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General History of the Valenciennes
Jewish Community 1790-1945

By Danielle Delmaire distinguished Professor of Lille3 University.
Historian of the Jewish Communities.

The main archive sources used for this document are the municipal archives of Valenciennes (AMV), the archives of the French Department Nord (ADN), the French national archives and Jerusalem archives (Jér.).

Before 1789: Crossing of Jewish hawker through the North and the Valenciennes Region.

A Valenciennes peculiar register of the burial of non-Catholics and of comedian people - "burial of those to whom ecclesiastical burial won't be granted" - shows the name of Mardochée Lazare in date of 9 October 1789 (AMV).

During the Revolution and the Empire: Birth of a small community.

According to various censuses (ADN, AN, and Jér.), we can count a dozen of people in Valenciennes between 1798 and 1805 then 8 people in 1806 (ADN and AN). An 1810 census shows only two people left. However the couples were mixed and only the Jewish people from those couples were listed (Jér.).

Valenciennes town has kept logbooks in its archives that list the name of outsiders entering and leaving the town through its doors: several Jewish names from the area and from the rest of France are shown in 1798-1799.

All these families peddled various goods for a living which left them destitute. They were all very poor and originated from Alsace and Lorraine.

First half of the 19th century: Presence of a few families

The various censuses of the 1820s-1850s (ADN, AN et Jér.) show the existence of a very small community meaning that the Jewish presence hadn't disappeared.

1837: 4 people
1841: about 20 people.
1851: at least 30 people.

The Second Empire (1852-1870) : The community is growing bigger

It's really during this period that the Jewish presence set up into structured communities.

1854: 90 people
1861: 194 people
1869-1871: 218 people,

At this date, Valenciennes shelters the North's second largest Jewish community after Lille with regard to the number of people. This population accounts for approximately 1% of the Valenciennes population. In 1871 about 80% of the less than 20 year old Jewish children are born in Valenciennes. The newcomers mainly originate from the Alsace and Lorraine regions. Among them 5 brothers and sisters and 2 cousins, all married, arrive in Valenciennes. Alone, this family represents half of the community. We are talking of the Meyer brothers and their sister whose spouse name is Frybourg. The Villar, the Schnerf, the Weill, the Cahen, etc, also make up the community.

From 1850 the community is served by an officiating minister and in 1853 by a shottet. In the same time, the community endows itself with an administrative commission (ADN, AN).

In 1849 the community gets premises to use as a synagogue. From then on, the Valenciennes Jewish people have a dedicated place of worship within an independent building instead of using a private spare room. Finally, in 1850 the town council give them a plot of land to use as cemetery (AMV).

In 1862, the growing community needs a bigger synagogue and buys a building located 36 rue de l'Intendance. It's an old house dating from at least the beginning of the century (AN). It is converted to adapt for the worship and to accommodate the officiating minister. The community inaugurates it in 1863. It is currently the oldest synagogue of the Nord/Pas-de-calais region with regard to the building.

Essentially made up of shopkeepers, the community mixes well with the Valenciennes society as shown by its involvement in the Inca Fair in 1866 (AMV). This yearly fair gathers the whole population for a chariot parade and the money collected allows the town of Valenciennes to help its poor people. This year, the town asks the community to build the chariot representing the Hebrews giving their kindness to the humanity on the march towards modernity. On this chariot, the Jewish people of Valenciennes play Moses and the Hebrews bringing the Torah.

The Third Republic, 1870-1940 : The community within the Lille consistory

Again, with the arrival of the Jews whom chose France after the annexation of the Alsace and Lorraine regions by Germany, the community grows bigger but in a lesser proportion than under the Second Empire.

Thereby in 1873 a rabbinate is created in Valenciennes - Lille has just become the departmental consistory - and the first rabbi is J. Levy (ADN).
In 1882, the rabbi Felix Meyer arrives. He was formed in the rabbinical seminar and is a scholar - he is the author of various erudite articles in history - He is very close to his community. He stays in Valenciennes until 1905. At the end of the 19th century, an officiating minister assists the rabbi.

In 1876, 34 consistorial voters out of 137 are from Valenciennes. In 1888, they are 52 out of 239 (ADN), which means that more families arrive in the 1880s in Valenciennes as well as in the consistory of Lille. From 1880, a Resident of Valenciennes (Dreyfus) seats in the Lille consistory (ADN).

Business is no longer the only occupation of the Jews of Valenciennes, some of them make a living by selling their art or by working in new services like the railways.

In 1882, the community improves the layout of the house used as a synagogue. The passage between the two buildings is covered to give the impression of a unique building (ADN).
Finally, following the 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State, the Jewish community of Valenciennes forms the Israelite Religious Society (Association Cultuelle Israelite -ACI).
Between the two World Wars the arrival of Jews from Poland -very few come from Turkey- makes the community grow bigger. Most are poor and live from small businesses. Others work in the industry. Often they are more practising than their French co-religionists and more open to Zionism.

On the eve of WW2, the Valenciennes Jewish Community is mixed: one part originates from France since several generations and the other one is the result of a recent immigration.

The Second World War, 1940-1944: the catastrophe

With the invasion of France, some Jewish families leave Valenciennes and take part in the exodus like the rest of the population. Some of them stay in the unoccupied part France while other ones quickly go back home.

In the South, some Jewish refugees take part in the Resistance. The Jews from Valenciennes and surrounding areas undergo the restrictions imposed by the German military government of Brussels that governs the Nord and Pas-de-Calais since June 1940. In June 1942, wearing a yellow star has become compulsory. From now on, the Jews are visible and localizable if they have taken part in a census.

The summer 1942 launches the first round of arrests but it will be the roundup of the 11th of September 1942 that will decimate the Jewish Community of Valenciennes and the surrounding areas. Some children could be hidden just before the roundup or while on their way to the station. The Jews arrested in Valenciennes join their co-religionists, also arrested of the 11th of September 1942 and gathered together in the Lille station. Here, some railwaymen help some Jews out of the station. The train conveys them to the Dossin barracks in Malines. They form half of the convoy X that left Malines for Auschwitz on the 15 of September 1942.

After the roundup, those who were lucky to avoid being arrested have to live underground with the help of friends or neighbours. Some of them take part in the Resistance.

In the days following the war, the Jewish community comes back to life with difficulties and above all wounded by the Shoah.