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Which France?

BUT BACK TO THE BROTHERS FROM POLAND, the brothers now in France. Documents that I'd requested long before had just arrived from the Archives Départementales de Limoges (Haute-Vienne) -- from where Owszija had been in the work camp.  It was startling to see "JUIF" -- "JEW" -- stamped across the identity card, with the now-familiar mangled spelling of his name and city of birth.

FOREIGN LABOR BATTALIONS   or groupements de travailleurs étrangers, GTE, existed in both the occupied and unoccupied zones of France. "In 1940, authorities began to separate Jews into special units -- "The Palestinian companies.' , , , unlike the situation in concentration camps, it was difficult to secure release in order to emigrate. During the summer and fall of 1942, the GTE helped fill the deportation trains to Auschwitz." (Marrus and Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews)


At first I could not believe that the photo above, taken in 1941 or 1942, was really the same man as the one I'd come to know from the photo on the left, from 1929 in Belgium. What had hapened to his thick wedge of black hair? Why was he now wearing glasses (lunettes)?


But twelve years is a long time. He was only 21 in the Belgian photo, and in the latest documents from France he looked older than his 33 years.  Who knew all that Owszyia had been through?  He had been arrested, sent first to a concentration camp and then to a forced labor camp.  Soon after the photo above was taken, he would be deported to his death in Auschwitz.


And all of this had occured in unoccupied France -- in what was known as Zone Libre -- the Free Zone.

OCCUPATION ZONES OF FRANCE during the Second World War. The boundary between Occupied and Free Zones was known as the Demarcation Line. After November, 1942, when Germans invaded the Free Zone to occupy all of France, the two zones were referred to as Northern Zone and Southern Zone. France was liberated on August 25, 1944.


Attribution: Image by Eric Gaba, online courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

IN JUNE OF 1940, ONLY SIX WEEKS after Germany invaded France, the French army (which had been considered the most powerful in Europe, before the war) surrended to Germany. Paris was declared an Open City, and stunned onlookers, some weeping, watched as German soldiers marched down the  Champs-Elysees and past the Arc de Triomphe,


Millions of Parisians had already fled the city (though many returned) and the government, too, abandoned Paris, finally settling  in the city of Vichy.  On June 22, 1940, in the same railway car at the site where Germany had signed the 1918 armistice ending World War I, Hitler handed his armistice terms to the French. It was the ultimate humiliation.


Under the armistice's terms, France was divided into two sections: the Occupied Zone under direct German control and the unoccupied so-called Free Zone administered by the Vichy government.   Marshal Philippe Petain, the 84-year-old hero of the First World War, became head of state of the "Vichy regime," an antisemitic government which collaborated with the Germans.



Attribution:Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25217 / CC-BY-SA 3.0. This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project.

"PERSECUTION BEGAN IN THE SUMMER OF 1940 when the Vichy regime, born of defeat at the hands of the Nazis and of a policy of collaboration urged by many Frenchmen, introduced a series of antisemitic measures," write Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton in Vichy France and the Jews. "Then, during the summer of 1942, the Germans on their side began to implement the 'final solution' on the Jewish problem in France. Arrests, internments and deportations to Auschwitz in Poland occured with increasing frequency, often with the direct complicity of the French government and administration. "


"VICHY FRANCE bears an important part of the responsibility for this disaster, as the records of both French and German goverments make clear," write Marrus and Paxton.


The term Zone Libre or Free Zone was highly misleading. It was in the Free Zone that Frieda Berger was imprisoned in Gurs and Adolf Herrmann imprisoned in St. Cyprien, Gurs and Les Milles.


Like his brother Uszer, Owszija had come to France to find work in his profession. Both probably fled the occupied zone in 1940 to seek liberty in the Zone Libre Yet Owszija was to be  interned in Rivesaltes and sent to the forced labor camp of Soudeilles. And deported from there back to the Occupied Zone, to Drancy, where the authorities would put him on a cattle car bound for Auschwitz.

THE AUGUST 29, 1942 LIST OF JEWS to be deported from the labor camp to the Z.O., or Zone Occupée, includes number 38,  Jerzel Kagan, who was really Owszija Kagan.

"The Germans had not actually asked for the cattle trucks; this initiative came from the French railways, the SNCF," writes Carolyn Moorehead in A Train in Winter. "It was on French trains, driven by French engine drivers, that deportees were conveyed to the border."

THIS IS A FRANCE that shocks me still. We are used to thinking about Germany and Nazis -- but France, the country of liberty and human rights? Yet one cannot escape the fact that the Vichy goverment colluded with the Nazis. And what of the French citizens?


I'm swept into a gust of reading, drawn especially to personal or detailed accounts,  trying to make sense of this messy and confusing business that was France during World War II. The division into  zones --the  Occupied Zone in the north and the Free Zone administered by the Vichy collaborationist government, which existed until November, 1942 when Germany invaded the Free Zone and France was entirely occupied-- the different policies for foreign and French Jews, the increasing persecution as the French adapted, responded to or even resisted German demands.


When Paris Went Dark, Ronald C. Rosbottom's detailed chronicle of Paris under the occupation: the initially polite German soldiers with their Paris guide books, the French residents surprised to find that those wearing the mandated Jewish stars were actually "nice looking people," the one million letters of denunciations against neighbors, including some from concierges; the decent firemen at the Vélodrome d'Hiver who turned on their hoses so the people arrested by French police in the mass roundup could have water to drink. Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, French philosopher Sarah Kofman's chilling account of how she and her mother were hidden by a Christian woman, who became her surrogate mother-- and encouraged her to reject both her Jewishness and her own mother. A Train in Winter, the unrelentingly depressing story of women in the French resistance, the reprisals and punishments for their actions. Dora Bruder, Patrick Modiano's search for facts about a 15-year old Jewish girl in Paris who disappeared in 1941 and was killed in Auschwitz in 1942.


I also read and see fiction about this period: Irène Némirovsky's novel Suite Française (unfinished when she was deported to Auschwitz in 1942), Sarah's Key, and Un Village Français, the riveting French television drama series, in which all of the residents of a village in occupied France face ethical dilemmas as they resist or adapt-- suffering from, benefitting by or collaborating with the occupiers.


 The book that affects me most profoundly is The Journal of Hélène Berr, a true journal written  by a young woman from an assimilated French Jewish family in occupied Paris (the journal ends when Hélène Berr was deported in 1944).


In the spring of 1942, when she first begins the journal, Hélène Berr is 21, happily involved with her friends and her studies at the Sorbonne, debating which of her two suitors she would choose. 


In fact, at this point Hélène seems remarkably unaffected by the Nazi occupation of Paris, in stark contrast to my four relatives who by 1940 were already  victims of both the Nazis and their French collaborators. The difference: My relatives were all foreign Jews (even though the brothers were well established professionals in France).


Yet it would be only months before Hélène learns of the devastating roundups and deportations. She is forced to wear the yellow star that identifies her as a Jew, subjected to the long list of antisemitic prohibitions, barred from her studies. As French Jews also are deported to 'the East,' she loses friends and neighbors  every day. And as a volunteer for the Union Generale des Israelites de France (UGIF -- the Union of French Jews) which provided social welfare for Jews but worked under German authority during the occupation, she witnesses terrible scenes: orphaned children and elderly  torn from their hospital beds, deported only in order to satisfy the demand for bodies on a convoy.


The tragedy of the book is not only that Hélène Berr, like Anne Frank, was to die of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. It is also following the trajectory of this thoughtful and sensitive young woman, from her hopeful beginning to the crushing of her spirit.


"What will never be erased from my mind is the awareness of how little a human life is worth," she writes toward the end, "or of the evil that is humanity, or the enormous strength that evil can acquire once it has been awakened.

SHORTLY BEFORE I WENT TO FRANCE to first visit the former concentration camp of Gurs, I read Escape through the Pyrenees, Lisa Fittko's account of how she and her husband Hans worked in the resistance to help many refugees escape Vichy France into Spain.


At an early point in the book, Fittko (a Jewish anti-fascist who had fled Germany for France in 1933 but was imprisoned in 1940 in Gurs, France, as a German national)  had escaped from Gurs with her friends, but they lacked documents. She has little choice but to ask for help from a military commander at the Lourdes train station. When he gives her some official looking documents, she thanks him profusely. But he rejects her gratitude, referring to Article 19 of the armistice (the "Article of Shame") which required the French state to surrender unpon demand any German national (in practice, this provision applied to all foreign Jews).


"'You embarrass me, Madame. . . ," he says. "'I am a Frenchman, a French officer. My country signed the article which says that we are obligated to hand people like you over to the Germans. And you want to thank me? We have betrayed you, and you speak of admiration? We stand deeply in your debt.'" And the officer saluted Fittko.


"WHEN I AM ASKED HOW FRANCE treated the Jewish and political emigres back then, how the French behaved to us, I don't know how to answer," Fittko writes. "France -- which France? 'The French' --- who are they?


"When war broke out, the French government declared us to be 'enemy aliens' and put us in concentration camps -- together with the real enemies, the Nazis. . . The French--Petain, Weygand, Laval--signed the armistice that handed us emigres over to the Germans, and the new government made strenuous efforts to outperform even the Nazis.


"Yet none of us would have been able to survive without the help of French men and women in every corner of the country --French people whose humaneness gave them the courage to take in these driven strangers, to hide them, to feed them.

"Men like the commandant of the railroad station in Lourdes," Fittko continued, "who in the darkest hour of their own defeat assumed the added burden of repudiating that Article of Shame which had robbed their land of the proud name La France généreuse."


STILL SHAKEN by the journal of Hélène Berr, by the evidence that French officials helped send four of my relatives and 76,000 others --including 11,000 children (many of them documented by Serge Klarsfeld in a book and exhibit of photos)--to their deaths, I want to also be reminded of the other France that Fittko speaks of. For I know it existed too.  And one has to ask: Which France?

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