CDJ was able to call on financial help from rich Jews and later from banks and other organisations such as the JDC and Oeuvre Nationale de l’Enfance. In the summer of 1943, the organisation was spending BFr. 300,000 per month just on help for adults in hiding. The total budget during the occupation was estimated to have reached a staggering BFr. 48 million. CDJ links with non-Jewish organisations allowed it to find addresses and hiding places, and also secure a supply of false papers through its association with the FI, and benefited from the co-operation of sympathetic local mayors and amenable civil servants who incorporated false identities into existing population records. Indeed, this system seems to hold the key to understanding how 12,000 adult Jews survived with the help of the CDJ, many not ‘in hiding’ but living false lives more or less in the open [Document E06].


The Role of Catholic and Protestant Churches

The role of the major Christian denominations, their leaders, clerics and congregations in helping the Jews has been much discussed. Given the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church, the attitudes and behaviour of its leading prelates could determine the extent of help for Jews in particular regions. Those attitudes were, however, highly ambivalent. For instance, Cardinal Archbishop Gerlier of Lyon, who was later to become a champion of persecuted Jewry, was reputed to have ‘an instinctive dislike for the Jews’ based on their supposed role in the bank failure that had led to the collapse of his family’s fortunes. At the same time, he had good relations with the Jewish community leaders in Lyon and was viewed by them with respect. Other leading clerics took a very different stance. The bishops of Grenoble and Chambéry welcomed the Vichy regime’s first anti-Jewish measures. This suggests that Catholic attitudes to the Jews were probably largely determined by local considerations and local leaders. Moreover, like the French population at large, many Catholic leaders chose to make a distinction between the treatment meted out to foreign Jews, which they accepted as ‘necessary’, and the extension of the prejudicial legislation to French Jews, which they did not. Later on, a number could be heard condemning the deportations while at the same time reaffirming loyalty to the Marshal and his regime. The role of Marc Boegner in mobilising French Protestant communities to help Jews and other refugees is well-known, but it could be argued that some of his Catholic counterparts were just as important in harnessing their much more numerous subordinates and congregations. Influence towards practical help was limited to private advice to both clergy and lay-people within particular dioceses to support Jews in hiding. Individual prelates could also exercise influence over individual monasteries, convents, seminaries, welfare and educational institutions even when these were not directly controlled by the diocese. Moreover, their names could be invoked in order to encourage the laity to co-operate in sheltering Jews.

Cardinal Archbishop van Roey and Catholic institutions are also central to understanding the ways in which rescue developed in Belgium. Beyond neighbours and acquaintances, Christian leaders such as bishops and priests were often the first port of call for Jews who were forced to look for reliable help outside their own community. Initially this was often to obtain (false) baptismal certificates to exempt the holder from deportation, but later also encompassed requests for shelter, ration cards or help to escape the country altogether. Van Roey personally intervened on behalf of a few arrestees, although few were ultimately saved. He remained opposed to public appeals to the Germans, even after the deportations had begun, preferring private interventions for individuals and small groups, reasoning that any protest might bring adverse consequences for Jewish children hidden in Catholic institutions. He undoubtedly knew exactly what was happening in Catholic cloisters and orphanages across the country. It seems likely that he had privately sanctioned such actions.

In the Netherlands, the Roman Catholic Church took steps to protect the small number of Jewish converts in its schools and refused to have signs prohibiting Jews placed in Catholic public institutions. Unlike his Belgian and French counterparts, Cardinal de Jong did protest when the deportations began. However, his public declaration, read from every pulpit, merely prompted the Germans to arrest and deport most of the Catholic converts. De Jong seems subsequently to have been less proactive than his colleagues, Cardinals Gerlier and Van Roey, as the deportations continued. The actual differences may have been little more than nuances, but they did have a major impact in what happened ‘on the ground’ in individual parishes. That said, it is also important to recognise that the Dutch Catholic Church had fewer practical resources to call upon as it had less of an ‘institutional’ and welfare role than its counterparts in France and Belgium. All three prelates nonetheless had to balance their humanitarian and religious obligations with the need to protect the secular interests of their church at a time of crisis.



Sociological and social anthropological studies of rescue have been primarily concerned with interrogating and understanding the role of individuals. As a result, the role of organised networks has often been downplayed. This has been exacerbated by the testimony of those rescued who remembered individuals but who were, of necessity, kept in ignorance of the organisations involved. Yet even the most cursory examination of the subject reveals that most participants were ultimately linked in to networks created or adapted to meet the needs of Jews and others on the run. The creation of networks could come through many different channels; political, educational or neighbourhood, but all usually required an individual driving force. In Belgium, for example, Bishop Kerkhofs of Liège recruited other members of the clergy into the work of saving Jews by holding meetings specifically to discuss the issue. He also used pastoral letters to mobilise lay Catholics, although the language used was inevitably circumscribed, as well as sanctioning priests to issue backdated baptismal certificates and adjust parish registers. The practical matters associated with hiding Jews; the identification of hiding places, the provision of food, ration cards and identity documents was taken on by the van den Berg network. Sanctioned by the bishop, he approached the directors of welfare institutions, rectors, and headmasters of schools as well as the abbots and mother superiors of religious houses to provide aid and hiding places.

Apart from the connections with the local Catholic Church and the bishop, this network was very much a van den Berg family affair with his wife, brother-in-law and cousin all involved. Liège therefore provides an outstanding example of how pre-existing social and professional contacts between Jewish and non-Jewish clandestine organisations with the Catholic Church provided huge advantages in mobilising when the first arrests and deportations took place in 1942. It also shows how important the attitudes of leading clergy were in fostering help and support for Jews in hiding, as there was a major difference in the amount of help provided in Wallonia – where bishops were ostensibly more sympathetic – and where 80% of all Jews were sheltered - when compared with Flanders. However, it would be wrong to suggest that all this was driven by initiatives or ‘hints’ from the Church leadership. There were many cases of individual priests acting on their own or in concert with colleagues or the CDJ to provide assistance to Jews in various ways. This was especially true in Brussels, in districts like Schaerbeek and Anderlecht, where there were higher than average Jewish populations.

Other networks were developed through organisations and friendships. Thus priests and pastors in urban areas where the Jews were most under threat would contact colleagues they trusted in rural parishes to find hiding places. Clerical influence was often crucial, but this should not be allowed to undermine the existence and importance of secular organisers and the problems they faced in finding individual hiding places, even when supported by local clerics and community leaders [Document E07]. Support for Jews in hiding was also assisted by the creation of networks to help labour draft evaders, but across Western Europe, these developments came too late to help the majority of Jews.


The Special Case of Children

All those involved in sheltering Jews were aware of how much easier it was to find places for children as opposed to adults [Document E08]. Children did not require identity papers and were more easily passed off as evacuees – sometimes with the flimsiest of cover stories. The CDJ had an extensive children’s section that sheltered around 3,000 souls [Document E09], and in the Netherlands there were also specific networks devoted to children. Children were also seen as innocent victims of persecution and therefore ‘more deserving’ than their parents when it came to help. While all of this speaks to humanitarian motivation, there was also a darker side with real or imagined attempts at Christian conversion, economic or even sexual exploitation. Some of the contradictions involved here only became apparent after the liberation, with some foster parents refusing to give up children to surviving family members and even well-known rescuers such as Père Bruno Reynders saying publically that children who had been exposed to the Christian faith should not go back to Judaism.



There are many other contributory factors in the incidence of rescue activities across Western Europe, but it could be argued that these are common across all countries and regions to a greater or lesser extent. The role of committed individuals, both secular and religious, undoubtedly helps to explain the distribution of activities and the sometimes anomalous juxtaposition between ‘hot spots’ and ‘deserts’. However, it could be argued that the elements discussed here have been understated both in national and in comparative studies to date. While empirical and quantitative data can only tell part of the story, this impressionistic analysis is intended to bring the salient differences between states and between regions more into the foreground of the debate. Moreover, we should not assume that all Jews who tried to evade deportation were law-abiding and respectable, and we should also remember that survival remained largely a matter of luck [Document E10].

Bob Moore