vichy’s family separation policy, and our own

The following is a guest post by Aliza Luft.

On July 6, 1942, an SS captain in Nazi-occupied France sent an urgent report to Hitler’s Reich Main Security Office in Berlin. Excitedly, he wrote, “All stateless Jews in the occupied and unoccupied zones are being made available for deportation. President Laval has proposed that, when deporting Jewish families from the Free Zone, children under 16 should also be taken.” Jews had been rounded up, detained, and deported from France for more than four months, but this was the first time French children were targeted for violent detention and removal—and the orders were handed down by their President.

Two weeks later, 12,884 Jews were arrested in Paris and its suburbs and confined to an indoor cycling stadium. They lived in squalid conditions for five days—there was no water in the vélodrome, save a single fire hydrant pumping water from the Seine, no sanitary facilities (off-limits because their windows might provide means of escape), and hardly any food. Then, brutally, the Jewish families confined to the stadium were separated; 4,000 children were deported to internment camps throughout France, then to Auschwitz. By the time American forces helped to liberate France, only a handful of these children were still alive. 

Seventy-eight years later, American leaders have switched sides, abandoning the ideals of the “Greatest Generation” by embracing the Nazi separation playbook. As reported by the New York Times this week, by May 2018, five U.S. attorneys had become “deeply concerned” about the child welfare effects of the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy separating undocumented children from their parents at the border. Yet they acquiesced to then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who insisted “we need to take away children” and implied that parents who cared about their children would not bring them on an asylum-seeking journey. Rod J. Rosenstein, then-Deputy A.G., followed up, making it plain that separating migrant families was central to the Trump Administration’s migrant deterrence plan. 

Globally, children are in danger. UNICEF indicates that children are popular weapons of war, as well as “soft targets” for violent militant tactics. International humanitarian law protects children—and warfare targeting them is concerned a breach of the Geneva Conventions, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and a war crime under the Rome Statute—but the United States is not at war against undocumented migrants. Our government has made a simple, cruel decision to treat kids inhumanely, denying them education, keeping them underfed and in cages, and shockingly allowing them to be sexually abused, all to discourage other kids’ parents from seeking a better life in this country. 

Intentional cruelty as a formal, government-sanctioned deterrence to migration is not a new strategy for the United States. A 1994 U.S. Border Patrol program, the bluntly named the “Prevention through Deterrence” plan, by which migrants attempting to cross at the southern border would be funneled into the naturally brutal environment of the Sonoran Desert, has been investigated by anthropologist Jason De Léon, for instance. More recently, the strategy has shifted to the Texas wilderness. Yet it continues to fail: despite thousands of deaths in the desert, parents still risk everything to migrate to the U.S. The violence they are fleeing is worse than we can fathom.

This is our country, our government, and our—in the global future sense—children. We must act. Make no mistake: our citizens have mobilized. On August 22, 2020, the U.S. saw at least 1,000 protest marches, 200 of them urging family reunification and accountability for the harms these migrant children have suffered. But our leadership, shielded by the President’s ability to sow chaos and distract attention, has ignored our calls. How do we heed the lessons of resistance in Vichy France?

Civilians cannot stop this cruelty alone, nor are national leaders willing to stop it. It will be the combined effort of civilians and local authorities—religious leaders, police and mayors, members of the military—that make the difference. This is a cornerstone of nonviolent protests’ ongoing success;  protests like those bringing us into the streets in late August increase the likelihood of everyday people connecting with and changing the minds of their religious, civic, and military authorities. When they defect, regimes crumble.

Consider that, following the SS roundups of families and children in July 1942, a group of French bishops secretly coordinated a protest. It was an astounding about-face for a group that had publicly acquiesced to the Vichy Regime’s antisemitic violence for two years. On Sunday, August 23, a group of bishops led by Archbishop Jules-Géraud Saliège of Toulouse took to their pulpits and declared, “The Jews are men and women, just as the foreigners are men and women. One cannot do anything one pleases to these men, to these women, to these fathers and mothers. They also belong to the human race; they are as much our brothers as the others. No Christian dare forget this!” 

Two weeks later, the clergy would be more direct. When ordered to divulge the hiding spots of 108 Jewish children for deportation to Auschwitz, Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier shouted with rage, “Vous n’aurez pas les enfants!” “You will not have the children!” became a rallying cry for thousands of Catholics. Alongside their religious leaders, they mobilized on behalf of their Jewish neighbors and to protect Jewish children. 

As a direct result of the bishops’ protests, French President Laval met with the SS in Paris and begged for permission to slow the process of removal he had authorized. “In view of the opposition from the clergy,” Laval explained, “no new demands… as regards the Jewish question” were requested. The SS lowered the year’s quota to 50,000, but Laval pleaded further: “in view of the difficulties that had arisen”—particularly the protests headed by the Catholic bishops—Laval believed even that number was untenable. The monthly deportation rates of Jews collapsed. By the war’s end, 75 percent of France’s Jewish population had survived. French civilians saved the second-largest number of Jews in any occupied country during the Holocaust. 

We can learn from the French Catholic resistance. Seeing children in cages, hearing of their abuse and neglect, it is easy to feel scared, overwhelmed, and helpless. Though Vichy France is not contemporary America (most obviously, the U.S. is not an occupied nation), numerous scholarsmyself included, have written that when the present reflects the past, we can learn from it, even if the historical contexts are not mirror images. There are children being hurt by a xenophobic policy from the highest ranks of our government, and we cannot turn away. Not knowing whether we will succeed, as the French clergy did when they stood up to the Nazi occupiers and the complicit president, is no excuse for inaction. 

Aliza Luft is Assistant Professor of Sociology at UCLA.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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