This is an extract from Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead published by Chatto & Windus.
When Aaron Liwerant brought Sara, his fiancée, to Paris from her parents’ house in Warsaw in the summer of 1926, France was a good place for refugees. The French government was welcoming, granting naturalisation to the many Poles, Russians, Galicians and Romanians who came to fill the jobs in industry and mining left vacant by the high number of French casualties in the Great War. The international bookshop on the Left Bank sold books and papers in Russian and Polish. The French proved welcoming too to the Germans, Austrians, Italians and Spaniards arriving in the wake of the rise to power of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, and some of the refugees went off to work in
agriculture in the south.
Aaron was a leatherworker, and Sara covered the clasps he brought home from the workshop with silk, and sometimes with leather. Their first child, Berthe, was born in April 1927; a son, Simon, followed in November 1928. Though Aaron and Sara occasionally talked of the day they would be able to go back to Poland, they naturalised the two children and made them French citizens.
The Liwerants occupied two rooms, with no bathroom and a shared lavatory, in Belleville, which, along with the Marais and the 11th, 12th and 18th arrondissements, was home to most of the foreign immigrants in Paris, and particularly to the Jewish families like theirs working in fur and textiles. Aaron’s sister had also settled in France and she too had French citizenship, but neither she nor Aaron and Sara saw themselves as observant. To be Jewish in France in the 1920s and 1930s was to enjoy the legacy of the French Revolution, which had conferred equal rights on all the country’s religious minorities at a time when such tolerance was shared only by the new United States of America. The Liwerants thought of themselves as equals, loyal citizens of a strong, emancipated republican state.
Though the family spoke Yiddish at home, Berthe and Simon were bilingual in French. France was their home; neither had known any other, though they listened with interest to the stories of their grandparents in Poland and of the pogroms that had driven their mother and father into exile. After school, Simon helped his mother cover the clasps for Aaron’s leatherwork, and with the one-franc coins she gave him, he bought stamps, usually of aeroplanes.
The elections of 1936 had brought Léon Blum, a Jew and a socialist, to power with the Front Populaire, which welcomed immigrants and did much to improve conditions for French workers, but also sparked off strikes and violent confrontations. By now, France had a greater percentage of foreigners than any other country, including the United States. And when the world economic recession, which came relatively late to the country, brought high unemployment to French industry, workers began to feel hostility towards the very men and women they had so warmly welcomed not long before.
Simon was 10 when Léon Blum’s government fell in 1938, amid much rhetoric about the perils of world Jewry and personal slander against the Jewish Blum, a Proustian figure with floppy straight dark hair, a neat moustache and spats, who was referred to by some as a parasite and a vagrant, a pervert and underminer of ‘healthy male virility’. Searching for culprits for the country’s ills, some of the French began to see in the three million foreigners, and especially the foreign Jews, the perfect scapegoats; the river of anti-Semitism and xenophobia that poured out in pamphlets, books and articles peddling rumours of secret societies, satanic rituals and fifth columnists, and which so many believed to have vanished for ever in the post-Dreyfus years, was suddenly turning out to have merely gone underground. The words of the elderly former prime minister Raymond Poincaré, ‘After the Dreyfus affair, anti-Semitism will no longer ever be possible again in France’, began to sound a little foolish.
It was somehow more seductive, though alarming, to listen to the royalist intellectual Charles Maurras announce, in the right-wing, nationalist L’Action Française, that ‘One thing is dead: it is the spirit of semi-tolerance accorded to the Jews . . . a formidable à bas les Juifs is smouldering in every breast and will pour forth from every heart’, or to follow the spiteful attacks of his colleague, the scruffy, rodent-like Céline, the specialist in children’s diseases. Maurras himself was a short man, with a stutter and a neat goatee; his young activists, the Camelots du Roi, were thugs.
France, the two men agreed, had for too long been exploited and betrayed by internal enemies, in numbers they likened to a tidal wave. Their undoubted verbal brilliance lent their ideas a certain legitimacy. When, in May 1939, Edouard Daladier’s new government spoke of ‘ferreting out,
identifying and expelling’ the illegal foreigners, there were many happy to listen to him. A leading member of the radicals, Daladier had been moving steadily towards the right. Jewish immigration had reached ‘saturation point’. Ten thousand Jews should be sent ‘elsewhere’. In Belleville, the Liwerants and their Jewish neighbours lay low, hoping that such sentiments would pass, as they had done before. The declaration of war in September 1939 did not trouble them greatly, nor did the drôle de guerre, the phoney war, even if the Catholic writer Georges Bernanos observed, before emigrating to South America, that it really was not drôle at all, but mournful. Some 40,000 Jewish men had enlisted in the French army. In March, while the war seemed stalled, the government passed to a dapper barrister
with a keen interest in sports called Paul Reynaud.
Simon was 12 when the Maginot line, France’s impregnable barrier of cement and steel, was outflanked by the Panzers in May 1940. Within days, the German army was advancing on Paris, driving before it a wave of terrified citizens and defeated military recruits, while in Paris the government gathered in force in Notre-Dame to offer prayers for divine intervention. Sara had just given birth to her third child, a boy they called Jacques. Escape was not an option for her, but she persuaded Aaron to join the exodus south, the eight million people who fled from their homes before the German advance, to see for himself what possibilities existed for the family away from Paris. He was soon back, recounting how he had got as far as Orléans and that he had escaped attention from the military by putting his belongings in an abandoned pram and pretending that it contained a baby. For a while, as the German occupiers in Paris appeared to be behaving so correctly towards the country they had overrun, the Liwerants continued to feel safe, though they marvelled at the sight of the German women who arrived with the troops as secretaries and office workers, dressed like American airline hostesses, with their ‘lumpy athletic figures’. They had changed the ‘w’ in their name to a ‘v’, which they thought made it sound more French.