When you grab one of these Jewish kids, get him out of sight and
into your van as soon as possible so the locals don’t get upset.
The Second World War began in September 1939 with the German invasion and occupation of Poland. In the early summer of 1940, France fell to invading German Forces. The Third French Republic had come to an end.
That winter, German SS and police forces began to set up an elaborate administrative apparatus within German-occupied France to address the “problem” of the French Jews. The purpose of this apparatus was to confiscate Jewish-owned property, pass regulations to restrict the rights of Jews, and to conduct roundups that placed thousands of Jews in detention camps. Jews were barred from occupations in industry, commerce and the professions, such as medicine and teaching. They were dismissed from the civil service and the military. Very quickly, France’s Jews were left destitute. The fate of France’s Jews was sealed.
In January 1942 the German government held its infamous Wannsee Conference that produced a detailed plan for the destruction of Europe’s Jews. The German strategy was to gather Jews into ghettos and camps from which they were to be transported by rail to killing centers or death camps, mostly in Eastern Europe. France was one of many countries in which this strategy was implemented.
Nations occupied by Germany varied in the enthusiasm with which national government officials, police, militias and the local population collaborated and assisted German forces in rounding up and executing Jews. In Denmark, the Danish King and government voiced their strong opposition to German plans for Jewish roundups and deportations. With the encouragement of the King, Danish resistance groups organized a secret evacuation of Denmark’s Jewish population. Jews were spirited to safety in Sweden, under cover of night and in numerous small boats. By war’s end, 476 Jews had been deported to Germany. Of these, 52 died. The rest of Denmark’s Jews were saved.
French collaboration in rounding up and killing Jews was no worse than that of many other countries, and in some ways it was better. At the start of the German invasion, 350,000 Jews lived in France. After the Nazis assumed power in Germany in 1933, a wave of anti-Semitic regulations and violence washed over many countries, especially those in Eastern Europe. Thousands of Jews fled these areas and many of them settled in France. Thus, over half the Jews in France at the start of the German occupation were not French nationals.
For more than the first two years of German occupation, southern and eastern France remained unoccupied. However, a German-collaborationist regime, headquartered in the city of Vichy, served as the government in this area. The Vichy government passed anti-Semitic legislation modeled on that of the Germans. Under Vichy government laws, the Jews were persecuted, and their property was confiscated.
Roundups and Jews in Hiding
To its discredit, in both German and non-German occupied areas, France forced many thousands of Jews into concentration camps, where living conditions were deplorable. French police officers were used to hunt for, confine, and deport Jews, including Jewish children.
The most infamous roundup took place in Paris on July 16 and 17, 1942. French police arrested 13,000 Jews (including 4,000 children) and confined most of them in the Velodrome d’Hiver sports arena. Conditions were appalling. The crowding was so great there was barely room enough to lie down. No arrangements had been made for bathrooms, food or water. After five days the Jews were transferred to other transit camps. Most went to the Auschwitz Extermination camp where they were killed.
French authorities had few qualms about meeting German orders for roundup and deportation of Jews who were not French citizens. But they balked at applying these actions to Jews who were French citizens. This may have been a sign of French loyalty to its own, or it may be that the deportation of French citizens struck too close to home. If French Jews were stripped of their possessions and deported, would other French people be next?
The most inspiring part of French Holocaust history concerns Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon, a village of 5,000 people in south-central France. During the course of the war, the village and surrounding areas provided refuge for an estimated 5,000 people fleeing the Germans. Most of these were Jewish children. Villagers in this area were members of a small minority in France: They were Protestants. Having known centuries of persecution by their Catholic countrymen, they had compassion for the Jews. Many families in these villages took in Jewish children whose reluctant parents had given them up to Christian families who hid them from the authorities. The children were given new names and identities. Some were smuggled across the border into Italy. Thus, many Jewish children were saved.
Partly as a result of French non-cooperation, most French Jews survived the war years. In the end, 77,000 Jews living in France perished. Most were not French citizens. Today France has the world’s third largest Jewish population, estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 people.
My Jewish parents survived the German occupation of Poland. Poland’s Jews were not as lucky as those of France. Ninety percent of Polish Jews perished. Having grown up with my mother’s war stories, I was familiar with the greatest asset the Germans had in killing the Jews of the countries they had occupied: the willing and at times eager, participation of an anti-Semitic local population. At the same time, many Christian Poles risked their lives to save Jews. (See my Times of Israel post, “The Polish Nun Who Made a Choice”, February 9, 2018.)
It is complicated.
But there is one thing I will never understand: Adults who hunt children.
Job Description for a French Child-Hunter
In German-occupied France, the Germans knew that many Jewish children were being hidden throughout the country. They tasked the French police to hunt down these children and place them on transports to camps where they were gassed and their bodies burned.
I understand that many people dislike and even loathe Jews. It is harder to figure out how that hate can extend to small children. Whatever the faults of their parents might be, isn’t it obvious that children are innocent? That adults need to protect them?
I have many questions. I want to know more about the local police officers who hunted Jewish children in France. Here are some questions I want to ask these officers:
-Do you have children of your own? Did you think these Jewish children were different from yours?
-Why did you accept the assignment to hunt children? You must have known what would happen to them.
-How exactly did your police chief present this assignment to you?
Did your chief say something like this to you?:
There are Jewish children in hiding here. The Germans want us to find them and put them on transports to the East. I am giving you this job.
This is a cushy assignment. It is not dangerous like pursuing adult bank robbers and rapists. These kids are unarmed, and they are small, so there is no danger to you.
I want you to go into these villages. Pose as a tourist. Check into a pension. This should be fun. In your free time you can enjoy the local restaurants. The countryside is great, so you can hike or swim in one of the local streams. You may even get lucky and meet a pretty Mademoiselle.
Chat up the local population. Ask questions such as, “Are there children in the village who arrived within the last few months? What are their names? Where do they live?”
Hang out at the local schools, especially when kids arrive in the morning and leave at the end of the school day. Make friends with some of the kids and see if you can get information from them. Ask, “Any new classmates? Any kids around here with a funny accent? How about any kids who seem frightened?”
When you grab one of these Jewish kids, get him out of sight and into your van as soon as possible so the locals don’t get upset. When you put the kid in your van, put down a blanket in case the kid panics and wets his pants; that way he won’t soil the seat. If the kid resists, put him in handcuffs and lock the van doors so he can’t get away.
The kid will probably start crying. So try to grab him when others aren’t around. Or at least, get him away from the locals as quickly as possible. Keep him calm by telling him that you’re a friend of his parents and that you will take him to see them.
If you get a bunch of these kids all at once, you’ll have to lock them in a paddy-wagon or in the local jail, if you can.
When you’re ready, drive the kids to such-and-such a collection point. Keep an eye out so none of them runs away.
By the way, if you do a good job, you’ll be rewarded. We are looking for quantity here, so get as many kids as you can. There is a promotion here for you.
I am not surprised that I have never come across a personal account of a police officer who rounded up children. Children hunting may have been a respectable occupation under Nazi rule. But it doesn’t look good now that the war is over. I doubt that a former child hunter would ever want to talk about his work.
But it is useful to try to understand why respectable people abandoned the most basic attribute of being human — compassion for an innocent child.