History of the Jewish Underground in France
There are as many facets to the history of the Jewish Underground in France, as there are to the underground in general. The underground activities, the risks and dangers, and the sacrifices of the wounded and the dead – all these demanded great improvisational abilities from its leaders. Outside events, and the increasing pressure on the French Jews by the German Nazis and their French Vichy collaborators, forced the underground to intensify its struggle.
The period can be divided into three major phases:
Before 1942 – when underground activities were organized, and aid was extended to the refugees.
From 1942 – in which the Nazi anti-Semitic policies increased and Southern France was occupied.
From 1943 – when the Jewish underground began to participate in the armed struggle and in the liberation of the country.
Organizing for Underground Activities in the North, under German control.
When the Germans entered Paris in 1940, the heads of several Jewish organizations formed a committee for mutual aid, with the aim of assisting refugees and needy Jews. The aid which was given was funded, in part, by the Joint. Additional, secret help was extended, that of providing forged identity papers for the foreign Jews.
The organizations which formed the committee were: l’Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE) and the Eclaireurs Israelites de France (EIF) – the French Jewish Scouts, who managed to meet secretly from the beginning of 1941. In 1942 they provided safe homes for 600 Jewish orphans.
In the South, under the control of Vichy French government
The South of France was not a safe place for Jews under the Vichy government. 100,000 Jews fled to the south of France where they were obliged to live in small towns under difficult conditions. The major Jewish organizations moved to the unoccupied zone, among them – the Consistoire Central which ran the roof organization of the religious communities, Keren Hakayemet and Keren Hayesod. The organizations which engaged in underground activities in addition to their regular functions were O.S.E. and O.R.T., alongside the Jewish Scouts and the Zionist Youth Movements. These groups paved the way for a different type of resistance, stiffer and more violent.
This organization set up medical and social centers and 10 homes for children whose parents were in hiding. 500 young people who were released from the Gurs camp were hidden in towns of southern France. All the Jews who had fled from Germany and Austria and had been caught in Belgium and France in 1940, were imprisoned in the Gurs camp. At the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, after great effort, this organization obtained visas to the United States for several hundred young people
ORT organized courses for professional retraining in the large cities and concentration camps, and also established a training farm at La Roche.
Jewish Scouts – E.I.F.
The Jewish Scouts moved their center to Moissac, and from there, they organized regular scout troops in all the large cities in the south. They were legal until 1943. Afterwards they continued their activities under the cover of "Protestant scouts”. In the homes which they established, they cared for about 200 children who had been released from the camps. They also established 10 agricultural training farms where they trained those who wished to go to Eretz Yisrael.
The Jewish Army – A.J. (Armee Juive)
This army had its beginning in a group which convened in Toulouse in 1940, under the name of "The Jewish Fortress”, in order to help the inhabitants of the camps, who were living in unbearable conditions. The group was the seed from which the Jewish Army in 1941 grew, and its members received pre-military training.
United Zionist Youth Movement – M.J.S.
A serious resistance movement was first established in the south, in the city of Montpelier, where there was a large concentration of refugee students. By 1941 they had already joined a group of non-Jewish fighter-refugees in Spain.
In May 1942 a conference was held in Montpelier which established the United Zionist Youth Movement, M.J.S., a movement for the Jewish national struggle, which began underground activities in the cities and on the borders, including smuggling Jews to neighboring countries. Some of them later moved to Spain and joined the Jewish Brigade there.
The Dutch Group
At the beginning of 1943 a group of Dutch pioneers joined the underground. Several of them infiltrated the German organization, Todt, which was building the Atlantic wall, and managed to procure vital documents for the underground, among them plans for the placement of the VI rockets. Others joined the commando company of the OJC. They and their leader were deported to the death camps
Members of the underground were assisted by the Rabbis, who regularly entered the refugee camps and served as go-betweens to the families outside.
Significance of the Struggle
All the organizations were partners in the same struggle and aspired to maintain Jewish pride. At the same time, they constantly reminded those who hid and fought were fighting in order to save the Jewish People.
Expansion of the Jewish Underground : Continuation of the Struggle
At the end of 1941, the official Jewish organizations were faced with a new situation. The Vichy government disbanded all the Jewish institutions and combined them into one body: "General Union of French Jews” – U.G.I.F. - which then came under the control of the Gestapo. Some of the Jewish organizations began operating underground.
In 1942 French Jews were being captured more and more frequently. 13,000 Jews were arrested in Paris, assembled in Drancy and from there, were sent to the extermination camps. In August of the same year, 15,000 Jews were arrested in southern France and imprisoned in camps at Gurs and St. Cyprien. In November of 1942, southern France was occupied by the Germans.
Acts of heroism of underground members were mainly in four areas:
Provision of forged identity papers, which were needed in order to receive food coupons, and enabled people to assume new identities. It is estimated that more than half of the 200,000 Jews who were saved, owe their lives to these papers.
The hiding of children and young people was the priority of the underground, in order to spare them from torture and exile. The underground was aided in this by both the Catholic and Protestant churches. Mayors, political activists, teachers and farmers also helped. They all were shocked by the German atrocities and helped to save the children.
The O.S.E. and the M.J.S. succeeded in saving thousands of families, either by assisting them in hiding their Jewish identity, or by finding alternate places for them to live. The entire village of Chambon sur Lignon was engaged in hiding Jews.
Crossing the border to Switzerland or Spain
Many Jews decided to find refuge in Switzerland or Spain. Until 1944 Switzerland refused to grant entry to refugees above the age of 16, and deported them. Crossing the borders was extremely difficult, but nevertheless, they were undeterred in their attempts. Two thousand children and one thousand adults succeeded in crossing, often at the cost of the lives of their guides: Mila Racine and Marianne Cohen, among others.
The Fascist government of Franco, paradoxically, took a more liberal stance – not one refugee was deported, and they had no age restriction. The first crossings to Spain were coordinated with the French underground. Prisoners from the camps, who were held in difficult conditions, were smuggled to Spain. This took physical stamina and much courage. Leo Cohen, the spiritual leader of the Lautrec farm, was caught in the Toulouse train station, and died in an extermination camp. The French authorities set up a police force for "Jewish affairs”, in order to seek out Jews and arrest them. The Jewish underground was very active. In 1943 they set up, in Paris, the "Young People’s Social Services”, which obtained forged identity papers, food coupons and other necessities for families who were obliged to go into hiding, as well as smuggling children to safety, under the noses of the Gestapo.
The M.O.I. Group
The Jewish communist group was organized after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and displayed great courage. In Paris also they displayed great daring; they initiated clashes against the offices of the "Wermacht” and against Gestapo officers. At the beginning of 1943, with the help of a priest, they freed 65 children. That same year the leaders and a group of the members of the movement were arrested and a show-trial was held. Of the 23 who were executed, 12 were Jews, including Marcel Rayman, who became a hero of the Jewish partisans.
The first goal of the Jewish underground in France was to save as many Jews as possible, but they also wanted to go on the offensive. Towards the liberation of France, the Jewish underground fighters fought side by side with the French freedom fighters.
These groups began operating in 1943. Their members were armed and well trained and operated in the large cities such as: Lyons, Marseilles, Nice, Grenoble, Toulouse, Limoges and Paris. Their activities were directed against those who were persecuting the Jews and against their bases of operation. The Paris group worked together with the M.L.N. French underground, and took an active part in the liberation of Paris by exposing many informers. Most of the members of the group were caught by the Gestapo in 1944, but the group reorganized and participated in the liberation of the city. In De Gaulle’s victory parade along the Champs Elysee, this group was part of the escort guard.
The Armed Underground (Maquis)
In 1943 an armed underground was formed in the mountains by the "Jewish Fighter Organization” (O.J.C.). There the young people were given full military training in order to fight the Nazis, and also to prepare them for defensive action in Eretz Yisrael.
The group established camps in the area of the Black Mountains, east of Toulouse, and its members were incorporated into the commando units in De Gaulle’s secret army, as a separate unit. One of their leaders, Ramon Levi-Sakal, was killed in ambush.
At the end of 1943, the members of the Lautrec farm established a separate Maquis. They established three brigades which totaled about one hundred men, in which local youth also participated. Their name was changed to the "Marc Hango Brigade”, in memory of the secretary of the Scout movement, who was murdered by the Gestapo in Grenoble.
One of the highlights of their fighting was the attack on an enemy train packed with weapons and ammunition. As a result of the battle which lasted through the night, the German company surrendered and was taken prisoner by the Jewish fighters. The entire occupation army in the city of Castres was taken prisoner, all three thousand German soldiers. Towards the liberation of France the Jewish fighters were incorporated into the French army, participated in fierce battles in Alsace, and crossed the Rhine alongside the allied armies.
The great difficulty in surveying the activities of the Jewish underground stems from the fact that no protocols were recorded, for security reasons. It is difficult to report on the suffering and tremendous efforts made by the fighters in order to save Jewish lives. They organized, fought and struggled against the Nazis for Jewish honor and freedom. These young people, who had faith in the future of their people, were proud of their identity, convinced of the permanence of Jewish morality and ethics. Every member of the underground deserves to be remembered. Their faith was the same faith which moved many of them to make aliya to Eretz Yisrael, and to fight for her independence. Let us remember that in such dark days in the history of mankind, there were men who fought for the victory of truth and justice.