Parisian Jews


In 1941 Paris hosted an Antisemitic Exposition. The authorities wished to demonstrate to the citizens of France the threat that Jews posed to their way of life and culture.

Is being Jewish in Paris anything like being Jewish in Manhattan? Everyone knows that Woody Allen is Jewish. For him, it was a fact of birth, upbringing, family, community, and culture. Allen has mined this enormously rich resource to craft a brilliant career. I doubt that anyone in history has made more profitable use of his psychoses. Before Allen, the world had a general view of the guilt and neuroses of a secularised Jew. After Allen, that view is specific and detailed. If the words “Jew” and “neurotic”are used in the same paragraph, we cannot but think of Woody Allen. Allen’s nervous views of the world are well known. When Alice Stolz, the female protagonist of Paris Manhattan shares her private thoughts and puzzlement with a large wall poster featuring a young Allen with arched eyebrows, the voice that replies with tender advice and gentle observations on the nature of the human condition is familiar to all who have more than a nodding acquaintance with global popular culture. This is the voice of the New York secular Jew. And everyone knows it.

But the fact that the family at the centre of this otherwise standard rom-com is Jewish only gradually emerges in the mind of a non-Parisian, non-Jew as he view this movie. Was I missing early clues?

Alice’s world is secular and consumerist. Her haunts and habits appear to be indistinguishable from the lives of her prosperous, well-educated contemporaries. She is tall, willowy and blonde. No one mentions the fact that she is Jewish. This fact emerges only gradually and is finally established by the fact that Alice’s father dons a yamulka for the Friday meal. Alice and her family have melted into Parisian, bourgeois life. in the world of the movie all are insiders. There is no outside to be seen anywhere. How different are her persona and circumstances from the screen presence of Woody Allen? No one can forget the fact that he is Jewish and Woody never wants his audience to forget it either. Woody carries and defines what it is to be Jewish in America.

And all in the film are content with their undifferentiated condition. At least they appear to be. Yet Alice’s mother, it emerges, has a drinking problem. And why is this? She finally acknowledges that she is dissatisfied that she sacrificed her talents and interests to the requirements of assisting her pharmacist husband to establish his professional and business standing. This is the lament of many women of her generation, whether Jewish or not.

So it is unlikely that pharmacist Stolz inherited his standing. He is a self-made man. Did he grow up in Paris? If so, he was perhaps a young child during the war years. This being the case, he lived through a traumatic era for everyone, particularly Jews. Their experience of discrimination, ostracism, persecution and extermination was beyond anything ever experienced by Jews in America. French Jews should have every reason to feel nervous and neurotic, unlike Woody Allen, who has only a few reasons to feel that way. But few neuroses haunt the family Stolz.

Stolz père was certainly too young to remember when the Nazi collaborationist Vichy government enacted a number of racial laws. In August 1940, laws against antisemitism in the media (the Marchandeau Act) were repealed. thenceforward, French people could be as nasty as they liked when writing about Jews. The decree n°1775 September 5, 1943, denaturalized a number of French citizens, in particular Jews from Eastern Europe. Perhaps Stolz père’s parents would have remembered how foreigners were rounded up in “Foreign Workers Groups” (groupements de travailleurs étrangers) and used by the Germans as manpower. Certainly, it was notorious at the time that the Statute on Jews excluded them from the civil administration.

Description of the Marchandeau Law


Certainly, the parents of Stolz père would have been well aware either during or after the Vichy regime of the fearsome reputation of the Drancy internment camp. Drancy was a northeastern suburb of Paris. In mid-1940 the modernist complex of apartments was confiscated by Nazi authorities. It was used first as police barracks, then converted into the primary detention center in the Paris region for holding Jews and other people labeled as “undesirable” before deportation.

On 20 August 1941, French police conducted raids throughout the 11th District of Paris and arrested more than 4,000 Jews, mainly foreign or stateless Jews. French authorities interned these Jews in Drancy, marking its official opening. French police enclosed the barracks and courtyard with barbed-wire fencing and provided guards for the camp. Drancy fell under the command of the Gestapo Office of Jewish Affairs in France and German SS Captain Theodor Dannecker. Following the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup on July 16 and 17, 1942, more than 4,900 of the 13,152 victims of the mass arrest were sent directly to the camp at Drancy before their deportation to Auschwitz.

The French police carried out additional roundups of Jews throughout the war. Some Drancy inmates died as hostages. In December 1941, 40 prisoners from Drancy were executed in retaliation for a French attack on German police officers.

Of the 75,000 Jews whom French and German authorities deported from France, more than 67,000 were sent directly from Drancy to Auschwitz.

This experience of Vichy collaboration in the Holocaust was well known, though hardly acknowledged. One of the great film documentaries, The Sorrow and the Pity, embarrassed and outraged French opinion when it proved this fact. And although President Charles de Gaulle denied French government responsibility in the dark episode in French history, in 1995 French President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the culpability of the French police in persecuting Jews. Every adult depicted in Paris-Manhattan was old enough to remember this admission of guilt.

The postwar history of France is littered with denials and eventually belated acknowledgements of the complicity of broad groups of the French population. The harrying, confinement and deportation of tens of thousands of Jews.

Surviving Jews well knew who their friends were and who of their neighbours worked to ensure that they would be removed from French soil. This memory was raw and personal.

And yet again in July 2012 France’s president, Francois Hollande, apologised for his country’s role in the deportation to the Nazi death camps of some 13,000 of its Jewish citizens during World War II.

Paula Cohen, an American academic testified to the trauma suffered by French members of his own family during WWII.

I had just returned from Paris, where I had had a long talk with my French cousin about her experience during the Second World War. At 84, she is the oldest living member of that part of my family that emigrated from Russia to France to escape the pogroms early in the twentieth century. She, her parents, and siblings had survived World War II by hiding with farm families in the countryside. During my recent visit, she opened up on this subject more fully than ever before, explaining that her brother was really her stepbrother, adopted by her parents because his family was deported and eventually killed in Auschwitz.

Even in 2012, according to this old woman, “she and her few Jewish friends were reticent on the topic of their religion.”

Being Jewish in France imposes a heavy burden of history and the expectation that Jews keep their traps shut. By contrast, as anyone familiar with Woody Allen’s films is aware, he is extremely voluble about his Jewish identity.

Her aged aunt’s comments stirred personal memories in Cohen:

Her comments made me think of the stories a French friend, who now lives in the United States, told me about growing up in southern France after the War. When attendance was taken on the first day of school each year, the teacher would stop at her name: “Sokolowski? Qu’est-ce que c’est comme nom, ça?” the teacher invariably asked. It was a question that my friend viewed as a code for “There sits the Jew.”

This sort of feeling persisted in France decades after the war. I spent a year teaching in a lycee in northern France in the 1970s, and I recall that when I put my name, Paula Cohen, on the blackboard to introduce myself, a student sitting in the back row flashed a Hebrew letter at me, signaling her kinship. After class, she waited until everyone had left the room before inviting me to her home for Shabbas dinner.

And there remains, as my cousin suggested, unease among Jews in France even today. During my recent visit to Paris I decided to attend services on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and had some trouble locating a synagogue. When I finally found one in the Marais, the traditional Jewish quarter, now a hip Soho-esque district, I was interrogated by a young man standing in front, vigilantly surveying the street. In light of the murder last March in Toulouse of a rabbi, his two young sons, and an 8-year-old girl by an Arab terrorist, security at synagogues throughout France has been ramped up. The young man examined my passport and seemed assuaged by my last name, but my husband, who has a last name not recognizably Jewish, gave him pause. “Were you bar mitzvahed?” he asked. “Yes,” said my husband. “What was your torah portion?” When my husband couldn’t remember, the young man barred him from admission. I was obliged to enter alone.

Embattled, self-imposed silence, a desire not to excite attention, and vigilance against apprehended racist violence are features of Jewish life in France. Doubtless, Jews have employed many strategies to negotiate Life in France. Belief that being Jewish imposes no special burdens is one of those strategies. And certainly, that is the preferred and evidently successful and emotionally satisfactory method adopted the the Stolz family.

Is the complacent modus vivendi of the Stolz family possible in contemporary Paris? Perhaps yes. But any representation of Jewish Paris might at least hint at a darker picture. And even if possible, is denial satisfactory for contemporary Jews? This is where the role of Woody Allen in the movie becomes interesting. Allen imparts words of wisdom that may concern the strictly private anxieties of finding happiness and a suitable life partner. However, at a deeper level, his advice is about identity and integrity. But the sting of those words is drawn by virtue of the fact that the personal and the political are conflated. Alice rejects the goy tycoon in favour of the eccentric security engineer who just happens to be Jewish. And if he weren’t Jewish? Well that is a question that a rom-com can evade in favour of happy closure, a luxury not often available to real Jews living in historical Paris.

This is a poster printed by the Vichy authorities in 1944. Paris and the rest of France were being liberated by the conquering Allied armies. The Vichy regime was in a struggle for its existence. It seemed like a good idea to someone in that regime to remind the French people that they faced a Jewish-inspired plot to destroy their way of life. How many French people believed this assertion?

Scrape off a little of the surface gloss and here is a world that is more complex and filled with dangerous memories than anything that Woody Allen experienced in his worst nightmares. Allen may be a satisfactory mentor during periods of acceptance. But how quickly might that benign epoch survive?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s