Uncertain Future for Jews in French Provinces

Despite History, Signs of Trouble on Horizon in Dijon

Hold The Mustard: The Jewish population of Dijon, France, eagerly assimilated over the course of the 19th century.
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Hold The Mustard: The Jewish population of Dijon, France, eagerly assimilated over the course of the 19th century.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published November 24, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
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An Uncertain Future: Voices of a French Jewish Community, 1940-2012
By Robert I. Weiner and Richard E. Sharpless
University of Toronto Press, 344 pages, $29.95

Much rarer than Dijon’s mustard and wine is the small and, until recently, vibrant Jewish community that called this small French city home. But as its title warns, “An Uncertain Future,” a series of oral interviews conducted with members of this dwindling group, suggests that while French Jewry will always have Paris, they may not have much longer such provincial cities that have made crucial contributions to their history.

In the beginning was the Revolution. The seismic tremors reached as far as eastern France, carrying dozens of Alsatian Jewish families to Dijon, where they filled the gap left by the expulsion of Jews from medieval France. Liberated and enfranchised by the events of 1789, these newcomers, mostly German or Yiddish speakers, eagerly assimilated over the course of the 19th century. In Dijon, as elsewhere, French Jews yoked their identity to their security with the republican credo introduced by the revolution. With the birth of the long-lived and secular Third Republic, the Jews of Dijon completed a majestic synagogue near the medieval center in 1879, imbuing it with love of their patrie and their patriarchs.

The patrie, however, failed them during World War II. With France’s defeat, the Republic’s collapse and the creation of the Vichy government, the Jews of Dijon, like their coreligionists elsewhere, were transformed from French citizens into pariahs. Many accounts in the book begin in 1940 with either elderly Dijonnais who survived the war years or children recalling their parents’ experiences. Albert Huberfeld, the owner of a haberdashery, remembers hiding with his family in the countryside. Not only did local Catholics help his family, but Huberfeld also recalls these years as a “happy time.”

Of course, as historians such as Richard Cobb and novelists such as Irène Némirovsky remind us, a child’s perspective of the flight from Paris or Nazis often differs dramatically from that of adults. But Huberfeld’s memories, or those of another elderly Dijonnaise, Marcelle David, also emphasize the pivotal role played by gentile neighbors in Dijon. Though Weiner and Sharpless do not pursue this question, these and similar experiences at least suggest the possibility that, compared to Paris, smaller cities and towns, where social bonds were more intimate, were more active in the face of Jewish persecution. Nevertheless, the community suffered cruelly: About 150 community members were arrested and murdered by the Nazis or Vichy’s paramilitary police, the Milice (whom the authors misleadingly call National Guardsmen).


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