Thomas Wictor

Two French Jews I knew

Two French Jews I knew

Today on Twitter, I saw a tweet about French Jews.

Here’s part of the story.

FIve months after Paris terror attack targeting Jews, 25% more French Jews moved to Israel in early 2015 than in the same period in 2014

The number of French Jews who have made, or are making aliyah to Israel between January and August 2015, is 25% higher than that same period.

The number of immigrants from France rose from 4,000 in 2014 to 5,100 in same period in 2015. The numbers where submitted to Immigrant Absorption minister Ze’ev Elkin by the Heads of French Jewish organizations.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls understands what this means.

The massacre at a kosher supermarket in Paris on Friday reinforced a fear, expressed openly and with distressing frequency by many in France’s half-million-strong Jewish community, that Islamist violence is compelling large numbers of Jews to flee. Already, several thousand have left over the past few years. But it is not merely the physical safety of France’s Jews that is imperiled by anti-Semitic violence, the country’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, argues, but the very idea of the French Republic itself. In an interview conducted before the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres, Valls told me that if French Jews were to flee in large numbers, the soul of the French Republic would be at risk…

Valls, a Socialist who is the son of Spanish immigrants, describes the threat of a Jewish exodus from France this way: “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

I once knew two elderly French Jews. When I lived in San Francisco, an acquaintance was a man who was so handsome that women approached him on the street all the time. I’ll call him “Hal.” We’d gone to high school together; at the time he was an obsessive pyromaniac. Out in the woods, he threw a can of compressed isobutane gas into a campfire.

Those cans are for camping stoves. The resulting explosion was the size of a house. Hal giggled about it for a month, not concerned that he’d almost killed us. He also gave me lifelong tinnitus from that stunt: He hadn’t told me he was going to do it.

Hal grew into a clone of the young Gary Cooper.

One of the women who approached him in a coffee shop was an Israeli working for an American firm. I’ll call her “Rachel.” She was ten years older but stunning. After a few months Hal converted to Judaism, and he and Rachel got married in Israel. He invited me to his house in San Francisco when his in-laws visited for the first time.

Since Hal’s wife was ten years older, her parents were in their seventies. Both were youthful and full of life. I’ll call them “Daniel” and “Marie.” They had moved to Israel from France; their native language was French.

As he fired up the grill, Hal said to me, “You’re a history buff. You should ask my parents-in-law about what they did in World War II and then in Israel.”

“They don’t mind talking about it?” I asked.

“No. They’re really proud.”

So over dinner, when there was a lull in the conversation, I said to the in-laws, “Hal told me to ask you about what you did in World War II and afterward in Israel.”

They both looked at Hal, and his father-in-law punched him in the shoulder.

“We’re not performing monkeys, you know!” Daniel said. “You just like to show us off!”

“Of course I do!” said Hal.

“Well,” Daniel said to me, “in France we were in the Resistance. When the Germans defeated the French army, we knew that they’d come after the Jews, so we went out into the Retz Forest. After a few months, we came across other French people who hadn’t surrendered, and they told us that the British and Americans were training them to be saboteurs. So we became saboteurs.”

“Both of you?” I asked.

“Why not?” said Marie. “I could already hunt. They taught us how to blow up railroads and weapons depots, and then we joined the Jewish Army. A lot of us helped Jews escape to Spain, but Daniel and I wanted to kill Nazis, so we fought.”

I didn’t know what to say. They were both white-haired, elderly French people who liked to laugh and drink wine.

“Marie killed at least 150 Nazis,” Daniel said. “She notched her rifle, one notch for each Kraut.”

“You’re exaggerating,” Marie said, patting his forearm. “It was 120 Nazis.”

I sat there and listened as they told me about attacks on German trains, barracks, brothels… They sniped sentries, knifed drunk soldiers and dumped them in the sewer, spied, provided intelligence to the Allies, and prepared for liberation.

“Did the Americans really drop you thousands of one-shot .45-caliber pistols?” I asked.

They both did that shrugging French-face thing.


“No,” Daniel said. “They gave us rifles and machine guns, and then we took weapons from all the Germans we killed.”

After the war, they emigrated to Mandatory Palestine. They fought for Israel in 1948, 1956, and 1967.

“Then we were too old,” Daniel said. “Besides, we were tired of war. We just wanted to raise our children and not have to kill anybody anymore.”

“And now we want more grandchildren!” Marie said to Hal and Rachel. “Seven isn’t enough!”

What I found amazing about them is that they didn’t seem scarred at all. There was no guilt or ambivalence. Being in the French Resistance and then the Israeli Defense Forces was simply what they had to do. There were no histrionics about how terrible it was. They were fighting for their lives against people who wanted to exterminate them. So they had no regrets.

Although Jews were 1 percent of the French population in World War II, they constituted as much as 20 percent of the Resistance fighters. Where would France be today if all the Jews had left in 1939?