The Choice of the Jews under Vichy

by Michael Curtis (October 2016)



The Choice of the Jews under Vichy: Between Submission and Resistance
Adam Rayski
University of Notre Dame Press, 2015



The actions of Jews during World War II and the years of Nazi control of or influence in European countries has given rise to a copious and controversial literature on the general subject in both French and English, and also on the fate of Jews in Vichy France. The earliest questionable contribution on the general issue came from Hannah Arendt in her controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. She offered a critical analysis of the behavior of Judenrat, (Jewish Councils), appointed by the Nazis, not by the Jewish community, to lead Jewish communities and follow official instructions in the areas the Nazis controlled.

The crucial question in dispute is whether the actions of the Judenrat contributed less to the welfare of suffering and persecuted Jews than to being accomplices to policies and programs leading to the Holocaust. Arendt’s challenging argument was that the Judenrat had led almost without exception to cooperation with Nazis. She argued that their existence and actions facilitated Nazi Germany’s organizing and carrying out the deportations to death in the extermination camps. The argument has been refuted by a host of writers, including Richard I. Cohen, Jacques Adler, Vicki Caron, Pierre Birnbaum, and Renee Poznanski.

The issue is central in Adam Rayski’s book, The Choice of the Jews under Vichy: Between Submission and Resistance, though it provides a general and detailed analysis of the discrimination and persecution of Jews in France by both the Nazi occupiers and by the Vichy regime itself. This work was originally published in France in 1992, was translated into English and published in 2005, and is now available in a paperback edition issued by the University of Notre Dame Press. 

Rayski, the author who died in 2008 at the age of 94 was a witness of events in France and an active participant turned historian. Born in 1928 of Polish parents, he was a journalist and historian in Paris and a long time member of the Communist Party. In Paris he worked for the Neie Presse, a left wing Yiddish language daily newspaper, and was national secretary of the Jewish Section of the French Communist Party. During the war between 1942-1943 he headed the Union des Juifs pour la Résistance et l’entraide, and was involved in the Jewish Section of Francs-tireurs et partisans- Main d’oeuvre immigrée (FTP_MOI), a group, set up by the Communist Party in the 1920s, whose members were mostly Yiddish speaking foreign born Jews.

Thus, Rayski himself embodies a major argument in his book. Jews may have been victims, but they also fought back in various ways and as best they could. Rayski did so as part of the Communist faction of the Resistance, head of one group and a member of another. Division among Jews, sometimes accompanied by self-hatred, is not new.

In his book Jews against Themselves, the literary critic Edward Alexander provided a portrait of Jews warring among themselves, of Jews defaming, abandoning, and harming their own people. Intellectual differences sometimes have become politically acrimonious. In the US during World War II, the official Zionist organization and the more militant Bergson group, both purportedly pursuing similar goals, could not collaborate either on methods for rescuing Jews or for support for the creation of a Jewish state.

Rayski’s book focuses on the different choices, whether cooperation with the Vichy and Nazi persecutors, subversion, or overt military resistance, made by Jews in France. At the core of the issue were the differences among the 300,000 Jews living in France. About half were French born nationals of Jewish faith, usually referring to themselves as “Israelites,” many of them middle class, generally assimilated citizens, obedient to the law, and officially represented in the Consistoire central des Israelites de France (Central Consistory) created by Napoleon in 1808. 

The leaders of this group took part in the UGIF (Union générale des Israélites de France) set up by Vichy in two branches on November 29,1941. The dilemma for Jews was whether to cooperate with the rulers or not. Jews accepted it reluctantly, and it became the center of dispute, as in the case of Judenrat, whether it aided Vichy and became a tool for Nazi policy or whether it helped Jews by centralizing relief and collecting shoes and blankets for Jews in detention camps. Whatever the choice, the UGIF were not puppets of the Nazis.

The other half of Jewry in France were the diverse non-nationals, immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, some of whom spoke Yiddish rather than French, poorer and less well educated than French Jews but more ethnic and religious in behavior, and more likely to advance and advocate leftist and Communist political sympathies, or Zionism, or Jewish nationality.

As a result of the continuing and increasing persecution of Jews, the two groups finally came together, with a form of unification, in 1944 with the creation of CRIF (Conseil représentif des Juifs de France), an umbrella organization of French Jewish groups. Many, if not all, French Israelites had become Jews.

Rayski emphases this tension, division, and even hostility between Jews who were French born nationals and those who were foreigners, and who for a time were treated differently. Noticeably, the first mass arrests were of foreign, not French, Jews in May, August, and December 1941. UGIF was criticized for not warning Jews of the planned arrests and deportations in July 1942, but it did continue to supply relief and medical care to internees. In 1944, it failed to disperse Jewish children housed in its homes, thus allowing them to be captured more easily.

In evaluating Jewish behavior, chronology has to be considered. France was neither a country of collaborators nor of resisters. Rayski makes clear the responsibility of Vichy as accomplice in the Nazi program of genocide by its anti-Semitic laws and its participation in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to their death. But Jews and non-Jews recognized the Vichy regime became even more repressive, especially with the rise of Joseph Darnand and the Milice in 1944.

Rayski’s important point is that though Jews in France were victims of the Nazis and of Vichy, they were not passive victims. He wants to dispose of the image of Jewish passivity, and like Salo Baron rejects the lachrymose conception of Jewish history. Jews, including children, were actors and fought against their oppressors.

He pays due tribute to the non-Jews from all social strata who reacted, especially after the summer of 1942, against the inhuman persecution of Jews, hid and sheltered Jews during the occupation, or were critical, as was Jules-Géraud Saliège, Archbishop of Toulouse, of the regime.

But Rayski’s main contribution is to focus on the many and varied activities of Jews in the fight for survival. That became more significant with time, and an understanding of Jewish identity. Resistance took many forms: breaking with legality, finding hiding places, guerrilla activity, forgery of identity papers and passports, hiding of children, armed struggle, intelligence service, clandestine press in Yiddish and French, organizing secret convoys to Switzerland and Spain, and participation in resistance networks.

Though Rayski deals with the various organizations who were active in the Resistance, the OJC (Organisation juive de Combat), the organized response of nine Jewish groups to persecution, the Jewish Scouts (EIF), the Jewish Army (AJ), a Zionist organization, and OSE (Assistance for Children), he is especially proud of the communist groups of which he was a part.

He enters the contentious field with his assessment of both the official Jewish Central Consistory (CC) which, he argues, insufficiently protested against the early anti-Semitic legislation of Vichy, and the UGIF, and of Jacques Helbronner, the jurist and president of CC. Rayski correctly saw these bodies as dominated by French Jews, but he is unfair in his argument that the French Jews blamed foreign Jews rather than Vichy or Nazis for their problems.

He is bitter about those Jews who acceded to Vichy pressure. In this he follows the argument of Maurice Rajsfus in his 1980 book, Jews among the Collaborators, critical of those Jews who by accommodation and cooperation helped the Nazi registration and control of Jews, and their deportation.

Rayski is also more critical of the official organizations than other commentators such as Richard I. Cohen who wrote of the precarious duality within UGIF. Rayski focused on its collating of lists of Jews that the Nazis used to round up and deport Jews. He accused some Jewish leaders of cloaking themselves in a naïve and dangerous legalism.

Rayski deals with the difficulty for Jewish organizations in the extremely complex war time situation when they were faced with the issue of carrying out directives against other Jews. Jews had no ideological reference points according to which they could decide on whether to submit to anti-Semitic legislation or seek alliances with non-Jewish forces leading to disobedience, except the compass of honor. Submission to Nazi dictates and to the antisemitism of Vichy did not lead to the preservation of honor. The real answer against the Nazi and Vichy persecution of Jews and the lesson to be drawn in the present day in the struggle against Islamist terrorism in Rayski’s book is robust unremitting resistance against evil.  




Michael Curtis is the author of more than 35 books on the fields of political theory, comparative government, the Middle East, and European politics, but especially on the history of French political thought, focusing on the importance of that history to the development of political ideas in the rest of the world. In 2014, he was awarded Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor (Légion d’honneur), the highest decoration in France.


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