This Day in Jewish History

1957: City of Paris Honors a Rabbi and Resistance Fighter

David Feuerwerker produced false papers for underground members, served as chief rabbi of Lyon and played a pivotal role in Montreal’s Jewish community.

Veterans and former deportees display flags at a ceremony to remember victims of racism and antisemitism committed by the French state during World War II, in Paris, Sunday, July 18, 2004.
AP

On December 14, 1957, Rabbi David Feuerwerker, congregational rabbi, professor of history, the first head chaplain of the French navy, and member during World War II of the French Resistance organization Combat, was awarded the Gold Medal of the City of Paris.

David Feuerwerker was born on October 2, 1912, in Geneva, Switzerland. He was the seventh among the 11 children born to Jacob Feuerwerker, a native of Sighet, Hungary (today in Romania), and the former Regina Neufeld, from Laukenbach, in what is today Austria.

David attended Talmud Torah in Geneva, and completed his baccalaureate (high school degree) in 1932, before entering the French Rabbinical Seminary. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1937, the same year he entered the French army, which he served as a communications specialist and chaplain up until the summer of 1940.

When Feuerwerker married Antoinette Gluck, an Antwerp-born jurist, in November 1939, he was stationed along the Maginot Line, near France’s eastern border. He received special permission to return to Paris for the ceremony.

The following June, the young couple moved to Brive-la-Gaillarde, in south-central France, where David became the rabbi of three departments (administrative regions).

Both he and Antoinette became active in Combat, one of the large movements in the French Resistance. Many of the Jews in the area were refugees from Alsace, which was under German occupation, and from other parts of Europe, and Feuerwerker was involved in trying to find new homes for them, with many ending up in Cuba. He also had responsibility for producing false papers for other underground members, which helped them avoid detection by the Gestapo.

Feuerwerker himself was identified by the Gestapo in the final stage of the war. Notified of his impending arrest, he was convinced by his wife to escape to his native Switzerland. There he was put under arrest, but was otherwise safe; Antoinette in the meantime went into hiding in a convent with their newborn baby daughter.

Returning to France after the war’s end, Feuerwerker became chief rabbi of Lyon, a city that had suffered under the German occupation, which was led by the notorious Klaus Barbie. The following year, he took an appointment as rabbi of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a neighborhood near Paris. It was during that period that Antoinette was given responsibility for holding the money that was to be used for purchasing the vessel that became the refugee ship “Exodus.” Not wanting to endanger her husband, she kept the money, which was in the form of gold ingots, under a mattress in their home, but without his knowledge.

Feuerwerker was a clearly ambitious and industrious man. In 1947, he moved to Paris, where he became rabbi of the city’s number-two synagogue, in the rue de Tournelles, in the heavily Jewish Marais district. He played an important role in developing the system of Jewish education, both in Paris and nationally; he opened a study circle, an open forum for discussion of Jewish and other subjects; he became the first chief chaplain of the French Navy, and worked as a hospital and prison chaplain as well. In 1961, he completed his Ph.D. in Jewish history at the Sorbonne. His dissertation, about the emancipation of France’s Jews, was later published as a book, and is still considered an important work on the topic.

Feuerwerker’s candidacy to be chief rabbi of Paris, however, in 1955, was not successful.

In 1966, he and his family moved to Montreal, Canada, where he founded the Jewish studies department at the francophone University of Montreal, and taught history and sociology there. At the same time, he was a judge on the city’s rabbinical court, and a member of the Jewish Community Council (Va’ad Ha’ir).

According to the website of the Museum of Jewish Montreal, Feuerwerker, as a French-speaking Ashkenazi Jew, played a role as liaison of the city’s Ashkenazi and Sephardi populations, and also between Montreal’s Jewish community and it French majority.

Rabbi David Feuerwanger died in Montreal on June 20, 1980. He was buried in Jerusalem, as was his wife Antoinette, who moved to Israel in 2000, and died there in 2003.