On the occasion of the International Day in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, France 24 looks at those who were not deported. In his latest book, the historian Jacques Sémelin recounts how he investigated the more than 200,000 Jews who, in France, were not taken to the killing centers. And this is not due to any protection from the Vichy regime.
This is the story of a question. In 2008, the historian Jacques Sémelin has an appointment with the former deportee and minister Simone Veil. During their conversation, the one who has since entered the Pantheon, questions this specialist in mass crimes: « How is it that so many Jews were able to survive in France despite the Vichy government and the Nazis? ».
France has indeed a particularity. Historian Serge Klarsfeld has established that out of nearly 320,000 Jews established in France before 1940, approximately 74,150 were deported, a survival rate of 75%, one of the highest in Nazi Europe, whereas only 25% of Jews in the Netherlands and 45% of Jews in Belgium survived. A French exception yet little documented.
Jacques Sémelin then decided to tackle this question and devoted ten years of research to it. In his latest book « A French enigma, why three quarters of the Jews in France were not deported » (Albin Michel), he recounts this long investigation.
« Make them exist as persecuted Jews »
Contrary to what, for example, the presidential candidate Éric Zemmour asserts, this less heavy record than in most countries subjected to the Nazis is not to be credited with any protection of French Jews by the Vichy regime, led by Marshal Pétain. « It’s nonsense. We can’t find it in the archives. Éric Zemmour plays on people’s ignorance », insists Jacques Sémelin, who recalls in his book Vichy’s own anti-Semitic legislation, the assistance of its police in the context of the arrests and of course the fact that 24,500 French Jews were indeed deported.
To understand how a majority of Jews in France were not taken to the killing centers, the historian met many of them. For a long time, those who had survived were little listened to. « They still have a feeling of guilt. Many told me that they didn’t have much to tell me, but when I arrived at their house, the reel ended up unwinding », says Jacques Sémelin. « I wanted to restore their word to make them exist as Jews persecuted in France by the laws of Vichy. They experienced fear, separations, removals. They also suffered ».
« Social Networks »
The first and most obvious reason for their survival is that many of them were able to reach the unoccupied zone and hide in remote places in a still very rural France. « Two thirds of the Jews of France left for the free zone and dispersed everywhere, » he describes. « It should also be noted that those who spoke French and had more money did better. » Jacques Sémelin estimates, however, that in the spring of 1944, 40,000 Jews were still living in Paris, while those of Warsaw or Amsterdam had already been practically all exterminated.
The historian explains this in particular thanks to « networks of sociability ». The French Jews, socially integrated, could in principle count on their friends, their neighbors, their colleagues to help them. Jacques Sémelin also refutes the idea of a deeply anti-Semitic French population. In addition to the 4,000 French Righteous, he also takes as an example the roundups of the summer of 1942. « At the time of the Vel d’Hiv roundup in July, something happened that nobody expected. The Nazis and Vichy intended to arrest 27,000 Jews, mostly foreigners, but in the end, they caught ‘only’ 13,000, even if that is 13,000 too many ».
And this, thanks to the reaction of a part of the Parisian population who warned and helped the victims to escape. « Many could not bear that we began to arrest women and children, » he said.
“Not everything is allowed against them”
At the same time, almost everywhere in France, support networks were also set up within the Catholic and Protestant churches. Voices also rise, like that of the Archbishop of Toulouse, Monsignor Saliège who, in a sermon dated August 23, 1942, calls for brotherhood. « That children, women, men, fathers and mothers be treated like a vile herd, that the members of the same family be separated from each other and embarked for an unknown destination, it was reserved for our time to see this sad spectacle », he wrote in a pastoral letter addressed to the priests of his diocese to be read on Sunday in all the churches. “The Jews are men, the Jewesses are women. Everything is not allowed against them, against these men, against these women, against these fathers and mothers of families. They are part of the human race”.
This call is then relayed by the BBC and even the New York Times. « It had a very significant impact. I am one of those who consider that Monsignor Saliège’s sermon does not have the place it deserves in our national memory. It still speaks to us today, » said Jacques Sémelin.
Fourteen years after the question posed by Simone Veil, the historian has taken up his challenge. « It’s just about re-establishing the facts and it’s the best response to the falsifications of history, » he insists. Without forgetting the 74,150 men, women and children deported from France, most of whom perished in Auschwitz, Jacques Sémelin highlights these words by Serge Klarsfeld: « In the Europe occupied by Hitler’s Germany, France is the country where the Jews suffered proportionally the least casualties ».