There was a legal complication: Unlike other confiscated Jewish-owned firms, the Rothschild Hospital never operated as a Jewish business, that is, one that was aryanized with a CGQJ appointed administrateur provisoire (temporary administrator) to operate it or sell it. Furthermore, there were no bank accounts to plunder, and virtually all of the Rothschild family had left France. Spoliation, except for some personal property belonging to Halfon and a few others who had left, was not feasible. To function as a hospital, not to mention prison camp, Rothschild needed its buildings, its appliances, its furnishings and its supplies. Moreover, it was a charitable institution whose assets, according to the November 29, 1941 Vichy law that created UGIF, were to devolve to UGIF. The devolution was completed by decree May 12, 1944, which appeared in the Journal Officiel June 19, 1944.
The Union Générale des Israëlites de France (UGIF) was created to replace and manage all Jewish charities, social agencies, philanthropies, and foundations, including the Rothschild Hospital. The Germans insisted on the establishment of this union, and all Jews in France were required to belong to UGIF-Nord in the Occupied Zone, or to UGIF-Sud in the Unoccupied Zone). Its leaders were prominent French Jews appointed by Vichy decree. UGIF was formed to be a council similar to the Judenrat the Nazis set up in Germany and other defeated countries, whose leadership was forced to cooperate in Jewish deportation. The roles and practices of these councils in all the German-occupied countries proved to be ambiguous and controversial, and UGIF in France was no exception.
At Rothschild, a Jewish director was needed to represent the Rothschild Foundation in its dealings with UGIF and the Jewish community in Paris. In his memoirs L’honneur de vivre (The Honor of Living), Dr. Robert Debré says he assumed a sort of responsibility for the reorganization of the medical staff of the hospital, but it was Armand Kohn who spoke on behalf of the Rothschild Foundation.
Kohn has been called volontaire de la mort (death’s volunteer) because he refused to pack up his family and assets and leave France when he was able to do so. He was the nephew of Philippe de Rothschild. Kohn typified many of the old guard Jewish French families, the Juifs de vieille souche. The tragedy that befell his family similarly struck others. Kohn was intensely French, a completely assimilated Jew, a decorated First World War veteran whose family had been French citizens for at least five generations.
Armand Kohn found leaving France inconceivable. His survival strategy was to obey. When the Second Statute on the Jews (1941) excluded Jews from banking, which was his profession, he assumed the role of Secretary General of the Rothschild Foundation, which he considered a worthy endeavor. In that position, he was responsible for dealing with the Jewish community much as Sammy Halfon did, but with a striking difference. (Philippe Kohn interview and Philippe Kohn archives.)
Kohn belonged to UGIF and was a member of its Commission médico-sociale. Halfon refused to belong to UGIF because he did not trust the motives of those in charge. He sensed from the beginning that UGIF was a treacherous, Nazi-created organ of collaboration. Halfon was especially angry with UGIF for fostering anti-Semitism among Jews, and sacrificing immigrant Jews for Jews. Indeed UGIF went so far as to set up complex class distinctions among immigrant Jews (Juifs étrangers), French Jews (Israëlites français), and long established French Jews (Israëlites de la cinquième génération) who, like Kohn, enjoyed privileges the others did not receive. At Rothschild, UGIF even requested separate hospital rooms for “Israëlites âgés, d’un niveau social différent de ceux que vous affectez aux dortoirs,” (elderly Jews, of a different social level than those you put in the wards.) This was adopted after Halfon’s departure in August 1942. In those dark years, many Jews called UGIF a Jewish Gestapo, and today the name UGIF still provokes controversy within the French Jewish community.
The UGIF archives (USHHM, Washington; YIVO, New York) show that Kohn worked closely with the organization for the betterment of the Rothschild Foundation. He secured UGIF legitimacy cards for Rothschild personnel, which theoretically exempted cardholders from internment. He relocated part of the service maternité to pavillon 2 to protect newborns from contagious diseases; this was after UGIF negotiated with the Germans to allow Jewish mothers to nurse their newborns at Rothschild for six months before they, mothers and babies, were returned to Drancy for deportation! He met weekly with members of the Commission médico-sociale to discuss the improvement of medical and social services involving health, hygiene, discipline and recruiting. In September 1942, he suggested reinstating the nursing school at Rothschild, which reopened a year and a half later.
Other actions of Armand Kohn portray a very different person. In July 1943, when Aloïs Brunner dismissed all police surveillance from the hospital, Kohn hired a private firm (Faralicq) to patrol the Foundation. He even ordered “F de R” armbands, signifying Fondation de Rothschild, for the firm’s police. He advocated that barbed wire be placed around the prisoner-designated pavilions. He worked with Henri Dupin, and later with Mme Wiart and the liaison to the Gestapo, André Blondin, to enact prison-like regulations and punishments to prevent escapes from the hospital and hospices. Before the February 10, 1943 orphanage roundup, described in Chapter 2, Kohn went so far as to order a detention system with solitary confinement – he called it a re-education section for delinquent orphans of deported parents. For Kohn, discipline, whether for himself or others, implied obedience and a strict adherence to rules.