French Jews Knew To Expect Worst After Kristallnacht

Alsace-Lorraine Region Saw Gathering Nazi Storm Firsthand

Coming Storm: Raymond-Raoul Lambert, seen in his Strasbourg office in the 1930s, founded the Committee for Assistance to Refugees.
Yad Vashem
Coming Storm: Raymond-Raoul Lambert, seen in his Strasbourg office in the 1930s, founded the Committee for Assistance to Refugees.

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Published November 05, 2013.
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(JTA) — His hearing isn’t what it used to be, but Georges Loinger still remembers Adolf Hitler’s voice emanating from the radio at his Strasbourg home.

Growing up in the heavily Germanic Alsace region of eastern France, Loinger and his family tuned in regularly to broadcasts of Hitler’s speeches. They heard his “electrifying voice” and the plans he had in store for the Jews of Europe.

So when the Nazis’ anti-Jewish propaganda turned to deadly violence on Kristallnacht, the pogrom unleashed on the Jews of Germany and Austria 75 years ago next week, the Jews of Strasbourg were ready.

“We had read Nazi propaganda,” said Loinger, 103, who fought in the French resistance. “We spoke to hundreds of Jewish refugees from Germany. We knew what was coming.”

Historians say the knowledge, unusual for Jewish communities outside Germany and Austria, made the 20,000 Jews of Alsace and nearby Lorraine better prepared to face the forthcoming Nazi occupation.

The community was able to help German Jews, hide heritage assets and private possessions and, most important, survive. Ten percent of the Jewish population of Alsace and Lorraine perished in the Holocaust, compared to 22 percent elsewhere in France.

“From testimonies and the wealth of material we have, we see that Alsatian Jews were much more aware of what was happening in Germany than Jews in Paris,” said Serge Klarsfeld, a Nazi hunter and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Holocaust in France.

A key figure in the effort, according to Klarsfeld, was a Strasbourg physician named Joseph Weil, who used a vast network of contacts to help Jews flee Nazi Germany for Switzerland and southern France. One of the groups, OSE, is credited with rescuing 5,000 Jewish children.

Weil also began sounding the alarm as a volunteer instructor at Strasbourg’s Merkaz Hanoar youth center, telling his charges that Hitler was much more powerful than they had been told. Weill’s warnings went unheeded by Parisian Jewish leaders, who believed Hitler to be no match for the mighty French army.

Between 1934 and 1941, Alsatian Jews launched other groups to protect themselves and help others, including the Committee for Assistance to Refugees led by Raymond-Raoul Lambert.

Meanwhile, the Strasbourg-based Jewish magazine Tribune Juive “warned against the rise of Hitler to power – much more frequently and forcefully than Paris Jewish publications,” said Lucien Lazare, a historian at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.


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