- Pétain’s Jewish Children: French Jewish Youth and the Vichy Regime, 1940–1942 by Daniel Lee
In the immediate aftermath of the June 1940 fall of France, the democratic Third Republic was replaced by an authoritarian regime based in the south-central spa town of Vichy. Led by the stoic, octogenarian hero of the Great War, Marshal Philippe Pétain, the Vichy regime promised the French people nothing less than national regeneration. Corruption, decadence, and division had wrought disaster. Toil, sacrifice, and patriotism would bring about resurrection. The coins minted in the État Français extolled “Work, Family, Fatherland” rather than “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The New Order also sought to accommodate the victorious Third Reich, whose troops now occupied two-thirds of France, including Paris and the north as well as the Atlantic coast. The Jews of France, especially foreign-born ones, bore the brunt of both the National Revolution—which scapegoated them as agents of cultural pollution and national decline—and the depredations of the Germans themselves. Tens of thousands of them would not live to see the Liberation.
Vichy’s anti-Jewish measures began long before the Germans occupied the Southern Zone in November 1942. As Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton wrote in their seminal 1981 work Vichy France and the Jews, “during the summer [End Page 548] and fall of 1940 the French government at Vichy began a legislative assault upon Jews living in France.”1 French collaboration with the Nazis and complicity in the Holocaust received increased attention following the release of Marcel Ophuls’s 1969 documentary Le Chagrin et la pitié (titled The Sorrow and the Pity for its 1971 release in the United States; banned from French television until 1981), and Paxton’s 1972 book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order. Both point to the same uncomfortable conclusion: neither Vichy nor its policies were imposed by the Nazis. Perpetrators of the Holocaust in France included French politicians, bureaucrats, and policemen. Almost half a century of historiography has been devoted to studying the roots of antisemitism and the genealogy of fascism in France. According to Daniel Lee, French participation in the Final Solution understandably “has led most histories of Vichy to emphasize the marginalization of Jews from the rest of the French population” (p. 4).
In retrospect, the fate of France’s Jews appears to have been sealed from the beginning. Jews, scapegoated in the aftermath of defeat, were purged from the civil service, pushed out of higher education, and driven from the professions. The October 1940 Statut des Juifs (Jewish Law) offered a broader definition of “Jewishness” than had the Nazi racial laws promulgated at Nuremberg five years earlier. In March 1941, the Vichy regime established the Office of Jewish Affairs, and the expropriation of Jewish property gathered pace. Vichy also cooperated with the Nazis in creating, in November 1941, the Union Générale des Israélites de France—in which all Jews were to be enrolled. By June 1942 Jews in the Occupied Zone were required to wear a yellow star patch. In Paris the following month, 9,000 French policemen conducted the Vel d’Hiv roundup, capturing more than 13,000 Jewish men, women, and children, most of whom the Germans subsequently deported to the East. When German forces extended their occupation to the Southern Zone that November, Vichy’s distinctions between tolerated native Jews and unwanted foreign ones became meaningless. In all, almost 80,000 Jews were deported from France between 1942 and 1944. All but 2,000 perished.
Perhaps it is difficult to look at les années noires (the black years) as anything other than a time of encroaching catastrophe for French Jewry, but Lee cautions against viewing Jewish life under Vichy solely “through the lens of victimization” (p. 5). Pétain’s Jewish Children seeks to demonstrate not only that young French Jews tried to find a place of safety within Vichy’s New Order, but also...