From Chagall to Orpheus, Frenchifying European Jews by the Forward

From Chagall to Orpheus, Frenchifying European Jews

Hunting around France’s National Archives for naturalization papers of famous people might seem an odd way to compile a fascinating book, but Doan Bui and Isabelle Monin, two journalists from the weekly Nouvel Observateur, managed to do just that with “They Became French” (Ils sont devenus français), out from Les éditions J.-C. Lattès in November.

The immigrants, many of them Jews, would be such cultural and intellectual notables (or the parents of notables) as singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, statesman Robert Badinter, painter Marc Chagall, Nobel-prizewinning scientist Georges Charpak, and author Joseph Kessel.

Of the Jewish luminaries described in “They Became French,” the easiest naturalization process was accorded to Jacques (born Jacob, of German Jewish ancestry) Offenbach in 1860. Already celebrated as the composer of 1858’s “Orpheus in the Underworld,” Offenbach was worshiped by a prefect of police, who wrote an official letter of praise for his dossier.

More typical of the often-brutal French civil service was the file on Chagall, described as a “Russian Jew whose naturalization is without any national interest.” By the late 1920s, Chagall was already over forty, and his paintings appeared, to the official eye, too inspired by Russian shtetls to have anything to interest France!

Also, although Chagall would be a happily uxorious spouse and father, he could appear somewhat feminine in person, and so one steely-eyed civil servant judged him “lacking demographic interest” after a 1934 interview. In other words, he was seen as unlikely to procreate and thereby help the depopulation of France after First World War. André Dezarrois, director of the prestigious École des beaux-arts wrote in a confidential memo that:

When more influential voices carried the day, notably the culturally astute Jewish statesman Jean Zay, Chagall finally did receive French citizenship in 1937, but still as “Moïse,” rather than Marc.

Other family immigration stories told in this compelling volume concern the composer Joseph Kosma (born József Kozma in Budapest) who wrote the quintessentially Parisian song “Les feuilles mortes” (Autumn Leaves). Or Anna Werzberg Mangel, the mother of the world-famous mime Marcel Marceau, whose Polish Jewish father was murdered at Auschwitz. Or Manacha Tenebaum, father of the much-loved French singer Jean Ferrat, who would share the same fate. All together, “They Became French” is a compelling, unexpectedly dramatic compendium.

Watch a French TV report on the book “They Became French.”


From Chagall to Orpheus, Frenchifying European Jews

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. All readers can browse the comments, and all Forward subscribers can add to the conversation. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters or repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

From Chagall to Orpheus, Frenchifying European Jews

Thank you!

This article has been sent!