Category Archives: To be Jewish in Vichy

The Algeria Hôtel

From 1940, the French government implemented anti-Semite policies aimed at reducing Jewish influences in French society. These included revoking naturalisations, the abolition of the Marchandeau Decree, the first Jewish Statute and the abolition of the Crémieu Decree.

In March 1941, at the request of the Germans, the Vichy government created the Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs. The Algeria Hôtel was allocated as its headquarters. On 2 June 1941, the Commissariat ratified its second Jewish Statute, further specifying the definition of “Jew,” lengthening the list of professions Jews were prohibited to exercise and ordering a census of Jews living in the Unoccupied Zone. The individual files created by the Commissariat’s censuses enabled the roundups of Jews in 1942 and facilitated their deportation to the Nazi death camps. Economic Aryanisation was another aspect of the Commissariat’s activities.

Xavier Vallat was head of the Commissariat until May 1942. Monsieur Maingonat, owner of the Algeria Hôtel and on very friendly terms with Vallat, remembered him as an “extremely nice man,” always ready to help: “If we needed anything at all, we went to see him. (…) He never hesitated a second, no matter what we asked for.”*

Maingonat’s account shouldn’t be taken as representing the attitude of other hoteliers towards members of the government living on their premises. But it does show the extent to which daily interaction between the population and the government and the kindness of certain ministers towards the people of Vichy helped humanise the government’s image for some of the local population.

From May 1942 to February 1944, the Commissariat was directed by Louis Darquier de Pellepoix. In February 1944, Charles Mercier du Paty de Clam took over. He was succeeded by Joseph Antignac in May.

* A. Nossiter, The Algeria Hotel, p.189.

Roger Kespy’s house and workshop

Roger Kespy was born to a Jewish family in Algiers in 1908. He moved to Paris in the middle of the 1920s and then to Vichy in 1935. As a radio set manufacturer, he owned a workshop on 25 rue Durand, where he lived with his family.

Kespy enrolled in the Resistance as early as 1940. He made portable radios and salvaged arms that had been abandoned by the French Army and which he hided in a safe place in both Vichy and Cusset. In 1942, after joining the Armée secrète, he organized and guided a maquis in the Bois Noirs, located around 100 kilometers from Vichy. In 1943, his maquis was integrated into the Mouvements Unis de Résistance and Kespy became the leader of a local action group.

He was arrested by the Milice on January 24, 1944 in Lapalisse and was handed over to the Germans. After spending seventy days in the hands of Vichy’s Gestapo, he was transferred to the “Mal-Coiffée”, the German military prison of Moulins. Being both Jewish and a Resistant, the guards did not spare him from any physical suffering whatsoever. After several days, he was reduced to no more than “human rags.” Yvette Monceau, held in the same prison, explained that he was “so horribly treated that the bones in his legs were showing.” Each time he lost consciousness, he would be taken out of the room and left in the vestibule. After questioning another prisoner, the Germans “[went back] to the miserable Kespy who, undressed and chest exposed, straddling a chair, was called a ‘dirty Jew’ [and was] hit again with anything they could get their hands on until he once again lost consciousness.” *

Kespy would be finally executed on July 25, 1944 in the forest of Marcenat.

A commemorative plaque was placed on his home/workshop one year after his death. In 1944, a square was named in his honor (“Place Jean Epinat”).

* Yvonne Henri Monceau, Une prison militaire allemande à Moulins. La Mal Coiffée, p. 53.

The Ecole Carnot (now the Ecole Sévigné Lafaye)

On 2 June 1941, the Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs (housed in the Algeria Hôtel) adopted the second Statute on Jews.* This decree specified the definition of “Jew,” lengthened the list of professions Jews were prohibited to exercise and ordered a census of the Jews living in the Unoccupied Zone. In Vichy, this census was carried out at the Ecole Carnot. 2,050 Jews were identified. Xavier Vallat, head of the Commissariat, considered this number too high and all “undesirable” Jews were pursued and expelled from the town. The methods the government employed were effective because in 1943 there were only 650 Jews in Vichy (595 of whom were French). At the end of the war, only a handful remained.   

When the 1941 census was carried out, Fernand Lafaye was a teacher at the Ecole Carnot. Disagreeing strongly with French government policies, he applied for early retirement and joined the Resistance. Initially, Lafaye helped in the transport of weapons and established contacts between several resistance groups. At the end of 1943, he joined his daughter Anne-Marie and his son-in-law Max Menut in the Auvergne maquis. Aged 57, he was one of the eldest members of this resistance group. He took charge of their radio broadcasts then in May 1944 joined the health service of the Mont-Mouchet maquis. Shortly afterwards he was caught in an ambush and died.

In 1944, the Ecole Carnot was renamed the Ecole Fernand Lafaye. In 1972, after renovation work, the Ecole Fernand Lafaye (a boys’ school) and the Ecole Sévigné (a girls’ school) merged to become the Ecole Sévigné-Lafaye.

* The first Jewish Statute was decreed on 3 October 1940 (see the Algeria Hôtel for more information)

The Synagogue

In the spring of 1940, as German forces advanced across Western Europe, and more specifically into France, several hundred thousand men, women and children, including numerous Jews, fled south. Some of them stopped in Vichy, where the provisional establishment of the Jewish Consistory of the Bas-Rhin helped make the town an attractive destination for Jewish refugees from northeast France. More than 220 families affiliated themselves to the Vichy synagogue.

The constitutional upheaval caused by the law passed on 10 July 1940 did not particularly worry the Jews. On the contrary, many were glad to see Marshal Pétain as head of the government. But in Vichy they were soon cruelly disillusioned. More than 3,000 foreign Jews were expelled from the town from August to October 1940. A few months later, French Jews were also hunted down and expelled. According to Xavier Vallat, the regime’s commissioner for Jewish Affairs, their “mere presence” in the new French capital was “annoying in itself.”*

Police raids of hotels, apartments and rooms became increasingly frequent. The number of Jews in Vichy fell by 70 % from 1941 to 1943. From one day to another, these Jews lost their home, employment and support network of family and friends. Isolated and vulnerable, they became easy prey for the French Milice and the Gestapo.

The population’s response to the government’s anti-Semite measures was different all over France. At the beginning of the war, several anti-Semite incidents were reported in Vichy. Yet as the regime’s stranglehold on the Jews tightened, a wave of solidarity developed locally. Several Jewish refugees in Vichy were saved with help from the local population.

* Letter from Xavier Vallat to Henry Chavin (20 May 1941). Cited in M. Marrus and R. Paxton, Vichy et les Juifs, p. 157.