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Genealogy Guide: France

Brief History

Jews first settled in the Roman province of Gaul (roughly the same area as modern France) in the first and second centuries A.D. These were mostly refugees who were exiled from or who fled Palestine in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple and the Second Jewish Revolt. From the 11th to the 14th centuries, Jews faced periodic expulsions from the Kingdom of France, in addition to massacres of whole communities, confiscations of property, confinement to separate quarters in urban areas, and severe restrictions of their rights. Jews were only able to maintain a continuous presence during the Middle Ages in the Papal States (Comtat Venaissin and Avignon) of southeastern France and in Alsace in northeastern France.

Beginning in 1472, following the devastation of the Hundred Years’ War, King Louis XI solicited the immigration of Spanish and Portuguese merchants to Bordeaux and Saint-Esprit in southwestern France. Many of the merchants that arrived were conversos or crypto-Jews (Jews who had converted to Christianity during the Inquisition but secretly retained their Jewish identity). Gradually, these conversos began to openly identify as Jewish, but were not officially recognized as Jews until the early 18th century. The Jews that settled in Metz and Lorraine in northeastern France, beginning in the late 16th and late 17th centuries respectively, were predominantly German. The Jewish population of northeastern France grew the most rapidly in the centuries following the end of the Middle Ages, accounting for about three-quarters of the total Jewish population by the eve of the French Revolution. Finally, a tiny enclave of about 500 Jewish émigrés, primarily from the older French Jewish communities, emerged in Paris in the early 18th century.

The French Revolution was a watershed moment in French Jewish history. Prior to the Revolution, Jews in the three older areas of settlement lived in self-governing communities with autonomous religious, legal, educational, and charitable institutions. In 1791, France became the first country in Europe to grant all of its Jews full citizenship. With citizenship, however, came a loss of religious freedom, as the Revolution banned Jewish customs that outwardly distinguished them from the larger French culture, such as the observance of the Sabbath. In 1808, Napoleon passed a series of laws that sought to further erode Jewish separateness by restricting Jews’ engagement in commerce and moneylending, bringing synagogues under state supervision, and ordering all Jews to declare fixed personal and family names. According to Hyman, Napoleon’s laws “reinforced the very sense of group cohesiveness and identity” that they were meant to demolish (The Jews of Modern France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, p. 48). Nevertheless, the century following Jewish emancipation was marked by significant, albeit gradual and not universal, Jewish migration to formerly exclusionary cities and regions (especially Paris), professional diversification, social mobility, integration in the public school system, political participation, and the adoption of French language, dress, and manners.

From 1881 until the outbreak of World War II, French Jewry absorbed an unprecedented influx of immigrants. By the end of this period, immigrant Jews would comprise the majority of French Jewry. Before 1933, the vast majority of Jewish immigrants came from Eastern Europe. From 1933 to 1940, the demographics of Jewish immigration shifted largely to Germans and Austrians fleeing Nazism. While modern political anti-Semitism in France predated the onset of the mass migration period in the 1880’s, France experienced a virulent resurgence of anti- Semitism in the 1930’s. In June-July 1940, the German occupation of northern France and the establishment of the collaborationist Vichy government in southern France ushered in “a period of unprecedented persecution” (Hyman, 1998, p. 161). By the time France was liberated in June 1944, more than 75,000 French Jews had been deported to death camps and about 3,000 died in French internment camps; in total, approximately one-quarter of French Jewry were exterminated in this period.

In the decades following World War II, the Jewish population of France rebounded to become the largest in western and central Europe. This was due, in large part, to the mass migration of Jews from North Africa, which was spurred by the outbreak of nationalist xenophobia and declining economic opportunities following these countries’ achievement of independence. Between 1950 and 1970, France absorbed the second largest number of Jewish immigrants (after Israel), most of whom were from the former French colonies of North Africa and, therefore, already had French citizenship and identified as culturally French. Once again, immigrant Jews comprised the majority of French Jewry.


Benbassa, Esther. The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).  American Sephardi Federation   DS 135 .F8 B3613 1999 and YIVO   000105600

Ginger, Basil. “France,” in Sack, Sallyann Amdur, AVOTAYNU Guide to Jewish Genealogy (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2004), pp. 320-343. Genealogy Institute   CS 21 .A98 2004

Hyman, Paula E. The Jews of Modern France (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,1998).  YIVO   000095202