The ordeal in France - Norbert Guterman

Norbert Guterman
Betty W. Hubbard: The Philosopher [Portrait of Norbert Guterman] (Undated) Oil on canvas

Four books on occupied France. Reviewed in Commentary magazine, October 1948.

Submitted by Noa Rodman on January 17, 2017

Norbert Guterman together with Lefebvre wrote La conscience mystifiée (1936). As Stuart Eden (author of Understanding Henri Lefebvre, 2004) commented: They collaborated on volumes of Hegel, Marx and Lenin in French translation. La revue marxiste (monthly journal 1929, Paris) published some of the first translations of Marx's 1844 manuscripts (as well as articles from soviet journals such as Pod znamenem marksizma). Guterman left Europe in the 1930s and moved to the US. He worked as a translator (from French, German, Russian, Polish and Yiddish – just do a search for his name in worldcat) and writer. His papers are archived at Columbia University library; It contains a book length manuscript on 'The individual in the French novel', sometimes titled 'The myth of the individual as revealed by the French novel.' See eg the list of his reviews in the New Republic.

La presse, la propagande et l’opinion publique sous l’occupation.
by Jacques Polonski.
Paris, Editions du Centre, 1946. 157 Pp.

Contribution à histoire des camps d’internement dans l’anti-france.
by Joseph Weill.
Paris, Editions du Centre, 1946. 230 Pp.

De Drancy à Auschwitz.
by Georges Wellers.
Paris, Editions du Centre, 1946. 231 Pp.

La condition des Juifs en France sous l’occupation italienne.
by L. Poliakov.
Paris, Editions du Centre, 1946. 174 Pp.

In the summer of 1943, when it seemed that within a short time no Jews would be left in France, a group of Jewish leaders founded a documentation center in Grenoble, to collect and preserve the records of Nazi crimes. After liberation (in the interval many of the founders had met death) the group, now subsidized by the Joint Distribution Committee, was reorganized in Paris. Its activities now comprise the publication of monographs and collections of documents on specific aspects of Jewish life during the war. The four volumes under review—the first four publications of this group—are abundantly illustrated, distinguished by competent scholarship, sober presentation, and a lucid style.


Jacques Polonski’s monograph casts much light on both the powers and the limits of modern manipulation of public opinion. To convert the French, who have a good record on racial tolerance, to anti-Semitism, was a difficult problem. The Nazis chose to proceed gradually. When the newspapers resumed publication a few days after the occupation of Paris, they carried statements to the effect that the conqueror would allow full freedom of opinion, and that they would devote themselves as in the past to giving objective information. Needless to say, however, news reports were carefully sifted and doctored for Nazi purposes. But that was not all.

The campaign against the Jews began with seemingly harmless statements intended to bring their existence to public awareness. First by insinuation, then more and more directly, foreign Jews were blamed for France’s misfortunes, and the Jews in general were represented as the real power behind the Anglo-Americans and Bolsheviks. Soon there appeared situation-wanted ads inserted by non-Jewish secretaries and Aryan salesmen and governesses; and then other novelties, such as the slogan chosen by a well-known firm of opticians, Lissac Fréres: “Lissac is not Isaac, which is a Jewish name par excellence.”

As the program of extermination began to take shape, the press campaign increased in violence. In 1940 Marcel Déat in L’Oeuvre discreetly ascribed Minister Georges Mandel’s effort, on the eve of the defeat, to move the government to Africa to his “latent nomadism,” and Le Temps explained the obstacles to Germany’s expansion eastward by the influence of “political or racial” ideologies. By 1942 the word “Jew” is found in banner headlines: reporters study various aspects of the Jewish “scourge”; illustrated weeklies elaborate on the Jewish menace, etc. Then came a flood of posters giving false statistics about alleged Jewish power, and pictures representing the Jew as a low animal or a pestiferous insect.

When “foreigners” alone were under attack, French public opinion reacted rather apathetically. Mr. Poliakov’s book quotes a report dated Jan. 28, 1941, in which Gestapo chief Dr. Kochen wrote: “It seems almost impossible to cultivate among the French an anti-Jewish feeling on an ideological basis; the offer of economic benefits would more easily arouse sympathy for the anti-Jewish struggle. The internment of nearly 100,000 foreign Jews living in Paris would provide numerous Frenchmen with an opportunity to lift themselves from the lower to the middle classes.”


The ingenious system recommended by Dr. Kochen was actually applied; and it might have worked more effectively if more Frenchmen had benefited from it and if the machine of destruction once set in motion could have been stopped. But after foreign Jews came the turn of French Jews, and after French Jews came French “Aryans.” Signs of resistance to German propaganda began to multiply. The spirit of the Fronde was revived when several “Aryan” students demonstratively donned Jewish armbands with the yellow Star of David to protest against the decree imposing such armbands on the Jews. The national pride of the French was offended; Pomaret, an official of the Vichy Ministry of the Interior, when informed that one of his prefects insisted on deporting a trainload of Jewish children, said in a trembling voice, “Nous sommes en France quand même (This is still France after all),” and obtained the release of the victims.

The Germans and collaborationists suffered their greatest fiasco in the attempt to influence the French teachers, who had a solid tradition of militant liberalism. “I know of an old teacher,” writes Jean Guéhenno, “grouchy and tender, who was shocked one morning when two pupils wearing the yellow Star of David for the first time entered his classroom. He ordered the class to take their seats as usual, and then without thinking summoned the two little boys to his desk. They obeyed full of apprehension. When they were close to him, he kissed each of them on both cheeks without saying a word.” Likewise, the attempt to create a special chair of so-called Jewish studies at the Sorbonne failed ignominiously. The first lecture, in December 1942, provoked a riot; the following lectures were boycotted so completely that most were cancelled for lack of an audience, and the few that did take place never gathered more than three listeners—including the specially appointed observer from the underground.

However, it is an error to assume that the propagandist’s primary aim is to gain the intellectual and moral adherence of his audience. The social function of totalitarian propaganda is of a quite different order—its primary objective is to serve as a herald of violence and a lubricant of the mechanisms of terror. It uses persuasion only as a superficial garb; this propaganda is not a perverted form of argumentation but an intensified form of blackmail, and its main argument is always the threat behind the argument. Propaganda conquers souls by first reducing them to passivity and then involving them in the practices of oppression.

In France, despite the admirable spiritual resistance of the people as a whole, the doctrines of Aryanism were carried out with gruesome efficiency. There were concentration camps run by exclusively French personnel, where the victims were systematically dehumanized by the application of the familiar methods. And it was possible to recruit considerable numbers of Frenchmen who, as camp commandants, stole internees’ meager supplies; as sadistic guards, maltreated them; as physicians, prescribed violent exercise for internees stricken with the worst starvation diseases; and, as high officials, consented in the end to send to death factories more than 120,000 Jews, 20,000 of them children. Dr. Weill’s book gives us a solidly documented history of these camps from July 1940 to July 1942, and of the heroic efforts developed by various Jewish and non-Jewish relief organizations to ease the lot of the victims.


The French camps under Vichy were a heritage from the Third Republic. In an article in COMMENTARY (January 1946), Leo Lowenthal observed that “mankind today has so tremendously improved its technology as to render itself largely superfluous.” It was to cope with the problem of a “superfluous” mass of people that, long before the war, these French camps were instituted—they were the euphemistically named camps d’hébergement (“shelter camps”)—for Loyalist refugees from Spain. Later the Daladier government assigned the same dilapidated buildings to the thousands of rounded-up enemy aliens (the majority of them anti-Nazi refugees from Germany), the stateless, and more generally all “suspects.” When Pétain took over, he had at his disposal, in unoccupied France alone, 26 camps with a total capacity of 100,000 internees.

In the details of their organization and functioning, the French camps differed from the German: the internees were not made to do exhausting labor, they could receive some help from outside, and they were less brutally treated. The high mortality was due chiefly to starvation and unspeakable hygienic conditions. But the basic absurdity and injustice, with all their consequences of moral degradation, had been there from the beginning; and extermination, the fate that overtook the vast majority of the internees, was the logical conclusion.

Dr. Weill, who was director of the Union-O. S. E. and medical organizer in the camps, pays high tribute to the work of the relief organizations. Thanks to them, thousands of human beings were saved from certain death for a long time—finally, alas, to be seized, loaded into cattle cars, and sent to Germany. The conclusion Dr. Weill draws from this bitter lesson is well worth meditating.

“A relief action,” he writes, “is social only if it is constructive; and it cannot be constructive
unless it is integrated in a great political idea. There is no vacuum around a social action. Its purpose originates in a social inadequacy or injustice. Therefore each gesture performed for the purpose of relief must also be an active contribution to the general struggle against that inadequacy or injustice. The internees had to be helped to survive; but above all it was necessary to liberate them. If we had paid more vigilant attention to the conqueror’s long-range policy and to the historical laws that determined it, instead of concentrating our efforts on improving camp conditions, we would have grasped from the very beginning the interdependence of the coercive measures and their inevitable conclusion—deportation and collective murder. We could thus have saved many persons whose clear and courageous minds . . . and generous hearts we cruelly miss today.”

By July 1942, the job of extermination was taken over by the Germans; the collaborationists were now reduced to the role of bloodhounds. The camps in the southern zone of France were superseded by Drancy, which functioned as a deportation center and reservoir for Jewish victims whose final destination was Auschwitz. The study of this camp by Dr. Georges Wellers, who miraculously survived Drancy, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald, gives the reader, perhaps more successfully than any other book on the subject, a complete insight into the workings of the new type of society that a concentration camp represents.

Drancy had no crematoria or gas chambers, it was only an anteroom to Auschwitz; but in most other respects it resembled the worst German camps. Nothing can surpass the horror of certain of the scenes described in this book—such as the arrival of 4,000 parentless children aged from 2 to 12, their helpless bewilderment in strange surroundings, the pitiable efforts of the woman internees to tend them, and their final deportation to the Auschwitz gas chambers, after having been searched by French gendarmes, who treated them like the grownups.

Of the more than 70,000 persons who passed through Drancy, less than 1,500 have survived. The Nazi fury against the Jews was such that the shipments of human cattle continued on schedule even after the Allied landing in Normandy, despite the lack of material and personnel and the difficulties of transportation. The last shipment—of 1,300 internees, which included 300 parentless children—took place one month before the liberation of Paris.

Among other details, Dr. Wellers supplies convincing evidence as to the role of the collaborationists. It was through their efforts that most of the victims were rounded up. In August 1941, the Germans ordered the Paris police to arrest all Jews, and in one morning 5,000 persons were arrested in only two arrondissements. On December 12, when the Germans used their own police, they were able to seize only 700 persons. On July 16, 1942, the job was again entrusted to the French police, and the number of victims was 12,000. Dr. Wellers estimates that “without the active aid of the collaborationists, the Germans would have been unable to do even one-quarter of the evil that they had time to do in the four years of occupation with the help of the collaborationists.”

The second part of Wellers’ book strikingly illustrates how some exceptional individuals managed to preserve their moral integrity—usually at the price of hastening their death. It contains a moving account of the ordeal of René Blum, the ex-premier’s brother, director of the Ballets de Monte Carlo, who was deported to Birkenau and probably murdered there.


After the Allied landing in Africa, when all of France was occupied by the Axis, a zone in the southeast fell to the Italians. This Italian episode, related in L. Poliakov’s book, is the brightest page in the history of the French Jews during the Second World War. There were fifty thousand Jews in the Italian zone. The Germans, anxious to get hold of new victims, angrily urged the Italians to apply the racial laws, and Laval, eager to prove himself a more reliable collaborator than the Italians, personally urged his prefects to round up Jews. But the Italian military administration invariably cancelled his orders, refusing even to surrender Jews who had illegally crossed from the German to the Italian zone.

The documents from captured files with which Poliakov illustrates his story cast an interesting light on the psychology of the characters involved. At one point, the frustrated Germans pinned high hopes on General Lospinoso, whom the Italians sent to take charge of the Jews in their zone after energetic Nazi representations. To the consternation of the Gestapo observers stationed in Nice, Lospinoso chose as his aide Angelo Donati, a half-Jew, who introduced him to a Father Benoit-Marie, connected with the Resistance movement. (This is the same Father Benoit about whom James Rorty wrote in the December 1946 COMMENTARY.) This. French priest asked Lospinoso to carry out his orders with moderation. “Lospinoso then expressed mild surprise at the fact that a Capuchin was interested in Jewish problems and asked him kindly to explain who was the God of the Jews. Father Benoit-Marie reassured him by stating that the God of the Jews was the same as the God of the Christians.” Thereupon the Italian commissioner withdrew to a pleasant villa on the Riviera, leaving a committee constituted by the refugees themselves to handle their problems.


Only an order from the Duce himself could change the situation. According to Vidau, a high official of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ribbentrop succeeded in persuading Mussolini to issue such an order; but at the last moment a report on the massacres organized by the SS in Poland was submitted to Mussolini, accompanied with a terse note stating that not even the German ally should be permitted to force Italy to become associated with such crimes. The warning proved effective.

The arrest of a Jew meant the seizure of all his belongings by the captor, and so we are not surprised to read, in a secret report sent by a high Gestapo official to his superior, that he found the Italian administration’s attitude “incomprehensible.” What particularly shocked the Germans was that the same attitude was displayed by Italians of lower rank; thus Italian officers were seen in the company of Jewish friends, and—horror of horrors—even paying their checks in cafés. Was this the power of a humanistic tradition? Were prestige and high policy involved? Or was it simply because Italy, an economically backward country, has not reached the technological stage at which whole groups of people appear superfluous? Whatever the cause, the Italians were magnificently humane up to the bitter end. After the fall of Mussolini, foreseeing their imminent collapse and the German invasion of their zone, they arranged with Jewish organizations for the shipment of all refugees to North Africa, and concentrated Jews in the seaports to facilitate their transportation.

It was not the Italians’ fault that the plan did not materialize and that this happy episode had a tragic ending. According to Donati’s version of the circumstances of the Italian surrender, the Italians were to be given a month to reorganize their armies and were to turn them against the Germans on the date of publication of the surrender document, set for October. For reasons that have not yet been divulged, the Allied high command published it several weeks earlier than originally scheduled, on September 8, without previously notifying the Badoglio government. The Jews found themselves in a trap. A few days later the SS got the quarry that had eluded them for a full nine months.