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The Holocaust

The Holocaust in France

Jews in France were persecuted from the very beginning of the Occupation. The denaturalisation laws were passed a month within a month, stripping thousands of Jewish people of their French citizenship. The first anti-Semitic laws were passed in the Autumn of 1940.

The “Statut des Juifs” removed Jews from jobs in the State-funded public sector, which, in France was vast and included schools, public libraries, the military and universities. Later, persecution extended to limiting access to goods and services, restricting movement around the city through harsh curfews and also tightening up on the records kept of Jews living in France through the setting up of an Office of Jewish Affairs, presented as an opportunity for Jewish people to organise and administer their own communities but which, in reality, merely helped the State better plan their arrest, deportation and eventual murder.

The round ups began in the Spring of 1942 and Jews were made to wear the yellow star and forced to observe more punitive sanctions in June of the same year. It is generally accepted that the French public did not oppose Vichy and Nazi anti-Semitism in numbers until 1942 when it became clear that French people of Jewish heritage were also being targeted by legislation. Prior to this, the belief had been that the State was simply deporting migrants who had fled to France from the East. It was a policy which was by and large accepted because public hostility towards migrants hardened as living conditions worsened and food and material resources became ever scarcer.

The Vichy state was visibly adopting Nazi anti-Semitic policies and using French police and civil servants to implement them. Overnight, on the 16th and 17th July 1942, only weeks after the imposition of the yellow star insignia on the Jewish community, French police rounded up 13,000 Jewish people, largely of migrant origin, and detained them for without adequate food, water, sanitation or ventilation in the Vel d’Hiv,  an indoor cycle stadium in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. After five days held in appalling conditions, they were sent to internment camps elsewhere in France from where they were eventually deported to Auschwitz where nearly all were murdered.

From 1942, public resistance to persecution of the Jewish community was perceptible if limited in its risk-taking and effectiveness. As repression became more visible and arrests and round-ups of Jewish people became more frequent, small resistance networks emerged  to assist in the concealment of Jews either in the cities where they lived or else in safer areas in the countryside. The resistance was largely piece-meal and reliant on the goodwill of civilians who helped to produce fake identity cards for Jewish people by claiming to have lost their own which they then supplied to those producing the counterfeit documents. There were those who allowed their apartments to be used as ‘safe houses’ for those hiding from the round-ups.  Even though the French civil service and the police connived with the Nazis in the persecution of Jews, effectively enabling the arrest, deportation and murder of around 75,000 of them, there were pockets of resistance here too. Not all ‘fonctionnaires’ cooperated when it came to organising and participating in the round-ups. Some tipped-off the Jewish community about raids, which gave some a chance to escape.


Madeleine and the Holocaust

When Madeleine first arrives in France in 1939, she does not appear to have much understanding about anti-Semitism. In the letters she sends to her parents between November 1939 and June 1940 she mentions co-tenants who are refugees from Eastern Europe, who are clearly Jewish and who she says ‘loathe’ the Nazis but she does not make an explicit connection with Nazi anti-Jewish persecution.  It is only when anti-Semitism directly affects her through her Jewish student friends Hélène Berr and Françoise Bernheim and Cyla Babicka, a Russian émigré doctor, that she begins to record it in her diary. The three women were among Madeleine’s closest friends and from her letters to them – all recorded in the diary – and the meet-ups which increase in frequency over periods of heightened danger, it is clear that she is trying to support them all the best she can. When Hélène’s father is released from internment, Madeleine is invited for dinner at the Berr’s apartment and the same night she writes in her diary that she hopes soon to have finished knitting the yellow socks and gloves: a symbolic gesture of support for Hélène and her family.  Madeleine records the Vel d’Hiv round-up of July 16th and 17th 1942. These and subsequent entries are confused, distressed and depressed. She also records Françoise Bernheim’s arrest and Hélène’s narrow escape in June 1943 after which entries referring to both women become far fewer in number, possibly to protect both of them who are intermittently in hiding. The final reference to Hélène is made in February 1944, a month before her arrest and deportation when Madeleine bumped into her at the Sorbonne. The entry gave no indication of the larger menacing context, simply commenting that Hélène was, like all students, a little all over the place with her work. Later entries, don’t mention either Hélène or Françoise but do refer to an increase in round-ups in cafes and restaurants and note, also, that these are being organised directly by the German military.

Madeleine’s close contact with resistance leaders Georges Auclair and Hélène Barland (the latter an administrator in Vichy’s Service des monuments historiques, responsible for counterfeiting documents in the resistance network Turma Vengeance) suggests that she may have been involved in ‘subversive’ activities.  Hélène Berr and Françoise Bernheim certainly did help Jewish children to find safe sanctuary under cover of L’Union générale des israélites de France (UGIF) where both women worked.  Sylvia Beach, the publisher and a close friend of all three women was also closely connected to the resistance and was known to have helped Jewish friends escape Paris. No firm evidence exists to prove that Madeleine contributed to these networks. However, given her close contact with the UGIF network and evidence in the diary record that she did provide safe-house accommodation and identity cards to be counterfeited, there is a strong likelihood that she did make a contribution.

After the war, Madeleine writes to her friend, the bookshop owner Sylvia Beach asking for news of Françoise.  Only in the Spring of 1945 does Françoise’s father finally accept that his daughter will not be returning from the camps in a letter he writes to Sylvia Beach.


Marc Chantran, Turma Vengeance : Réseau de renseignement – évasion – action de la Résistance

Use on the Curriculum

The material is applicable and relevant to a broad range of subject areas and age groups including, but not limited to, History, English and Modern Foreign Languages across all key stages. We have created several lesson suggestions for each area across several key stages. However, because teachers have access to diary extracts relevant to the Holocaust, a podcast comprising guest interviews with experts on Holocaust history and the documentary film, there is a great opportunity to design bespoke materials suited to the needs of particular groups of students and which can be modelled to suit timetable constraints.