To the Editor:
I would like to comment on Barbara Lerner’s article, “A Michelin Noir” [May]. I find it marvelous that American scholars not only study what happened in France during World War II, but that they do not hesitate to break taboos. And, what is more, their research is of great value.
For the past 35 years or so, I have been working on related themes (Jews in World War II, the Holocaust, Jewish resistance, the S S and Gestapo in France and in Germany). My latest book (written with Myriam Foss), “Vie et mort des Juifs sous l’occupation,” was published by Editions Pion in January 1996.
I can only confirm what Miss Lerner says: that most archives of the camps in France (and there were many, as she notes) are officially “closed.” I can tell from her article that she is not unfamiliar with the workings of the French bureaucracy in this matter. . . . She must also be aware of the difficulty Claude Laharie encountered in writing his book about the camp at Gurs, which shows how hard it is to gain accesss to the archives of the camps even today. . . .
I myself paid a visit a few years ago to the region of Gurs. That area used to be very poor before 1939, which was one of the reasons for the installation of a concentration camp there: the local population was expected to derive some benefit from it. And I can assure you that this was in fact the case: many a peasant in Gurs, Josbaig, Navarreux, and so on was considerably richer in 1944 than he had been in 1939.
The subject of the camps has always been forbidden territory for most French historians. It was a literary theme, of course, but I do not know of any serious research on the subject. As for the names of its greater and lesser seigneurs—well, the laws of libel are quite stringent here. Mentioning any sort of offense that has since been covered by an amnesty is itself an offense. One may not disclose any such fact, much less cite it in evidence. In addition, a large percentage of the personnel of those camps, especially in the middle and the higher ranks, were government officials, many of whom pursued their careers after the war.
The above is just one explanation; it does not purport to be the explanation, nor the answer to Miss Lerner’s question of why the French archives have never been opened.
To the Editor:
“A Michelin Noir” contains a number of statements which may convey a misleading impression. . . .
For the sake of historical accuracy, and without going into the detailed statistics which can be found in the masterly study of the subject by Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, 1933-45, let me cite the following comparison between France and Holland in World War II.
The total number of Jews (1941 census) living in Holland under the Nazi occupation just before the start of the deportations was around 140,000. Of these, 110,000 were Dutch and 30,000 foreign. Of this total, 105,000 (i.e., 75 percent) perished in the Holocaust. Therefore, at least 75,000 of those who died must have been Dutch-born Jews.
By contrast, some 350,000 Jews lived in France at the outbreak of the war, 150,000 French and 200,000 foreign. Of that total, 90,000 (i.e., 26 percent) perished—and very few of those were French-born. Moreover, 50 percent of the foreign Jews living in France survived to the end of the war.
It is clear, therefore, that, overall, the French authorities under the Occupation, with all the anti-Semitism and xenophobia which were rife at all levels of French society, had a better record toward the Jews than was the case elsewhere in Europe. They were in fact far better than their Dutch counterparts, contrary to the impression Miss Lerner’s article may convey.
To the Editor:
I would like to add to Barbara Lerner’s interesting and sad tale about French concentration camps and anti-Semitism. My mother, sister, an aunt, uncle, and I were on the ship St. Louis that was prevented from discharging its 900-plus Jewish refugees in Cuba in May 1939. When the boat eventually was permitted to land in Antwerp, Belgium, my family was transshipped to France.
After the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, my uncle, together with many other adult Jewish males, was picked up by the French police and interned in one of the camps described by Miss Lerner. Because of the terrible unsanitary conditions, superimposed upon very little food, my uncle, who had been perfectly healthy when he entered the camp, contracted tuberculosis and died a short while later. This, despite valiant efforts to get him released by pointing out the absurdity of treating an escapee from Hider’s Germany as an enemy alien. The bottom line was that he (as well as the others) was a Jew.
New Brunswick, New Jersey
To the Editor:
. . . Some courageous acts did occur among die French during the terrible time of die Occupation. Let me cite one example. After die war, my mother sent contributions to a U.S. organization assisting French war orphans. Eventually, she entered into correspondence with a young boy and unofficially adopted him.
His story: he was born in Paris in 1942 of a Jewish family which had emigrated from Poland in the 192 O’s. When he was an infant of seventeen days, the police came to pick him up along with his mother. But the police found only the mother and grandparents, who had come to see the new baby, so they took all of them. They were never seen again.
Meanwhile, a Catholic French woman who lived upstairs in the same apartment building had hidden the infant and his older brother. The Catholic woman raised the two boys despite the peril to her own safety. . . .
Today that infant, retaining his Polish-Jewish name, is one of France’s most eminent ophthalmologists. When I suggested to the son of the good woman who had hidden him that I doubted whether I would have had the strength or courage to do what she had done, he simply stated, “Mais c’était normal,” it was the only thing to do.
Obviously, the courage of a few French will never obscure the hideous path of cooperation with the exterminators, taken, it now seems, by the nation as a whole. But the story of my adopted “brother” should be shared so that we do not condemn every French man and woman. There were some heroes.
Robert A. Low
New York City
Barbara Lerner writes:
I am very grateful for Lucien Steinberg’s letter. A distinguished French historian whose collections of documents have long been a major resource for all serious scholars in the field, he praises me for breaking the “taboo” against talking openly about the French government’s continuing cover-up of its World War II-era concentration camps and much else. But it is he who is brave.
Professional historians generally condemn French government obstructionism in private. Public utterances are usually limited to praise for whatever French official has let the researcher peek at an archival record. But even to get those peeks, a historian usually has to start by knowing exactly what he is looking for—often down to the precise French file number of the record or law he is asking to see. Then he has to put up with frequent arbitrary refusals, depending on what a distinguished American historian I know privately calls “the whim of the bureaucrat of the day.” Complain, and one risks being denied all access to archival records, even allegedly unclassified ones.
Historians who live in France and are subject to its libel laws, as Lucien Steinberg is, face an even greater risk. As his letter indicates, it is a violation of French law to tell the truth about who did what to whom in France in the late 1930’s and the early 40’s because most government officials and other Frenchmen who were active then are shielded by French amnesty laws. Many of these people are still alive, still active, or have heirs who are. The laws protecting them are Orwellian; punishment for violating them can be harsh, and truth is no defense.
My situation is different. I am not a professional historian; I do not live in France; and I am content to let others mine official French archives. My sources are unofficial ones—mainly interviews with men and women who survived the French camps, and/or fought in the French Resistance before 1943, the year the Resistance first became popular. So I risk nothing by telling the truth. And this allows me to serve as a voice for others who are not as free to speak out about the obstacles they encounter.
I am grateful, too, to Hans Fisher, and to a number of other good people who responded to my article by writing me, describing dieir experiences in French camps in the 1930’s and 40’s, or those of others they knew. I find these reports of great value, and I urge every survivor who can to make his experience part of the public record by contributing to the Spielberg project or to any of the other good Holocaust data-collection centers in this country and abroad.
I want to thank Robert Low, too, and to acknowledge again, as I did in my article, his point that there were some French Catholics who took great personal risks to protect Jews and other persecuted “métèques” (aliens) in France. Still, as Mr. Low acknowledges, such people were relatively rare in France. Most French men and women chose to ignore their persecuted neighbors and, as Mr. Steinberg confirms in helpful detail, many ordinary French people actively exploited them.
M.J. Cohen’s statistics are at least in the right ballpark; his conclusion is not. Jews did have a better chance of survival in France than in Holland; so did Christians. The Dutch had a tougher war and a more brutal occupation. Holland was bombed severely and repeatedly; France was not. Starvation was widespread in Holland, and the death toll among Dutch Christians was high; in France, there were pockets of malnutrition, but no one outside the camps starved to death. And then there is the question of protest. As Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton note and document in their book, Vicby France and the Jews, there was almost no risk in protesting against die abuse of Jews and foreigners in France in the early years of the Occupation, but there were no general protests until 1943. In Holland, the risk to protesters was considerable from the start, but the first widespread protest took place on February 25, 1941. The point, in sum, is that to conclude that the French behaved better than the Dutch, or even no differently, one has to blame the Dutch for what the Germans did to them, and exonerate the French for what they did to others.
I cannot close without a word about a distinguished historian whom Mr. Cohen and I both admire, the late Lucy S. Dawidowicz. Mr. Cohen gets his statistics from Appendix A, me country-by-country section of her masterful 1975 book, The War Against the Jews, 1939-1945. He seems to regard this as the final word on the subject, but to be true to Mrs. Dawidowicz’s spirit, he needs to see her book as a starting place, not an end point. Mrs. Dawidowicz was not a specialist in French history, but, here as elsewhere, she gave us the very best statistics that were available at the time, and many of them were and are still quite good. But some were not, and Mrs. Dawidowicz would have been the last to deny that. Like all first-rate historians, she had an astute eye for gaps and holes in our knowledge, and an insatiable hunger to fill them in.
To honor her memory, we should try to augment the evidence she gave us, not use it to fend off new evidence about any aspect of the Holocaust, least of all in France. My own decade of research in this area convinces me that French statistics are especially slippery. The more I learn, the less confidence I have in many of the conventional estimates of population figures and death rates in wartime France, and the more convinced I become that we will never really understand what happened there until the French archives are fully opened.