*Editor’s Note: This is part XII in a series from Dr. Grobman. You can read Part XI, here
The Fall of France
After the French surrendered to Germany in June 1940, there were approximately 350,000 Jews in the country, over half of whom were stateless according to Yad Vashem. Jews who were not French citizens, stateless or citizens of countries at war with France were interred in a number of different camps in either the central or southern region of the country according to the American Jewish Committee’s American Jewish Year Book (AJY). In October 1940, the Germans deported 7,500 German Jews who were expelled from the German province of Baden and the Palatinate, and were among 14,00O in the Gurs prison camp in southern France, in the area controlled by the collaborationist French Vichy regime. They arrived at Gurs as communities along with their religious and social leaders, where they were forced to live under the most distressing settings.
The Vichy regime initiated its own anti-Jewish campaign in the summer of 1940 writes historian Michael R. Marrus. The Germans did not dictate this antisemitic program, Marrus said, but the antisemitic initiative was initiated by French politicians with their own “longstanding priorities.” For some time, the French directed the antisemitic operation on their own, until they eventually incorporated their activities with the Vichy Government. These hostile attacks were part of an extensive French effort to respond to perceived “excessive ‘foreign’ influence, corruption licentiousness and materialism.” Increasingly, the Germans began the process of persuading the Vichy Government to seize Jewish businesses and then to enact more drastic anti-Jewish legislation. By 1942, Marrus claimed Vichy had “not only effectively outlawed the Jews but had confiscated much of their property and interned many in special camps.”
Terror and Appalling Living Conditions
The terror and suffering of Jews interned in the French concentration camps received attention in the American and Jewish press. Yad Vashem notes that in May 1940, thousands of immigrants who were German citizens or of German descent were confined in the “Winter Stadium” (Vel’ d’Hiv) in Paris. At the start of 1941 approximately 40,000 Jews were arrested. An additional some 35,000 Jewish men, “more than a third of the population of foreign Jews in France,” were forcibly enlisted into the “Labor Corps”, or Compagnies de Travail. Practically all the foreign Jewish men were either forced into the Labor Corps or imprisoned in concentration camps.
On January 26, 1941, The New York Times published reports received by American Friends Service Committee about the 7,500 Jews who had been expelled from the Germany and incarcerated the Gurs prison camp. One dispatch provided a graphic picture of the situation where approximately 50 physicians were battling under the most primitive conditions to reduce an ever-mounting mortality rate. Lack of food, medicine and appalling sanitary living conditions contributed to a high mortality rate. Fifteen to 20 people were dying daily with more than 300 estimated to perish in November. Many of the older refugees had already lost all hope and were eager to die.
On February 16 and 21 and on March 24, The New York Times reported efforts by the Vichy Government to ease the plight of those interned. The first accounts from American correspondents permitted to inspect the French “shelter and internment camps” were published on February 16 and 21 and on March 24. Everywhere the correspondents went, their presence created “extreme excitement.” Many Jews believed they were from an international commission sent to investigate their cases. Practically everyone spoke of their desire to emigrate to the US, a country of liberty. Many claimed having visas to the US, South America and elsewhere. Lansing Warren, the New York Times correspondent who inspected the French camps, asserted he had no way of determining the veracity of these claims, and which might have been conceived in the hope that somehow, they would be released. He said it did seem clear there were many people in these camps who were capable of assuming responsibility for their care if permitted to leave. Others could be cared for by someone else if given the means of going there.
Hope of Finding Refuge
The JTA reported that Joseph J. Schwartz, vice chairman of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s European Council, acknowledged that obtaining release from these camps required a considerable amount of time and effort. Theoretically one could be released if the right of residence in one of the French prefectures could be procured. One also had to show a maintenance guarantee of 1,500 to 2,00o francs a month. The real obstacle became the procuring a residence permit.
The New York Times reported on March 22, that Colonel Morris J. Mendelsohn, chairman of the National Council of the New Zionist Organization of America, (Revisionists) appealed to President Roosevelt to ask the French Government for guarantees to “abolish ant-Semitic laws and practices before” he consented to send “food shipments to France.” Furthermore, Colonel Mendelsohn asked that the same “humanitarian principles” on which they based the French plea for food, should also be applied toward the French Jews.
In the middle of May, the JTA announced the US State Department had approved of a collective visa for a group of 100 children. Representatives of the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), a French Jewish humanitarian organization that saved hundreds of Jewish refugee children in Vichy France during World War II, made the selection. On January 8, 1941 the New York Times reported the State Department has rejected a Vichy Government request for wholesale migration to the US of thousands of refugees. In May, the JTA reported the OSE sought permission to transfer 3,000 children 1,000 of whom were Jewish, from a children’s concentration camp. The refusal of the various French district leaders to permit the entry of new refugees became the main obstacle.
The JTA reported that according to the HIAS-ICA Emigration Association, founded in 1927 to assist European Jews with emigration, nearly the entire Jewish population in Vichy France sought advice about immigration possibilities to overseas countries. More than 30,000 Jews registered for visas in Marseille and associations’ representatives registered internees who were candidates for emigration. HIAS-ICA opened a branch office at Camp des Milles where foreign Jews waited to emigrate or most often, to be deported to German concentration and extermination camps. More than 1,000 Jews were transferred there from other camps in Vichy, ostensibly because the French viewed them as having a better opportunity to receive permission to emigrate.