Seventy Five years ago, on 26 August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle walked triumphantly down the Champs-Elysées, engulfed by a sea of jubilant Parisians.
The capital had been liberated from the Nazi oppressor, but France was yet to be free. The road from D-Day in June 1944 had been long and tortuous.
The original plan had been to establish a foothold, expand it into a bridgehead and then break out in a headlong rush to take Paris.
Hitler possessed 58 divisions in Western Europe including 10 feared Panzer divisions. Other pro-German units such as the Indian Legion of Subhas Chandra Bose were on standby to defend Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall”.
However, the Allied failure to immediately take Caen meant that the breakout took nearly two months. While we remember today all those who courageously fought their way from the sand dunes of Normandy to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris during the summer of 1944, the invasion could easily have ended differently — it could have resulted in a second Dunkirk.
Ever since 1940, the Germans had expected such an attack, but they were misled in 1944 by the double agent “Garbo”, the Spaniard, Juan Pujol Garcia, who hated both Franco and Stalin.
He was joined by a multitude of the persecuted, now fighting in the Allied forces including thousands of Jews determined to cleanse Europe of the Nazi virus.
Among the British forces were those who went under very English names — Brown, Taylor, Selby, Bryant, Gordon — all German Jewish refugees who had been forced to leave and subsequently volunteered to fight, wearing the uniform of the British soldier. Walter Bingham (Wolfgang Billig) drove an ambulance on D-Day.
Nazi propaganda had depicted any invasion as the work of the Jews. The June 1944 issue of Front und Heimat, the paper of the German soldier, had quoted British Chief Rabbi Hertz that “England’s fight is the fight of the Jews”. It was accompanied by a cartoon of a hook-nosed Jew, sporting an outsized star of David, pushing a British sergeant off a cliff, labelled “Invasion”.
Some British Jews had fought from El Alamein to Sicily to the Normandy beaches. Private R Abrahams of the East Yorkshire regiment had made that long journey, only to be killed a fortnight after D-Day. Second Lieutenant Bernard Catsell of Maidenhead, an activist in Jewish defence organisations before the war, was killed at the age of 26. Major James D’Avigdor Goldsmid, scion of a well-known communal family, won the military cross for bravery on D-Day — and became a Conservative MP in the 1970s. Private H Newman from Manchester reported that he spent his time reading that week’s JC on D-Day.
The senior Jewish chaplain to British Forces on D-Day, Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, embellished his tallit with an Italian colonel’s silk scarf, picked up during the Western Desert campaign. He was a striking figure who organised Shabbat services for the thousands of Jews who were fighting. Staff Sergeant L Graham of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers was particularly moved to see a young woman, dressed in khaki, standing next to Rabinowitz, lighting candles to welcome in Shabbat, amidst hundreds of Jewish soldiers.
Writing home, he commented: “I have not as yet seen anything like the fervour and profundity of emotion that permeated the atmosphere… for who of us there that night could be certain that we would be able to attend another service next week?”
As British troops advanced, Rabinowitz commemorated Jewish holidays. On Yom Kippur, he recited el malei rahamim and read out the names of all those Jews who had fallen since the Normandy landings.
Jewish courage and the stubborn will to resist was evoked through the recalling of the long march of previous generations. Rabinowitz, later a supporter of Menahem Begin’s Irgun, believed passionately in the need for a Jewish army — an idea which gained more meaning for him during the slow advance towards Paris.
Rabinowitz spoke disparagingly of fighting as “anonymous individuals” in British units. As a witness to the inhumanity of war and the inherent racism of the Nazis, this experience propelled him to vehemently condemn apartheid from the pulpit as chief rabbi in South Africa after 1945.
Hitler had banked on his new weapon, the V-1 rocket, reversing German fortunes. The first missile was fired a week after the D-Day landings and within a short period nearly 2,000 British civilians had been killed.
Yet Hitler was deaf to the pleas of his generals to fire the V-1s instead at British ports servicing the invasion. Count von Stauffenberg’s failed attempt to kill Hitler in East Prussia in July 1944 increased his paranoia and deepened his suspicion of the military.
For oppressed Jews, France had previously been the land to which their heads were turned. It was where the Declaration of the Rights of Man had been proclaimed. Both Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky admired the French revolutionaries of 1789 who had emancipated the Jews and established a new fairer society. The Marsellaise had even been sung in Hebrew by French Jews as the revolutionary armies marched off to defend the first republic against the military forces of great empires, intent on destroying it.
The rise of right wing nationalism and antisemitism in 19th century France had changed all that. Léon Blum, who had led the socialist Popular Front government in May 1936, was described as “a subtle Talmudist”.
As it became self-evident that Allied forces could not be pushed back, home grown supporters of the Vichy regime targeted Jews — both French and foreign. Indeed, more than 75,000 French Jews were “deported to the East” during the Second World War — 97 per cent did not return.
The late Paul Webster, a long time Guardian correspondent in Paris, described French complicity during the occupation as “a relentless bureaucratic process that isolated and ground down Jews into a form of detritus before being handed over to the Germans”.
It was the Vichy paramilitary organisation, the Milice, which vented its fury against French Jews as the regime collapsed — and especially against the disproportionate number of Jews in the Resistance. Five hundred Jews were deported in the last transportation from the transit site at Drancy on 31 July 1944.
SS Captain Alois Brunner was sent to France in June 1943 to ensure that transportations from Paris were efficient and its passengers calm and reassured. Up to 2,000 Jews left Drancy each day. Up until ten days before Free French forces entered Paris, Brunner studiously continued to deport as many Jews as possible. He was disappointed when the Wehrmacht counteracted his demands amidst a deteriorating situation.
In 1989, France demanded his extradition from Syria, but Hafez Assad prevaricated and Brunner presumably died in the comfort of his Damascus bed a decade or more ago.
Two Jewish former ministers, Georges Mandel and Jean Zay, were killed by the Milice as the Allies fought their way to Paris. In 1940 they had been passengers on the Massilia, a ship carrying politicians opposed to an armistice with Germany and intent on forming a government-in-exile in north Africa. They were duly returned to France, tried and incarcerated for the duration of the war.
Mandel, born Louis-Georges Rothschild, had constantly opposed capitulation — he was detested by Pétain and lauded by Churchill. He was executed by the Milice in the Forest of Fontainebleu on 7 July 1944. His fate was to have been a prelude to the killing of past prime ministers, Léon Blum and Paul Reynaud. This did not happen, but Zay was less fortunate; he had been shot two weeks before.
Sir Edward Spears, Churchill’s personal representative to the French prime minister during the dark days of 1940, implored Mandel to leave for Britain along with De Gaulle. He refused and reputedly told Spears: “You fear for me because I am Jewish. Well, it is precisely because I am Jewish that I will not leave tomorrow — it would suggest that I am afraid and I am running away.”
De Gaulle commented in his memoirs that “Deliberation is the work of many men. Action — of one alone.”
Many Jews in the armed forces understood that sentiment very well in the summer of 1944. It is a legacy succeeding generations should embrace with a determined passion.
Jewish Chronicle 22 August 2019