Hunting Down the Jews: Vichy, the Nazis and Mafia Collaborators in Provence 1942–1944
By Isaac Levendel and Bernard Weisz
Enigma Books, 340 pages, $24
In the wine region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in Provence, Château de la Gardine is an esteemed name, as is that of the proprietor who brought it to prominence, Gaston Brunel. Even today, a quarter-century after the winemaker’s death, the 150-acre property is described on its website as the “Fruit of an encounter between a man, Gaston Brunel, and a terroir, Châteauneuf du Pape.” But there’s a long-hidden blemish to that encounter, as we learn in “Hunting Down the Jews,” a detailed exhumation of the anti-Semitic secrets of the Vichy regime.
In 1942, under a Vichy law that stripped Jews of their assets, La Gardine was confiscated by the regime from its owner, Esther Marie Gomez Pereire, who came from a noted French Sephardi family. A suitable new owner of supposedly Aryan blood was sought, and Brunel, from a local winemaking family, stepped forward. He purchased La Gardine for 1,250,000 francs — although not without worrying, according to official notation at the sale, that the legitimate owner might one day return to reclaim it. In that, Brunel was prescient.
Pereire did reappear after the war. Well before Liberation, Charles de Gaulle and the Allies had declared Vichy’s property transfers to be null and void. In April 1945, Brunel was required to return La Gardine to its rightful owner, to whom he would pay 280,000 francs for his illegal usage of it. Pereire, who may have needed money or perhaps just lost her taste for the enterprise, then sold back the property to Brunel, who went on to improve the reputation of La Gardine’s wine over the next 40 years. In his authoritative 1980 survey of the region, “Guide to the Vineyards and Cellars of the Cotes du Rhone,” Brunel recounts La Gardine’s long history, but he omits mention of his first “encounter.”
To Jews in Occupied France, especially the foreign born, Vichy at first beckoned as a place free of Germans. Yet in October 1940, less than three months after its creation, the regime enacted its first “Statute of the Jews.” Philippe Petain’s personal mark-up of the draft of that law, brought to light in 2010 by French historian Serge Klarsfeld, harshened the strictures. Jews (defined as those with three Jewish grandparents, two if their spouse was Jewish) were banned from a wide array of occupations, including teaching, law, the military and theater management. Economic strangulation soon followed, as did the stamping of identification and ration cards with the word “Jew.” But Vichy had its limits. It resisted requiring the wearing of the Yellow Star, as was mandated in France’s occupied zone.
In the summer of 1942, Vichy actively joined itself to the German deportation machinery in the occupied zone by delivering almost 11,000 foreign-born Jews (half already incarcerated, the other half newly arrested) to the Drancy transit camp, just north of Paris. Their next stop was Auschwitz. But as the trains wended their way north, local bystanders were appalled by the sight and stench of the boxcars, which were packed, in the summer heat, with the young, old, ill and dying. Negative public opinion, and protests by some Catholic priests, notably Archbishop Pierre-Marie Gerlier of Lyon, had their impact. Vichy police made no more mass arrests for the rest of the war. But the region remained hazardous for Jews, especially after the Germans arrived in November 1942 in response to Allied landings in North Africa.
The hunt for Jews now passed mainly into the hands of freelance gangs working directly for the Gestapo. The authors sum it up: “The German police, itself bristling with hoodlums and shady characters, found natural allies in the French gangsters, with whom they could communicate in the common language of manipulation and violence.” The gangs took booty from their victims, but could also be bribed to release them.
As the tempo of gang raids intensified in 1944, many Jews who had still been living openly went into hiding. In Le Pontet, a town in the Vaucluse, Polish-born shopkeeper Sarah Levendel, whose husband was a prisoner of war, belatedly heeded warnings by friends that she was risking all by keeping her shop open and living above it. Finally, on June 5, Levendel found a hiding place at a nearby cherry farm. Leaving her 7-year-old son in the care of the farmer’s own son, she returned to Le Pontet to pack up and shutter the store — even though her friends warned her not to take that risk.
Her son, Isaac, this book’s principal author, never saw his mother again. The farmer didn’t want to host the boy, but a more kindly farm family stepped in to care for him until his father’s return at war’s end. Silence fell on the fate of the missing woman. Unable to connect emotionally with his father, the boy was sent to stay with another farm family, the Saurets. Short on hygiene but long on warmth, the Saurets gave the boy the love that had gone absent with his mom.