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.

The level of mobilization was unusual in France, whose 300,000 Jews formed what then was the largest Jewish community in continental Western Europe outside Germany.

“Jews in Paris were distant from Germany, they were not as aware of the threat,” said Lazare, 89. “In the minds of French Jews, who were very patriotic, the French army was the strongest in the world. They didn’t think the Nazis were an existential threat even after Kristallnacht.”

But the Jews of Alsace-Lorraine knew better thanks in part to what Yad Vashem describes as “riotous demonstrations” that erupted there in September 1938, two months before Kristallnacht. Though no one was hurt, Jewish shops were attacked in a precursor to the much larger and more deadly Kristallnacht pogroms.

“You have to recall that Alsace used to be German until 1918,” Lazare said. “So some locals considered themselves Germans. There was some virulent anti-Semitic propaganda there. There was Nazi agitation. It showed us just how strong the Nazi ideology was in the hearts of its supporters.”

Like many Alsatian Jews, Lazare’s family sold their home and other valuables months before the Nazi invasion. Within hours of the arrival of the German army in 1940, the family was prepared to go into hiding.

Their preparedness was due in part to the family’s exposure to Jewish refugees who had fled the Nazis. Lazare recalls hearing from his high school teacher “of the bands of Nazi thugs that would go around attacking Jews in Berlin” in 1939, a full year before the Nazis overran France.

But Alsatian Jewry’s high level of alert also may have been connected to memories of persecution that long predated the Nazis. In 1848, a series of pogroms erupted amid claims that Jews in Damascus were responsible for the ritual murder of a French priest in the Syrian city. The false espionage conviction of the Alsatian Jew Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 generated a fresh wave of anti-Semitic hostility.

An impressive testament to the caution of Alsatian Jews was discovered last year in Dambach-la-Ville, a small town southwest of Strasbourg, where construction workers found a Jewish archive that had been masterfully concealed in the late 19th century inside a dummy ceiling at a synagogue.

The concealment was so perfect that it went undetected for more than a century. Jewish families that survived the war and briefly returned to Dambach never told the locals about the cache in the old synagogue, which was sold to the municipality several years ago.

Other Alsatian towns may have similar caches, according to Jean-Camille Bloch, the president of the SHIAL historical society, which focused on the Jewish presence in the Alsace-Lorraine region.

“The 1930s were a lesson that I have not forgotten to this day,” Loinger said. “You always have to face reality and be prepared.”


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