Did you hear the news earlier this week? France finally recognized its government’s responsibility for the deportation of French Jews during World War II. Between 1942 and 1944, the Vichy government collected and shipped off 75,721 French Jews to Nazi concentration camps, including about 11,000 young children. Fewer than 2,000 survived.
True, the deportation orders originated with the occupying German forces but, unlike other European countries that tried to protect its Jewish citizens (Denmark being the most courageous example), French officials willingly complied and hunted down its Jews with a vengeance. For years the French government has tried to distance itself from the wartime actions of the Vichy regime claiming that this entity had nothing to do with them. But survivors such as Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld didn’t buy the distinction. “For us, it was France. The uniforms were French. The Germans did not always ask the Vichy government to do what it did.” Former President Jacques Chirac started the ball rolling in 1995 when he became the first French leader to say that the country bore some responsibility for what happened.
I guess it’s always a good thing when governments acknowledge negative past actions even if many of the victims and their descendents see it as way too little, way too late. Remember last summer when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing to African-Americans for slavery? Or last April when the Senate passed another resolution that apologized to Native Americans for “the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect?” Those weren’t the first attempts in this country to expiate past sins. In 1993 the Senate passed a resolution apologizing for the “illegal overthrow” of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. Does that mean we have to give it back? And in 1988, President Reagan signed an act apologizing to the 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were held in detention camps during the war.
Whatever makes you feel better, white boys. These moves always seem like such incredible understatements to me. To sum up the tortured relationship between Native Americans and the groups that nearly wiped them out as “instances of maltreatment and neglect” seems like a joke. To officially “apologize” to African Americans for slavery in the year 2008? Really? I always wonder if these mea culpas actually represent some kind of true soul-searching and healing or if they are simply cynical attempts by politicians to woo certain constituents and/or head off any claims for reparations.
That seems to be the case in France, at least partly. The ruling this week was the result of a case brought to the government by the daughter of one of the deportees who died at Auschwitz. She was asking for material and moral damages. After issuing a formal statement that “these anti-Semitic persecutions provoked exceptional damage of extreme gravity,” the French court was quick to add that the deportation had already been “compensated for” since 1945, ruling out any reparations for the victims or their families.
I wonder if the timing of this week’s admission has anything to do with the recent explosion of anti-Semitic incidents in France—in January alone there were over 100 such episodes. The rise in anti-Semitism is being blamed on the recent Israeli actions in Gaza as well as the global economic crisis, both insane justifications for attacks on French Jews and the ugly vandalism of synagogues and other Jewish venues in France. Not that such incidents ever went away completely.
There are over 500,000 Jews in France making it the largest concentration of Jewish people in Western Europe. When I married my first wife, a French Jew, in Paris, I thought that all 500,000 of them were in attendance. Our wedding was a huge affair and one that represented the two conflicting sides of France’s Jewish population: Old World Ashkenazi Jews whose ancestors hail from Eastern Europe but who’ve lived in France for generations, and Sephardic North African Jews who are more recent immigrants. Sophie’s mother was born in Occupied France during the war. It’s not something any of them like to talk about. Sophie’s father is part of the huge Sephardic community in France that arrived after the war from various Arab countries that were once French colonies.
We were married at a beautiful orthodox synagogue in the 9th arrondissement in Paris. The ceremony was officiated by the Chief Rabbi of France. The reception was held in the Bois de Boulogne and was probably the most lavish wedding I’ve ever attended, much less been a part of. It was over 15 years ago and most of it is a blur to me today. Sophie and I have both been happily married to other people for years now.
The small group of Americans who came to Paris for our wedding stood out in the crowd not only because of a big difference in style and culture, but also because of the marked contrast of growing up Jewish in the United States versus Europe. It’s hard to put my finger on it, and I’m sure I’m grossly generalizing, but I find that European Jews project a different vibe on their Judaism than most American Jews, at least those who have grown up in big cities with large Jewish populations. I’m not sure how to describe it, other than to say that no matter how successful, educated, and integrated into French society these people are, they seem to remain more separate from the rest of the population because of their Jewishness. I’m sure this relates to their recent history, the one France is apologizing for this week, and the sense that at any moment anti-Semitism could rear its ugly head and put their survival at risk.
I’m not implying that the U.S. is immune from anti-Semitism. Especially lately. The same sparks that have ignited increased episodes of anti-Jewish demonstrations in Europe have hit home as well. Last month Kendall and I were stuck in traffic behind a rally on Wilshire Boulevard. We wondered what it was about and strained to see the placards the demonstrators were carrying. “We Love Hummus!” Kendall read. What? Was this some kind of protest organized by vegans? “No, I think it says ‘We Love Homos,’” I countered. Maybe this was a rally against the passage of Proposition 8. When we got closer, we saw the truth. The signs said “We Love Hamas.” This crowd on Wilshire was demonstrating in support of the terrorist organization whose charter talks about World Jewish Domination and calls for the obliteration of the State of Israel. Oy.
So, félicitations, France, for acknowledging your role in handing your citizens over to Nazi murderers. I’m sorry that I tend to be a bit cynical about what motivates such admissions of guilt. “We need to study the decision more in depth, to really be able to assess its meaning,” said Estee Yaari, a spokeswoman for Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust. “However, initial press reports indicate this is an important and courageous decision that unambiguously confronts French actions during the Holocaust. This has moral significance that will hopefully serve to deepen awareness about the Holocaust in French society, something that is important both for grappling with the events of the past, and their repercussions today.”