An Elegant Paris Building– With a Dark History of Nazi Collaboration

Last Updated on July 28, 2020

1 Place des Petits Pères in Paris, formerly the headquarters of the Commisariat des Questions Juives between 1941 and 1944. Image: by Courtney Traub/licensed to all for free use with author attribution and link to site

On the Place des Petits Pères in central Paris, a sense of calm abounds these days. The Basilique Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church graces the square, and the lush gardens and covered arcades of the Palais Royal lie just around the corner.

From the square, you can also easily access the covered passageways of the Galerie Vivienne, with its glass and wrought-iron rooftops, faux marble pillars and floors tiled with ornate mosaics.

The covered passageways of Paris, also referred to as "galeries" or "arcades", offer old-world elegance. Image: Marmontel/Creative Commons 2.0 license
Galerie Vivienne/Marmontel/Creative Commons 2.0 license

On the east side of the square, at #1, rue des Petits Peres, a pretty, typically Parisian building with decorative sculptures around the entrance barely draws one’s attention. But looking more closely, a plaque hangs to the right side of the entrance.

Memorial plaque outside the former Commisariat-General of Jewish Affairs in Paris. Courtney Traub/Licensed for free use with author credit and link to website
A memorial plaque displayed outside the building at #1, Place des Petits Pères. Courtney Traub/Licensed for free use with author credit and link back to this page

It reads as follows:

De 1941 a 1944, cet immeuble abrita le commissariat général aux questions juives, instrument de la politique antisemite de l’état francais de Vichy.

Cette plaque est dédiée a la mémoire des Juifs de France victimes de cette politique.

(From 1941 to 1944, this building housed the Commisariat-General of Jewish Questions (Affairs), instrument of Vichy France’s antisemitic policy.

This plaque is dedicated to the memory of French Jewish {citizens} who were victims of these policies.)

Happening on the building (and plaque) for the first time, I was surprised to note that I’d never heard of the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives.

I had taken an intensive French history course on the wartime years during a year of study abroad in Lyon. I also considered myself to be well-versed in the history of the German Occupation and in France’s Vichy government, the infamous collaborationist state led by the Marshall Philippe Pétain between July 1940 to September 1944.

How had this site, which had clearly played a key and sinister role in the systematic persecution and genocide of Jews during World War II, fallen so much under the radar?

Why did it seem to attract so much less attention than other sites of memory and infamy relating to World War II in the capital? I set out to learn more.

A French History of Nazi Collaboration

The building at 1, Place des Petits Peres as seen in 1941. Bundesarchiv/Germany/public domain

The German (and Jewish) philosopher Hannah Arendt is most famous for a phrase she coined, “the banality of evil”. Reporting from the war-crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main orchestrators of Hitler’s “Final Solution”, Arendt observed:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied — as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels — that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani, commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

–From Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) 

Arendt’s observation is important when considering the legacy of the Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs (often also translated as the “Office for Jewish Affairs”.)

It was established by Vichy France in 1941 on the urging of Theodor Dannecker— a German SS Officer who reported to Eichmann and was instrumental in carrying out the “Final Solution”, or systematic deportation and murder of millions of European Jews.

It stands as an important testament to the French state’s collaborationist activities, challenging the longstanding myth that France broadly resisted Nazi ideology and occupation.

You might even argue that the some 2,500 people employed by the Commissariat– and the activities they carried out for four years– embody the notion itself of the banality of evil.

It was in this unremarkable building- and in several “sub-bureaux” nearby– that everyday French bureaucrats helped devise and carry out a breathtaking raft of laws targeting Jews and Romani citizens, in full collaboration with the Vichy regime and Nazi Germany.

Four Years of Persecution

The first director of the Commissariat was Xavier Vallat, a vocally anti-semitic French member of Parliament who had supported the establishment of Vichy France’s authoritarian regime.

He opened the new office on Place des Petits Pères– in the requisitioned premises of Louis-Dreyfus et Cie, a Jewish-run business.

A headline from collaborationist Paris newspaper Le Soir dated April 5th, 1941, reads "Jews are only tolerable to society in 'homeopathic doses", advertising an interview with Xavier Vallat, the first director of the Commissariat Général aux Question Juives in Paris.
A headline from collaborationist Paris newspaper Le Soir dated April 5th, 1941, reads “Jews are only tolerable to society in ‘homeopathic doses'”. It introduces an interview with Xavier Vallat, the first director of the Commissariat Général aux Question Juives.

French historian Laurent Joly, author of a 2018 book that examines the collaboration of Vichy France in the Nazis’ persecution of Jews in France, said in an e-mail interview that the building at 1, Place des Petits Pères “symbolizes Vichy France’s anti-Jewish policies”.

That it was established in the building of a Jewish-owned business requisitioned by the state, moreover, underlines Vichy’s “vengeful antisemitism”.

He described how the Commissariat’s role from 1941 was to produce “a legislative arsenal” targeting French Jews:

“[This included the creation of] a new [racialized] status for Jews, a series of professional laws (for lawyers, doctors, dentists, midwives, etc.), carrying out a census of Jews [in France], and a law creating a new Jewish association [to better track citizens and their activities]. Above all, from a bureaucratic standpoint the CGQJ’s role was to manage [the spoliation/confiscation of Jewish property and businesses] across France.”

Under Vallat’s direction, anti-Jewish propaganda became a nationally coordinated activity. The Commissariat managed the dissemination of antisemitic tracts, newspaper articles and other literature.

Perversely enough, it also oversaw the creation of the U.G.I.F (Union Général des Israelites de France, or General Union of French Israelites), the only Jewish association permitted under Vichy and Occupied France.

While its aim was officially of a charitable nature and its activities included aid to Jewish orphans and other vulnerable groups, the U.G.I.F allowed the Nazi Gestapo in France and Vichy’s puppet government to closely monitor French Jewish activities. Its members were often forced to collaborate by giving up names of dissidents, or be sent to concentration camps themselves.

Vallat’s tenure at the Commissariat ended in 1942. He was not especially pro-German, and was reportedly hesitant to start carrying out the deportation of Jews. He was thus stripped of his position by the Gestapo and replaced by avowed pro-Nazi journalist and politician Louis Darquier de Pellepoix.

Louis Darquier de Pellepoix (center) with Nazi officers in the early 1940s.

Pellepoix was notorious for his antisemitic rhetoric and views. At a public meeting in 1937, he reportedly said “We must, with all urgency, resolve the Jewish problem, whether by expulsion, or massacre.”

Imprisoned for inciting racial hatred in 1940, he was freed by the Germans following the Occupation.

It was under his direction that the Commissariat’s activities turned to the systematic rounding up and deportation of Jews and Romani people.

However, as the historian Joly notes, de Pellepoix was eventually deemed ineffectual by the Gestapo, who eventually excluded him from important decisions and left his legislative power all but “paralyzed”.

By 1942, when France began participating in the mass arrest, detention, and deportation of Jews to death camps as part of the “Final Solution”, the French police (gendarmerie) and paramilitary officers took over most of these “operations” from the Commissariat.

The office was finally shut down on August 17th, 1944– only two days before Allied troops descended on Paris and proclaimed it liberated from the Nazi Occupation. The records from the office are now held at France’s Archives Nationales, free for historians and scholars to consult.

75 Years On: A Time to Remember

Crowds celebrate the Liberation of Paris on August 26, 1944 on the Champs-Elysées. By Jack Downey, U.S. Office of War Information/Public Domain
Crowds celebrate the Liberation of Paris on August 26, 1944 on the Champs-Elysées. By Jack Downey, U.S. Office of War Information/Public Domain

As this goes to press, the world is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II on May 8th, 1945, also known as “Victory in Europe Day”.

As we remember a moment that ushered in a period of unprecedented peace and cooperation between European nations, and the liberation of millions of people from fascist rule and oppression, I want to draw attention to a French collaborationist office that was created and dismantled with far less fanfare.

For Joly, the building doesn’t attract the sort of attention that other memorial sites in Paris do because

“[i]t was merely an office of persecution… [nothing compared to French detention camps such as Drancy], in terms of the suffering of victims and [collective] memory. Since 1966, a plaque has been there to remind us what purpose the building served between 1941 and 1944: the center of bureaucratic persecution under the Occupation.”

Nevertheless, let us not forget the Paris Commissariat and the work of its petty government bureaucrats. Let’s not overlook how their seemingly banal acts helped to destroy over 72,000 lives, and led to the persecution of hundreds of thousands of people.

{Inside the Drancy Transit Camp, One of the Most Important French Holocaust Sites}

And let us not forget Arendt’s warning around the banality of evil. Above all, the concept suggests that any human being may be capable of carrying out inhumane and cruel acts, under the “right” circumstances.

Hiding behind bureaucratic or official “duty” is one way perpetrators such as Eichmann have justified their crimes against humanity, pleading that they were “simply following orders”. The mostly faceless, low-level bureaucrats of the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives might plead similarly.

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