The 2014 book When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Prof. Ronald Rosbottom, covers that era by themes. One of the longest chapters, “The Most Narrowed Lives—The Hunt for Jews,” reviews the demographics of Jews in France in the late 1930s, and how the assassination of Nazi embassy official Ernst vom Rath by 17-year old Herschel Grynszpan provided the perfect cover for Kristallnacht.
Rosbottom sketches the tightening noose of social and economic restrictions, the art exhibits and films that made Jews a target. The roundups began, the relentless German machine knew exactly where wealthy Jews lived and where they banked; the pre-invasion research and surveillance worked well. The great roundup, Le Grand Rafle, of July 1942 and the struggles to survive after that also unwind toward obliteration. The outline of this history is familiar.
The book contains one comment on the great roundup that presents a Holocaust perspective that’s jarring in its imagery. He writes,
Next to the assignment of the yellow star, the decision to arrest children between two and sixteen, then separate them from their parents, was probably the most significant public relations mistake of the Vichy government and their German partners . . . Police reports following the roundup were especially sensitive to public opinion.
I’ve never associated the Vichy government, Germany and “public relations” in the same thought. Does this suggest a new line of Holocaust scholarship, what constituted good and bad PR for the Nazis?
Now, more than 70 years later, the lessons of that era jump off the page. I’m struck by the delusional hopes that things would somehow work out (Rosbottom happened to be in Paris during the January killings at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market, and he’s quoted here). Rosbottom writes about Edgar Sée, a 70 year attorney who left a notebook of his life before being deported and killed. He thought his past legal work and a professional friend in the German embassy would protect him. Rosbottom writes,
Sée was caught up in the self-deception of many French Jews, especially wealth and well-connected ones . . . that somehow they could ride out the disaster that was surrounding them, encroaching daily on their lives. If they gave up their arms and radios, if they renewed their IDs, if they wore punctiliously the yellow star, if they rode in the last car of the Métro train, they would be fine. “[These French Jews] could not bring themselves to believe that the same men would commit in France the same infamies [they were carrying out in the east]. The country of the rights of man had its traditions and would preserve them.”
Does this sound familiar in the discussions of how French Jews should respond?
Finally, Rosbottom relates a warning that went out to Jewish neighborhoods before the roundup. It echos, in its realism and urgency, the warnings now being sounded for Jews to leave France and, now, Denmark before the rising tide drowns more of them in blood. The warning shouted,
Do not wait for these bandits in your home. Take all necessary measures to hide, and hide first of all your children with the aid of sympathetic French people . . . . If you fall into the hands of these bandits, resist in any way you can, resist in any way you can. Barricade the doors, call for help, fight the police. You have nothing to lose. You can only save your life. Seek to flee at every moment. We will not allow ourselves to be exterminated.
Does this sound familiar? People are hoping that republican France can protect them, or that more outreach can help—hands around the synagogue in Copenhagen, for example. Since the latest killings, the mood has eased back and community spokesmen are downplaying calls for aliyah. I leave it to European Jews to decide how to respond to the threats against them, but the warnings of Paris ’42 sound more and more painfully relevant.
You have nothing to lose. You can only save your life.