Using Survivor Testimony, a Scholar Fills in France’s Holocaust Story
Holocaust Odysseys: The Jews of Saint-Martin-Vesubie and Their Flight Through France and Italy
By Susan Zuccotti
Yale University Press, 288 pages, $28.
When it comes to Holocaust history, France gets short shrift. This is not to say that we don’t know anything about the Jewish experience in France during World War II, it’s just that scholars have mined the history of the Shoah in Germany and Poland, to name two countries, a great deal more. That there’s been no Elie Wiesel or Anne Frank to personalize the experience in France hasn’t helped.
With this in mind, Susan Zuccotti’s “Holocaust Odysseys,” which examines the lives of Jewish refugees and immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe in France and in Italy during the war, comes as a welcome step. Zuccotti employs a methodology that is both tricky and rewarding: turning Holocaust survivor testimony into conventional history. Luckily, Zuccotti, who has written widely on the Holocaust in both France and Italy, knows how to use oral history to detail personal experience while simultaneously adding paint to the broader historical canvas.
Zuccotti intersperses the memories of nine families with archival documentation. The people she focuses on were all displaced to France in the late 1930s or in 1940. Most made their way to southern France, which was unoccupied by the Nazis but still governed by Vichy French collaborators.
The refugees’ wartime flight south brought them into southern France (the Saint-Martin-Vesubie in the subtitle refers to an Italian-occupied village in southern France where the refugees lived, along with more than 1,000 other foreign-born Jews, for several months in 1943) and then into Italy after it capitulated to the Allies.
Zuccotti’s Jewish subjects, their childhoods taken away, survived through a combination of perseverance, cleverness, luck — and support from both non-Jews and Jews. During a 1942 round-up, Menahem Marienberg was with a group of mostly French-born Jewish scouts in the countryside. When the scouts returned by train to the city of Toulouse, they sang the French national anthem to divert the guards, who paused to salute. William Blye survived, in part, because a non-Jewish woman took him to a safe haven in 1942.
Many of the survivors thought that making it to Italy would ensure their safety, but instead they found that Germans had taken over much of the country. As the Nazi noose tightened, these survivors’ lives turned more perilous and their survival tactics more ingenious. In November 1943, German SS officers arrested scores of Jews in Florence, Italy, and took them to a nearby Italian military camp. Ludi Goldman says his 12-year-old brother, Harry, escaped one night by standing on a tin can in a deserted area of the courtyard and climbing atop a fence. Once on top, he called out to a passing Italian cyclist to catch him; the cyclist did so.
In addition to highlighting these personal experiences, Zuccotti sheds light on the Holocaust in France more generally. Unlike in much of Eastern Europe, Vichy France at first featured a “loose, flexible nature of internment,” reliant on local officials, that allowed some “indigent, unwelcome” Jewish refugees to be interned and then released, or not even interned at all. Only later did large-scale deportations become the norm. As a result, a higher percentage of Jews in France — an estimated 76% — survived than elsewhere in Europe.
This percentage, however, was much lower among foreign-born Jews. During the war, it was tough to be Jewish and tough to be a foreigner in France; Zuccotti’s subjects faced double jeopardy. Beginning in July 1940 and for the next few months, the Vichy government passed its first regulations “against those it considered not truly French.” The harshest of these measures allowed local officials to intern indigent male immigrants, including Jews, between the ages of 18 and 55. As the war progressed, persecution intensified against Jews of all backgrounds. In 1942, one month before a major round-up and deportation of Jews living in Paris, Vichy officials agreed to deliver 10,000 recent immigrant and refugee Jews to the occupied zone.
Zuccotti’s approach leads her to focus on stories of survival (the book grew out of a 60th reunion of Saint-Martin-Vesubie Jews), but she doesn’t shy away from more tragic stories. Blye and his mother survived. But Blye’s father and brothers, betrayed by a French concierge, did not. Indeed, by the end of the war, a third of the more than 1,000 Jewish refugees who lived at Saint-Martin-Vesubie had been arrested. Most of those arrested died at Auschwitz. Many passages end with chilling words, such as these that refer to members of survivor Marienberg’s family: “None of the Marienbergs were among the fifty survivors of convoy 64.”
Zuccotti captures her subjects’ stories well, and she’s not afraid to question survivor memories when they contradict general historical knowledge. As she puts it in one case regarding a remembered tip of a deportation to Auschwitz, “Because survivors of deportations rarely mention that they knew where they were going, this statement must be treated with caution.”
Despite its countless strengths, “Odysseys” is unlikely to popularize French Holocaust history, in part because Zuccotti wrote the work chronologically, so we leave and return to the same individuals several times. As a result, it’s difficult for readers to identify with a particular person or family. But even though her book isn’t a page-turner, it’s excellent history.
Peter Ephross reviews books regularly for Publishers Weekly.