For Jews, France Has Always Been Unsettling


Hitler and Pétain (Wikipedia)

The real problems for Jews living in France did not begin with the January 9th attack on a kosher supermarket and does not begin with the country’s Muslim population. There were few if any Muslims in France during the time of l’affaire Dreyfus. The collaborators of the Vichy regime during World War II were not Muslims, nor were Muslims involved in the process of the evacuation of Jews from France in which station signs were systematically altered to trick international observers into reporting that what was being hauled through French towns was something other than human cargo en route to their death in Nazi-supervised concentration camps.

My father was one of those arrested and placed in a holding camp in Bretagne, in 1940. At 27 and in fighting shape, he was then offered a Hobson’s Choice by French authorities, who passed an edict calling for the arrest and detention of all Jews holding passports of countries occupied by the Nazis—Dad was Viennese—which to the Allies might have looked like the right thing to do to but in reality targeted Jews on the run, chiefly from Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The choice: Either walk out of the holding camp and incur the high risk of being arrested again on the streets of France or join a battalion of ‘’alien Jews” and petty criminals released from French jails. He chose to suit up with the pickpockets and was shipped off to Algeria.

I was visiting in Paris shortly after the bombing of Goldenberg’s Restaurant in Le Marais in Paris, in 1982, which killed several people (including two Americans) and irrevocably altered the character of the Rue des Rosiers, in the heart of the Jewish neighborhood in Paris. . . and I don’t recall mass protests and sympathy vigils in the wake of that incident (attributed to the Abu Nidal terrorist organization.) I do recall the tears welling up in my father’s eyes when I recounted to him my first experience in his beloved adopted city, which initially had accepted him after the 1938 Anschluss in Austria saw a nation embrace their Nazi occupiers practically overnight.

Janusz Mieses, in his French Foreign Legion uniform, Algeria 1940

Janusz Mieses, in his French Foreign Legion uniform, Algeria 1940

In recent days, many of the articles in the French press published in the wake of the targeting of the French Jewish community (once again, lest we forget the series of attacks in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012, including a Hebrew school) eventually turn to the issue of ‘’rester ou partir”—stay or go—which is a heartbreaking theme for anyone whose family has a history in that country. This has been an abiding but unspoken issue in Jewish households there for years, despite the size of the French Jewish community, raising the specter of the Jew as ‘’the other’’ for whom life could be made difficult overnight, whoever and whatever the catalyst for this fear may be this time around.

I stand with everyone in France victimized and terrorized, but to see Jewish schools and synagogues and cultural institutions being guarded by police and military today does not make me feel easier, and I doubt that France’s roughly 500,000 Jews feel greatly relieved by that sight either … nor by the outpouring of public sympathy from people brandishing “Je Suis Juif” posters and buttons and so forth.

Sympathy is not the same as security. Sympathy will pass. Security is gone forever. At the heart of anger is sadness, and this sadness is deep.

Stanley Mieses is a writer in New York.

Because of an editing error, this article initially underestimated France’s Jewish population.

For Jews, France Has Always Been Unsettling