Jews who ventured to Paris in the nineteenth century, immigrants as well as Jews already settled in France, were naturally attracted to a city that protected them with full rights and citizenship. Almost all were poor and in need of assistance from charitable institutions. James de Rothschild, son of the scion Mayer Anschel and founder of the French branch of the great banking family, built a hospital for Jewish patients. The idea was not new; Paris already had its Catholic and Protestant hospitals, and Jewish hospitals existed in other capital cities.
Land on the rue de Picpus in Paris’ XIIth arrondissement was chosen because of its proximity to clusters of Jewish immigrants residing in the XIth, XIIth and XXth arrondissements. The first Rothschild Hospital and Hospice was inaugurated on May 26, 1852, and in 1874 an orphanage was built nearby, on the rue Lamblardie. On April 8, 1886, the hospital, hospice and orphanage became the Rothschild Foundation, a utilité publique.
In 1906, James’ son Edmund proposed a second hospital on land at the angle of the rue de Picpus and the rue Santerre. The newer structure embodied the theories of Pasteur, Lister, and Semmelweiss, whose research postulated that a hospital divided into small pavilions with large, airy rooms would provide the hygiene necessary to help deter the spread of infectious diseases. The hospital that architect Lucien Bechmann designed was quite large, even by today’s standards, consisting of a series of two-storied, almost symmetrical red brick and stone pavilions, with a lane down the middle, gardens and green spaces. Each pavilion had a basement, and a tunnel with connecting basement access, so that comings and goings could go on underground. Patients were able to view a serene and quite beautiful environment. They could take walks by the garden wall that separated Rothschild from the Picpus Cemetery, where nobles and commoners beheaded during the French Revolution share a common grave near that of the Marquis de La Fayette.
The hospital that Edmund commissioned was inaugurated on May 26, 1914. A few months later the Great War broke out, whereupon the Rothschild family offered the hospital to the nation, and it became the First Auxiliary Military Hospital of Paris. Civilian patients were relocated to the original 1852 structure to make room for thousands of casualties. During the four years of World War I, the hospital operated at three times capacity. It was divided in two: one side was general surgery, and the other facial reconstruction. Hospital personnel and charity workers were mobilized. Soaring costs forced the Rothschilds to ask other benefactors for assistance. During the night of June 15,1918, German planes bombed the hospital. Today a plaque on a pavilion wall reads: 1918 Bombardement de l’Hôpital par les avions allemands nuit du 15 au 16 juin.
Between the two wars, the Rothschild Hospital achieved hospital an unmatched reputation. Professor Robert Debré, considered one of France’s greatest doctors and widely renown for his work in pediatrics, presided over Rothschild’s Conseil Médical. Doctors and interns were selected through highly competitive exams (concours). The hospital’s on-site nursing school recruited women from the outside and the orphanage. The social workers were so esteemed that, prior to September 1939, they were supervising the social work staffs in virtually all Paris hospitals. Neither religion nor nationality was considered when selecting personnel who, as it turned out, were more Gentile than Jewish. As for the patients, in addition to serving an indigent Jewish population, which was the hospital’s original mission, Rothschild also admitted non-indigent Jews such as artisans, laborers, shop owners, non-Jews residing in the neighborhood, and others whom the doctors chose to admit. The Rothschild Hospital seemed insulated from the waves of anti-Semitism that began to surround it.
Anti-Semitism and Medicine in France
From the end of the nineteenth century up to and including World War II, old hatreds and jealousies, and spurred on by the Dreyfus affair, anti-Semitism in the field of medicine was widely tolerated and shamelessly encouraged throughout France. Owing to a series of French legislative enactments – now little known or remembered – immigrant Jews, but also Jews, were slowly excluded from medical schools and the medical profession. Russian, Polish, and Romanian students and doctors were the first to be targeted by a law enacted at the end of the nineteenth century limiting the practice of medicine in France to students with a French baccalaureate. This helped stem the tide of medical students from Romania whose baccalaureate was considered equivalent to the French baccalaureate.
During the 1930s the campaign against Jewish doctors turned even more odious. The principal grievance among non-Jewish French doctors and medical students was that there were too many Jewish doctors competing with them in France, because when many foreign Jewish students finished medical school, they opened practices in France and flourished. Overtly anti-Semitic doctors such as the author Louis-Ferdinand Céline were quick to exaggerate the percentages.
In 1933, the Armbruster law, named for a Senator/Doctor Armbruster, ended all foreign baccalaureate equivalence and the granting of special exemptions for outstanding foreign doctors: To practice in France, a physician had to be a French national or an expatriate from a French protectorate, and hold a doctor’s degree from a French medical school. The Armbruster law, however, did not quell the antagonism of medical students in France or in its colony, Algeria; to the contrary, it incited them even further because it was not retroactive. In 1935 the students called for a massive strike, and law school students joined. The result was that the Armbruster law was modified: naturalized doctors without military service would have to wait five years to practice medicine, and ten years before they could occupy a public position.
Even with the passage of these restrictive laws, and perhaps because of them, the xenophobic and anti-Jewish climate in the medical profession showed no signs of diminishing. The percentage of foreign students in French medical schools declined from 32% in 1932 to 20% in 1938. In July 1938, the Confederation of French Medical Associations called for strict enforcement of quotas on the number of foreign doctors licensed to practice in France. In February 1939, seven months before the French declaration of war against Germany, the openly anti-Semitic newspaper Je suis partout devoted an entire issue to an attack on Jewish doctors and medical students in France.