Christopher Nolan’s masterful film “Dunkirk”, tells the true story of how nearly 400,000 soldiers were rescued from the beaches of France during the early stages of World War II. This amazing story of daring, sacrifice and camaraderie is sure to inspire and evokes the gravity of World War II.
Dunkirk is a magnetic and incredible historic event, but also a crushing defeat for Britain and France. I started to wonder what this meant for the over 300,000 Jews of France now that the Nazis had taken over.
My history lesson
I was in grade school when I first learned about the evil of the Holocaust. As I got older, more nuances and perspectives shaped my understanding including the story of my wife’s grandmother’s harrowing escape from the Nazis after witnessing her entire town of Druya, Belarus –including her young children- massacred in the center of town. One of our daughters is named for that grandmother and our second is named for one of the daughters who perished.
For a long time, I was under the impression that The Holocaust took place mostly in Germany and Eastern Europe. Where did France fit into all of this?
Many people are unaware of the role the French played in the Holocaust.
Dunkirk and the Jews
By May of 1940, the Nazis had punched through France by way of Belgium and Holland and the French and British forces retreated to Dunkirk. It was there that from May 26th until June 4th the daring rescue dubbed “Operation Dynamo” took place. With the British army regrouping and France on its knees, the Nazi regime would soon capture most of Europe, bloat deeper into Russia and bleed into northern Africa. All the while, the Nazis carried out what they called “The Final Solution”.
Many people are not fully aware of the extent of the suffering the Jews of France experienced. They endured unimaginable atrocities during this time: the pinch of segregation, the sting of ostracization, the anguish of families torn apart and the hell of the camps. Survivors of France remember having to register as Jews at police stations, turn in their radios, submit to strict curfews, and wear yellow stars. At this point, some Jews went into hiding and would recount later that they felt berated by their French neighbors.
Eventually, French Jews were subject to raids and arrests. They were sent to work camps, internment camps and ultimately death camps. 77,000 (25% of the Jewish-French population) innocent Jews were trafficked and murdered by the Nazis with French aid.
Current French President, Emmanuel Macron recently recounted France’s role in the Holocaust this way:
“It was indeed France that organized the roundup, the deportation, and thus, for almost all, death”
Neo-Denial and responsibility-
Earlier this year, historical facts about the Holocaust were whitewashed by Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front party, when she said: “I think that France was not responsible for the Vél d’Hiv [roundup]…I think generally, and in very general terms indeed, if anyone is responsible, then it is those in power at the time, not France as such. It wasn’t France.”
We need to be aware of this new technique in denial where the aim is not to be full throated at all but to nibble away at the truth, revise history and distort fact.
This startling remark made by Le Pen, who was runner up in France’s presidential election is a departure from a recent history of France owning up to their responsibility dating back to 1995 when then President Jacques Chirac admitted: “These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions… Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state.”
I would be remiss in all this talk of rescue and responsibility during the Holocaust if I did not mention how the people of Denmark ferried all of their Jewish citizens to safety under the cover of night. It is a wonderful comparison to Dunkirk and a decided contrast from France.
Back to the Beaches
Dunkirk carries an inspirational message of camaraderie and hope where even everyday citizens helped their stranded sons. The British went away that day but they would return, storming back against the Nazis in places like Northern Africa where they scored a key defeat against Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps in the Battle of El Al Emain.
Britain would ultimately return to the beaches of France as well. The allied forces converged on Normandy, France and decisively defeated the Nazis there. This successful Allied landing led to the eventual knockout blow of the Nazi empire and then to the liberation from the camps, ending the holocaust and freeing the people they left behind four years before.