Sephardi Immigrants in Paris

Navigating Community, Culture, and Citizenship between France and the Ottoman Empire, 1918-1945

Robin Buller

In the decades preceding World War II, France’s Jewish population grew from 150,000 to nearly 350,000. Existing scholarship analyzes East European Ashkenazi newcomers, while the over 30,000 Sephardi Jewish immigrants from the dismantled Ottoman Empire have been largely ignored. Their history is distinct in important cultural and legal ways. Knowledge of French language and customs upon arrival, resulting from Franco-Jewish educational initiatives around the Mediterranean basin, gave them access to relationships and opportunities in their receiving society that were closed to others. Additionally, extraterritorial privileges—vestiges of the imperial era that offered foreign protection beyond conventional national purviews—gave Sephardim access to potentially potent (and at times risky) forms of legal knowledge. Many carried multiple passports and had protégé papersfrom British, Italian, Spanish, or other consulates—coveted yet ambiguous documents that were heritable through generations. How, I ask, did Sephardi cultural characteristics and legal ties brought over from the Ottoman Empire shape interwar processes of settlement and integration in Paris? How did forms of knowledge such as fluency in the French language and relationships with foreign governments create or limit options for survival during the Holocaust?

Through my book project—a study of Ottoman Sephardi Jewish immigrants in interwar and Second World War Paris—I seek to undercut the prevailing narrative of Jewish immigrant “otherness” that is grounded in the study of Eastern European Jews. I am particularly interested in how knowledge practices rooted in Jewish life in the Ottoman lands persisted within this diaspora community for decades after the Empire’s demise. By bridging the histories of interwar Jewish immigration to France with that of Jewish persecution during the Second World War, my book characterizes certain forms of migrant knowledge as common threads between the two periods. I reveal, for instance, how Ottoman Sephardim used past knowledge of the French language and culture to both integrate into their new surroundings during the interwar years, and to form social relationships that were critical to survival during the Holocaust. What is more, I argue that affiliations with foreign governments were forms of knowledge that the Sephardi diaspora invoked in varied contexts. The possession of foreign passports, for instance, bolstered interwar naturalization applications, and appeals to foreign consuls helped to secure escape routes during the Nazi occupation of France. Ultimately, my book shows how citizenship, language, and transnational networks were central to Ottoman Sephardi interwar migration and integration, and in turn influenced their wartime experiences of persecution and survival.