France had welcomed Jewish immigrants during the interwar period, many of them from Eastern Europe. But in the 1930s, as refugees fleeing Nazi persecution increased, France began to reassess this ‘open-door’ policy. When German forces invaded France on May 10, 1940, there were about 350,000 Jews in France. The German army occupied northern and western France which included Paris, leaving southern and eastern France unoccupied until November 1942.

From July 1940, the unoccupied territories, so-called “Free France”, were governed by the French from Vichy under the leadership of Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval. The Vichy government was officially neutral, but collaborated closely with Germany.

Anti-Semitic legislation, closely patterned on that in place in the German-occupied zone, was promulgated by Vichy administrators. Jews were excluded from public life, dismissed from positions in the civil service and the military, and barred from occupations in industry, commerce and professions such as medicine, law and education.

A central agency to coordinate anti-Jewish legislation and policy, the General Commissariat for Jewish Affairs (Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives), was created in March 1941 by the Vichy government. Jewish-owned property was appropriated for the French state leaving most Jews in France destitute, while thousands of Jews were interned under the most horrible conditions in French-administered detention camps where many died.

Then in 1942 following the decision of the Wannsee Conference, German authorities prepared for the deportation of Jews from France and other western European countries. The same year it was decreed that Jews in occupied France wear the yellow star.

On July 16 and 17, 1942, under the direction of René Bousquet, Secretary General of the Vichy police, French police arrested 13,000 Jews in Paris in a round-up code named Operation Spring Wind. The unfortunate Jews were then held for several days under deplorable conditions in the Velodrome d’Hiver (the Winter Velodrome) before they were transported to deportation camps. Families were literally torn apart, as adults were separated from younger children at collection points and at French or German assembly camps. These events, however, stirred public anger. Later, French authorities altered this policy and began deporting whole families together. The final destination of these deportees was Auschwitz, where most of them perished.

Transports of Jews from France continued until August 1944 when German forces in Paris surrendered. Of about 75,000 Jews deported from France only some 2,500 returned alive, while a further 4,000 died in detention on French soil.

With the defeat of the Germans, there were summary executions of some collaborators before the new French provisional government led by General Charles de Gaulle placed leading Vichy officials on trial. But it was not until the mid-1970s that the French moved to prosecute individuals for their roles in the Nazi genocide. In1987 Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyons”, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, primarily for his role in the deportation and death of Jewish refugee children. In the 1990s, René Bousquet, former Secretary General of the Vichy police, and Paul Touvier and Maurice Papon, also Vichy officials, were prosecuted for crimes against the Jews.

In recent years, several French filmmakers have attempted to confront the record of French complicity in the Holocaust. Indeed, the depths of French shame for collaboration during the German occupation still casts its shadow over French politics and culture today.

For the Jews, however, out of these sad events in France and Europe was born the State of Israel in 1948. Now some sixty years later the Jewish state continues to grow and prosper in the face of its enemies and is a living witness to the faithfulness ofour God. For Yahweh’s purpose is sure, and He will fulfil His promises to the Jewish Fathers as certainly as He has gathered the Jews to their land in these last days. “For thus saith Yahweh; Like as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them” (Jer 32:42). May we be there in that great day.

References

“France” in Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://www.ushmm. org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005429 Vinen, Richard. The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation. Allen Lane, 2006.