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Yehuda Bauer: My Brother's Keeper

A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee 1929-1939

[Holocaust preparations in Europe and resistance without solution of the situation]

The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1974

Transcription with subtitles by Michael Palomino (2007)



Chapter 6. The Beginning of the End
[D.] The refugees

[6.8. France 1938 against Jewish refugees - prison and concentration camps]

[1937: 7,000 German Jewish refugees in France - 2,500 of them needy]

In France, the Austrian disaster evoked a harsh reaction on the part of the government.   There were not many refugees in France to start with: at the end of 1937 about 7,000 German Jews lived in France, of whom 2,500 had to be supported.

(End note 44: R28, fortnightly digest, 10/15/37 [15 October 1937])

[There are also Jewish refugees from other countries in France, sometimes for more than 10 years].

[2 March 1938: France: Law for farming for Jewish refugees in project - no realization]

But in early 1938, even before the Anschluss, French policy hardened. This was the period of the final collapse of the Popular Front movement and the rise of conservative forces. On March 2 there was a French government proposal to settle 10,000 refugees as agricultural laborers. Those who refused to be settled in this manner would be expelled. The Consistoire Centrale, the main religious authority of French Jewry, agreed in principle that Jews who disobeyed the government's orders should not stay in France.

To avoid disaster, Kahn for JDC and Baron Robert de Rothschild for French Jewry suggested that a sum of 3 mio. francs be set aside for this project. The whole question was aired at a March 27, 1938, meeting of all Jewish organizations, French and non-French, working in France. At that meeting and again in April, the scheme was enlarged to a 20 mio. franc project; the intent was to settle 12-15,000 refugees on French lands. Nothing came of it. In the end the French government decided that it did not want to have refugee Jews settle on French soil.

[End of March 1938: France: Proposal by Serre that Jews have to collect money for returning the Jewish refugees to NS Germany - no majority in the parliament]

However, at the  March meeting, two weeks after the Anschluss [end of March], a much more dangerous French demand was made known: Philippe Serre, French undersecretary of state for immigration, demanded that the Jews in France collect money for the government, to cover the expense of forcible repatriation of refugees to Germany. Marc Jarblum, a Zionist and the leader of the Fédération des Sociétés Juives, the main organization of East European Jews in France, had told Serre that no Jewish support should be expected for such a proposal. Kahn for JDC and Edouard Oungre for HICEM had given similar answers. But the chairman of the (p.237)

meeting, Prof. William Oualid of the Consistoire, demurred: it was "unwise to give a point-blank refusal"; he proposed that the Jews participate in the cost of repatriation when it was impossible "to obtain a favorable solution". Let it be said to the credit of that particular meeting that Oualid's suggestion failed to get majority approval.

(End note 45: R62, meeting in Paris of 3/27/38 [27 March 1938])

[2 May 1938: France: Government decree to define Jewish refugees as criminals - 1 month prison - then 6 months prison]

As the refugees from Austria began to pour in, French reaction stiffened even further. On May 2, 1938, the government decreed that all refugees who could not move to other countries and could not get permission to stay in France would henceforth be treated as criminals. Judges were instructed to hand down sentences of one month's imprisonment to such refugees. If after that month the person concerned still could not find another country of refuge within a week of his release from prison, he was to be put in jail for another six months. Children of such "recalcitrant" parents were to be placed in charitable homes.

On October 12, 1938, further instructions were issued to the effect that Austrian refugees in particular should be sent back. They were given four days in which to leave France, and if they did not do so, they were subject to imprisonment for many months.

(End note 46: R47, Comité pour la Défense des Israélites en Europe Centrale et Orientale, 3/24/39 [24 March 1939])

[March 1938: France: Polish Jewish refugees are deprived of citizenship]

These draconian measures hit not only refugees from Germany and Austria [which was Germany now], but also Polish Jews who were deprived of their citizenship by a Polish decree of March 1938.

(End note 47: See below in the text, p. 243)

These people, some of whom had been living in France for ten years or more, were now suddenly subject to arrest and imprisonment because a country, which the younger ones among them had not even seen, had withdrawn its technical protection from them.

[12 Nov 1938: France: Jail sentence is changed into concentration camp sentence]

Finally, on November 12 an amendment to the earlier decrees was published, and the imprisonment was changed into forced residence. Of course, judges were free to assign refugees to closed camps rather than some village or town. Jewish refugees began to be interned in French concentration camps even prior to the Nazi onslaught on France; this internment ultimately contributed to a significant degree to the mass murder of Jews in France by the Germans. (p.238)

[JDC with European seat in France]

JDC did not have much choice in France; this was the seat of its European office, and Kahn had to support the refugees to the best of JDC's limited ability.

[June-Oct 1938: German Jewish refugees in France: Rising Figures - JDC funds - HICEM looking for other countries - hopes on ICR for an agreement with the Third Reich]

The numbers were growing throughout 1938, but in the summer and autumn they were still manageable. In early 1938 there were 10,000 refugees in France; this was to increase to 25,000 in December.

JDC spent $ 130,884 in France in that year, most of it through different French Jewish organizations in support of various aspects of refugee work; it also spent money through HICEM, which was trying to find places of settlement for the refugees. This was no easy task, because as a result of the Evian Conference most governments adopted a "wait and see" attitude. "Many countries are said to have closed their doors in the expectation that through the establishment of the Winterton-Rublee committee, refugees from Germany might bring some money with them."

(End note 48: Morris D. Waldman: Nor by Power; New York, 1955, p. 82, quoting a report to the American Jewish Committee, 11/6/38 [6 November 1938])

This, of course, was preferable to an influx of destitute refugees. JDC leaders saw that they had to do everything in their power to enable the newly established ICR reach an agreement with the Germans.