The test of leadership

A WWII diary portrays the story of a Jew who serves both his country and fellow Jews under Vichy France.

lambert 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
lambert 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Diary of a Witness 1940-1943 By Raymond Raoul Lambert, introduction by Richard I. Cohen Translated by Isabel Best Ivan R. Dee with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum 288 pages; $27.50 On May 10, 1941, Raymond Raoul Lambert wrote in his diary: "In view of the persecutions being initiated by the new order in France, against foreigners in general and foreign Jews in particular, in light of what has happened elsewhere, in view of the racist laws and the 'Commission on Jewish Affairs' being run in Vichy from Berlin, I wonder whether this collaboration won't bring about a yet more rigorous Statut [the anti-Jewish laws of October 7, 1940]... There are days when I don't dare listen to official bulletins on the radio; they wound me, because I still feel French and call myself a Frenchman. If I didn't have my wife and my three sons, I should be sorry not to have died honorably in action... or sorry to have survived my mother..." Lambert's wartime diary was published in Paris in 1985, a part of an otherwise lost major diary. Born in 1894, educated in Paris, the fourth son of a middle-class, well-integrated family, he was deeply interested in French, European and Jewish national affairs. A World War I hero and high-ranking French army officer, Lambert first became an educator, later a high-ranking French civil servant, who had spent four years in Bonn (1920-1924) as a representative to the Allies' Rhineland Commission, where he had gained the respect of both Germans and French alike. A staunch supporter of pan-Europeanism, he had repeatedly censured nationalistic writers and opposed the more militant French attitudes toward Germany. He believed that "Germany and France, after having been combatants, have to collaborate or decline," a prophetic thought, but expressed too early. Lambert's strong identification with France and its interests did not prevent him from taking a deep interest in Jewish affairs. A prolific writer for various French and Jewish publications, he had even published a collection of poems on Jewish themes and had assisted in the founding of the French Jewish Literary Review. He strove to bring French Jewish youth to a better understanding of the need to build "a new notion of a universal order." He was pleased to see the Zionist achievements in Palestine, but his very deep sentiment for liberal France prevented him from showing any special interest in the Zionist movement. The diary offers us a very interesting description of Lambert's service in the defeated French army in World War II, the creation of Vichy and the unprecedented rise of French anti-Semitism. There can be little doubt that he was the most qualified man to accept the post of head of the Vichy and German creation: the Union of French Jews (UGIV). During the late 1930s he was already somewhat critical about the existing French-Jewish organizations, the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Central Consistory, for not showing sufficient regard for Jewish refugees. By accepting the UGIV post, he thought, he could do a better job. He therefore disregarded his own misgivings and his friends' warnings that this organization might ultimately become a dangerous tool of the enemies of the Jews. The diary expresses Lambert's distress and his deep disappointment with Vichy's New Order of 1940. It minces no words how all the French ideals that he had cherished all his life had crumbled under the progressively more restrictive anti-Semitic legislation. He found that many of his former friends had now embraced the Nazi ideology. And yet, he had not only accepted the UGIV post, but had continued to congratulate himself on a job well done, for its charitable activities and interventions with the authorities were indeed vital to his less fortunate Jewish brothers. The diary criticizes the Jewish leaders who have fled from France, and while RRL is well aware that the progressive German demands and Vichy's total collaboration may end badly, it shows how he is being gradually caught within the wheels of the deadly Nazi extermination machine. It is true that UGIV saved many Jews from deportations. But those saved from one transport could have been caught in the next one. In December 1943, Lambert, who had apparently outlived his usefulness, was sent together with his wife and four children to Auschwitz, where they were gassed three days later. The diary fails to quote his critics' warnings that UGIV was a tool of the enemy. But it leaves us in no doubt that Lambert had, in a certain perverse way, enjoyed his power, his freedom to travel in the restricted zones, his hotels and restaurants, books and the contacts with the high-ranking Vichy and German officials. The diary presents us with a frank portrait of a rather unfortunate good Jew caught in the deadly net of the Nazi extermination machine.