Student Dispatch from France: Resistance

May 26, 2010

University Park, Pa. — In early May, nine Penn State students traveled to Paris to participate in a week-long study tour led by Willa Z. Silverman, professor of French and Jewish studies, on "France and the Holocaust." This embedded course, designed primarily for students in Silverman's Spring 2010 residential course on "France and the Holocaust in Film and Literature," encouraged students to prolong and intensify their study of this topic through both meetings with camp survivors, historians, "hidden children" and Resistance members, and visits to the sites of the Holocaust in France, including memorials and a concentration camp. "In the end," reflected Silverman, "I hope that this trip will incite students to engage broader aesthetic, historical and ethical questions that concern each of us, such as the challenges of representing catastrophe, the dangers of intolerance, the duty to remember and the necessity of pursuing justice."

While the broad goal of the many organized Resistance movements and networks that formed in France from the fall of 1940 onwards was to combat both the German occupation of France and the policies of the collaborationist Vichy regime, certain Jewish Resistance networks prioritized alerting the Jewish population in France to impending roundups and urged resistance towards anti-Semitic policies such as the infamous Vichy "Jewish Statutes" of October 1940. The history and memory of the French Resistance in relation to the Holocaust is complex. Members of Jewish Resistance networks in France often feel it is important that the record of their actions help correct a dominant impression of 'passivity' among Jewish victims of the Holocaust. In addition, thousands of Resistance members were interned and perished in camps within and outside of France. Yet their history has at some times remained distinct from – and at others been closely associated with – that of other categories of victims of both the Nazi and the Vichy regimes. In today's dispatch, student Jillian Zankowski describes a memorable encounter with two former Resistance members.

By Jillian Zankowski

On the morning of May 12, our group headed to a veterans hall in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Ouen. There, we met with Georges Abbachi and Max Weinstein, who belonged to the organized Resistance movement within France during the Second World War. We learned about the different motivations men and women had for joining the Resistance. Both these men came from working-class families drawn to the French Communist Party, which was banned by the Vichy government.

Georges Abbachi was involved with the student Resistance groups that formed immediately after the French defeat. He was a boyhood friend of Guy Môquet, a legendary Resistance hero executed along with fellow Resistants by a Nazi firing squad at the camp of Châteaubriant, when he was 17. Before his execution, Môquet wrote a now-famous letter to his family, exhorting those left behind to "be worthy of us, the 27 of us who are going to die."

Max Weinstein, the son of Polish immigrants to France, joined a Jewish immigrant Resistance network when he was 16, in part to alert Jews in France to the anti-Semitic policies of both the Nazi and Vichy regimes, including the preparation of roundups that often preceded deportation. For both men, regaining France's freedom by resisting both the German occupation and the Vichy government was a vital goal.

According to Mr. Abbachi and Mr. Weinstein, in part because of the circumstances in France following the First World War, which resulted in extremely heavy casualties for France, and in part because of the rapidity of the German invasion of France in 1940, certain sectors of French society and the political class had a defeatist attitude when Germany invaded. However, many throughout the country refused to accept foreign occupation, the material hardships this entailed and the discriminatory policies of both the Nazi and the Vichy regimes.

Throughout the country, Resistance movements of many varieties formed. However, all their actions had to be accomplished clandestinely. As our group learned, when Resistance members could obtain paper and ink from the authorities (often by submitting requests that appeared "official" because of the Resistance’s use of false "government" seals), pamphlets, leaflets and newspapers were printed to inform the French and encourage them to resist. The distribution of these printed materials was incredibly dangerous. In fact, in July 1941 Mr. Abbachi was arrested for doing just that when one of his colleagues was found with a list of his comrades, including Mr. Abbachi. After three-and-a-half years in prison and internment camps in France, in February 1944 Mr. Abbachi was brought in handcuffs to the Ile de Ré off the Atlantic coast to help the Nazi command fortify the Atlantic Wall in case of an Allied invasion. He and his fellow captured Resistance fighters were slated to be deported to a death camp (in a train that was subsequently exploded by Resistance members) when France was liberated, and Mr. Abbachi as well in an exchange of prisoners.

Resistance, as our group learned during the course of the week, could take many other forms, organized and not. For example, Max Weinstein and his family refused to wear the yellow star that was obligatory for Jews in France. Those who rescued some of the three quarters of Jews in France who survived the war --- whether their actions were motivated by their faith, their secular ideology (a belief in the French Republican credo of human rights, for example), or any other factor -- also resisted laws they considered unjust, at very great risk. It was important for our group to learn from Georges Abbachi and Max Weinstein that even in dire circumstances individuals often have the freedom, if a limited one, to make choices about their actions, and that these individual actions, and the consciousness of the responsibility that accompanies them, can have a tremendous impact for generations to come.

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To read additional student dispatches from the "France and the Holocaust" study tour, click here; to see sets of photos from the tour, click here

  • Penn State students and Professor Willa Silverman with Resistance members Georges Abbachi and Max Weinstein. Click on the above image for more Dispatch photos

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated November 18, 2010