By Pierre Abramovici

Pen & Sword Books. 223 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-47386-186-2 (hardback)

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The situation in France during the German occupation has been the subject of many books. And the question of the levels of collaboration between French citizens and the occupiers has attracted particular interest, the French having for many years tried to play down that aspect of what happened. I’m looking at a couple of books on my shelves which touch on how various people came to terms with the problem of how to respond to the foreigners in their midst. Should they oppose them? Or try to just ignore them? Or attempt to get along with them?   Alan Riding’s And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris (Duckworth, 2011) and Frederick Spotts’s The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation (Yale University Press, 2008) don’t tell the whole story, but they’re both informative enough to make one realise that, in Riding’s words, “collaboration and self-preservation were stronger instincts than resistance.”  Saying this does not in any way denigrate the very real sacrifices of those who did resist. It is just a fact that, given similar circumstances, most of us would probably keep our heads down and hope to survive.

There are, of course, always those who will openly collaborate in order to further their own interests. Black markets thrive in wartime, whether a country is occupied or not. What is fascinating is that even some Jews were involved in doing business with the Germans or their French allies. The novelist Patrick Modiano knew that his own father had somehow managed to survive the Occupation by ingratiating himself with members of the milice, the French fascist paramilitary police, and dealing in black market goods.

Not much is known about his exploits, which were presumably fairly small-scale, but when it comes to Mendel Szkolnikoff, a whole book can, and has been written about him. The range and complexity of his activities during the Occupation leave one wondering just how he managed to get away with so much prior to the Allied invasion of France in 1944.

He was born in 1895 in Russia and was a Karaite Jew, which meant he was a member of a group that, under Russian law at the time, wasn’t affected by rules and restrictions applicable to other Jews. In 1917 he was making a living as a wholesaler of cloth to the Russian Army. By the early 1920s he seems to have been involved in a bank in Riga and was prosecuted for theft and fraudulent bankruptcy. He then turned up in Paris as a textile merchant. At some point he formed a partnership with an ex-policeman, a handy arrangement when it came to any legal matters relating to his status as a foreigner and his business activities.

When France collapsed in 1940, and the Germans moved into Paris, they set up several acquisitions units to obtain supplies for their armed forces and for sending to Germany. The Germans kept up a pretence of legality by paying for the goods, though as they were simply taking the required money from the French Treasury they were effectively making the French pay for their own materials.  Szkolnikoff was soon involved in acting as an agent for the Germans by contacting firms that could supply the required goods and arranging prices and other matters. Supplying the Germans was a form of collaboration, but the French firms involved would later claim that, as they dealt only with Szkolnikoff, they had no idea where their goods were destined to end up. It is, a fact, that not many businesses were prosecuted after the war when action was taken against collaborators. Along the way he naturally earned a commission for himself. His bank account, or accounts, quickly expanded into substantial figures.

Szkolnikoff clearly had to have various forms of “protection” in order to operate in the way that he did, and he does appear to have cultivated connections with German officers, including some in the SS. They presumably also benefited from the arrangements that Szkolkinoff made. In turn they could help him. Pierre Abramovici refers to an occasion when Szkolnikoff had made a bid for some property but lost out to another bidder. He then made an approach to the man to try to persuade him to withdraw his bid. The fact that Szkolnikoff came to the meeting in the company of an SS officer had the required effect and the bid was withdrawn.

I’m not even going to try to summarise what Abramovici says about Szkolnikoff’s financial and other dealings as he moved money around, bought properties, set up companies, and had a string of people who acted as fronts for his ventures. Some of his activities centred on Monaco, ostensibly a neutral country, but with the Germans, Italians, and French all manipulating the situation to their advantage. But the details that Abramovici provides of Szkolnikoff’s involvements can be bewildering at times, and it would require something more than a review to outline them all. It’s sufficient to say that the figures quoted for his bank accounts and the value of his property holdings are astronomical. And it’s likely that there are still large amounts in banks in Switzerland and elsewhere (a figure of two billion francs is mentioned) despite French Government attempts, in the late 1940s and after, to sequester his assets.

Szkolnikoff had, like many other black marketeers and collaborators, looked to Spain as a refuge when it became evident that German would lose the war. He turned up in Santander as Vice-Consul of the Argentine Embassy in Spain, and there were suspicions that he may have been involved in schemes to transfer money to South America for the use of Nazis fleeing there. And presumably to ensure his own safety route from Europe. He was said to have been negotiating with Nicaragua regarding entry to that country. But in June 1945, a body was found in the countryside outside Madrid and it was identified as being that of Szkolnikoff.

The story is that when the French Government was re-instated one of its priorities had been tracking down collaborators. Within France there were summary executions at local levels, and other forms of retaliation were also practised against people known to have been too friendly with the Germans. Where the Government was concerned the focus was often on those who were thought to have profited financially from dealing with the occupying forces. What were known as “cleansing squads” were sent into Spain to kidnap such people and bring them back to France to be put on trial. If kidnapping wasn’t possible then the squads were authorised to “eliminate” their targets.

What seems to have happened with Szkolnikoff is that the kidnapping took place but he died, either from a head injury or a heart attack, and his body was dumped and an attempt made to burn it. Abramovici gives the names of the members of the “cleansing squad” concerned, but then adds that they could well be false: “It has never been possible to identify formally the actual names of the commando members or even their exact number.” There is a lot of doubtful information in Abramovici’s book, though not because he hasn’t been diligent in attempting to track down the correct details. But documents have disappeared, memories have faded, and it has been useful, even at this late date, for certain people not to have the full facts made public.

Needless to say, some people have stated that the body was not that of Szkolnikoff and that he was seen in various places in later years. Abramovici says that a Buenos Aires bank account in Szkolnikoff’s name was being used as late as 1958. It’s another area where the truth will most likely never be known.

Szkolnikoff’s death didn’t bring the question of his assets to a conclusion. There were other people who had been linked to him, and the French Government pursued them for repayment of alleged illegal profits. People who claimed to be Szkolnikoff’s relatives turned up to make claims on his estate. A man named Emmanuel Martinez, who had dealings with him, was taken to court, and battled for years to try to establish that he was the rightful owner of a luxury hotel that Szkolnikoff had supposedly obtained control of by devious means. Martinez was still struggling with the legal difficulties of his case when he died at the age of ninety-two in 1973.

Reading Abramovici’s narrative I had the feeling that I was entering into the realm of Dickens’s Jarndyce and Jarndyce. It would appear that there is still an outstanding claim against Martinez by the French authorities for money he was said to have accumulated in the 1940s. When he died his heirs became responsible for the debt. His daughter, ninety years of age and living in a small, two-roomed apartment in Paris, faced a bill for over 13 million euros (most of it accumulated interest). This is a world of bureaucracy gone mad.

The story of Szkolnikoff’s rise and fall is a fascinating one, though in Abramovici’s telling of it I occasionally felt overwhelmed by the facts of his liaisons, manipulations, transgressions, and all the rest of the details of his bizarre life. It sometimes seemed sufficient for me to know that he engaged in collaborative and black-market activities, that he made a lot of money, and involved other people, both German and French, and that he died (if he did) in curious circumstances.

There are interesting side-issues to the story, such as the way in which almost everyone claimed to have supported the resistance in one way or another once the war over. And the fact that when alleged collaborators were being executed, imprisoned, and fined, big business was rarely, if ever, taken to task. But should I have been surprised when I read that?  No more, I suppose, than when I read Abramovici’s comments about the fact that the long-running saga of Szkolnikoff’s assets has “benefited all sorts of professions, often for their whole lives, including experts, notaries, lawyers, administrators and even secretaries.” The lawyers always win no matter what else happens.