Monday, March 08, 2021

Ducking and diving in Vichy France

By Andy Brooks

Szkolnikoff: Hitler’s Jewish smuggler: by Pierre Abramovici, Pen & Sword Books. Barnsley 2016, 223 pp, illus, £19.99. ISBN 978-1-47386-186-2 (hardback)

The popular perception of France under the German occupation is moulded by war-time propaganda that has echoed down the decades in a seemingly endless stream of films and TV dramas that portray the Germans as Nazi thugs who take anything they fancy from a helpless French population while spivs, much like Private Walker in Dad’s Army, use the consequential shortages to exploit their own people on the street. But this is only part of the story.
     That indeed was the reality for some. But for others it was more complex. Thousands of French men and women collaborated with the Germans under the reactionary Petain regime that took over after the 1940 armistice which left northern France under continued German military occupation. Some were French fascists who believed in Hitler’s ideology of hate. Others simply thought that they were playing safe on the mistaken belief that Germany was going to win the war. On the way some made a bit of money out of the Germans. Others made immense fortunes
     In June 1945 the charred body of a man was found dumped in a field near Madrid. He was Mendel Szkolnikoff. Born in Russia in 1895 he was a Karaite, a member of a small breakaway Jewish sect that was exempt from the anti-semitic laws of the Czarist empire. This worked in his favour in the 1940s because the Nazis did not consider the Karaites to be Jews either.
    Szkolnikoff started life as a petty trader in Czarist Russia before fleeing the Soviet Union in the late 1920s to run a number of small businesses from modest apartments in western Europe.
     This all changed following the fall of France in 1940. Within weeks of the armistice Szkolnikoff becomes a major player in the textile industry as a middleman between French manufacturers to supply fabrics and clothing to the SS, the Luftwaffe and the German navy. Literally from rags to riches “Michel” Szkolnikoff, as he calls himself now, is buying chateaux in France, mansions in Monte Carlo and stashing millions away in bank accounts in Monaco, Spain and Switzerland.
     How he got there and why he came to a sticky end are questions that the author, Pierre Abramovici, tries to answer in this life of what, clearly, was an extraordinary man.
     Nazi Germany, still at war with Britain and soon to be embroiled in what proved to be a fatal confrontation with the Soviet Union, wanted everything France could produce to help their war effort. As Vichy France was technically now neutral under the terms of the 1940 armistice the Germans had to pay for their imports. But the harsh economic regime that they had imposed on France, which included a colossally overvalued 20 to one exchange rate between the Vichy franc and the Reichmark meant that the French state ultimately always ended up footing the bill.
    Though the Petain regime encouraged collaboration few French manufacturers wanted to directly deal with the Germans. And this is where Szkolnikoff made his mark. He knew the power of expensive gifts that only money can provide. With a well-connected German wife and an ever expanding range of contacts within the German hierarchy and the Vichy establishment “Michel” built up a spectacular black market empire as well as a personal fortune said to be worth £377 million in today's money.
     This is a specialist book that tells us more about the methods than the man. But by shining a light on the murky world of the war-time black market it will remain essential reading for all students of the German occupation of France in the Second World War.

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