New Directions in Research and Methodology

Strategy or Sincerity? Studying Letters of French Jews to the Vichy Government

In the second of three new posts in our ongoing series ‘New Directions in French History’, Florence Largillière (Queen Mary) explores the letters French Jews wrote to the Vichy government during the Second World War, asking ‘how should historians look at these letters, since they give a convenient version of the reality, and hide many sides of their authors’ life and opinions?’

 


The main consequences of the French Statut des Juifs are well-known. Published on the 3rd of October 1940, it defined who was Jewish and excluded Jews from the Conseil d’Etat, the Army, civil service, courts of justice, engineering, and teaching professions[1]. Yet, article 8 of the Statut allowed certain French Jews to ask for an exemption, a dérogation, from some of the antisemitic clauses. To obtain this privileged status, one should have accomplished “exceptional deeds for France”, either during the Great War or in their civil life, and be able to prove their family had been French for at least five generations[2]. In the last chapter of my dissertation, I analyse the letters French Jews sent to the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives (CGQJ) and to Pétain between 1940 and 1943 to benefit from this measure[3]. I look at how French patriotic Jews presented themselves, at what they highlighted or omitted, and why they did so.

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Since the law was vague on what information and documents were needed, these letters were often more thorough than asked. French Jews recounted the lives of the patriotic members of their families and the diverse deeds of their fathers. They detailed their own experience of the Great War and, when relevant, their “national” accomplishments following it. These letters could consequently help us retrace the lives of integrated French Jewish families from the end of the 19th century. But they mostly let us see the patriotic and Vichy compatible aspects of these lives. Indeed, the main difficulty of working with these letters is that French patriotic Jews self-fashioned their stories and chose to present themselves to the CGQJ in a way that would fit into the French ideal of Vichy’s “National Revolution”.

These individuals were writing to obtain a privileged status, an exemption from the racial laws. They crafted their letters according to what they thought was expected from a perfect, if Jewish, patriotic Frenchman. These letters were not spontaneous declarations of love to the nation, or random presentations of family stories. Their authors tailored their pasts and their lives according to the image of the patriot depicted by the regime’s propaganda.

Therefore, French Jews insisted on their national roots, their long French ancestry, that they had researched at the National Library or in local archives. They proudly mentioned their family members who had fought in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, or who had “opted” for France, leaving everything behind, when Alsace and Lorraine became German – Arthur Meyer even thought this choice made his father “twice French”[4]. But the most crucial patriotic experience for French Jews was the Great War. Being a volunteer or a wounded veteran was a source of pride. Having spent years on the front, if possible in the most perilous positions, was another way to impress antisemitic authorities. The main battles, such as the Chemin des Dames, or the Somme, were also mentioned, proving that French Jews were part of the collective memory of the Great War.

They also used words and anecdotes that accentuated their bravery and emphasised their capacity of agency and their determination to take risks or ignore their pain for their nation. Léon Bernichten, for example, pointed out that the only wounds he brought back from the war where a few scratches he had obtained in hand to hand combat, proof of his fearlessness[5]. Similarly, in several Jewish veterans’ letters, the terms “demanded” or “at my request” were used to underline the fact that those individuals had asked intentionally to be sent to the frontline, or that they had expressly wished to return to the army soon after an injury.

All these elements went against the prevalent image of the Jew, a physically unfit “coward” who took advantage of Frenchmen. In fact, these letters frequently challenged prejudices regarding Jews’ lack of courage, of strength, of loyalty, or of productivity, and highlighted how French their authors had acted, how flawless their past had been. French Jews often tried to distinguish themselves from the image of the Jew antisemites could spread. They insisted on their complete detachment from any movement considered subversive and distanced themselves from the tenacious prejudices regarding the overrepresentation of Jews within the Communist Party, or within Freemasonry. They also mentioned their involvement in French cultural life, science, or industry. Showing one’s participation in the enrichment of the nation was an indirect way of contradicting antisemitic stereotypes equating Jews with profiteers, or with capitalists earning money on the back of hard-working French people.

Pétain meets Hitler

French Jews were very careful to demonstrate first their attachment to their nation, and not all discussed their Jewishness in their letters. The goal was to portray oneself as an ideal Frenchman, who just happened to be Jewish. A few embraced their Jewish identity and proved in their letters its compatibility with Frenchness and loyalty. Jean-Jacques Bernard explained that he “did not have to blush from the Alsatian Jews who were [his] ancestors” and he was certain “nobody would reproach him for having acted or thought as a Jew more than as a Frenchman”[6]. Some made a clear distinction between “good” patriotic Jews – Israélites – and the others, the subversives, the Zionists, the communists, and the Eastern European newcomers. Albert Baehr wanted to be “considered an israélite FRENCHMAN, and not a French JEW”[7]. Arthur Meyer refused to be assimilated with Polish Jews “with whom [he] had no affinity, since [he] understood neither their language, nor their customs, nor even their beliefs”[8]. And many, without completely denying their Jewishness, claimed that they had only lived according to national principles, and were barely aware of their religious or cultural affiliation. Guy Ullmann even affirmed he “[knew] nothing about the Jewish religion, because [he] had been in a Christian school”[9].

The question that arises from this short post is: how should historians look at these letters, since they give a convenient version of the reality, and hide many sides of their authors’ life and opinions? To me, these letters are excellent sources to study the rhetorical strategies of patriotic French Jews. I can, from these demands, see what these people chose to put on the forefront of their stories, what they considered to be proofs of their patriotism, and of patriotism in general, what they apparently chose to hide, but also how they addressed official authorities who, even though antisemitic, were the only ones who could improve their living conditions.

In other words, I chose to use these documents in a way that is the most compatible with my research. I am working on discourses and rhetoric. I am interested in how people present themselves and construct their selves. Like Didier Fassin in his article on requests for social assistance, I consider the texts I am studying as “the presentation the person wanted to make of their case, in the specific circumstances where the stakes are: obtaining aid”[10], or, for French Jews in 1940, a dérogation. I do not try to find the truth and I do not want to deconstruct every line of these letters. Some of the French Jews I quote were probably not as patriotic or nationalistic as they presented themselves. However, for my research, facts do not matter as much as their mise-en-scène/representation[11].

 


[1] Loi du 3 octobre 1940, portant statut des juifs, published in Journal Officiel, 18.10.1940

[2] Loi du 2 juin 1941 remplaçant la loi du 3 octobre 1940, published in Journal Officiel, 14.06.1941

[3] These demands are kept in the National Archives, in the collection of the CGQJ (AJ 38). Unfortunately, the files rarely remained in their original state, and letters are mixed with little possibility to know the outcome.

[4] AJ/38/6, Arthur Meyer to Marshal Pétain, 06.02.1943

[5] AJ/38/6, Léon Bernichten to Marshal Pétain, 16.10.1942

[6] AJ/38/3, Jean-Jacques Bernard to Xavier Vallat, 05.10.1941

[7] AJ/38/155, Albert Baehr to the CGQJ, 07.12.1941

[8] AJ/38/6, Arthur Meyer to Marshal Pétain, 06.02.1943

[9] AJ/38/6, Guy Ullmann to Marshal Pétain, 23.06.1941

[10] Didier Fassin, “La supplique. Stratégies rhétoriques et constructions identitaires dans les demandes d’aide d’urgence”, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, Vol.55, n°5, 2000, p.960

[11] On this, Michel Foucault, L’ordre du discours, 1971; and Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics: Vol.1, 2001 were very helpful.

 

 

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