Introduction to Rescue in the Holocaust in France



Jews were far less than one percent of the population of France at the outbreak of the war in September 1939. 

France, however, had the largest Jewish population in Western Europe.  This was especially true after thousands of refugees streamed into France after the Nazi invasions of Belgium, Luxembourg , Holland and Poland.  In June 1940, France had the largest population of Jews of any Nazi occupied country in Western Europe.

In June 1940, there were between 330,000 and 350,000 Jews residing in France.  About half of the Jews in France were citizens.  The rest were refugees, many of whom were declared stateless because they had come from Germany, Austria or other German-occupied territories.


Survival in France

Ironically, even though France was occupied by German forces in June 1940, and was continuously occupied for more than four and a half years, it had one of the highest per capita survival rates for Jews in all of Europe.  Approximately 80% of French Jewish citizens and Jewish refugees in France survived the war.

This high survival rate is also ironic in light of the fact that the French collaborationist Vichy government was one of the most cooperative governments in participating in the handing over of Jews to its Nazi occupiers.  In fact, other than Bulgaria, there was no other government that cooperated officially with the Nazi deportations.  The Nazis, in fact, had a relatively small civil and military occupation in force in both the northern and southern sectors.  There were fewer than 3,000 German military police that covered the entire French country.  Without direct collaboration of French government and police, deportations would have been difficult if not impossible.

Despite the dangers, the Jews of France had one of the highest survival rates of any country in Europe.  This outcome was due to the elaborate rescue networks, dozens of effective rescue organizations and many intrepid individuals who protected Jews.  Courageous individuals risked their lives to help people they did not know.


The Impulse to Rescue

Despite the world's indifference to the fate of Jews and other victims of Nazism, thousands of people throughout Nazi occupied Europe risked their lives to save Jews. Rescue took many forms. Some rescuers acted on their own; others worked in cooperation with family, neighbors, and friends. Entire communities took the responsibility for sheltering Jews. In the case of Denmark, an entire nation and its leaders rallied to prevent the deportation of its Jewish citizens.

What motivated the rescuers? Some sympathized with the Jews. Others were actually antisemitic, but they could not sanction the murder of innocent neighbors. Some were bound by ties of friendship and personal loyalty, while others went out of their way to help total strangers. Some were compelled by their political beliefs or religious values. Whatever their motivation, rescuers did what they thought was only the right and natural thing to do.

Many rescuers felt they were simply acting out of simple human decency. They later insisted that they were not heroes, and that they never thought of themselves as doing anything special or extraordinary.

What difference did the rescuer make? The success of the Nazis in annihilating the Jewish people was dependent on local collaboration, or lack of it. In Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, nine out of ten Jews were killed. In Denmark, more than nine out of ten were saved. A crucial difference was the behavior of ordinary citizens toward their neighbors.

When citizens stood by and did nothing, Jews were murdered. When people took it upon themselves to act as rescuers, Jews had a chance.

Modern research demonstrates that resistance was possible and that the Nazis could be defied, even at the height of their powers. The rescuers in this website, acting on their own initiative and with the strength of their convictions, were able to rescue the largest group of Jews and other refugees from certain death. We hope that this website inspires people to action in the face of injustice and in times of danger.

There are hundreds of conflicts all over the world because of religious, racial, political and social intolerance, even as this exhibit is being shown. We hope that it will inspire people to acts of courage and compassion. This website is not only about the Holocaust of more than 70 years ago. It is about courage, heroism, compassion and the understanding of the value of life.


The Holocaust in France

France was occupied by German forces from June 1940 to August 1944.  By 1942, it was Hitler’s and the Nazis’ intention to deport and murder all of the Jews in France.  After occupying France for more than four and a half years, Hitler’s mission had failed.   France had one of the highest per capita survival rates for Jews in all of Europe.  86% of native French Jews survived and 72% of foreign born Jews survived.

At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Jews made up less than one percent of the population of France.

By the end of June 1940, there were 350,000 Jews in France.  Half were French natives and the other half were refugees coming from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Holland, Poland and other countries. Many of the refugees had lot their citizenship from their countries and were stateless.

The French Vichy government cooperated with the Nazi’s in the persecution of Jews.  Without this cooperation, the Germans would not have been able to carry out their antisemitic policies in France. 

In June 1940, the French government instituted its own anti-Jewish laws called Statut des Juifs (Jewish Statues).  Under these laws, Jews were defined not by religion, but by race.  These laws removed all civil rights and protections for Jews.  Jews were forbidden from working for the government, serving in the military, teaching, and many other public positions.  Soon, Jews would no longer be permitted to own or manage businesses.

By 1941, Jews were required to register with the French police and were also required to carry an ID card with the words “Juif” or “Juife” [Jew] in bold red letters.

Thousands of Jews were arrested and interned in French concentration camps.  The conditions in these French camps were horrific.  There was inadequate food, medicine or sanitary facilities.  As a result, thousands starved or died from the poor conditions in these camps.

The prospect of being interned in one of the French camps was the signal to many Jews in France that their very lives were in danger and they should urgently seek to escape.

Unfortunately, leaving the country was very difficult.

Fortunately for many refugees, numerous sympathetic foreign diplomats were willing to extend help by issuing visas and identification papers to refugees seeking escape.

Between 1940 and 1942, more than 100,000 Jews and other refugees escaped France to safety.


In January 1942, the Nazi leadership finalized plans to deport and murder the Jews of Europe. 

In France, the Nazi leadership elicited and obtained the cooperation of the French government and its leadership.  Pierre Laval, the pro-German French minister serving under President Pétain, pledged its cooperation.  Rene Bousquet, head of the French police, agreed to work hand in hand with the SS.

On June 7, 1942, all Jews in the north were forced to wear yellow stars.

On June 11, plans were completed in Berlin to deport Jews from France, Belgium and Holland.  The first arrests and deportations of Jews to Auschwitz took place on March 27, 1942.

In the summer and fall of 1942, arrests and deportations were increased and took place in the north and south of France.  On July 16-17 alone, 12,884 Jews in Paris were arrested and deported to the Nazi murder camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

On August 15, 1942, 7,000 Jews were arrested in the south of France.  These arrests were carried out entirely by French police.

By the end of 1942, 42,500 Jews were sent to death camps in Poland.  French officials said that Jews were sent to “work camps in the East.”

Between March 1942 and July 1944, more than 100 deportation trains were sent to Auschwitz carrying an estimated 70,000 Jews.  In all, more than 77,000 Jews in France were killed in the death camps in Poland. Seven thousand Jews were murdered in the death camps of Majdanek and Sobibor, among whom 8,700 were over 60 years old, 6,000 were under 13 and 2,000 were under 6 years old. 



Aid and Rescue in Marseilles, France

Marseilles is the second largest city in France and is the capital of the Department Bouches-du-Rhône.  Marseilles is located in the South of France on the Mediterranean.  It has been a major port city for France for centuries.  Jews have been living in Marseilles and its environs since at least the Sixth Century.

Between the German occupation in 1940 and September 1942, Marseilles was part of the unoccupied zone.  Marseilles was one of the main exit points for Jews fleeing Nazi Europe.  Its proximity to the French-Spanish border, its port facilities, and even access to the Italian border made it an important point of departure.  It was an area in which tens of thousands of Jews found refuge and escape.

Other cities in the south with large Jewish refugee populations were Toulouse, Lyon, Nice and Grenoble. Small towns like Limoges and Perigueux also had significant Jewish populations.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigration Aid and Sheltering Society had rescue and relief operations in Marseilles.

Marseilles was also an important refuge because of its proximity to the Italian zone of occupation near Nice.

There were a number American of relief and rescue agencies in Marseilles and southern France.  Most prominent among these was the Nimes Committee.  The Committee was comprised of a number of independent agencies that were operating throughout France.  These groups included the American Red Cross, Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), American Federation of Labor (AF of L), Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), American Friends’ Service Committee (Quakers), Unitarian Committee, Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS) and HICEM.  These groups were extremely helpful in having Jews released from concentration camps, giving them money and helping to arrange visas and transportation to leave France.

In November 1942, the United States, Mexico, Brazil and a number of other countries broke diplomatic relations with France and removed their embassies.  Foreign diplomats were   arrested by French and Nazi police.  These included Consul General Gilberto Bosques of Mexico and Consul General de Sousa Dantas of Brazil, who were arrested and detained in Germany for more than a year for helping refugees in France.

In September 1942, Germany occupied most of southern France.  Jews were no longer protected in the unoccupied zone.  Without protection, many Jews were forced into hiding.  Jewish refugees were helped by thousands of sympathetic French people.  Several towns in Southern France hid Jews, including the French town of Le Chambon.

In late 1943, the Nazis blew up the Vieux-Port quarter of Marseilles and rounded up a number of Jews hiding there.  Many were deported to the Auschwitz death camp.



The Persecution of Jews in France

On September 3, 1939, France along with Great Britain declared war on Germany after the Germans attacked Poland on September 1.

At the beginning of the war, there were approximately  50,000 Jewish refugees in France, mostly from Central Europe.

On September 5, 1939, 15,000 Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were arrested and interned in French-controlled concentration camps.  These camps had horrific health conditions.  After 1940, the mortality rate in some of these camps reached as high as ten percent per year.

The following is an excerpt of a report by Dr. Alfred Wolff, former camp physician at Gurs (cited in Tartakower & Grossman, 1944, p. 162):

“In the first four months which these homeless people and their fellow sufferers, who had already emigrated to Belgium, Holland, and France and had now been brought to Gurs, had to pass in the damp, cold, drafty, and gloomy barracks, without light and air, with insufficient clothing and without any comforts, no fewer than 1,055 died out of an average camp population of 13,500.  This is roughly 77 per mille for the total number of internees, or, if we take a three-month period, 57.75 per mille.  Compared with the official mortality figures for New York, showing a death rate of 2.5 per mille in the same three months, the mortality at Gurs was more than 20 times higher.”

A report on the camp at St. Cyprien (cited in Tartakower & Grossman, 1944, pp. 162-163) describes conditions there:

“Driven by thirst, we collected the rainwater which dripped from the cover of the wagon, and took turns at drinking it… The Spaniards called this camp the hell of Perpignan.  About 80 percent of them died here… The sanitary conditions defy description… dysentery and diarrhoea, etc. are the results… All kinds of diseases and death… Typhus broke out in consequence of the contaminated water.  Despite prophylactic inoculations by emigrant physicians, the mortality continues… Food: in the morning, two cups of coffee; at noon, soup which sometimes contains scraps of meat, and in the evening soup again; also, half a liter of red wine a day, and about 300 grams (less than 11 ounces) of bread.  Those who cannot afford to buy additional food starve by degrees… Very few have money…”

At the outbreak of war, the Jewish population in France was 300,000, with 200,000 residing in Paris.  Jews comprised seven tenths of one percent of the overall population of France, which was 41,600,000.

Jews had lived for centuries in France and were well integrated into French society.

Germany invaded France in May 1940 and in a lightening campaign, defeated France by June 1940.  Under the terms of the armistice, two thirds of northern France was occupied by German forces.  Southern France was largely unoccupied, and was headquartered in the town of Vichy.  Marshall Henry Philippe Pétain, a military hero of World War I, was made head of the Vichy government.

After the fall of France, many of the foreign Jews residing in France fled to the unoccupied zone.  This included 35,000 Belgian Jews and 20,000 Jews from the Alsace-Lorraine region.

By the end of 1940, one third of Jews in France were refugees.  About a third were refugees from Central Europe, one third from Belgium, and one third from Eastern Europe (Poland).

After the German occupation, treatment in the camps got considerably worse.  Following is an excerpt of a report published in the New Republic on November 11, 1940 (cited in Tartakower & Grossman, 1944, pp. 163-164), which describes the horrible conditions in the camp:

“You know that I have been through four concentration camps.  The three others were nothing compared to the fourth, Camp Le Vernet (Ariège), which is between Toulouse and the Spanish frontier.  That is where I was interned for 16 months, from October, 1939 to January, 1941.  Among ourselves we called this camp the French Dachau.  Lack of food, the horrible misery, the cold, the lack of clothing and medical supplies, the complete absence of hygiene, and the restrictions, prohibitions and punishments… There were the persecutions, the physical punishments and the shootings.  Inmates were constantly hit and beaten by the guards… Lieutenant Combs, commander of Quartier C from October, 1939 to August, 1940, and his men would always go around with bamboo sticks in addition to their revolvers and muskets.  Combs, who was nicknamed “Schweinbacke” (Hog Face), let his subordinates beat us on the slightest provocation.”

After 1942, there were 250,000 Jews in the unoccupied Vichy zone of France.  The Northern zone had 165,000 Jews.

Vichy maintained its semi-autonomous status until German troops occupied it on November 11, 1942. 

Italian troops occupied eight districts in the unoccupied zone.  This area became an important refuge for Jews until September 1943.  As many as 25,000 Jews were protected during the early part of the war.

More than 180,000 French Jews survived the war in France.  Approximately 75% of the Jews of France survived the war.  This was the highest survival rate of any Nazi occupied country in Western Europe.


Rescue and Relief Operations in France

Numerous Jewish rescue and relief organizations operated throughout France, and in particular in the Southern zone. 

The best way for Jewish and other refugees to avoid arrest and deportation by the Nazis was to leave Nazi-controlled areas.  Leaving France legally was only possible between 1940 and the latter part of 1941.

Foreign diplomats in the northern occupied zone in Vichy, Marseilles and other parts of France were extremely helpful in helping Jews and other refugees to escape.  Diplomats were successful in having Jews released from French concentration camps and from arrest by issuing them documents that could be used as proof of destination and an intention to leave France.

Leaving Nazi areas by “legal” emigration was an extraordinarily complex and difficult task.  Refugees were required to run a gauntlet of endless bureaucratic procedures.  The process required a refugee to obtain at least four documents: 1) a passport (when a passport was unavailable, an affidavit in lieu of passport might be obtained); 2) an entry visa for the country to which the refugee was fleeing; 3) an exit visa; and 4) transit visas for crossing through countries and across international borders through Europe. 

Many refugees were forced to flee their home countries without proper documentation.  Without papers, refugees became “stateless.”  This was particularly true of German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jewish refugees who had fled to France. 

Even for the Jewish refugees who did have documentation, these papers were often marked with a large red letter J, indicating that the holder of the passport was Jewish.

For refugees, obtaining the life-saving visas took enormous amounts of energy and time.  Conflicting foreign ministry regulations and changing rules further confused the frustrating process.  Many frustrated refugees committed suicide in desperation during this process. 

Varian Fry, the delegate of the Emergency Rescue Committee and the International Relief Association and manager of the American Center in Marseilles, wrote (as cited in Tartakower & Grossman, 1944, pp., 156-157):

“Caught in the concentration camps of southern France, or congregated in the larger cities, Pau, Montaubon, Toulouse, Nice and, above all, Marseilles, the refugees lived in an agony of fear and apprehension.  For weeks and months they believed that every ringing of the doorbell, every step on the stair, every knock on the door might be the police come to get them and take them to the Gestapo.  They sought hysterically for some means of escape from the net which had suddenly been dropped over their heads.  They were the prey of every sort of swindler and blackmailer.  Their already badly frayed nerves sometimes gave way altogether under the incessant pounding of fantastic horror-stories and wild rumors….

“Under the strain of these alarms, many refugees committed suicide.  The roll of those who took their own lives includes such men as Carl Einstein, Walter Benjamin and Walter Hasenclever, all German anti-Nazi writers.  Some weeks after the armistice the body of Willi Muenzenberg, the eloquent German Communist publisher, was found, in a state of partial decomposition, hanging from a tree near Grenoble.  Many less known men, and some women, died in concentrations camps, cheap hotel bedrooms, and dark, narrow streets, preferring escape through death to the unbearable strain of the terror which the defeat of France seemed likely to unleash upon them at any moment.

“Fortunately, the terror did not begin immediately, and it is a sad reflection that many of those who committed suicide might have been saved if they had only waited.  In the first weeks after the armistice, escape was easy.  France, under orders from Berlin, granted no exit visas to refugees, but the United States gave entry visas freely, and the Portuguese and Spanish consulates issued transit visas to all comers who had any overseas visas whatever.  Once they had the Spanish and Portuguese transit visas, the refugees had only to go down to the French frontier and cross over—often with the help and guidance of the local French authorities, who had not yet been replaced by men obedient to Vichy’s orders.  Hundreds left in this way…

“…In October, 1940, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo, visited Madrid.  His visit was followed by a radical change in Spanish transit visa policy.  At first no transit visas were issued to Poles, or to Germans and Austrians without valid Reich passports.  American ‘affidavits in lieu of passport,’ issued by the American consulates to visa applicants without other travel documents, were declared to be invalid in Spain (they had been one of the most common travel documents of the political refugees).  At about the same time the French, doubtless under German pressure, tightened up their border control.”

An Austrian survivor who went to South America wrote:

“Visas!  We began to live visas day and night.  When we were awake, we were obsessed by visas.  We talked about them all the time.  Exit visas.  Transit visas.  Entrance visas.  Where could we go?  During the day we tried to get the proper documents, approvals, stamps.  At night, in bed, we tossed about and dreamed about long lines, officials, visas.  Visas.”

When a refugee received visas or transit papers, these documents were often time-sensitive.  The refugee had to coordinate obtaining various papers and a ship’s ticket all within restricted time limits.  If one visa expired, the refugee might have to obtain a complete set of documents once again.

In addition, to enter a country, refugees were required to have a large amount of cash, usually in dollars, to prove that they would not be a ward of the state.  Many refugees fled carrying almost no money.  Jewish refugee and relief agencies would often provide the needed cash to refugees.

In order to avoid arrest or deportation, French officials, the Nazi police and SS required refugees to provide proof that they were holding a valid train or ship’s ticket with a departure date. 

Authors Tartikower and Grossman (1944, pp. 201-202) describe Vichy’s policy on issuing visas:

“…Vichy, either of its own accord or under German pressure, did make great difficulties in authorizing the departure from France of refugees and certain categories of aliens.  The permit was obtained only after long months of petitioning.  The regulations in regard to it changed constantly, denying permission to leave the country now to one category of persons now to another.  Beginning with 1942, proof was required that the applicant had obtained not only a visa from the country of final destination, but also a Spanish or Portuguese transit visa…  This often created a vicious circle for the refugee applying for an exit permit….

“At the beginning of July, 1942, in order to bar every avenue of escape to those threatened with deportation, Pierre Laval ordered the cancellation of exit permits granted months before to refugees, stateless persons, and foreign Jews hailing from countries of immigration and of Spanish or Portuguese transit visas.  Worse yet, he ordered the frontier posts along the Spanish border to tighten their control and to strengthen the mobile guard border patrols.”

There were several sympathetic diplomats and foreign service officials would issue refugees the desperately needed passports, affidavits in lieu of passport, visas, identification papers and safe conduct passes.  These consuls often issued these documents against the policies and regulations of their home governments.

Some of these diplomats were punished by their foreign ministries for helping Jews.

Some of the diplomats were arrested by Nazi or Vichy officials for their life-saving activities.  Vladimir Vochoc was put under house arrest pending deportation.  Consul General Gilberto Bosques of Mexico was arrested and detained in Germany for more than a year for helping refugees in France. 

Numerous rescue and relief agencies volunteered from around Europe and the world to help the endangered Jewish refugees, internees trapped in the camps or in hiding in danger of deportation.  These organizations included the American Friends’ Service Committee (Quakers), from the USA, the Unitarian Service Committee, headquartered in Boston, Massachussets, USA, the Mennonite Committee, from the USA, the American Federation of Labor, the Emergency Rescue Committee of New York City, the American Red Cross, and the YMCA, under Donald Lowrie, Tracy Strong and Père Arnou.

[Encyclopedia Judaica. 16 vols. (Jerusalem: Keter, 1971-1972), Vol. 7, pp. 32-36.  Gutman, Yisrael (Ed.). Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1990).  Marrus, Michael, R., and Robert O. Paxton. Vichy France and the Jews. (New York: Basic Books, 1981).  Rayski, Adam. The Choice of Jews Under Vichy, Between Submission and Resistance. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press and US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, 2005).  Ryan, Donna F. The Holocaust and the Jews of Marseille: The Enforcement of Anti-Semitic Policies in Vichy France. (Urbana, IL: The University of Illinois Press, 1996).]