Jewish Involvement in the French Resistance

Maryam Pashali traces the history of the extensive Jewish fight within the French Resistance during the German Occupation of 1940-44.

The Resistance in the 1940s France was a grandiose testament to a resolve and a survival of an occupied population under the double jeopardy of the Nazi and the collaborationist regime. The Jewish population suffered a unique fate, being attacked by the antisemitic policies of both the occupants and Vichy. In response, the Jews in France joined various resistance organisations, but identified their struggle as the one of citizens wishing to fight for the liberation of their country. Major resistance groups, such as LibérationCombatDéfense de la France, and Organisation civile et militaire did not pursue liberation of the Jews as a specific part of their respective agendas.

Maryam Pashali, is a member of the YCL’s London branch

Most Jews involved in the Resistance adopted a neutral political stance regarding their ethno-religious identity, fearing the possibility that the Resistance would be perceived as an essentially Jewish project. Moreover, many Jews participated in the Resistance out of a desire to defend republican values from the attack by the Vichy regime, and did not prioritise the fight against antisemitic policies. Their involvement in the Resistance was first and foremost an action of French citizens, no doubt because most French Jews were very assimilated and participated in the political discourse as Frenchmen, and not as Jews.

As Marc Bloch, a Jewish résistant, wrote: “As a stranger to any denominational formalities or so-called racial solidarity, I have felt throughout my life first and foremost simply French.”[1] Nevertheless, by 1942, violent antisemitic policies across both the occupied and unoccupied zones had produced a number of specifically Jewish resistance groups, as the Jews in France fought to remain in society and preserve their communities. While many Jews played a substantial role as individual Frenchmen in the Resistance and partisan organisations, some of them chose to respond specifically to Jewish persecution in the occupied France. Both types of contribution are equally valuable and provide a testament to the crucial role played by Jews in the Resistance.

The collaborationist assault begins

Endemic to any Western Christian tradition, antisemitism had always run deep in France.[2] Thus it is not surprising that before it commenced any of its other major activities, the Vichy regime preoccupied itself with the question of nationality and race. The anti-Jewish project was undertaken by the numerous self-professed anti-Semites within the collaborationist government: Xavier Vallat (Commissioner for Jewish Affairs), Raphael Alibert (Minister of Justice), Marcel Peyrouton (Minister of the Interior), Rene Bousquet (secretary general to the Vichy police), and many others.

Soon after the government was established, the legislation of Vichy came into fruition, with the Jewish Statute being drafted in October 1940 by Alibert. The Statute allowed the internment of Jews in “special camps”. It must be noted that there was little pressure on Vichy from the German side to adopt special anti-Jewish laws,[3] and in fact, “the conquerors noted the rapidity and scope of the French legislation with bemusement, opportunistic glee, and even occasional annoyance.”[4] The Germans did not impose the adoption of the Statute upon Vichy.

Image result for des libérateurs affiche rouge
L’affiche Rouge is an infamous Vichy propaganda poster, intended to disparage French Resistance fighters of FTP-MOI – a majority-Jewish group. Propaganda was aimed at convincing the public that the Resistance was dominated by “aliens” and Communists who conspired against France.

Richard Weisberg maintains that the appeasement of the German occupants was not the driving force behind the promulgation of Vichy’s antisemitic laws by a multitude of officials and individuals.[5] Indeed, Vichy’s enthusiasm in embracing anti-Jewish legislature points directly to the rampant antisemitism that occupied the minds of the collaborators. Xavier Vallat’s main line of defence at his trial in 1947 was that he had always been an anti-Semite as a Frenchman, and hence was not acting on behalf of the German authorities.[6] Alibert was a known anti-Semite, and his eagerness to deal with the racial question was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Vichy was able to tackle the “Jewish problem” so hastily and thoroughly. Joseph Barthelemy, who worked side by side with Vallat on antisemitic legislature, enthusiastically accommodated, drafted and signed a law on the Aryanisation of Jewish property. Peyrouton proposed the idea of exiling thousands of French Jews into Madagascar. François Darlan, who by 1941 occupied multiple ministerial positions, warned against the release of foreign Jews from French camps; in his opinion, those Jews posed a danger to society.

A draft constitution for Vichy explored various factors of racial exclusion in the new France, specifically engaging with the word “race”. Without the involvement of the German authorities, countless individual laws and statutes were produced by Vichy officials to regulate the “Jewish question”. Ultimately, the antisemitism of the Vichy regime was to be one of the deciding answers to the question of what kind of France would emerge after the occupation. It is also important to note that the antisemitic legislation of the Vichy regime was not merely an effort by a small group of fanatics; it involved the French legal and bureaucratic system. It also exploited the historical antisemitism found at the very heart of the French Christian culture.

 The Jewish response

Jews in Vichy France were humiliated and victimised daily in various ways: mandatory yellow stars, arrests and internments, deportations to concentration camps, exclusion from the public life and most professions, and seizures of property and businesses became the new norm. None of the major Resistance groups chose to respond to antisemitic persecution as a specific part of their agenda.

Despite this, Jewish presence and leadership in the Resistance had been overwhelming from the beginning: three out of six founders of Libération were Jews, Jean-Pierre Levy led Franc-Tireur, Robert Salmon was one of the founders of Défense de la France. Many Jews can be found amongst the organisers of the Musée de l’Homme network and in the clandestine publishing houses that produced the first issues of the Résistance magazine.

Jews also were amongst the first to join de Gaulle’s Free French. They were carrying out their resistance activities as French citizens and individuals, not as Jews, opting to take a neutral political stance with regards to their identity. They chose to conduct their personal struggle against the Nazi ideology and persecution by Vichy in the context of the general resistance, side by side with their non-Jewish compatriots. This non-partisanship with regards to one’s ethnic identity was historically in line with the Jewish experience in France: they had always avoided taking any political actions in the name of their Jewish identity.[7] Léo Hamon wrote, “To join the Resistance, was to consciously choose France, the French nation, with its woes, its grandeur, its struggles.”[8] Indeed, Hamon even considered informal family discussions of Jewish issues to be a dangerous way of trapping oneself in the “moral ghetto of anxiety”.

The hesitation of Jews to emphasise their identity in the context of their resistance struggle had manifold reasons. Firstly, if a Jewish résistant was captured, revealing their identity would put them under the threat of being deported into a concentration camp. For instance, Madeleine Levy, a fighter for Combat, was arrested in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz, where she met her untimely death. Additionally, because Jewish presence in the Resistance was undeniably massive, there was a risk of feeding Vichy propaganda that would portray the Resistance as an essentially Jewish movement. Patrick Henry defines the politics of individual Jewish resistance fighters: “While intent on fighting the Nazi menace that had long targeted the Jews, they refused any notion of a separate war ‘for the Jews’, particularly since antisemitic propaganda had long depicted them as warmongers pushing France to engage in another useless and catastrophically destructive war with Germany.”[9]

And lastly, perhaps it was also their personal resistance to the efforts of the Vichy regime to alienate the Jews and single out their identity as their dominant characteristic. It was the “ghetto of the mind” that Léo Hamon had feared.

The action

There were subdivisions within the Resistance comprised almost entirely of Jews: for instance, the Second and First detachment of the MOI (Main-D’œuvre Immigrée), an immigrant section of the FTP (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans). FTP-MOI were responsible for most guerrilla operations in Paris.[10] “Jewish rescue and resistance,” observes Robert Gildea, “was not isolated but operated as part of a general anti-fascist struggle alongside activities from other nationalities grouped under the umbrella of the MOI.”[11] In essence, the MOI was not a partisan wing dedicated solely and explicitly to the Jewish struggle, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of its fighters were Jews demonstrated that the organisation did in fact serve Jewish interests.

Jewish presence in the MOI is evidence that the Jews of France wanted to preserve their community, their social links, and to fight for their survival and their future. Adam Rayski, a Jewish Communist organiser, says that to bring in manpower, the MOI “brought together many young Jews without parents or homes in action groups of three people. During the winter 1942-43 we had about 300 people, mostly young people, in the Jewish groups of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans.”[12] 

These young Jews, uprooted from their homes and separated from their families, certainly craved community and the restoration of their sense of identity. The trauma of losing one’s familiar social ties within an ethno-religious identity translated into a desire to organise; this was fulfilled by the structures of the resistance movements. It was also a way of avenging their arrested and deported family members and friends, as the shock of these measures drew more and more Jews into increasingly violent resistance.[13] “‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ must be the cry of all French Jews in their desire to avenge victims,” Rayski described the attitudes of Jewish resistance fighters after the round-ups of 1942, “the concept of a ‘war within the war’ appeared very early in our writings.”[14] Besides, while under the double jeopardy of Vichy and the Germans, for the Jewish population, survival meant resistance. It is evident that the Jewish involvement in the Resistance was extensive and psychologically necessary.

 The press

Even if the major Resistance groups did not single out Jewish issues as part of their struggle, they nevertheless collected and distributed an overwhelming amount of information about the fate of the Jews under the occupation.[15] The illegal press contributed to resistance and survival, empowering the Jewish population with ideology and knowledge that there was hope of clandestine support.

No other newspaper was as radical as Solidarité in its support for the Jews: the communist newspaper was the only one to actively agitate the Jews to refuse to surrender to the antisemitic policies and to join the armed resistance.[16] Various publications made efforts to report on the happenings in the Drancy concentration camp; brutal arrests, deportations, and separation of families made the news.[17] The news on gas chambers was reported first by J’Accuse, a newspaper published by the ‘French forces against racist barbarism’ (associated with the Jewish detachment of the MOI)[18]: “You should know… that all the Jews who are deported are killed as soon as they arrive in the camps. They are killed by gas. I heard from an officer that 11,000 people deported from France were killed in this way.”[19]

Hebrew-language newspapers published reports on Jewish affairs as well, however, the importance of French-language publications resided in the need to disseminate the news to garner support amongst the non-Jewish population.

A specifically Jewish movement develops

Exclusively Jewish Resistance organisations existed and fought, but they were comprised of very small cells. These groups were devotedly Hebrew or Zionist, trained under a Jewish flag, fought with blue-and-white armbands, and the recruits swore a Hebrew oath upon joining. Perhaps the most vibrant example of one of these groups was Armee juvie (the Jewish Army), which later evolved into Organisation Juive de Combat (the Jewish Combat Organisation, OJC) by joining forces with Eclaireurs israelites de France (EIF). 

Armee juvie was founded by a mixed group of Polish and Russian Jews: David Knout and Ariadna Scriabina, Abraham Polonski and his wife Eugenie. Scriabina was the major director of the group’s activities, taking active part in educating rescued Jewish children in the art of resistance and self-defence. As a devout Zionist and a Hebrew mystic, Scriabina also dictated the ideological colouring of the organisation.

The OJC quickly grew, organising resistance cells across the entirety of France, with the aim of defending Jewish communities and intimidating potential Gestapo informants. Their chief specialty, however, was rescuing Jewish children and Orthodox Jews from deportations, providing them with hideouts and even sometimes successfully smuggling them across the border into Spain or Switzerland. The OJC fighters also made efforts to take down Gestapo members whose job was to identify and arrest Jews on the streets. Although at its largest the OJC only attracted about 400 followers,[20] by 1944 the visibility of the organisation brought frequent arrests and executions of its members. Scriabina herself was assassinated by the Vichy milice in 1944.

The fact that the comparatively tiny OJC is deemed the most well-known distinctly Jewish Resistance organisation shows that a specifically Jewish facet of the French Resistance was not massive. Nevertheless, the extensive Jewish contribution to the general Resistance meant that the Jewish interests were, in fact, pursued in one way or another. Henry emphasises “the intense personal commitment” of the Jews who joined the Resistance at home or within the Free French.[21] Henry remarks on the significance of the Jewish Resistance by describing “different components of the Jewish population in France [who] opposed Nazi Germany and its collaborators in numerous ways, which varied according to the perceptions, cultural habits, and historical experiences specific to each group. Both armed and unarmed Jewish resistance thus varied according to contexts that evolved significantly from one stage of the war and Occupation to another.”[22]

A nationwide (Jewish) Resistance

We can hence make a distinction between the Jews in the Resistance and the Jewish Resistance, with the former describing individuals involved in the Resistance as French citizens, and the latter encompassing the Jews of France fighting a specifically Jewish battle against the occupation and collaborationism. Being amongst the first to be marginalised and victimised, the Jews not only joined, but created the Resistance, as they were numerous amongst the founders of the very first resistance cells.

The hardship of deportations, round-ups and arrests, as well as racist propaganda predisposed many Jews to fight against the occupation and Vichy. Roderick Kedward observes that when the mass deportations of 1942 began, the Jews in the Southern zone were faced with fear, anxiety and anger that could not be ignored any longer.[23] Many were also offended by Vichy’s violation of the republican values and fought to defend the ideological future of France. But, “even with heightened personal motivation,” remarks Henry, “they identified their combat with that of France and the Allies in general.”[24]

Whether they were active within the general Resistance, the Jewish sections of the Communist Party, or the specifically Jewish cells, all the Jews in both armed and unarmed struggle contributed to the liberation of France from Nazism and collaborationism. Numerous individuals participated in the rescue operations of Jews, smuggling them out of internment, bringing in food and supplies into the camps, helping them across the border, forging documents and identities, taking in Jewish children, and much more.

Jews were also overrepresented in the armed units of the largest Resistance organisations, as well as the Maquis and the Free French. But there is a debate within historiography of the Resistance that surrounds the question of why exactly major Resistance movements had failed to centre the unique Jewish plight in their struggle. In our current understanding, the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews is central to the history of the Second World War. However, for the Resistance, the Free French, the Allies, and the individual Jews within the Resistance the persecution of the Jews of France was merely an issue amongst many others.

As this article has observed at the outset, the resistance of the Jews in France against both the occupants and Vichy was multifaceted. They resisted in multiple ways; often this resistance was centred around a human desire to preserve the Jewish community and communal identity, whether in the form of a fighting unit or a clandestine publishing organisation.

The Jews faced the most intense persecution of any group since the beginning of the occupation and the rule of Vichy, so it is safe to assume that the natural aversion to violent oppression predisposed many into creating and joining the Resistance. Jewish involvement in the Resistance, whether armed or unarmed, general or specifically Jewish, cannot be overstated. Moreover, to live as a Jew under antisemitic persecution, to preserve one’s identity and care for others, to organise or show isolated or collective acts of support, to work to keep the community intact, and ultimately merely to survive meant resistance in itself. In this sense, all Jews of France lived as resisters.

Maryam Pashali


References

[1] M. Bloch, A Strange Defeat (1999), 112.

[2] M. R. Marrus and R. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (1995), 27.

[3] J. Jackson, France: The Dark Years 1940-1944 (2001), 355.

[4] R.H. Weisberg, Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France (2013), 38.

[5] Weisberg, Vichy Law and the Holocaust, 198. 

[6] Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 354.

[7] R. Poznanski, Jews in France During World War II (2001), 421.

[8] Leo Hamon, quoted in Poznanski, Jews in France, 421.

[9] P. Henry, Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis (2014), 79.

[10] Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 368

[11] Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (2016), 223.

[12] Adam Rayski, quoted in Gildea, Fighters, 224.

[13] Gildea, Fighters, 231.

[14] Adam Rayski, quoted in Gildea, Fighters, 230-231.

[15] Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 369.

[16] J. Adler, “The Jewish Press in Wartime Europe: France, a case study on the role and limitation of the legal and clandestine press in the struggle for survival, 1940-1944” in R. M. Shapiro (ed.). Why Didn’t the Press Shout? American and International Journalism During the Holocaust (2003), 576.

[17] Adler, “The Jewish Press”, 575.

[18] M. Cobb, The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis (2010), 201.

[19] J’Accuse, quoted in Cobb, The Resistance, 201.

[20] Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 368.

[21] Henry, Jewish Resistance, 79.

[22] Ibid., 73.

[23] R. Kedward. Resistance in Vichy France: A Study of Ideas and Motivations in the Southern Zone 1940-1942 (1978), 169.

[24] Henry, Jewish Resistance, 79.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s