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80 years ago, the “marking” of Jews with the yellow star in the occupied zone

On May 29, 1942, a German ordinance made the wearing of the yellow star compulsory for all Jews over the age of six living in the occupied zone. This discriminatory measure, put in place on June 7, contributed to the implementation of mass deportations. It remains the symbol of the persecution of Jews in France.

“I made a scandal to my mother for not putting this star. I told her: ‘I don’t want you to sew this!’ It was terrible.” Rachel Jedinak has a terrible memory of the yellow star. She was only eight years old in June 1942, when the wearing of this piece of fabric became compulsory for Jews in the occupied zone, French or foreign, over the age of six. “It was very painful for me to be differentiated from my little comrades. Some of our friends wanted to continue playing with us and others did not. It is very difficult for a child”, adds this Holocaust survivor who lived in the 20e district of Paris.

A few days earlier, on May 29, 1942, this measure had been put in place by an order signed by the Militärbefehlshaber in Frankreich or MbF, the German military command in France. It was also introduced at the same time in the Netherlands and Belgium. “Adolf Eichmann, head of the Jewish affairs department at the Reich Central Security Office and as such organizer of the deportations, summons Theodor Dannecker, Judenreferent in Paris, with his colleagues from The Hague and Brussels. He explains to them the results of the Wannsee meeting, which took place on January 20, 1942, and encourages them to introduce, in a coordinated manner in each of their administrative territories, the obligation to wear the yellow star”, explains historian Claire Zalc, research director at the CNRS.

A photo showing a front page of the newspaper “Le Matin” announcing that Jews will have to wear the yellow star from June 7, 1942. Remy de la Mauviniere, AP

“This discriminatory measure is constitutive of anti-Semitism”

The idea is not new. This discriminatory measure had already been implemented in 1939 in Poland and in 1941 in the Reich, Alsace, Bohemia-Moravia and the annexed territories of western Poland. It revives a certain tradition of marking imposed on Jews over the centuries in different territories. “This discriminatory measure is constitutive of anti-Semitism. It is intrinsically linked to one of its characteristics: the need to distinguish, to assign, to show by a sign or an insignia a minority in order to belittle or degrade it” , summarizes the historian.

80 years ago, the “marking” of Jews with the yellow star in the occupied zone
A young Jewish boy wearing a star armband in Radom, Poland. Wikimedia / Bundesarchiv

Since September 1940, a procession of measures had been taken to identify, despoil, isolate and discriminate against the Jewish population. “The inventories and spoliation of property, imposed by the first ordinance of September 1940, were followed by professional discrimination and social exclusion. Prohibitions multiplied: the possession of TSF sets, participation in assize courts. The sixth ordinance, in February 1942, prohibited Jewish outings between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., as well as changes of residence,” explains Claire Zalc in particular.

In the first days of June 1942, the Jews of the occupied zone had to remove the star from town halls, sub-prefectures or even police stations. It is not free and can be obtained for textile card points or money. Some benefit from derogations, such as Jews living in mixed marriages if their children are recognized as non-Jews, but they are granted only rarely.

In an unoccupied zone, the measure is not applied. For this specialist in the Holocaust, this does not demonstrate an opposition from Marshal Pétain who had described it as “fair measure”. “The marking does not pose a problem in Vichy since the ‘Jewish’ stamp on the identity card becomes compulsory in the unoccupied zone from December 11, 1942. Nevertheless, the Vichy regime intends above all to preserve public opinion from reactions of sympathy which could be aroused by the obligation to wear the star”, estimates Claire Zalc.

80 years ago, the “marking” of Jews with the yellow star in the occupied zone
Women wearing the yellow star in a street in Paris. © Wikimedia / Bundesarchiv

Very different reactions

Gestures of solidarity are indeed observed in the occupied zone. The police arrest people showing their support for the Jewish population by wearing fake badges or stars with fanciful names such as “auvergnat”, “swing” or even “zazou”. Others, on the contrary, take the opportunity to display their anti-Semitism by insulting those who must now wear the star.

Within the Jewish community, the reactions are also contrasting, as Claire Zalc describes it: “Some hesitate, refuse to wear it. Others hide it under the lapel of the coat, or equip it with press studs to be able to remove it easily. There are cases of suicides too. There are those who have the courage not to wear it and those who have the courage to wear it.” Eight-year-old Agnès Buisson remembers the day her mother arrived home with that infamous badge in their Paris apartment. “She started sewing these yellow stars on the clothes. It was said to sew them in small stitches and she sewed them in large stitches with a rage,” she recalls. “It was worse than anything.”

Mark is used to stop

For Claire Zalc, this marking was not only a means of stigmatizing and humiliating the Jews, it also made it possible to isolate them, monitor them and control their movements. “It was at the time when the mass deportation for the purpose of extermination of the Jews of Western Europe was organized that the marking policy was put in place,” she insists. When the decision was taken to organize the mass deportations of Jews from France to the East in the spring of 1942, marking also served to stop. A few weeks after the introduction of the wearing of the star, nearly 13,000 people were interrogated in particular on July 16 and 17, 1942 during the infamous roundup of the Vél d’Hiv organized in Paris and its close suburbs, before be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Eighty years later, the yellow star has become the symbol of the persecution of the Jews. It represents for the victims and their descendants what they experienced during the Shoah. Six-year-old Renée Borycki in 1942 kept it as a relic. “I had received it as a birthday present”, ironically this hidden child who escaped the roundup of the Vél d’Hiv. “When I could still go to the ceremonies, I always put it on. At each event. I was offered money for it. I will never give my star. I kept it not only as proof, but as a sacred thing.”

80 years ago, the “marking” of Jews with the yellow star in the occupied zone
Renée Borycki’s yellow star, which she received on her sixth birthday in 1942. © Stephanie Trouillard, France24

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