Despite all this, when the war against Germany was declared in September 1939, many immigrant Jewish doctors, indeed many thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants, volunteered for military service. They felt a debt of gratitude for the country that had accepted them and an obligation to fight for a free France. Many hundreds also joined the foreign legions. Léon Pérel, an intern at Rothschild, joined the Polish Army in France. (Pérel interview.)
In his famous radio address from London, the Appel du 18 Juin (June 18 Call), General Charles de Gaulle called on his compatriots to continue the struggle through “underground” resistance. As a result, the number of foreign Jews in resistance organizations and combat forces increased significantly. Dr. Henri Rosencher, whose family emigrated from Poland, for example, crossed the demarcation line into Unoccupied France and joined the Free French Forces in Algeria. (Rosencher interview.)
The German army invaded northern France in May 1940; the French surrendered in June. Almost immediately after the surrender, the French government, headquartered in Vichy in Unoccupied France under the leadership of World War I hero Marshal Pétain, promulgated a series of anti-Semitic laws. These laws were applicable in both the German Occupied Zone (North), which was under the authority of the German Army, and the Unoccupied Zone (South), controlled by Vichy authorities, that is, throughout all of France. The only condition the Germans put on Vichy laws was that they be consistent with the German ordinances in place in the Occupied Zone. The Vichy racial laws of 1940-1941 were a legislative attack on the Jews of France, and many of them struck viciously hard at Jewish doctors, for example:
• The law of July 22, 1940 set up a commission to review all French naturalizations since 1927. Approximately 6,300 Jews were stripped of French nationality, doctors among them.
• The law of August 16, 1940 set up the Ordre des médecins (Doctor’s Guild) to regulate the practice of medicine, which moved quickly to attempt to restrict the profession to children of French-born fathers. Later the Guild conducted a census of Jewish doctors, and determined which doctors could practice under a 2% Jewish doctor quota advocated in a prior decree on August 11, 1941. (In 1997, Guild president Bernard Glorion, in the name of the Ordre des Médecins, publicly asked its members to repent for its exclusion of Jewish doctors under Vichy.)
• The law of August 27, 1940 repealed the Marchandeau Law that prohibited racial and religious assaults in the press. The anti-Semitic press (e.g. Cri du people, Je suis partout, Au pilori) immediately went on the attack against Jews, including Jewish doctors. Articles urged citizens to boycott French Jewish doctors and rid the country of métèque, immigrant doctors.
• The first Statut des Juifs (Statut on the Jews), October 4, 1940, sought to eliminate Jews from all public positions and professions that influence public opinion: It forbade Jewish doctors from practicing in all public institutions (Article 2), from teaching (Article 2), and from joining professional associations like the Ordre des Médecins (Article 6). Most Jewish doctors in public hospitals were immediately dismissed. Some were recruited by the Rothschild Hospital, which was a private institution. One of them, Dr. Robert Worms, later became chief of Rothschild’s service médecine.
A very few others, because of their prestige and accomplishments, received special exemptions allowing them to continue to practice in public hospitals. Robert Debré was promoted by the unanimous vote of the Conseil de la Faculté de Médecine to the chair of the medical clinic at the Hôpital des Enfants Malades, where he continued his practice until September 1943, when he was forced into hiding as both a Jew and a resistant.
• The second Status des Juifs (Statute on the Jews), June 2, 1941, replaced the first. It broadened the definition of “Jew,” refined exclusion by expanding the list of prohibited occupations, and announced that a quota system, or numerus clausus, on professions would be decided in future decrees. Many of the remaining Jewish interns and doctors in the hospitals were summarily “thanked” and then dismissed.
• The decree of June 21, 1941 placed a quota of 3% on Jewish medical students. (Colette Brull-Ulmann interview.)
• The decree of August 11, 1941 instituted the long awaited numerus clausus, which set at 2% the number of Jewish doctors in Paris and in each of the departments.
No documents have been found to show that in enacting these laws, the Vichy government bowed to German pressure to aryanize the medical and other professions. Historians have demonstrated the opposite: Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws and decrees were enacted on its own initiative, and at times preceded anti-Semitic German ordinances. The statute of June 2, 1941, for example, was the brainchild of Xavier Vallat, Pétain’s first Commissioner General at the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives (CGQJ), the Vichy government’s bureau on Jewish affairs.
When Vichy’s attitude toward the Jews became obvious, a formal letter expressing concern addressed to Marshal Pétain was signed by leading French Jews, among them Debré and his friend and colleague Dr. Gaston Nora, chief of the service urologie (Urology Department) at the Rothschild Hospital. Around the same time Debré and Nora decided to pay Vallat a visit at his home. Nora knew Vallat from serving with him in World War I, as the regiment’s doctor, and had saved Vallat’s life by carrying him off the battlefield under heavy fire and then treating him. Vallat was gravely wounded and lost a leg and an eye. Had it not been for Nora, he would have died.