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The Jewish community of La Ferte-sous-Jouarre

by Paul COHEN
Translated by Gaby Laws

Jewish families, Ashkenazi and some originating from east France, established themselves in La Ferte-sous-Jouarre and surrounding areas between 1800 and 1820. Their intention was to improve their living conditions and to move nearer to Paris.

They were mainly hawkers who travelled the countryside selling their wares and then with their savings they opened shops in the town. These shops were run by their wives and little by little they achieved a more static lifestyle. Daniel Brisac, from Metz (via Paris) is an example of Jews of this time.

Over the years and with the events (pogroms in Alsace, annexation by Germany, after 1870 of Alsace and part of Lorraine) the Jewish population of La Ferte-sous-Jouarre increased to about 1,900, with 150-180 people living in the city which had a total population of 4,500. The new residents were cattle merchants, tradesmen, craftsmen and workman. Practically 20% of the population were involved in quarry work, extracting stone to make millstones.

Certain families such as Francfort, Isaac, Worms, Levy… stayed in La Ferte for several generations others were just passing through. All of them wanted to become integrated. After 1870, the last families arrived, Benedic, Bloch they were patriotic while preserving their religious identity.

From 1856 the Jewish community were able to bury their dead in a private cemetery and they received official recognition in 1868 when an imperial decree, signed by Napoleon III, authorised the purchase of a property for use as a temple of prayers, at 10 Saint Nicolas street, not far from the Town Hall and the church.

In the middle of the 1880’s the city was able to build a beautiful Town Hall and the Jewish Community, who were also a part of the general prosperity, decided to build a synagogue. The community’s resources were insufficient to finance the whole project. A loan of 16,000F was provided by the Jewish families of La Ferte and supplemented by 1,000F from the municipality plus 2,000F from the Ministry for Justice and Worship, made it possible for them to start construction of the religious building which would end up costing a total of 53,000F about 1 million francs today or 153,000Euros.

The work was undertaken by the Picard company from Rebais under the management of Edmond Fauvet the city architect, and was completed in 1891. The style of the building was ‘Hispano-mauresque’ showing the Mediterranean and Eastern origins of the Jewish community.

The new synagogue was inaugurated on Monday 21st Sept 1891 in the presence of the Chief Rabbi of France, Zadock Kahn, the mayor of La Ferte, Paul Lallier, Mr Benoît senator plus several members of the town council, Ferdinand Benedic president of the Jewish Community of La Ferte and many other religious personalities.

The religious ceremony was led by Nathan Levy, Rabbi of Ferte-sous-Jouarre from 1871 and that was followed by a banquet held by the community at Hotel de l’Epee followed by a ball which ended the festivities.

The synagogue held religious services for half a century until the evacuation of La Ferte in June 1940 caused by the advance of German troops. The building remained closed throughout the occupation and suffered from serious acts of vandalism.

The members of this historical community were decimated by the arrests and deportation mainly to Auschwitz of the Jews of La Ferte-sous-Jouarre. The last raid was on 22nd October 1943.

They were replaced by Jews of Sephardic origins from North Africa, by orthodox communities which preserve their religious identity while remaining within the local population. The synagogue did not re-opened due to its very poor state and no one has wanted to commit to the significant financial burden of repair despite the efforts of Henri Meillet (1898/1978) a member of the historic community and who had appealed to the Jewish Community of Paris for help.

At the instigation of his childhood friend Andre Planson, Henri Meillet agreed to consider changing the use of the building from a Synagogue to a library and later to a museum to be dedicated to the work of Andre Planson.

The Jewish community sold the Synagogue to the city at the end of 1973 and thanks to the efforts of the mayors and town councils, the building became the Andre Planson museum in 2001.

The old Synagogue now has exhibitions on the ground floor and on the first floor the collection of works and memorabilia of the world famous artist which is maintained by his daughter Marie-Domenica Sabouraud-Planson.

The local population no longer knows the origin of the Jewish community and the raid of 22 October 1943 has been forgotten so it seemed sensible to recall the history in the form of a publication due to be published next October. This project, which integrates the Jewish community into the history of the city, has generated interest from the Municipality who in turn agreed to maintain the old Jewish cemetery that closed in 1896. The Municipality has also agreed to a memorial being placed in the old Synagogue to those that died in the deportation.

The unveiling of the memorial took place on Sunday 26th October 2003.