Wormser, the last “Israélite”

The term “Israélite” has recently come back into the news following its repeated use by a polemicist-cum-presidential candidate in the French elections. However, the Israélite model that he claims to embody has nothing to do with the reality of what Israélitisme was. Through a vibrant tribute to Marcel Wormser, recently deceased, and to his father, Georges Wormser, Milo Lévy-Bruhl recovers the essence of this pre-war French Jewish phenomenon and discusses the reasons for its ultimate disappearance.

 

Chemin des Israélites, Parisian cemetery © Milo Lévy-Bruhl

 

“I am, I repeat, against exclusions, but even more against confusion. I am for all rapprochement. I am against any equivocation.”

Georges Wormser

 

Eric Zemmour’s Judaism has been the subject of numerous commentaries for weeks. Some have noted this self-designation: Éric Zemmour does not call himself “Jewish” but “Israélite.” This is a strange expression, pejoratively connoted for many and above all out of fashion; almost all the institutions of French Jewish life – the Consistory managing religious affairs, the CRIF handling wider community matters, etc. – having themselves gradually abandoned the term since the 1970s. Israélitisme had its moment of glory, from the middle of the 19th century until the Dreyfus Affair. From then on, it entered into crisis before being engulfed in the Second World War. In fact, there is a logical link between Zemmour’s revisionism of the Vichy Regime’s record on Jews and his valorization of Israélitisme. But what years of exposure to the media, politicians and their communications have undoubtedly made Zemmour lose sight of is that history is not just discourse, myths or stories. The past remains an active force and very often the dominant discourses – those against which he claims to fight – impose themselves with all the more force because they give substance to diffuse affects. French Jews are all still feeling, directly or indirectly, consciously or not, the collapse of Israélitisme. To put it another way, the diversity of ways of being Jewish and French today is articulated against Israélitisme, and for some of them, against it altogether. But those who understand what ideal was lost after the war are fewer. Now, to the loss of this ideal, our “neo-Israélite” adds the debasement of its memory. So that the Israélites will never be conflated with Zemmour, I would like to tell the story of one of them.

*

It is a story that begins on August 6 in front of a cemetery. I parked a few meters from the entrance of Père-Lachaise. Along the surrounding wall, to the left of the main entrance, the city of Paris had installed a 280-meter long panel for the centennial of the armistice. The names of the 94,415 Parisians who died in the First World War are listed by year and in alphabetical order. At the end of the panel, next to the entrance of the cemetery, is a name I have only recently come to know. André Wormser. He died in April 1918. He was 24 years old and never knew his nephew, Marcel Wormser. He was the one we buried that day.

I had met Marcel Wormser five months earlier. The development of his illness had reminded him of the last duty he had always wanted to fulfill: to write the history of his family. At the end of 2020, he solicited several historians among his friends: he was looking for a young researcher who might be interested in the project. I was interested. We met in April. I entered his apartment, curious, and came out loaded with books… The work began, but he ran out of time. Cancer was doing its work, the treatments were not. We packed in the long mornings of discussion. Invariably, I asked him about his life; invariably, he told me the story of his father. At the end of July, I had several hours of recordings and some archives to consult. The material seemed sufficient. When he called me from the hospital, the day after an appointment was canceled, I could reassure him: “I will go through with it, don’t worry.” He was relieved. What happened next? Nothing solemn. It is not my style and it was not his. These were painfully shy people, both indisposed by any sign of recognition; but generous shy people. From half-sentences to circumlocutions, I modestly confided my gratitude, and he vice-versa. The next morning, Marcel Wormser died.

Three days later, I arrived in front of the main entrance of Père-Lachaise. The sky was threatening and I forgot my umbrella in the car – the emotion. I hoped the storm would not break. After a few minutes, the gathered family gave the signal to the disparate assembly, which, covered heads and bare heads, moved towards division seven: the Israélite section. Chairs had been set up in front of the Rachel aisle at the end of which the Wormser plot awaited. Two rabbis would conduct the ceremony. In this hour of supreme farewell, when every man’s duty is to sum himself up, Marcel Wormser obviously appealed to the effusions of an orthodoxy whose credo he recognized.

Monument to the Parisian dead of the First World War in Père-Lachaise. Guillaume Bontemps / Paris City Hall

The rabbinic words are interspersed with speeches. Radio host Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s speech is difficult to hear, but I can tell from former Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s approving look that it receives consensus. The Wormser family and the Jeanneney family have maintained a close friendship for several generations in the common service of Georges Clemenceau’s memory. The former has inherited the presidency of the Société des amis, the latter that of the Museum. Every November 11, their respective leaders welcome the President of the Republic together at the foot of the statue of Le Tigre on the Champs-Élysées roundabout. In doing so, Jean-Noël honors the legacy of his grandfather, Jules Jeanneney, Clemenceau’s minister, and Marcel that of his father, Georges.

In 1914, Georges Wormser was still a young professor of literature when he was assigned as a second lieutenant to the Saint-Etienne infantry regiment. He was put in charge of his section during a counter-offensive in the Battle of the Marne, but was stopped dead in his tracks by a shell that left him with 38 wounds and a citation for bravery. A long convalescence later, a recommendation from his Ecole Normale Superieure classmate and friend Jean Martet opened the doors to Clemenceau’s civil cabinet, which Georges Mandel formed in November 1917. The agreement between the three aides was immediate: “Mandel was in charge of parliament and the press, prefects and senior civil servants; Martet was in charge of hearings, family and friends, summonses, and daily mail; I was in charge of studying and preparing files, and writing notes and official responses. Very quickly I became Clemenceau’s assistant, which earned me a particular respect, relieving him of certain material constraints.”[1] When Mandel was elected to the National Assembly in 1919, Wormser became the sole head of the cabinet. He was the main aide of the president and the secretary of the delegation of a France that appeared at the Congress of Versailles in the first rank of nations. A year later, he followed his leader and abandoned politics. The death of his brother André left a vacancy at the Lazard bank which he made it his duty to fill. This marked the beginning of an atypical career as a banker serving the general interest. At the same time, far from political responsibilities, his relationship with Le Pere la Victoire (Clemenceau’s post-armistice nickname) was transformed. His copy of Clemenceau’s Au soir de la pensée bears the trace of this in the dedication: “To Georges Wormser. Good in war, good in peace. His friend, Clemenceau.”[2] The former chief of staff became the friend of a man who had very few. At the end of one of his visits, Clemenceau grabbed him by the arm: “You are the best.” Wormser was thrown off balance, he rumbled: “Why are you telling me this?” “I wanted you to know that”. Before he died, Clemenceau officially entrusted Wormser with looking after his children. Georges Wormser would do more. He corrected and edited the Les grandeurs et misères d’une Victoire; he, too, founded the Société des amis de Georges Clemenceau of which he was naturally elected president.

Georges Wormser in Clemenceau’s cabinet in 1918

Twelve days. That is the number of days between Marcel’s birth and Clemenceau’s death. Twelve, only. Yet one died in the greatest European power, defender of small nations, incarnation of law and justice, while the other was born in a France in crisis that was slowly sinking into disgrace. In 1934, Marcel was five years old. His father agreed to return to politics for a few months to head the cabinet of Mandel, Minister of Post and Telecommunications. Le Figaro made no mistake: “Among the list of members of ministers’ cabinets, one title stands out: M. Wormser, former chief of staff to Georges Clemenceau… It was M. Mandel who expressly wanted this memory and honor to be remembered, out of loyalty to a high memory.”[3] Wormser recognized the persistent presence of the great man. But if he returned to politics, it was above all because he shared his new leader’s concerns about Germany. Mandel expressed them publicly in 1933 in a great speech to the Assembly that made him the leader of the scanty troops of Hitler’s opposition in France. In 1935, concern became obsession. Although the press mocked this “prophet of doom”, Mandel was active and brought down governments that were too lenient toward Hitler. At the height of his influence, he nevertheless confided to Wormser at the beginning of 1938: “I have never been so sad, never have I felt so powerless. (…) My pessimism is growing day by day. What can I do?” Wormser: “Prepare everything so that as soon as possible you can accede to the premiership. You would have a free hand, your will would galvanize the country, you alone would be able to rally our allies and make them believe once again in our defense resolution.” Mandel: “It’s impossible and you know why.”[4]

At the time, Georges Wormser was a member of the Consistoire and close to the Jewish institutions that Mandel did not frequent. He informed him of the fears that were developing there. These relations were unofficial because since 1905 the organic links between the Consistory, which had been created by Napoleon, and the State, had been broken. A minister has no reason to take a special interest in an Israélite opinion that did not exist for the State since Israelites were citizens like any others. For the State, but not for everyone. In recent years, anti-Semitic agitation, which had subsided after the First World War, had resumed with renewed vigor, leaving Israélites gobsmacked. The latter would like the public authorities to be more concerned about it, but to ask the State to take a specific look at this question which concerned them would already feed the reproach of belonging to a particular group. The old Israélite dilemma of the Dreyfus Affair was back: “How can we draw attention to anti-Semitism without giving the impression that we are only concerned with what concerns us as Jews and not as Frenchmen, thereby giving grist to the mill of anti-Semitic accusations?” The mobilization of the Dreyfusards had brought an enthusiastic solution. French people of all faiths mobilized against anti-Semitism in the name of a shared republican ideal. But in the thirties, where were the Dreyfusards?

How can we draw attention to anti-Semitism without giving the impression that we are only concerned with what concerns us as Jews and not as Frenchmen, thereby giving grist to the mill of anti-Semitic accusations?

The dilemma was particularly acute in an organization that Georges Wormser had co-founded a few months earlier: the Comité de Vigilance. This small, discreet group, headed by Robert de Rothschild, gathered information on the evolution of anti-Semitism in Europe and worked to map out Hitler’s propaganda networks in France. On February 1, 1938, he organized a meeting exceptionally open to non-members. All the great names of Israélitisme responded to the invitation: it was “a forest of rosettes and ties.” Robert de Rothschild opened the discussion: “The events that are happening all over the world around us are such as to make us think and ask ourselves: what would happen if the same events happened here?”[5] A precise question was on the agenda: are the traditional forms of fighting anti-Semitism still adapted to the present situation or, in the face of the risk, is Israélite discretion no longer in season? Lucien Lévy-Bruhl was the oldest of the guests. A former professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne, a member of the Academy of Moral Sciences, and a cousin of Dreyfus, whom he was the first to support publicly, he summarized the alternative that everyone had in mind: “There are two possible attitudes for us: either we consider ourselves to be entirely assimilable and, as we say, 100% French, and we regulate our conduct on the basis of this systematic attitude, and then we do not act as Jews, we act as Frenchmen. And then there is the other attitude which consists in saying: we are attacked, we are French, that is understood, but we will soon be attacked as Jews. Should we organize ourselves to defend ourselves as such?” The law professor, William Oualid expressed the Committee’s position. If he understood the first attitude – “ten years ago we would not have hesitated to subscribe fully to this way of seeing things” – he now opts for the second. René Cassin and Léon Brunschvicg, among others, are not of the same opinion: “The first attitude is the only one possible, that of citizens in possession of their rights. The second, which would tend to group us as Jews, is the one defined by our adversaries, and which they would like to force us to adopt in spite of ourselves, whereas each of us wants to remain what he is, a free Frenchman in a free France.”

Most of the guests did not know each other. Some had good reasons – intellectual or political – not to like each other. But all of them were aware of the stakes. The verbatim record of the exchanges shows this. The words are chosen. The speakers are careful to spare all sensitivities. One impression dominates: under each of the heads swirls a storm. In the middle of the exchanges, Georges Wormser remained silent.

First page of the verbatim report of the meeting of February 1, 1938

“On December 7, 1792, in Soultz, a small town in Alsace at the foot of the Hartmannswiller, my great-grandfather, Abraham Bloch, the ´official’ of the Israelites, as his father and grandfather had been, solemnly took the civic oath in the name of all those he represented, the first mark of the emancipation they were to receive, an emancipation they owed to the tireless efforts of Abbé Grégoire. In 1800, he was appointed by the provincial authority as deputy mayor.” These are two sentences between which the fundamental break is nestled. When he took the civic oath, Georges Wormser’s great-grandfather, Abraham Bloch, did so in the name of the Jews he represented. But when he was appointed deputy mayor, it was no longer in this capacity. The implicit clause of Israélitisme is there. Jews have no place in politics. One enters politics as a citizen, not as a member of a group. Israélitisme does not deny the existence of a Jewish group in society, this group even has its own institutions, first and foremost the Consistory, but they concern the spiritual. Israélitisme is opposed to any political manifestation of this group which would lead one to believe that Jews have their own interests. It is this basic principle that the Committee’s proposal endeavored to discuss, because it is this basic principle that the intensity of anti-Semitism was striking. It was not that anti-Semitism makes the Jew. For those who are no longer Jews, anti-Semitism did not bring them back. As for the Jews, they knew that they are Jews, even if they were no longer Jews, even if they were only a little, only remotely. But anti-Semitism publicly made every Jew a member of a Jewish group. He was no longer the Jew, he is a Jew. A Jew who was attacked and sought the support of those who, like him, have had to confront anti-Semitism. A Jew who was solicited and who would be ashamed not to stand in solidarity with those who have confronted an anti-Semitism that threaten him as well. The anti-Semite foisted the Jew back on the group with which he shared only a religion and with which he increasingly felt he shared a common fate of threats. Thus, the dilemma emerged: to suffer anti-Semitism without reacting or to react by tossing out the implicit rules of Israélitisme? That day, the guests did not decide. They asked for some time to think. No doubt they heard the first question of the Maxims of the Fathers (Pirke Avot), to which the Republic seemed to have provided the answer, echoing in their memories: “If I am not for myself, then who will be?” They left each other, repeating that they would have to meet again. They would not have the opportunity to do so.

“The Massif Central will always be the citadel, don’t forget that.” A few months before the war, Georges followed the advice of a friend and bought a small house in Chatel-Guyon. There he sheltered his family after the German invasion and took refuge himself after his demobilization. In accordance with the first directives of the German occupation authorities, the bank he had founded in the mid-1930s was placed in the hands of a provisional administrator pending Aryanization. On July 31, 1941, in order to comply with the new French regulations, he went to the prefecture to fill out his declaration of Jewishness. Upon returning to Chatel Guyon, he could not help but write to the Maréchal Pétain: “Yesterday I had to undergo the humiliation of making a declaration for myself, my wife and my four children, which distinguishes us from the French community. I would be lacking in all dignity if I did not pour out my protest to you.” This letter, of which there are so many replicas in so many families, recapitulates all the titles of patriotism of the Wormsers: his great-grandfather taking the civic oath in 1792; his grandfather opting for France in 1871; his father mourning his son “sacrificed to the imperious duty”; his wife, a volunteer nurse, losing her two brothers on the field of battle. Wormser’s protest is raised in their name, but also “in the name of Monsieur Clemenceau, who honored me to the last day with his trust and friendship, whom I saw witnessing, without illusions, the unraveling of his victory, but who, if he often despaired of the French, never despaired of France.” In this letter Georges also quotes his brother André. He recalls his death for the fatherland and his award of the Military Medal “by an order signed by yourself, Monsieur le Maréchal.” But the military man who in Pétain had signed the order of the Military Medal has given way to the man who annotated and hardened the Statute of the Jews with his own hand. The institutions had inoculated him with some of their honor. Freed from their oversight, the dictator relieved himself of it. Wormser’s letter ends as a lesson in patriotism addressed to the first of the French: “A defeat does not erase history, an exceptional measure can overshadow but cannot abolish our imprescriptible rights and duties, even less our feelings as Frenchmen above all. Disavowed today loaded en bloc with opprobrium that we do not deserve, we appeal to the Soldier, to the Head of State: Because we raise them in the beliefs that we have received as a pious heritage, will our children, innocent, see themselves excluded from the only lasting contentment that is, to serve the Fatherland?”[6]

The French Republic asks religions to organize themselves collectively only in view of the exercise of their worship because believers contribute individually as citizens, including as citizens of the Jewish faith, to the other spheres of collective life.

From Châtel-Guyon, Wormser frequently made the trip to Lyon. There he provided material support to those who needed it, gathered information and acted as a Resistance fighter: “The atmosphere remained ominous, the danger was everywhere latent, we were constantly on the lookout or on the tightrope, I leave the choice of the image to you. In the end, it didn’t matter what business we were in charge of. What mattered was to save the lives of one’s own. One must have experienced terrible anguish to be able to imagine it even today. Thanks to certain channels of information and radio with London, which transmitted immediately, I was able to warn twice in time of the roundups that were to take place.”[7] Very active, Wormser became indispensable to the functioning of the Consistory. An apolitical institution if ever there was one, the Consistory, materially very weakened, moved to Lyon after the German invasion. At the end of October 1940, the lawyer Armand Dorville, who sat on the board of the Consistory, made every effort to ensure that it remained faithful to its strictly religious purpose, despite the events: “Whatever the personal opinion of each of us, as members of the Consistory, we have the imperative duty not to cause the slightest disturbance, or even discomfort, to the current regime of the French State. (…) Whatever pain the Statute of the Jews causes us, we must, animated by the hope of better days, mark the same persevering and unshakeable fidelity to the soil, to the French Fatherland.”[8] Wormser defended the opposite position. Why did he do this? What Dorville failed to see is the role that the Consistory plays in the overall economy of Israélitisme. The strictly “spiritual” function that it assumes is valid only because, as far as the rest of their existence is concerned, Jews rely on civil and political rights, like all French citizens. The Republic asks religions to organize themselves collectively only in view of the exercise of their religion, because believers contribute individually as citizens, including citizens of the Jewish faith, to the other spheres of collective life. As citizens and not as a group. But as soon as the rights which underlie this participation of each Jew in collective life are suspended, as soon as they are once again designated as a specific group endowed with a separate civic and political status, the republican distinction between the strictly spiritual collective and the political individual no longer has any reason to exist and politics can become the collective affair of the Jews; it must do so when their survival is at stake. It is the means, so fragile in the present conditions, of their self-defense. This was Wormser’s position, and he asked that the Consistory henceforth serve as a tool for the protests that the Jews were entitled to address to Vichy.

Wormser’s line quickly followed Dorville’s. The actions of the Consistoire multiplied: its members protested against past measures, tried to hold back Vichy in its headlong rush to collaborate, obtained information on arrests, demanded that foreign Jews be treated like other foreigners, etc. But the margins of maneuver were minimal, precarious and dangerous, and each new anti-Semitic measure confronted the Consistory with painful cases of conscience. In order to make a critical Jewish voice heard, in order to ensure the relief missions that it continued to undertake, in order to hope to be able to have any influence at all on decisions, it could not attack the regime head on. The hard line advocated by Wormser was not always successful. In November 1941, on the occasion of the creation of the UGIF, with which Vichy wanted to associate the Consistoire in order to unify all the Jews and to ensure that no discordant voice remained, Wormser prevailed. He agreed with William Oualid, to whose opinion the Consistory had yielded, to write that “there cannot be, today less than ever, a balance between material interests and honor. The Consistory cannot in any case and in any form associate itself with the work of Vichy, because it would be to recognize a law that it disavows. It must forbid its members, on pain of dismissal, to become administrators of the new organization. The government must be informed of these decisions and their reasons.” But in December 1942, he was all too alone in advocating that the Consistory display its opposition to the affixing of the word “Jew” on the identity and food card.

Doctrine rather than rite as an Israélite form of perseverance. A Jewish doctrine that fitted in so well with the republican ideal. But the French had forgotten their ideal.

Despite the precariousness of his situation and the dangers he faced, Wormser would never use the visa for the United States that he had in his possession. Even when Germany occupied the whole of France, he resisted René Mayer’s exhortation to embark with him for Algiers. Something resisted: “the feeling of duty to my family, to my employees, to my co-religionists.” On November 12, 1942, the day after the Nazis invaded the free zone, Marcel celebrated his thirteenth birthday. In this context, the celebration of his bar mitzvah was obviously impossible. Georges did not mind. He based his actions on the prophet to whom he owed his Hebrew name: Isaiah. From his example, he thought he has learned the lesson that what mattered before the formal practice of the rite was the doctrine: “Isaiah’s attitude is essentially one of justice and charity. What is curious is that it is determined by concern for the future. His dislike of solemnities, his skepticism about the usefulness of prayers, go hand in hand with a desire for moral purity, social harmony and his conviction of the coming of better times. If he calls his son ‘a remnant will come´, if he believes that one day the earth will be full of the knowledge of God, it is because he aspires to an improvement of man, more and more penetrated by wisdom and the fear of the Lord, climbing his mountain to hear his teaching: It is from God that the doctrine comes out. Yes, the doctrine. It is the doctrine that must be maintained, we can even say saved. Bakol[9] is only for a few; doctrine, simplified and made accessible to everyone, can and must be for all”[10] Doctrine rather than rite as the Israelite form of perseverance. A Jewish doctrine that was so well suited to the republican ideal. But the French forgot their ideal. At the Liberation, Georges went to find Jacob Kaplan who officiated at Marcel’s bar mitzvah. The Chief Rabbi of France don’t make the trip to Marcel’s funeral today. His representative is finishing the prayers. In front of me, Mrs. Wormser, Marcel’s wife, ennobled her luminous dignity by letting a tear break through the silences of the Kaddish: “He will raise the dead and raise them to eternal life and will build Jerusalem and the Holy One, blessed be He, will reign in His kingship and His splendor.” Her figure overwhelmed me in that moment: was it the effect of the rite or the imprint left by an upright life?

Since the beginning of the war, there had been a rapprochement between French Israelites and Jewish immigrants in the southern zone. The dynamic contrasted with that of the pre-war period. At that time, part of the Israelite elite was distinguished by its rejection of refugees fleeing Germany or Austria, seeing in them a risk of exacerbating anti-Semitism. In the present situation, this inglorious past was ignored, especially from the autumn of 1942 onwards, as the Vichy police and the occupying forces distinguished less and less between foreign and French Jews. Certain old enmities still weigh heavily, notably that between Marc Jarblum, president of the Federation of Jewish Societies of France, the main association of immigrant Jews, and Jacques Helbronner, president of the Consistory. In 1943, both were sought by the Gestapo. While the former managed to cross into Switzerland in March, the latter was arrested in October and deported to Auschwitz. Two new figures were then to impose themselves and bring about a rapprochement. Born in Odessa, Joseph Fischer was still a young history teacher when he became involved in the Zionist movement. Quickly expelled to Palestine, he finally landed in France in 1925 with the mission of developing the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael for the World Zionist Organization. He founded La Terre Promise, the first Zionist weekly in France. As a refugee in Nice during the war, he became close to the Consistory and in particular to Léon Meiss. Born in the German Moselle in 1896, Léon Meiss’s military file bears the mention “suspect for his pro-French feelings.” After becoming a French citizen after the Great War, he established himself as one of the most promising figures in the judiciary before being expelled in 1940. In Villeurbanne, where he had fled, he improvised as a metal turner and joined the Consistory, for which he made hundreds of false identity cards. After Helbronner’s arrest, Georges Wormser, who had been approached to succeed him, asked Léon Meiss to assume the presidency of the Consistory. Joseph Fischer and Léon Meiss got on well and quickly agreed: events made it necessary to create an organization to represent all the Jews of France.

Léon Meiss in a magistrate’s uniform

From the winter of 1943, Communists, Bundists, immigrants from the Federation of Jewish Societies of France, Zionists and consistories met clandestinely to draw up what was to become the founding charter of the CRIF. The project of an association charged with working politically for the rights of Jews confirmed a break with Israélitisme that the political use of the Consistory since 1940 had already begun. But the alliance that was being forged here with the Zionists marks an additional step. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the Israelite conception of Judaism had been in direct opposition to the Zionist affirmation of a Jewish nation. The Israélites saw this as a challenge to the logic of integration which, in the words of Clermont-Tonnerre, they were so fond of repeating to themselves: “Everything must be denied to the Jews as a nation and everything must be granted to the Jews as individuals.” Zionism carried with it the risk of a revival of accusations of dual allegiance. Obviously, they were not yet totally convinced by its project. The CRIF charter merely called for the abolition of the British White Paper, which restricts the possibilities of Jewish emigration to Palestine. But in the present situation, how could the Israélites still oppose national integration as a means of collective emancipation? The unblemished faith in national integration that had sustained their uncompromising opposition to Zionism has disappeared. The foundation of the CRIF confirmed this.

The year 1944 was critical. In February, the mother of Lucie, Georges’ wife, fell ill. They had to take the train from Châtel-Guyon to Valréas. It was risky. An inspection: “Wormser? That’s Jewish.” “Of course not,” says Georges in German. The law obliges Jews to mention their race on their identity card but Wormser did not follow the law. “Move along!” In Valréas, Madame Beleys dies in the arms of her daughter: “Under a disguised name, in a hay wagon pulled by oxen, the coffin is carried to Orange where, in the midst of some very impressed Catholic relations, I proceed to the burial in the vault they lend us and where I say the prayers and pronounce a few words of farewell.”[11] February 1944, occupied France: a kaddish.

If I have brought together these various texts, it is because I feel that a body of doctrine and an aspect of history emerge from them that it is good to notice, even if one appears outdated and the other marginal.

From Lyon to Châtel-Guyon, Wormser continued to go back and forth. But the danger was too close. An acquaintance at the Rhône prefecture warned him that he was being actively sought by the Gestapo. The family left for Pau where they hid with friends. According to their new papers, they were now from Corsica, from a small village whose town hall had inexplicably burned down, destroying all the civil records. In Pau, Wormser supplied the maquis (Resistance) and made a few raids with the Pommiès free corps. And then, on the morning of August 23, “we were awakened very early by the backfire of motorcycles. It was the Resistance fighters who were going to liberate Pau the same day. With what joy we see the German trucks going back to the north and overloaded with sullen and resigned soldiers. We do not hear Lili Marleen anymore. What a relief ! We would like to shout our joy, to jump for joy, we cannot. There has been too much anguish and too many horrors.”[12]

After the war, Wormser would become head of the Paris Consistory and, in turn, of the Central Consistory, before resigning in 1960. Three years later, he published a small book out of print at Éditions de Minuit: Français israélites. Une doctrine – Une tradition – Une époque. Gathering some thirty texts related to Judaism but written at different times in his life, only the added editing elements – the order of the chapters, the exergue – provide information on the state of mind of its author, then aged 75. Opening with a chapter devoted to “Israelites who are members of the French body politic,” the work ends with the impressions of a trip of “three truly enchanting weeks” in Israel. As for the exergue, it leaves little doubt: “If I have brought together these various texts, it is because I feel that a body of doctrine and an aspect of history emerge from them that it is good to notice, even if one appears outdated and the other marginal.” A long existence and a final sentence. The State’s takeover of anti-Semitism in society had affected a hope that was supported by a belief: the belief in a certain idea of France. This idea was gone.

Did Georges Wormser suffer from this? Certainly. No Wormser will ever again be involved in politics and what struck one on the day of Marcel’s burial is the intensity of their family life, the ardor of their love. Were the accounts of Israélitisme settled for all that? Indirectly, I think so. Georges’ eldest son, André, was named after his uncle. Dead in 2008, he was one of the most important militants of the harkis’ (native combatants for France in Algeria) cause. From ministry to ministry, he went on repeating “that they believed in France, that they sacrificed themselves for her, that they have rights over us….” For the second, Marcel, no nominal inheritance. At least, that is what I thought. For Marcel made me a last confidence under that stormy August sky. When the great king Ahab’s weakness for his wife Jezebel threatened to throw Israel into paganism, the prophet Elijah appeared. Elijah opposed Jezebel’s influence on her husband, which led her away from the religious exclusivism of the worship of the Lord and to despotism. Of course, Elijah did not deny the importance of the Tyrolean-Israelite alliance that this marriage had secured. But to the imperatives that go hand in hand with the union, he opposed the imperative of fidelity to Israel. Elijah, or the right measure in politics and in love. His ideal of French Israélites, Georges had placed it in the hollow of his most beautiful work. At the time of his long rest, Marcel Wormser took his Hebrew name: Elijah. Elijah Ben-Isaiah. The last Israelite.


Milo Lévy-Bruhl

Notes

1 G. Wormser, Georges Mandel, page 67.
2 G. Wormser, Souvenirs d’un réescompteur, page 94.
3 G. Wormser, Georges Mandel, page 161
4 G. Wormser, Idem, page 219.
5 Comité de Vigilance, Stenographic note of the meeting of Tuesday, February 1, 1938, author’s family archives.
6 G. Wormser, Français israélites, pages 11-14.
7 G. Wormser, Souvenirs d’un réescompteur, page 51.
8 Quoted by Simon Schwarzfuchs, “Le Consistoire central et le gouvernement de Vichy” in Le Consistoire durant la Seconde Guerre mondial, Revue d’histoire de la Shoah, 2000/2, n°169, Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine, pp. 17-27.
9 ”Bakol” means “in all things.” The term is taken from Genesis 24:1, “And God blessed bakol abraham and berakh adonay vaַ” / “ויהָוה ֵּבַרְך ֶאת-ַאְבָרָהם, ַּבֹּכל”] “things all in Abraham.”]
10 G. Wormser, Français israélites, page 96
11 G. Wormser, Souvenirs d’un réescompteur, page 69.
12 G. Wormser, idem, pages 70-71.

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