September 5, 1941

This Day in Jewish History / France Recruits 'Science’ to Help 'Spot the Jew’

The ‘Jew and France’ exhibit had one major snag: While purporting to highlight unique 'Jewish features,’ it claimed they were insidiously 'passing’ as Frenchmen.

Wikimedia Commons

On September 5, 1941, the exhibition “La Juif et la France” (The Jew and France) opened to the Parisian public. The pseudoscientific show, which took up two floors at the Palais Berlitz, was meant to educate the French about the nature of the enemy among them, in anticipation of the disappearance of that enemy from France and Europe in general.

Northern France, including Paris, had been occupied by the Germans for more than a year, since June 1940. Southern and eastern France remained technically unoccupied, but was ruled by the collaborationist Vichy regime.

In both regions, statutes and decrees were implemented that had the effect of removing the Jews from public life, confiscating their property and interning the more than half of the 350,000 of them who were foreign aliens. Deportations to the east began in 1942.

“The Jew and France” exhibition can be seen as preparing the ground for those deportations.

Officially, it was organized by the Institute for the Study of Jewish Affairs, a local body, but the initiative for the show came from Berlin, just as the institute itself was controlled by the Gestapo.

‘French? No!! Jew!’

The show was promoted by newsreels screened in the days before its opening, and by posters depicting a bird of prey with a Star of David around its neck poised over a body, with a text that read, “Frenchmen, help!” Loudspeakers on the boulevards between the Opera and the Place de la Republique urged pedestrians to visit the show. As they entered the Palais Berlitz ­– so called because it held a branch of the Berlitz language school – visitors were handed a leaflet explaining that they were about to become informed about “the whole extent of the peril posed by Jews for [their] country and for the world.”

As French historian Raymond Bach has pointed out, the paradox of the exhibition – which included plaster casts, as well as measurement charts, of “Jewish” noses, eyes, ears and lips, and posters of Jewish politicians Léon Blum and Pierre Mendès-France (printed on the latter were the words “French? No!! Jew!’”) – is that it purveyed two contradictory messages. On the one hand, it purported to tell viewers how they could identify Jews, who, having successfully infiltrated French society, posed an invisible menace. On the other hand, a large part of the show was devoted to describing the supposedly characteristic physiognomy of the Jew, which, according to a French newsreel, was “the result of interbreeding between Aryans, Mongols and Negroes that occurred several thousand years ago,” with the result that, today, “the Jew’s face, body, bearing and gestures are peculiar to him.”

As historian Alice Conklin noted in her book “In the Museum of Man,” “The point of the exhibit, of course, was to create (or reinforce) in the public mind the stereotypical Jew who needed to be eliminated, not to identify ‘real’ ones. The Paris Préfecture de Police had already taken care of this, since its files contained the names and addresses of some 200,000 Jews in February 1941.”

“The Jew and France” was open through the first half of January 1942, during which time it drew some 276,000 guests, most of whom paid three francs (equivalent to about one euro today) for the experience. They included not a small number of Jews, reported Israeli historian Renée Poznanski, who doubtless were trying to understand what was happening to their society.

One indication of the answer came a month into the exhibition. On the night between October 2 and 3, following Yom Kippur, seven Paris synagogues were hit by bomb attacks and sustained significant physical damage. By the end of World War II, of the estimated prewar population of 350,000 Jews, about 77,000 were dead.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen