This month marked the dedication of the new Wall of Names remembering the 3,485 Jews forcibly deported from the French city of Nice during Nazi occupation.
Of the millions of tourists who visit the glamorous French Riviera, few know about the removal of Jewish residents from Nice station to Drancy, then on to Poland and Germany, where most
I better understood the city’s Jewish heritage while working in the archives of the Alpes-Maritimes, sorting documents from a 20th century politician, when I came across a letter from a constituent, which gripped me like no other.
You could almost feel the sweat dripping with every word as the writer tried to convey to the Vichy councillor that he was about to be deported by the Gestapo because they thought he was Jewish, when in fact he was not.
By then, Jews knew what awaited them if caught, and this non-Jew spoke with terror, his first realisation of what Jews had been going through. Nice was by then one of the last refuges for Jews in Europe.
The city became part of France in 1860. Before that, and since 1388, it was part of the County of Savoy, ruled by a duke in Turin, northern Italy. In 1430, a ghetto ‘Juiverie’ was mandated and Jews were told that they had to wear a yellow star on their clothes, but Nice authorities did not enforce it, as evidenced by a letter sent 18 years later, castigating authorities for not separating the Jews of Nice.
That year, in 1448, while life for Jews was getting harder in Turin, the city of Nice in fact gave its banking franchise to a Jewish banker named Bonnefoy de Chalons.
The Latin contract shows that Bonnefoy had the right to live wherever he pleased – impossible if a Jewish ghetto had been imposed; yet in 1733 a short-lived ghetto did become a reality.
Permission was given that year to designate a synagogue on the third floor of a building owned by the Catholic brotherhood Pénitents Noirs, with a mikveh in the basement. In 1750, the obligation for Jews to wear a badge was formally abolished and all legal restrictions on Jews ended in 1848.
The ghetto is located in the Old Town and the buildings on at least one side of the street had underground tunnels to the adjacent street, Rue Droit, which would allow Jews to come and go when they chose.
During my research, I learned that those same tunnels probably housed Jews during the Holocaust. Sure enough, in a private cellar, I discovered a star of David,
a menorah, communist symbols and one symbol still unknown, etched into the walls.
The Jewish cemetery, opened in 1783, contains the tombs of the previous Jewish cemetery. It, by itself, tells the history of Jewish families who came to Nice. The stones spell the city in a variety of ways – Nizza, Niza, Nica, Nissa, Ніцца, Ηίκαια, Nicea, Nicaea, Nisa, Ницца – in French, Hebrew, Polish, Italian,
Russian, English and German.
Nice’s past Jewish residents came from all over, too, born in Kyiv, Vasylkiv, Warsaw, Kishinev, Mariupol, Kherson, Odessa, Nikolaev, Kaunas, Berlin, St Petersburg, Lwów, Radautz of Bukovina (Rădăuți, Romania), Algeria, Oran, Constantine, Taganrog, Constantinople, London, Rangoon, Cairo and Johannesburg. They could all tell a story, yet the most extraordinary Jewish
stories took place during the war.
In September 1942, Nice fell under the jurisdiction of the Italians, who refused to hand over Jews to the Germans, creating a sanctuary. Jewish families flooded in: at one point up to 100,000 were in the city, filling its hotels, hostels and apartments.
Fearing an Italian collapse, they hatched a plan to hire ships to take them to parts of newly-liberated North Africa, but before they could do so, the Germans rushed in to take over the Italian zone.
In September 1943, the infamous Jew-hating SS commander Alois Brunner came to town. Thousands of recently-arrived newly-registered Jews were easy targets. The city reacted, hiding Jews and their children, working through resistance groups such as the Marcel Network, and the famed Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld.
Still, it was a traumatic time, and only with time has the city opened up to discussing it. A monument to the ‘Justes’ was erected in 2014 and now, this week, the Wall of Names commemorates the deportees.
Today, visitors can see two functioning synagogues dating from the end of the 19th century. The city has an active Jewish community, where I have learned both Judeo-Espanol as well as Yiddish.
Yet it is also a city that will never truly lose the horror and fear of the war, of houses lit from outside around midnight, and the sound of heavy Gestapo boots racing up the stairs.
- Wall of Names
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- French Riviera
- St. Petersburg
- Radautz of Bukovina (Rădăuți
- Alois Brunner
- serge klarsfeld