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Was the French Resistance Jewish?

Jews led—and purposefully did not lead—some of the many specialized groups that fought Vichy France and its Nazi occupiers

Renée Poznanski
May 03, 2016
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of  Jacques Michel.
Group portrait of a unit of the French resistance, 1940 - 1944, France, photographer unknown.United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Jacques Michel.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of  Jacques Michel.
Group portrait of a unit of the French resistance, 1940 - 1944, France, photographer unknown.United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Jacques Michel.

The importance of the Resistance in France during the World War II cannot be measured solely in terms of the military exploits of its member groups or by its contribution to the liberation of France. Its very existence testifies to a survival during the occupation of another France, a France that opposed the Vichy regime and rejected the official policy of collaboration with the Nazi occupier. French Jews—under a double jeopardy of anti-Semitic law (French and German), stripped of their possessions, interned in camps, then sent on to Auschwitz—contributed in full to the story of the Resistance. Extremely numerous in the different movements formed in France as well as in London around Gen. de Gaulle, they also created specifically tasked groups; many Jews were associated with the French Communist Party, while others specialized in the saving of those threatened with deportation.

After the liberation, Georges Zérapha concluded that from June 1940 to December 1941 Jews led the way from bottom to top in the majority of subgroups of the Resistance. They were among the first to reach London, from Raymond Aron to André Weill-Curiel and including René Cassin. We find them among the founders of the Musée de l’Homme network in 1940, publishing the first issue of the magazine Résistance on Dec. 15, 1940. Of the six founders of Libération in July 1941, three were Jews. Jean-Pierre Lévy created and ran FrancTireur. Robert Salmon was one of the two founders of Défense de la France; it was he who chose to give this name to the new journal, whose first number appeared in July 1941. These examples give only a partial idea of the early and massive Jewish presence at high positions in all the various movements.

“Participation in the resistance,” wrote Léo Hamon, who was born Léo Goldenberg in Paris to parents who fled the Tsarist empire in 1905, “was a deliberate decision to choose France, the French nation with all its ills, greatness, and combats.” As for the cases of Pierre Mendès-France, Raymond Aubrac, Marc Bloch, Daniel Mayer, or Jacques Bingen, and similarly for Georges Boris and Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac, whether in London or one of the movements created on French soil, Hamon’s engagement was an individual choice that did not differ from the choices made by many of his countrymen.

As a group, Jews were effectively held to a neutral political stance and a discrete presence. Having enthusiastically accepted the offers of individual integration held out by the French state as a consequence of the emancipation act of Sept. 27, 1791, Jews participated in the political discourse as individuals. Their engagement in this discourse was in the name of the interests of France and the French. It is within this political tradition that we must see the engagement of numerous Jews in the Resistance, whether their ancestors had spent centuries in France or whether they were immigrants naturalized as French citizens. Yet this engagement was so massive that the phenomenon clearly had a collective dimension.

The fact that the Jews were among the first victims, then were the special victims of the Vichy regime and its collaborative policies, cannot fully explain the considerable contribution of Jews to the Resistance. A structural connection involved the politics of Jews as a group whenever a part of the French population turned against the republican regime, as was the case during the occupation. One could hardly be surprised to find a large majority of Jews on the side of those who defended the Republic and opposed the new authoritarian government that emerged following the defeat, a government that rejected republican values. If the Resistance was the true France, the Jews, otherwise rejected by the France of Vichy, could integrate themselves in that true France as in the past. Moreover, Jews of long standing in France, while feeling themselves distinct from Jewish immigrants, were often tied to families beyond French borders. Contact, sometimes direct, with Jewish refugees from Germany no doubt rapidly sharpened the senses of politically astute French Jews as to the true nature of Nazism.

In spite of all this, the massive presence of Jews in the Resistance remained extremely discrete. Raymond Aron was criticized after the war for having given minimal coverage to the fate of the Jews in La France Libre, the magazine for which he was responsible in London. He explained this by saying that he was acting as a Frenchman and added that he had probably spoken little about it precisely because he was Jewish: As a Jew he did not want to feed adverse propaganda. But in his writing he also evokes a tacit “convention of silence” that reigned in London and discouraged explicit discussion of the persecution of Jews. Jewish résistants feared that the Resistance might be seen as essentially Jewish and preferred to rest in the shadows. This declared desire for integration and an avoidance of specific objectives was also fed by the existence of a widespread xenophobia mixed with a more or less latent anti-Semitism that ran through the French population. The idea that there was a “Jewish problem” was universally accepted in France, even within the Resistance itself. A certain number of movements founded on patriotic motives to struggle against the German occupation took some time to separate themselves from Marshal Pétain, whose reforms were at least partly supported. This climate also explains the discretion with which Jewish résistants merged with the French Resistance in general, sometimes even muffling personal tragedies—it was thus that Raymond Aubrac said nothing about the arrest and deportation of his father. Added to this was the desire to prove, in the face of anti-Semitic stereotypes, that Jews were not political manipulators but rather active participants in combat. Bingen was not the only Jew to fall in the service of the French Resistance; Marc Bloch and many others, less well-known, suffered the same fate.

French Jews made up less than half of the Jewish population living in France at the outbreak of the war. The others, whether immigrants from Romania, Poland, Hungary, or even Germany or Austria, or the children of immigrants, whether they gained citizenship between the wars or were stateless, were embedded over the years in a dense network of specifically Jewish social, political, or cultural organizations. In the prewar years the French Communist Party repeatedly tried to rally immigrant workers on French soil, Jewish or otherwise, to its banner. In 1932, it had created the MOI (“Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée” or immigrant labor), structured by language. Among others, the Romanian-, Hungarian-, and Polish-speaking groups were in fact composed in large part of Jews from the respective regions. There was also a specifically Jewish group, speaking Yiddish. During the war these groupings developed considerably, multiplying the Jewish contributions to the Party.

In the north [Paris], even while Solidarité specialized in social work and propaganda, the First detachment FTP (“Franc-Tireurs Partisans”)-MOI, composed of Romanians and Hungarians of which 90 percent were Jewish, and the Second detachment, entirely composed of Jews, excelled at military actions. (The MOI created four detachments in all.) The push for the actions of the detachments came from the Party, while the troops increased in number as anti-Semitic repression increased. The contributions of the Jews is particularly impressive: In February 1943, out of 36 actions taken by the four detachments of FTP-MOI of the capital, 15 were realized by the Jewish Second detachment.

The Jewish Communist military groups were practically alone in Paris from June to November 1943. Joseph Epstein (Col. Gilles) was named responsible for all military actions led by the communists at Paris, and a team entirely composed of Jewish women transported the weapons needed by the different units. An intelligence service that prepared all the actions was in the hands of a group of Jewish women who were attached to the MOI. Later this activity extended into the non-occupied regions: to Grenoble from September 1943 to March 1944; to Lyon after May 1944. At Toulouse, up until its fall in the spring of 1944, the Marcel Langer group instigated essentially all armed action. Given the efficiency of the Vichy police services, the price paid for all these actions was extremely high: massive arrests in November 1942, March 1943, June-July 1943, the slaughter of November 1943.

The nature of the activity led by these groups of Jewish Communists appeared clearly in an extremely rich and diverse clandestine press. The Jewish Communist press was already significant in the 1930’s. In contrast to the press published by other language groupings of the MOI, the Jewish press was self-funded, and its printing and distribution as well as its political influence were cited as examples in the internal reviews of the Party. The diversity of the clandestine press was striking: in Yiddish or French; written for Jews or for the general population; published by Solidarité (“Unzer Wort”) or by the Movement national against racism—a “French” organization created by immigrant Jewish Communists—J’accuse in the northern zone and Fraternité in the southern zone; or, starting from June 1943, by the organization of young Jewish Communists Jeune Combat.

All these publications and more took up the same themes, adapted to the public for which they were destined. On a more general level, the Communists had common themes: solidarity with the USSR, including praise for victories of the Red Army and the heroism of its soldiers; the necessity to open a second front in Europe and the blaming of the Germans for the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn; opposition to the deportation of French who were sent to labor camps in Germany; opposition to the wait-and-see attitude of other anti-Nazi movements. But equally it was possible to find in the Jewish Communist press careful descriptions of anti-Semitic persecution in France as well as a vast amount of information on the extermination process carried out by Nazis in the “Polish slaughterhouse.” The amount of information offered was exceptional, particularly given that the rest of the underground press in France maintained total silence on the subject. With the exception of Témoignage Chrétien, no other underground press born out of the French Resistance thought to make reference to the slaughter.

As for combat, participation in the underground press was dangerous. Joseph Epstein and Munie Nadler are named here only to represent a large number of their colleagues who suffered an identical fate, shot at Mont Valerian or deported, never to return.

Yet Jews present in France through immigration were hardly all under the Communist influence. While the Communists led in their writings with an active solidarity between the French people and persecuted Jews, Zionist organizations placed the accent on intra-Jewish solidarity. In Paris social militants allied themselves from June 15, 1940, with Zionists of all stripes and with Bundists (Jewish socialists) to form the “Amelot Committee” (after the name of the street where the clinic that hosted them was located) and decided to join hands in the dispensing of aid to the Jewish population. Very quickly, illegal forms of aid were legal aide. Thus the organization found itself implicated in helping Jews who wanted to cross the demarcation line to flee occupied Paris, in the placement of children that they had succeeded in removing from the internment camp at Poitiers, in the secret dispersion of children under risk, in the fabrication of false papers. The double face legal/secret that characterized the committee’s work left its leaders weakened and exposed: As Jews themselves they were a priori watched and suspected. The arrest of David Rapoport on June 1, 1943, and that of Eugène Minkovski on Aug. 23, 1943, led directly to the abandonment of a legal façade by the autumn of 1943. This meant an end to new active rescues—only the ongoing rescues of adults or children who were already clients continued.

In the southern zone, the Federation of Jewish Organizations of France—the largest immigrant organization, directed by Marc Jarblum—and new structures such as the Movement of Zionist Youth (MJS), which was formed in May 1942, were active. Additionally, there were groups with well-defined roles in social aid such as the Organization for Children’s Rescue (the OSE), or groups with a cultural or educative orientation such as the EIF (“Eclaireurs israelites de France”). All these groups followed a progressive transformation from legal social, cultural, or educative assistance to clandestine rescue. The steps of this transformation were governed by the evolution of persecutions, as illustrated by the OSE. The organization began by increasing the number of children’s homes, then set itself to liberate children from internment camps. They then worked to place more and more Jewish children with non-Jewish families, then lead a general dispersion from children’s homes and organized secret convoys to Switzerland. Georges Garel was responsible for an underground network whose aim was to disperse Jewish children threatened with deportation. As early as the autumn of 1942 he had set in place an organization that covered the entire southern zone. The true identities of the hidden children in this program was sent to Switzerland, so that at the end of the war they could be reunited with their families come what may. More than 1,500 children were camouflaged by the Garel network.

Another path was systematically exploited by the OSE starting from April of 1943, namely clandestine emigration, first to Switzerland and then, to a lesser degree, to Spain. Children called “aspecifiques,” whose religious convictions made them fit less naturally into a Christian environment, were the best candidates for this path. Georges Loinger, who led this effort, worked through contact with Savoyard smugglers in the region of Annemasse thanks to the intermediation of the Burgundy network, a branch of the Resistance. Until September 1943, the region of Annemasse was occupied by the Italians, which helped facilitate the techniques of the passage. From the autumn of 1943 to July 1944, 1069 children made the passage to Switzerland with the help of the OSE.

Geography made the passage to Spain more difficult. That a group of children might pass the Pyrenees was not at all evident. Andrée Salomon was nevertheless advised in March 1944 that the passage was possible by Ernest Lambert, a member of the “Jewish Army” (AJ), a Zionist organization. The AJ was at the point of becoming the Jewish Combat Organization (OJC), the military branch of the EIF, which created for the circumstance a special group under the direction of Gisèle Roman (SERE). From April 6, 1944, until the liberation, SERE led between 85 and 134 children to Spain. Seventy-nine of them embarked on the Guinée destined for Palestine. Indeed, the AJ was a Zionist organization, and in creating the SERE there was a double objective: Save the children, and send them to Palestine.

Summing up, this action began with taking charge of abandoned Jewish children, followed by their liberation from internment camps, and culminated with their rescue in secret. In all, between 7,500 and 9,000 children were saved. The same action also cost the lives of young social militants, and notably young women such as Mila Racine or Marianne Cohn. However, this rescue was not recognized as an entirely independent element of the Resistance except, of course, in the Jewish world.

The reconstruction of the Jewish world in France could only follow the plan imposed on it by French society; that society equally pressed the Jewish world to regroup under the banner of a united Resistance. A coming-together of the various political centers of a Jewish resistance led, at the end of July 1943 in Grenoble, to the formation of a “Comité général de défence” that united Communists, Zionists of all types, and Bundists under a single roof. In some ways this was a duplication in Jewish circles of the creation in May 1943 of the “National Resistance Council” which legitimized the entry of the Communists into the French political world.

The constitution in January of 1944 of the “Representative Council of Israelites of France” (CRIF), whose charter was signed in May 1944, was the end product of these negotiations. Thanks to the existence of the CRIF, the Communists made their official entry into the organized Jewish community. The recognition of the Jewish Communists by the central authority of French Judaism—the Consistoire central—sprang from the recognition acquired by the Communists in the activities described in this article, just as the Zionists made their official entry to the Jewish community. The CRIF charter even went so far as to bind the official participation of non-Zionist groups in France to the claims of the Jewish Agency.

Just as the French Resistance had laid out the path to the politics of postwar France, the institutional structure of the Jewish community of France emerged transformed from the persecutions of the recent past. It was, however, necessary to wait for the 1970s and the ripening of French memories of WWII, the Vichy government, and the Shoah before the Jewish contribution to the Resistance gained even minimal recognition in France.

Translated from the French by Paul Fishbane.

Renée Poznanski, a professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, is the author of, among other books, Jews in France During World War II.