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Book of the week: The Survival of the Jews in France - 1940-44, Jacques Semeli

A most important book on the history of Jews in Vichy France. This meticulously researched work  is already standard reading in the field and hugely contributes to the difficult debate on why 75% of Jews in France survived the Holocaust.’ — Jean-Marc Dreyfus, Reader in Holocaust Studies, University of Manchester

Between the French surrender in 1940 and the liberation in 1944, 80 000 French Jews got deported and murdered by the Nazis. The period has been thoroughly researched, yet a question long remained unanswered: how did 75% of France's Jews manage to survive the extermination, in spite of the collaboration of the Vichy Regime? This survival rate is all the more surprising as, in the Netherlands, only 25 % Jews survived while in Belgium, 45% survived. 

Semelin's research highlights the importance of personal networks of solidarity and of determining factors such as nationality, social class, and the degree of integration within one's neighbourhood. To Semelin, ordinary people greatly contributed to helping Jews, especially those whose position granted them a sense of prestige or legitimacy within their community, or material advantages. 

A conversation with Simone Veil prompted Semelin to attempt to reconcile his research on genocide with his interest on civil resistance. His training as a psychologist also enabled him to make the most of the reading of memoirs and letters written by survivors and his families.

Jacques Semelin's originality is not shying away from a fresh perspective on the French involvement in the Holocaust. He also manages to render all of the nuances in the French response to the events and to conflicting loyalty systems.  Without shying away from the horror of the Holocaust's crimes, this seminal work adds a fresh perspective to our history of the Second World War. An interesting interview for Sciences Po can be found here.

The Survival of the Jews in France was translated into English by Cynthia Schoch and Natasha Lehrer, and is published by Hurst Publishers.


Jacques Semelin is Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Sciences Po, CERI, CNRS, Paris, focusing on the Holocaust and mass violence, as well as civil resistance and rescue. He is the author of the classic Unarmed Against Hitler: Civilian Resistance in Europe, 1939–1945, and Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide.

Natasha Lehrer has been translating fiction and non-fiction from French to English since 2015. She won the 1917 Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation from French for Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger. She is also a literary critic, writing regularly for the TLS and other journals, and an award-winning feature writer. 

Cynthia Schoch is a translator who specialises in history and conflict. She had previously worked with Jacques Semelin on Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide. She has also translated Stéphane Lacroix's Egypt's Revolutions: Politics, Religion, and Social Movement

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