The fate of France’s 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 candidate’s widely debunked claims that the Nazi-allied Vichy regime offered them protection. FRANCE 24 spoke to historian Jacques Sémelin, whose latest book sheds light on the real reasons some 200,000 French Jews survived the Holocaust.
Sémelin’s 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 Panthéon of French heroes. During their conversation, back in 2008, Sémelin 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 neighboring Belgium’s 45 percent.
Understanding this French exception is the focus of Sémelin’s recent book, "Une énigme française, pourquoi les trois quarts des juifs en France n’ont pas été déportés" (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 Europe’s largest Jewish community at the time.
Minimising the guilt of Vichy France
Since 1995, when President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the French state's responsibility in helping expedite the Holocaust, few have challenged the notion that the Vichy regime led by Marshal Philippe Pétain colluded in the arrest, deportation and mass murder of Jews. However, some revisionists continue to minimize the regime’s guilt, claiming it sought to protect Jews who were French nationals.
Contrary to the claims made by Éric Zemmour, a far-right candidate for the French presidency, French Jews who managed to avoid wartime deportation do not owe their survival to Pétain’s regime, says Sémelin.
“Such claims are nonsense. There is absolutely no archival evidence to back them up,” says the historian, whose book recalls Vichy France’s 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 people’s ignorance of the matter.”
To understand why a majority of France’s Jews were not deported during the Holocaust, Sémelin 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 Sémelin. “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.”
‘Web of social relationships’
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 France’s Jews fled to the zone libre and scattered across the territory,” says Sémelin. 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.
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, neighbors and colleagues they could call upon. Without minimising wartime collaboration with the Nazis, Sémelin 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 d’Hiv round-up of July 1942, which fell short of Nazi targets.
“When the Vel d’Hiv 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. Sémelin adds: “A large part of the public was outraged that police were going after women and children.”
‘They are our brothers’
With the unprecedented mass arrest of Jewish women and children, the Vel d’Hiv 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 Saliège, 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 Sémelin, who ranks himself “among those who believe Monsignor Saliège has not been given the recognition he deserves. His words still resonate.”
Fourteen years on from his conversation with Veil, Sémelin 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 Zemmour’s claims. His book helps clarify why a much higher proportion of France’s 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.