Riding on a train from Brussels to Amsterdam in 1951, an elderly couple sat opposite from me reading a German-language newspaper. The old woman looked at me and began the conversation in German. I replied that although I understood German I refused to speak the language of the murderers of my people.
She was somewhat astounded and asked me my nationality. I replied that I was a Jew. And she said “aber du siehst nicht judisch aus”… but you don’t look Jewish. I don’t know what a Jew is supposed to look like. Do we have the horns of Michaelangelo’s sculpture of Moses? Are our noses crooked as portrayed in the Nazi Der Sturmer? I asked her if she spoke French or English and she admitted to speaking a halting English.
She asked if I had ever visited Germany. And I replied “God forbid that my feet should ever touch the bloody soil of murderers”. I continued to rattle my hate for everything German and I blamed all Germans for the war. Her husband then put down his newspaper and in a loud voice he proclaimed “Es war nicht uns….it was not us. We did not support the Nazis actions”.
I reminded him that 86% of all “good” Germans elected Hitler in free elections when he assumed the chancellorship under the aged Paul von Hindenburg. “Ja, aber es war nicht uns…. Yes, but it was not us”. And he continued “wir wussten nicht uber die Vernichtung von Juden”…. We knew nothing about the extermination of Jews.
The train arrived at Amsterdam’s Central Station and I hurried to get off, away from the “good German” couple.
I am reminded of that incident today on Yom HaShoah, a day also when the French go to the polls to elect a new president of the republic.
Among the popular front-runners is Marine Le Pen, right-wing daughter of Jean=Marie Le Pen, an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. When we Jews blamed the French government for the arrest and deportation to Polish death camps of thousands of French Jews, her reply was the same as the reply of the German couple. “Ce n’etait pas la France ni les Francais. Notre gouvernement etait en exile en Angleterre. La France etait occupee par les Allemands. Nous ne sommes pas coupables de crimes contre les Juifs” It was not France nor the French people. Our government was in exile in England. France was occupied by the Germans. We are not guilty of crimes against the Jews !
But it was the French police who conspired with the Nazi occupiers. It was the French police who knocked on doors, arrested Jewish inhabitants, assembled them in the Val d’Hiv, sent some to the concentration camp in Nancy and escorted thousands of others to sealed trains destined for Poland. It was the gendarmes of France, albeit of the Vichy collaborationist regime, who made no attempt whatsoever to protect French Jewish citizens. They preferred une belle France sans les Juifs… a beautiful France without Jews.
At least, anti-Jewish Poland produced more Righteous Gentiles, honored by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, who hid, sheltered and protected more Jews than any other occupied country.
France and the French people cannot adhere to the excuses of Marine Le Pen and other extremist right-wing politicians who deny French responsibility for the murders of French Jews during occupation.
This week, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow urged all French Jews to leave France. This would only add an ugly chapter of history of French relations with the Jewish people who were granted citizenship and equality by Napoleon Bonaparte. With the exception of the tragic trial and imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, French Jews have lived peacefully in France and have made major contributions to French society. Indeed, two Jews have served as Prime Ministers of France.. Leon Blum in 1946 and Pierre Mendes-France in 1954, from a Jewish Portugese family which settled in France in the 16th century.
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, international Holocaust memorial day, let us never forget the deniers who loudly proclaim “Es war nicht uns”… it was not us. May they suffer the eternal flames of hell.