The Lost Legacy of the French Revolution and the Persecution of French Jewry in Vichy France
Sondra M. Rubenstein
The French Revolution had a profound effect on France's forty thousand Jews. It resulted in their legal emancipation and soon enabled them to claim that they had become the most successfully assimilated and most stable Jewish community in Western Europe. 1 They became linguistically and culturally French. By all appearances they were French, fully integrated and rooted in French tradition. Yet, while individual French Jews gained acceptance and recognition for their accomplishments, an underlying, dormant prejudice remained, an ugly undercurrent of anti-Semitism that surfaced from time to time. Native French Jews, traditionally silent, politically neutral, and non- protesting, tended to disassociate themselves from the periodic anti-Semitic outbursts. They clung to their belief that the attacks were not directed against "French" Jews but only against those "foreign" Jews whose blatant refusal to assimilate had resulted in their merely calling attention to themselves and to their "differences" with French society.
Even with the Nazi invasion of France in May 1940, most native Jews held fast to the myth that their French citizenship and their "Frenchness" would protect them. They had long ago failed to recognize the danger signs and to rally to the call of their co-religionists. Now, they too would fall victim to Vichy-supported, and often instigated, Nazi persecution. With the fall of the Third Republic and the institutionalization of anti-Semitic laws by the Vichy government in the autumn of 1940, French Jewry was brought to the brutal realization: They, too, were collectively Jews and as disposable as the immigrant Jews many of them despised.
This chapter briefly traces the history of the Revolution's "legacy" to French Jewry: emancipation. Then, with references to Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity, the chapter focuses on the destruction of that long-held legacy.