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3 Notre Vie en Commune: The Family versus the Children’s Home

Daniella Doron Indiana University Press ePub

AT A 1946 CHILD WELFARE CONFERENCE, Dr. Joseph Weill of the French Jewish Oeuvre de secours aux enfants (Children’s Relief Agency, OSE) reflected on the new demands of postwar child welfare work. Five years of total war and genocide had taken a severe toll on French Jewish society—thousands of orphaned youth, single-family households, and parents grappling with emotional turmoil and economic woes. Responding to this unprecedented situation, Weill called for an equivalent expansion of child welfare work. Rather than just providing roofs over children’s heads, social workers must take on “a new task of replacing these children’s families.”1 Weill’s call for constructing ersatz families, his urging of an overhaul of the child welfare system, and his portrayal of a French Jewry deeply shattered and disrupted speak volumes about how postwar French Jews perceived the task of reconstructing their devastated community.

The immediate postwar period represented a moment of mourning and rebuilding for many Jews in France. With a third of French Jewry dead, the communal infrastructure nearly crippled, and survivors in acute emotional and economic disarray, French Jewry faced a turning point. Jewish communal activists, as they assessed the lay of the land, feared that the Holocaust posed troubling consequences for the Jewish family in the short run and Jewish civilization in the long run. Child welfare workers harbored grave misgivings about how postwar children, robbed of their families and a stable childhood, would emerge from this topsy-turvy world as emotionally intact and Jewish communally engaged adults. They feared that the destructive effect of the Holocaust could linger for generations.

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1 “Their Children? Our Children!” Holocaust Memory in Postwar France

Daniella Doron Indiana University Press ePub

IN 1946 THE FRENCH JEWISH child welfare organization La Colonie scolaire (the School Colony) launched a fund-raising drive to fill its rapidly depleting coffers. Appealing to French Jewry’s noblesse, the organization suggested that “no monument” could better “perpetuate” the memory of the dead than homes for the living. In exchange for a few hundred francs, La Colonie scolaire promised to engrave an orphan’s bed with the name of the contributor’s “dearly departed.”1

By transforming children into living memorials, the La Colonie scolaire metaphorically linked the tangible bodies of Jewish orphans to the intangible memory of the recent dead. The Bundist Jewish child welfare agency was not alone in maintaining that living Jewish children functioned as compelling symbols of survival and loss. This fund-raising strategy exemplified a larger trend emerging in postwar France as Jews began processing their recent memories of death and destruction. Jewish agencies and individuals repeatedly called attention to the issue of Jewish youth permanently lost to genocide and possibly lost to Christianity. Perhaps most dramatically, Jewish organizations and relatives desperately scoured the cities and the countryside of France for the eight thousand to ten thousand Jewish children who had been hidden from the Nazis, proclaiming that their estrangement from the Jewish community represented Nazi genocide by another means. French Jewish activists invoked the murder of the eleven thousand young Jews in their rabbinical sermons and radio broadcasts; the Jewish press made the wartime massacre of Jewish youth a central subject of reporting; French Jewish agencies staged public art shows visualizing the suffering endured by Jewish youth; and just months after the war, diverse Jewish organizations attempted to launch a united nationwide campaign depicting the “martyrdom” of their children.

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2 “A Drama of Faith and Family”: Custody Disputes in Postwar France

Daniella Doron Indiana University Press ePub

THE FINALY AFFAIR ILLUSTRATES how the campaign of locating orphaned and displaced Jewish children ignited a firestorm in postwar France concerning the memory and meaning of the persecutions. Observers compared the Finaly boys’ kidnapping to Spain and baptism into the Catholic faith—all in the effort to “protect” them from Judaism—to German attempts to erase Jewish life in Europe. As the previous chapter demonstrated, the imperative of redeeming surviving Jewish youth for the Jewish community resonated for postwar Jews as a way to commemorate the dead and work through the past.

But haunting memories of genocide were not the only factor fueling the controversy over postwar youth. In the cities and villages of France, heated custody disputes emerged between French families, the state, Jewish agencies, and Jewish relatives over the guardianship of these orphaned Jewish children. The Finaly Affair and the other custody disputes explored in this chapter were sparked not only by raw memories, but also by competing visions of French national identity and the future of the nation in the shadow of Vichy. Within their own families and on a national stage, Jews and non-Jews widely debated their conceptions of family, Jewish ethnicity, and French nationhood as part of their attempt to reconstitute their vision of France at the Liberation and rehabilitate orphaned children.

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5 From Competition to Cooperation: Redefining Jewish Identities

Daniella Doron Indiana University Press ePub

TWO YEARS AFTER THE LIBERATION, Claude Kelman, of the immigrant agency the Fédération des sociétés juives de France (Federation of Jewish Societies of France, FSJF), began to take stock of the divisive and debilitating strife that characterized postwar Jewish education and child welfare work. Aggravated by the chaotic state of affairs, Kelman proclaimed at the 1947 FSJF conference: “In the name of what principle do political groups assume they have the right to rule on matters relating to children’s souls? The souls of our children must not be the fields of battle for partisan struggles” (emphasis in the original).1

Battling over souls among Jewish organizations marked a shift from the ostensible fight to save souls from non-Jews at the war’s end. The early to mid-1950s represented a turning point in the development of French Jewish reconstruction. It took a decade for Jewish communal leaders to inch away from strife to stability, from urgent relief and rehabilitation to a new period of community building. Rather than focusing on emergency aid, the attention of the French Jewish establishment turned to constructing long-term cultural programs intended to instil an enduring sense of Jewish identity among Jewish youth. Youth programs—sleep-away camps, Jewish Community Centers, dormitories, and scouting movements—reflected this shift toward stability and community building.

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4 The Homes of Hope? Trauma, Universal Victimhood, and Universalism

Daniella Doron Indiana University Press ePub

AS ERNST JOUHY (JABLONSKI), orphanage director of Écouis, sat down for dinner one night in 1945 with the teenage concentration camp survivors under his care, he became the target of a veritable dining room rebellion.1 Smelling the distinctively pungent odor emanating from the Camembert obtained—with much difficulty—for dessert, the boys threw the cheese at the adults, accusing Jouhy of pawning off rotten food on them.2 As former “Buchenwald Boy” Jacques recalled, the world-weary teenagers suspected the stench indicated the cheese had been poisoned.3 According to survivor Ronnie Weisman’s version of events, his comrades felt they had not survived the horrors of concentration camps only to be served rotting cheese.4

The great Camembert revolt figures in several memoirs, postwar psychological scholarship, and child welfare institutional files.5 Why did it capture the memory and imagination of so many child welfare experts and former orphans who either witnessed or heard accounts of the incident? In part, the collective memory of the Camembert story must be contextualized in terms of immediate postwar anxieties pertaining to orphaned children and, by extension, the very future of French Jewry. As explored in chapter 1, different sectors of the French Jewish and non-Jewish public instrumentalized the arrival of the Buchenwald Boys to articulate varying visions of French national identity. As this chapter will demonstrate, their lives and therapy in France continued to assume rhetorical importance to experts occupied with their education and therapy. As the Camembert incident reveals, it appeared evident to the adults charged with the boys’ safety that the “war against Jewish children” had irreparably damaged the psyches of Hitler’s youngest victims. Not only did they fear that their protectors had tried to poison them with an iconic symbol of France, they were also adolescents who displayed a lack of decorum. Jouhy, a prime target of the cheese missiles, attributed the incident to the youth’s distrust of humanity and all authority figures, indeed exemplified a loss of trust that constituted “one of the greatest crimes of Hitlerism.”6

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