- An Ordinary Tale of Solidarity and Survival?Reflections on Jacques Sémelin's The Survival of the Jews in France, 1940–44
Jacques Sémelin's book begins with a puzzle: given the authoritarian Vichy regime's collaboration with Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, how was it possible that 75 percent of Jews survived? This is a staggering statistic when compared with other countries occupied by the Nazis such as the Netherlands, where the numbers are nearly reversed, and it begs explanation. For Sémelin, that explanation comes down to the French population and French culture itself: French patriotism, the Republican tradition, and Christian (especially Catholic) religious values endowed French civilians with a sympathy for Jews that, coupled with various structural factors (e.g., the hybrid nature of its occupation), served as a bulwark against the Nazis' genocidal project, even within the Vichy government, and even when it initiated its own antisemitic policies.
In focusing on what he ultimately describes as "a thousand and one ways of offering aid and protection," Sémelin's book contributes a perspective to the study of the Holocaust that is rarely examined, much less acknowledged, by scholars of the genocide in France: some Jews survived not as a result of organized rescue efforts or even sustained collective resistance, but simply by living life as normally as possible and benefiting from random acts of solidarity. Though sometimes civilians who helped Jews gained personally or materially from their aid, others who facilitated Jews' survival were purely altruistic, while still others did not even realize what they were doing. In fact, undergirding's Sémelin's thesis is the argument that more Jews survived the Holocaust in France than elsewhere because they were treated, for the most part, like anybody else: with acceptance and compassion rather than as threatening outsiders, despite Vichy and the Nazi's attempts to characterize them as a subhuman mass. [End Page 280]
To make his case, Sémelin provides narratives, vignettes, and summaries of popular diaries from the time period, memoirs as well as written and oral postwar testimonies, and fourteen interviews with Jewish survivors (the original French version has seventeen). These stories are rich in detail, and Sémelin's careful attention to their complexities, both within and across individuals' experiences, provides for a compelling read. More importantly, though, they highlight the substantial variation in how Jews in France survived the Holocaust. Some had to physically hide in order to survive; some "hid in plain sight"—that is, they lived openly with concealed identities and false papers; others did not hide at all. Many lived, labored, and learned much like any French civilian in this horrible time period. Most did all of the above at different moments. But, as Sémelin astutely emphasizes over and over again, their abilities to hide in a neighbor's attic, live openly in the occupied countryside, or stroll the streets as a Jew with a yellow star on their overcoat were limited by constraints of citizenship, nationality, language spoken, family status, class, age, networks, and geographic location—particularly urban or rural.
Accordingly, another strength is how clearly this book demonstrates that the Holocaust was far from uniform for Jews in France. In fact, it was far from uniform from one year to the next, one month to another, in part due to the ever-shifting political and military landscape in France and abroad, and as Vichy and the Nazis implemented more restrictive laws and spoliation measures against Jews. Though this larger context occasionally disappears from the narrative, it is impossible not to detect it in Sémelin's proper emphasis, which is on Jews' reflections on what enabled them to survive. While Jews made choices based on changing circumstances to migrate from the city to the country and, in some cases, to cross the demarcation line; to register or not register with local governments; or to avoid compliance with the law more generally, what enabled them to do so successfully without getting caught, arrested, deported, and killed had more to do with their varying positionalities and how these allowed for microlevel opportunities and helpful interactions with non-Jewish French civilians.