Faced with persecution The Destruction of the Jews of Lens, 1940-1945 Publication date : September 9, 2010
Nicolas Mariot and Claire Zalc are historians and research fellows at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
The ambition of this book is to renew the history of the Holocaust, by taking the point of view of the victims instead of their persecutors. There have, of course, been many memoirs and testimonials, written by survivors, and now we have a spate of partially fictionalised accounts, such Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, in which the author undertakes a meticulous search for the lost traces of his family members who were killed by the Nazis. As historians, Nicolas Mariot and Claire Zalc have chosen to widen Mendelsohn’s quest, so as to include an entire community: they have painstakingly followed the trail of 991 Jews from Lens, in northern France, from 1940 to 1945.
By placing themselves among the victims, the authors are able to study each phase in the process of anti-Semitic discrimination in France: identification, aryanisation, arrest, deportation. Each phase leads them to ask the same question: What to do? Declare that one is Jewish or keep quiet? Stay or leave? Go where? Obey the law or go underground?
The book is backed by an amazing amount of archival research. The authors delved into countless dossiers and letters of declaration, census files, surveillance reports, letters addressed to various administrative departments, aryanisation files, lists of convoys, naturalisation files, as well as the collections of the International Tracing Service and Swiss archives on Jewish refugees.
Lens, with a Jewish community numbering 350 families, provided all the prerequisites for a study of this nature. The active members of the forces of discrimination all played their part: the German authorities, the French police and functionaries. And their violence against Lens’s Jewish population was particularly severe: half of Lens’s Jews were deported (compared to about 25% in France as a whole). The authors stray outside the northern mining region as they trace the fates of those who left (or were deported): some to the occupied zones, some to the unoccupied areas, others to Switzerland, and others to the Belgian internment camp, in Malines, and then to the death camps.
• The history of the Holocaust in France, seen from an entirely new angle. This book does not simply describe the numerous possible attitudes: it aims to explain them.
• Day by day, family by family, the interlocking fates of the 991 Jews of Lens are minutely described, as well as the range of victims’ responses, as they are forced to choose between declaration and silence, light and dark, being arrested or going underground. This book offers a perfect synthesis of History with a capital “H” and the lives of individuals.