Book Review: The Mission of Abbé Glasberg by Lucien Lazare (engl. 2016)

Review of The Mission of Abbé Glasberg by Lucien Lazare (1990; engl. 2016)

The recently translated biography of Abbé Glasberg is a welcome addition to the study of remarkable individuals who were active in the French resistance. During the German occupation of France, Glasberg organized several rescue missions of Jews who were awaiting deportation in internment camps. After the war, Glasberg continued his work on behalf of Jewish refugees, at home and abroad. 

Between August 26th – 29th, Abbé Glasberg and Jean-Marie Soutou, a young Catholic activist, went into the internment camp Venissieux for a risky, highly clandestine operation. Days before, at the order of the Vichy regime, French police had rounded up roughly 1100 foreign born Jews and brought them to Venissieux. The inmates were awaiting deportation to Darcy. Glasberg and Soutou were given a front-wheel-drive Citroën with yellow wheels – the same car that would have been driven by the French prefecture. This allowed them to enter the camp without the otherwise obligatory scrutiny of checking identity cards and other verifying documents. The Abbé and Soutou were able to smuggle 550 Jews out of the camp, including 108 children. During this operation, the Abbé used his language skills, which allowed him to converse with the frightened inmates in Yiddish. With the help of several underground aid organizations such as The Christian Friendship and the Jewish Boy Scouts, all children were placed with nearby families who were willing to hide them. (6-7)

This daring act was one of many that characterized Abbé Glasberg’s life’s work: his self-proclaimed goal was not just to help others with his acts of resistance, but to change the world. To this end, he founded various centers (Direction de Centre d’ Accueil (DCA), or as Glasberg preferred to call it, Défense Contre les Allemands; and Le Centre d’Orientation Sociale des Etrangers, COSE), committees (L’comitè d’assistance aux refugies) and associations (France-Terre d’Asile, FTDA). His activism continued until his death in 1981.

So who was Abbé Glasberg?

There are almost no pictures of him and little is known about his early life, — so little in fact, that one wonders how this biography could have been written with such scant personal information. This may be the reason why his Ukrainian background, his Jewish family heritage, as well as his spiritual motives and beliefs remain vague. Nonetheless, this biography is well worth reading. Abbé Glasberg is an important figure who was well known in various groups of the French Resistance who were active in rescue missions.

It is assumed, that following pogroms in their hometown of Zhytomyr, the parents baptized their two sons, and underwent conversions themselves. No documents or traces of these conversions exist. Once the Abbé emigrates to France by way of Poland, Austria, Germany and Yugoslavia in 1931, and chooses to become a priest, he has to undergo conversion or baptism (again). Despite his ordination, he speaks little about the work of the Church or the tenets of Christian faith. He is, however, knowledgeable in matters of Jewish ritual and custom (14), he visits Jewish restaurants near his work, speaks Yiddish with the patrons (33), and in an open letter to other Jews, he encourages certain fixed tenets of Jewish life (24). Later on, he becomes an ardent advocate for the establishment of the state of Israel (pp. 63-65). Thus, even though the author, Lucien Lazare, spends considerable time (pp 9 -31) trying to find answers to questions of faith, it is perhaps futile to determine whether Glasberg’s conversion and his monastic life were a true spiritual choice, or whether they were born out of necessity and thus never really took Glasberg away from his Jewish heritage and his beliefs in Judaism. Aside from the opening chapters, there are only a few other instances in the book where the reader gets a taste of Lazare’s political ambitions in telling this story (for example, on antisemitism p. 69, and Judaism vs. Catholicism, p. 99). The greater part of the book is dedicated to bringing the daring acts of Glasberg’s resilience and activism to life.

More important, for example, are Glasberg’s activities in aiding the resistance in France before and during the occupation (pp. 31-46), and his dedication to restoring the rights of refugees after the occupation (pp. 47-102). In 1938, following vicious anti-immigrant sentiments, the Daladier government had set up internment camps for all those refugees fleeing either Nazism in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, or those fleeing the Spanish civil war. Glasberg founded The Committee of Assistance of Refugees in order to aid the refugees with shelter, food and necessary papers. Abbé was well known in all the Jewish and Christian agencies, and he used his connections to secure the necessary funds: the Federation of the Jewish Societies of France, at CIMADE (Inter-movements Committee of Aid to Refugees), at the Social Service Aid to Immigrants; at the Social Services for Foreigners; and even at the Swiss welfare (33) all contributed to this committee. He became well acquainted with the prefecture, i.e. the local administrative center of department or county, and the local police, in order to circumnavigate political traps.

In 1941, due to the ever increasing difficulty of his working conditions, Glasberg founded a new organization called, Direction de Centres d’Accueil, i.e. centers for hospitality (DCA). These centers had the expressed purpose “to welcome 50 – 60 persons, allowing former internees to live in normal conditions and to go back to work after having spent one or two years in the camps.” (37). The Abbé, as the Vicar at Notre Dame de Saint Alban (Lyon), together with Nina Gourfinkel, representative for the Committee of Assistance to the Jewish Population Affected by the War (RELICO, Geneva, New York, Lyon), and Dr. Joseph Weill, of the Organization to Save the Children (OSE, Montpellier) managed to use their extensive network to open five such centers. These centers became instrumental in rescuing Jews who had been interned in camps such as Gurs, for example. Several hundred former internees escaped deportation because of these centers. Unfortunately, in March of 1942, inmates of one center in the South of France were suddenly arrested and immediately deported. This was devastating, and it made the cooperative methods of working with the government officials obsolete. The Abbé had only one choice, namely to cross over into illegality and provide the remaining inmates with false identity cards and false papers. However, in the summer of 1942, “the techniques for producing false papers in the bastions of the Resistance was only in its infancy.” (40) And using them might put his patronage, that of Cardinal Gerlier of Lyon, at risk. However, Glasberg manages to continue his work undercover until he reaches Paris in 1944, where he feels he can be more effective in connecting with other organizations active in the resistance.

After the war, Glasberg dedicates his time to several connected efforts: he fights for the rights of the refugees who had become stateless. He works together closely with the Mossad agency, which had been set up in Paris. Glasberg becomes instrumental in advocating for the 4,500 passengers of the ‘President-Warburg’ ship, later renamedExodus-1947. An outspoken supporter for the rights of the Jewish state, he visits Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 1948, and aids in rescue missions there as well: fighting had erupted resulting in parts of Jerusalem being cut off to the outside world. The Abbé uses his negotiating skills, and the cover of his physical garb (the black cassock), to act as a liaison between David Scialtiel, commander of the Haganah in Jerusalem and the Catholic aid organizations, which were granted access to areas of conflict in Jerusalem. Glasberg also played an important role in advocating for the release of 12,000 Iraqi Jews out of Iraq toPalestine via France.

Lazare’s biography of Glasberg is a stark reminder of what one individual can accomplish in the face of total adversity. Throughout his life, Glasberg remained convinced of the imperative of his mission to help his fellow Jews. With his activism he sought to “transform the world” (101) in matters of perception and in acceptance of the Other.

This reviewer has one reservation concerning the English edition: the preface, written by Cardinal Albert Decourtray, seems intent on making a point about matters of faith. Decourtray writes, „we must express profound gratitude … for the biography“, but then adds, this „expression may cause some surprise“ (vii). Indeed, it appears as if Decourtray wants to claim Glasberg for the Catholic faith, and leave his Jewish heritage and his reasons for conversion unexplored. He peruses Glasberg’s guiding principle of „help thy neighbor“ as a Christian principle, and opines that, „we would have preferred it if he (the author, Lazare) had not attempted the explore this matter (conversion) so thoroughly“ (ix). Given the subject matter, it appears a bit disjunctive to claim religious propriety when this biography clearly situates its subject matter at the center of human understanding and acceptance. 



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