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On May 29, 1942, a German order made it compulsory for all Jews over the age of 6 years old living in France’s occupied zone to wear a yellow star. This discriminatory measure came into effect just over a week later – and contributed to the process of mass deportations to concentration and extermination camps. Eighty years on, the yellow star remains the horrific symbol of the persecution of Jews in France during World War II.
Rachel Jedinak looked back with horror on the yellow star. “I had a huge row with my mother because I refused to put on this star,” she recounted years later. “I told her: ‘I don’t want this on my clothes!’ It was terrible.”
Jedinak was just 8 years old in June 1942 when the Nazis mandated that all Jews in the occupied zone – the part of France directed administered by the Germans, encompassing northern France and the Atlantic littoral – wear a piece of cloth showing a yellow star.
“It was very painful for me to be set aside from all my friends like that; some of our friends were happy to carry on playing with us – but others weren’t. It was very difficult for a child to deal with,” said Jedinak, a Holocaust survivor who lived as a young girl in Paris’s eastern 20th arrondissement (district).
This was just a few days after an order from the German military high command in France mandated the yellow star. The same measure was put in place in the Netherlands and Belgium at the same time.
The infamous Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, in charge of deportations, summoned Theodor Dannecker – the Judenreferent (in charge of roundups of Jews) in Paris – along with his counterparts in The Hague and Brussels.
Eichmann explained to them what came out of the Wannsee conference – the notorious gathering to discuss the “Final Solution” held on January 20, 1942. “Eichmann encouraged the officials to bring in the obligation to wear the yellow star in the territories under their remits,” noted historian Claire Zalc, a director of research at the CNRS think-tank in Paris.
The yellow star was by no means novel. This discriminatory measure had already been put in place in Poland in 1939 and two years later in the German Reich, Alsace, Bohemia-Moravia and parts of western Poland annexed by Germany. “This measure was part and parcel of anti-Semitism, intrinsically linked to one of its key characteristics: the need to mark out a minority to belittle it,” Zalc said.
A series of measures had been put in place to identify and discriminate against France’s Jewish population, starting in September 1940. “As well as the censuses designed specifically to identify Jews and the attacks on property, there was professional discrimination and social exclusion. More and more restrictions came in: Jews were banned from owning radios, for example. The sixth such ordinance, in February 1942, forbade Jews from changing their place of residence and imposed a curfew on them from 8pm to 6am.”
‘Worse than ever’
In the wake of the yellow star order, Jews in the occupied zone had to go and get a star from their local town hall or police station. They either had to pay for it or give clothing rations in exchange. They were a few exemptions – for Jews living in mixed marriages whose children were classed as non-Jewish – but they were rare.
The yellow star was not imposed in the non-occupied zone administered by Maréchal Pétain’s regime. But this didn’t mean that the Vichy regime was opposed to it: Pétain called the yellow star a “just measure”.
“It wasn’t a problem for Vichy, because they already had the ‘Jew’ stamp on identity cards, which eventually became mandatory in the non-occupied zone on December 11, 1942,” Zalc said. At the same time, Zalc continued, the Vichy regime avoided imposing the yellow star because it was “keen to avoid prompting sympathetic reactions among the general public”.
Indeed, there were some gestures of solidarity in the occupied zone. The police interrogated people who showed their support for Jews in France by wearing fake badges or stars bearing fanciful names like “Swing” or “Zazou”. Others, however, used it as an opportunity to flaunt their anti-Semitism by insulting people who had to wear the star.
There were contrasting reactions within the Jewish community. “Some people were reluctant, some refused to wear it,” Zalc said. “Others hid it under the lapel of their coats, or made it easy to remove. Some people committed suicide.”
Years later, one Holocaust survivor, Agnès Buisson, remembered her mother’s rage at the imposition of the yellow star. Buisson was eight years old at the time. “She started sewing these yellow stars on the clothes,” Buisson remembered. “It said you were supposed to sew them in small stitches, but she sewed them in big stitches – with rage. It was worse than anything.”
The yellow star wasn’t just a sadistic way of humiliating Jews; it was also a means of isolating them, tracking them and controlling their movements. “The yellow star policy was drawn up and implemented around the time that the mass deportation of Western European Jews was being orchestrated,” Zalc said.
When the decision was taken to deport Jews en masse from France to concentration and extermination camps in Eastern Europe in spring 1942, the star symbol was used to single them out. A few weeks after the star was imposed, nearly 13,000 people were arrested on July 16 and 17, 1942 during the infamous Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris, before they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Eighty years later, the yellow star has become the most infamous symbol of the persecution of Jews in France.
Renée Borycki – who was six years old in 1942, and escaped the Vel d’Hiv roundup – kept hers as a relic. “When I could still go to the commemorative events, I always put it on. At every single event. People offered me money for it. But I would never give my star away. I kept it – not only as proof, but as a sacred symbol.”
This article was translated from the original in French.