Small World

Jewish World Review May 2, 2000 / 27 Nissan, 5760


French Still Duck War Guilt



By Richard Z. Chesnoff

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- UZES, FRANCE --- France has finally begun to come to terms with its past — well, almost.

After three years of intensive research, a French government body, the Matteoli Commission, has published a 3,300-page report on the wartime persecution of French Jews not only by the Nazis, but by France's collaborationist Vichy regime.

The picture is far from pretty. Of the 330,000 Jews in France when the Wehrmacht invaded in 1940, more than 76,000 were arrested (usually by French police) and deported to death camps. Only 2,500 returned. And as the Matteoli report admits, it was during this process of bureaucratic murder that at least $1.3 billion worth of Jewish-owned assets were "Aryanized" — seized with the enthusiastic assistance of countless numbers of upstanding French citizens.

The plundered goods included shops, businesses, tens of thousands of works of art and more than 80,000 bank accounts. At least 38,000 apartments were seized and ransacked. It was a gargantuan undertaking. "The spoliation of France's Jews," says European Jewish Congress Director Serge Cwajgenbaum, "touched everyone from the wealthiest Rothschild to the poorest cobbler in the pletzel" — the old Jewish quarter of Paris.

So what happened to all this treasure after the liberation of 1944? Large chunks simply became part of France's national coffers.

Now, France is finally admitting its role in the Holocaust and planning to make some amends by using an estimated $350 million in unclaimed assets to educate its young about the horrors of ethnic hatred. After 55 years of stonewalling and denial, it is major progress.

But while the French are busily patting themselves on the back, the fact is the commission and a followup body have no clear plan to compensate survivors and their heirs, including some in New York who are suing to reclaim their parents' bank accounts. Nor have countless vital documents been released regarding enormous quantities of stolen stocks and bonds.

And while admitting culpability, the French still mainly point their fingers at the Germans, when, in fact, the Vichy government eagerly promulgated anti-Semitic laws on its own. French financial institutions (including branches of such American banks as Chase and Morgan) froze Jewish accounts even before the Nazis asked them to. In the mind of Vichy France, the Jews were beneath the law.

There was nothing new in this attitude. Jews first came to France in Greek and Roman times. And while they played major roles in the development of French culture, science, economy and democracy, they were demonized for centuries by both church and state.

No spot in all this beautiful land left them in peace for long. Even here, in this medieval town of Uzes, where I spend much of my time, history is stained. In the 13th century, for example, two local Jews were falsely charged with the sacrificial murder of a child whose blood they were said to have used for baking matzo — one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards. Their arrest provoked a battle between the local bishop and the lord of Uzes. The reason was simple: The one with jurisdiction could confiscate the Jews' property.

The French have a saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same. The new report offers a chance for some real change. Now it's up to the French.


JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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