OUR DEBT TO DESPERATE STRANGERS.

by Harold Pollack

Journalists and professors share one great perk: the opportunity to travel. Not too long ago, I found myself in Paris, strolling the most beautiful city in the world. I’m still awed by the usual tourist things. I gawked at a 7-foot North African traffic policeman in white gloves and full decorative dress. I smiled at the stylish Parisians and American college kids deep in café conversation around the Louvre.

Then I entered the Marais, Paris's old Jewish district. Downing a tourist-trap "Yiddish sandwich," I passed a synagogue that was dynamited on Yom Kippur, 1940 and later rebuilt. Outside a local elementary school, I listened to the joyful noise of children’s lunch play as I read a chilling plaque: On this spot, 165 children were deported by the Germans with the assistance of French police. The nearby Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyrs, France’s Holocaust memorial, frankly described the widespread anti-Semitism in French life and the role of French police in rounding up Jews. As time passes, France has become increasingly candid about widespread support for the Vichy regime.

Enough of the World War II story is repellent. Yet it’s worth noting that France treated its deeply-rooted Jewish communities better than Americans suppose. The archbishop of Lyon released a blunt pastoral letter condemning religious persecution. Most French Jews survived, often through brave and quiet help of their neighbors. The Vichy regime, despite its crimes, tried to protect Jewish war veterans and others.

France's treatment of outsiders was less admirable, and much more instructive for us….

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