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In the dire times of occupation and war, people’s reaction to the persecution of Jews varied from active resistance to active collaboration. When searching for a certain testimony in the Shoah archive, researchers sometimes would come across the category of people marked as “rescuer and aid provider.” This means that the interviewee participated in rescue operations – hid Jewish children, helped refugees to cross the border, provided the persecuted people with the false identities, and so on. The Diamant Collection also presents examples of different attempts to protect Jewish populations from the roundups, cruel treatment, and deportations. In 1941 and 1942, after the massive roundups in the both zones of France, the prominent members of French Christian community sent their protests to the Vichy government. These letters were probably reprinted and distributed by the Resistance as leaflets.

In December 1941, Paul Claudel, a prominent Catholic writer and diplomat, wrote a letter addressing Rabbi Israel Schwartz. In this letter, he expresses "the disgust, horror, and indignation that all decent Frenchmen and especially Catholics feel in respect of the injustices, the despoiling, all the ill treatment of which our Jewish compatriots are now the victims... Israel is always the eldest son of the promise [of God], as it is today the eldest son of suffering." His short letter concludes with the quote “Blessed are those who suffer from persecution of justice. God protects and blesses Israel in this redemptive path.”[*] In response to this gesture the Vichy authorities had Claudel's house searched and kept him under observation. Though an ambiguous figure, and accused of collaboration with the Vichy regime, Claudel detested Nazism and clearly showed his disgust towards the racist laws. Thus, “he had written an open letter to the World Jewish Conference in 1935 condemning the Nuremberg Laws as "abominable and stupid."[*]

Another example of such support originated from the famous religious leader Marc Boegner in his letter of August 20, 1942 to Marshall Petain (a chief of the Vichy government). In this letter, Boegner writes about the atrocities that the Jews in France experienced, particularly focusing on the horrendous conditions of deportations that provoke horror and compassion:

I am obliged to add, Mr. Marshall,  that the "delivery" of these miserable foreigners is conducted in such inhumane conditions that even the most hardened people would be brought to tears when witnessing these measures. Packed into the cattle cars, without any source of hygiene, the foreigners are treated as cattle.[*]

Boegner also reminds of the inspiration that Christianity carried, “in France particularly, to respect the right of asylum.  The Christian churches, regardless of the diversity of their confessions, are infidels to their first vocation if they rose before abandoning this principle.” Though being against any violence, including armed struggle, he tried different means of resistance, including vain attempts to officially prevent the deportation of Jewish children and public protests against sending the forced workers to Germany.

Finally, the Diamant Collection holds a letter from the Archbishop de Pau addressing the editor of the journal Patriotte de Basses-Pyrenees. Judging by the context, this document is a response to an anti-Semitic article that was earlier published in this journal. According to the Archbishop, this piece of propaganda defends “the wicked violence of mankind,” using the canonical texts as a proof that “the persecution of Jews is an ecclesiastic precept:”

Tell me which regulation of written law permits the forced separation of a mother from her small children, and if much of the information on these matters is "doubtful and incontrollable", as you say, don't you realize that the reason for this situation is that the hangmen are at the same time the masters of the press and radio, which enables them to commit their crimes in a silent prison that deadens the cries of the victims. However, what comes to our knowledge is already sufficient to move the heart of every Christian. My indignation is aroused, and I condemn at the same time all the other blows at personal rights.[*]

The arguments of these letters are still based on the lack of knowledge that the only fate awaiting the Jews after they are taken to the “east” is extermination. As almost all the VHA interviewees point out, they had no idea of the degree of danger that all of the Jewish population was facing in reality. The authors of all of these letters share a suspicion of the true goal of the Nazis but cannot imagine the scale, and because of that appeal to humanity.

Another text held in the Diamant Collection was composed by the Central Consistory in 1942 and addressed to Petain. In this case, the authors seem to be much more aware of the whole situation, since they directly refer to the extermination conducted in the east:

This extermination plan has been applied methodically in Germany and in the occupied countries, since it has been established by precise and consistent information that several hundred thousand Jews have been massacred in Eastern Europe, or have died there after atrocious sufferings, following the ill-treatment they received.[*]

The Consistory knows that the deportations and executions will continue, and because of that the feeling of hopelessness is stronger than in the priest’s protests. After demanding protection from deportations for different categories of people (children of all ages, pregnant women, former French soldiers, and the parents of the small children), the letter adds: “Give humane treatment to those who remain condemned to take the path of deportation.”

These protest letters, along with other forms of public outrage, had some impact on the situation in France. Although Laval was planning to send 3,000 Jewish children to the camps, the transports from the unoccupied zone to Drancy transit camp contained only 37 children. The rest were either hidden or released from the detention camps due to the active intervention of different organizations. As a result of public opinion, together with the practices of evading arrest, “Jews in both zones were arrested at a slower pace. Eight convoys planned to depart from Drancy in September, and thirty planned for October, were cancelled because of a shortfall of 38,000 Jews whom the Germans had expected the French police to capture.”[*]

The Jewish resistance in many ways was supported by the local French population risking their lives to hide children or help people to cross the border to Switzerland. One of the ongoing concerns of French Jewish organizations was the need to find places for the overwhelming number of children whose parents were dead, imprisoned, or in hiding. Sometimes the activists had to go through the painful process of convincing the parents to part with their children and to entrust them to the resistance organization:

We were trying to convince parents to give the children away so that they would be hidden. It was hard for the parents, sometimes they would not agree. We also took children from the OSE homes, the children that lost their parents. Many of them were deported when the Germans took over.

We would take the children across the border to the Switzerland; preparing them and talking to them, collecting the clothing. We taught them to remember their false names, or what they should say if they meet the Germans.[*]

One of the reports prepared in 1943 by the Union des Juifs pour la Resistance et l’Entraide (Union of Jews for Resistance and Mutual Aid) goes through the list of tasks that the organizations is trying to complete. The document is centered on the Jews of Lyon, and their “worsening plight.” Among other issues, such as links with the FTP, the unions, the placement of women, and the military instruction of combat groups, they also talk about the problem of finding the new home for the children in hiding:

The number of children to place grows from day to day; we have created a 4-member committee specially designated for this work. <…>   We hope for good outcomes. However the biggest challenges are to point out concerning places. There are a number of children who need homes and we are not able to accommodate them. Comrades in Grenoble who have significant possibilities in this regard have committed themselves to helping us, but the results have been ill-fated. They assured us 8 places, and when one of our female comrades arrived with 2 little girls there proved to have been no preparations made. The children wandered from one place to another for several days. We have asked the Center to put an end to this unpardonable negligence, and for our Grenoble comrades to apply themselves more seriously to the issue of finding places for children.[*]

Jewish children hidden in the monasteries and priests’ families often had to comply with the rules of the institution by attending the services and acting as Catholics. Erika Goldfarb, as a member of Armee Juive (Jewish Army), tells how one of her assignments was to go to the monastery and ask the priest not to convert the Jewish children into Catholicism. The father replied that some had already converted on their own wish. Another survivor, Henri Berger, lived with a priest’s family for about four years in a small southern town:

We were separated from our mother, because the rumors were that the Germans will be after the children… This priest taught me Catholicism, how to serve masses… but he also taught me Hebrew. He used to remind me – whatever I am telling you here do not forget that you are Jewish. And this was incredible. He was a tough man, in a sense of my learning, and in any way he was behind me all the time.[*]

Paulette Fink put her small daughters into the country school in the southern zone. However, Germans sometimes passed through the town and searched the homes; to save them she would put her kids on the bicycle and ride up into the mountains. In the VHA interview, one of her daughters remembers the atmosphere of secrecy and mystery when her mother would quickly gather their things and take them to that place. This village is famous for the pastor who was actively involved in the process of hiding Jewish families.

There was a village of Chambaron, a little village. The head of that village was a famous Protestant pastor, named Trocme, he and his family lived in the house that belonged to the church. Somehow people found out about this village, and there was one Jewish family that came to him, and he hid them in one of the households. Then the villagers started to complain that they did not want to take such risk upon themselves. Hearing that, the pastor gathered the people of the village in the church and told them that it is our duty to save these people. They came to us and asked for help because they have nowhere to go to, and I am not going to denounce them. And you know what – we have no weapons to defend ourselves except for our spirit.

And five thousand villagers hid 5,000 Jews. My kids were in school there many times when there was danger elsewhere.[*]

Father Trocme and his wife Magda were acknowledged by Yad Vashem as the Righteous Among Nations.[*]

The resistance kept distributing information among the population on how to behave in the conditions of constant roundups and deportations. The main advice was not to obey the official orders, such as registering as a Jew, wearing the yellow star, or using their real identity instead of a false one. The resistance spread these recommendations through the underground members as well as through printed materials. The Diamant collection holds a number of the leaflets containing this information, including one issued by the Union d’Entraide et de Resistance des Juifs de France:

  1. Once and for all, abandon your legal residences and do not return for any reason.
  2. In your illegal residences, be discrete, do not introduce yourself to people you do not know well.
  3. Do not keep your identity papers with the “Jewish” stamp or a different name. If you have false papers, only keep those in your pockets and hide the others well.
  4. Beware of gossips.
  5. Do not go to a cafe, cinema, or other public places.  Do not wander aimlessly in the streets.
  6. Do not speak Yiddish in public places or in the streets.

It would be criminal on your part to neglect these elementary security measures which will permit you to see the hour of Liberation.[*]

By 1944, hiding or other “means of defence that we used up until this point – fake papers, unofficial residences etc” were not effective anymore. Both French zones were occupied by Germans, and the arrests and executions were going full-speed. At this point, as the resistance leaders noted, the unarmed struggle could “no longer protect us given the new Gestapo methods.” They strongly advised the Jews not to limit themselves by going into hiding and to join the resistance instead of “fatally falling into the hands of the Germans:”

Young Jews, join the UJJ or another organization of the FUJP which will lead you to the resistance.  If you do not find them at first, group yourselves together, look at your city, and search for places you could hide yourselves.  By this search, you will find the liaison you are looking for.

Young Jews, the city signifies for you the life of a trapped beast.

The Resistance: Honour and Security![*]

The rescue operations, as we see from these examples, varied widely, from sending letters to armed combat. The risk that people took upon themselves to defend Jews from persecution was real and could result in imprisonment or deportation. The documents in the Diamant collection show the varying degrees of support and assistance offered by people in the occupied countries.


[1] 0301 Lettre de Paul Claudel à Monsieur [Pétain ?] . Brangues (Isère), 24 décembre 1941

[2] 0300 Lettre de Marc Boegner à Pétain. Nîmes, le 20 août 1942

[3] 0303 Lettre de Monsieur l'Archiprêtre de Pau à M. le rédacteur du "Patriote des B.P." [J.M. Rocq, curé of St-Martin]. Pau, le 6 septembre 1942

[4] 0302 Texte du Consistoire Central des Israélites de France à Pétain (1942 or after). The translation is taken from: Lazare, Rescue as Resistance, 159

[5] Lazare, Rescue as Resistance, 161-163

[6] Wiener, Renee Interview 7199, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 8 July 2013

[7] 0157 Union Des Juifs Pour La Résistance Et L'entraide. Rapport d'activité et d'organisation. Mois de juin 1943

[8] Berger, Henri, Interview 850, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 8 July 2013

[9] Fink, Paulette, Interview 11744, Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. 2013. Web. 8 July 2013

[10] 0318 Frères Juifs. Nous vivons des heures decisive… Mimeographed leaflet of the Union des Juifs pour la Résistance et l'Entraide (UJRE)

[11] 0333 Jeunes Juifs. Pour échapper à la terreur hitlérienne, rejoignez en masse les maquis. Mimeographed leaflet of the Union de la Jeunesse Juive (U.J.J.), January 22, 1944