An Interview with Claire Zalc and Robert Braun (FBF 2022)

July 26, 2023

Intergroup Solidarity and Social Integration: Micro-level evidence from the Holocaust in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Poland

Can you both introduce yourselves and talk about your academic journeys that lead you to this project? 

Claire is a Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Research Director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Director of the Institute of Modern and Contemporary History at the École Normale Supérieure. A prizewinning author, she has written on topics as varied as immigration, the history of persecutions, Jews, business and credit. I (Robert Braun) studied history and sociology in the Netherlands. After graduation, I knew I wanted to stay at the university to pursue graduate studies. In the Netherlands at the time PhD students would often work on projects thought out by their advisors. I wanted to create my own project. Hence, I started applying for grad school positions in the US where students have more intellectual freedom.

What made you interested in the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust.

For me (RB), it is in large part a personal story. My grandfather on my father’s side was an alderman in the local church. During World War 2 he got approached to shelter Jews but refused. Family on my mother’s side were Jewish converts who sought shelter during the war but failed. This ingrained the question of why some people but not others assist those in need in my head and (with a lot of detours) culminated in my first book on the protection of Jews in the Low Countries.  

How and why did you decide to work together on your research? 

Claire and I have very different intellectual backgrounds. While she is trained as a historian, I am trained in social science. However, we both agree that Holocaust Studies can benefit from the integration of quantitative data and analysis. This position is rather uncommon (and perhaps even unpopular). It therefore is not surprising that our paths crossed, and we decided to work together. 

Can you explain a bit more in detail what your research focuses on?

The relationship between social integration (i.e. the frequency with which members of different groups interact) and intergroup solidarity (i.e. the willingness to make sacrifices for members of a different group) lies at the core of the social sciences and humanities. “Interdependence cures destructive prejudices” wrote Montesquieu more than 200 years ago in his The Spirit of Laws. According to the founding father of the modern social sciences, social integration fosters solidarity by producing shared interests and intensifying lines of communication. Opposing the positive relationship between integration and solidarity, competition theorists have long emphasized the dark side of social integration. According to this branch of theory, increases in between-group interaction create personal tensions between members of different groups by increasing competition over resources and opportunities for negative contacts, which in turn damages intergroup solidarity (Park 1950, Simmel 1950).

Scholarship on solidarity between Jews and Gentiles during the Holocaust, a time that intergroup relations came under enormous pressure, lends support to both views (Semelin, Andrieu, Gensburger, 2008). On the one hand, the Holocaust provides numerous examples that support the notion that increased interaction results in solidarity. Gentiles that decided to help Jews escape the Germans or provided shelter did so because they cooperated with them in fraternities (Flim 1995), on the work floor (Varese & Yaish 2000) or in the neighborhood (Oliner & Oliner 1992, Tec 1986), and several historians have claimed that the integration of Jews was key in explaining Gentile help during the war (e.g. Blom 1995). On the other hand, there has been the claim that social integration of Jews in Western Europe increased antisemitism (e.g. Nieweck 2018) and that many denunciations of Jews were based on personal envy and rivalries (Jankowski 1986, Wierzcholska 2017).  

We believe that ambivalence of social integration in Holocaust studies in part derives from the fact that Holocaust scholars generally rely on single case studies that lack a systematic comparative focus across space and time. In this project we hope to remedy this problem. In particular, we plan on constructing a unique micro-level database containing information on the socio-economic and spatial integration of over Jews who were living in the Low Countries (i.e. the Netherlands and Belgium) and selected cities in France and Poland. This new data set will enable us to conduct the first large-scale, systematic empirical study of how Jews’ embeddedness in the local society affected their chances to survive the Holocaust across a wide range of contexts. 

Combining and collecting data from these four countries provides us with a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between social integration and evasion for at least three reasons. First of all, Jewish levels of integration varied widely across the Low Countries, France and Poland. Second, the Holocaust unfolded in widely different ways in these four countries. Taken together, this creates sufficient variation of independent variables and allows us to compare the fate of well and poorly integrated Jews in a wide range of economic, social and institutional settings. Third, for all of these places we have access to unique archival materials that allow us to trace the fate of individual Jews living there. 

For three of the four countries, the Nazis conducted systematic censuses to map the local Jewish population. The last of these surveys were conducted only a few weeks before the deportations started. As evasion of registration was extremely low, it is possible to obtain detailed information on almost all Jews in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. For the Polish case, one of the PIs (Zalc) has found unique population registers that allow to construct a similar dataset. Available variables include name, date of birth, street address and occupation. Based on name, date of birth and locality it is possible to match census entries to deportation lists housed at Holocaust museums across the world. Street addresses can be utilized to get fine-grained spatial information.  Taken together, this creates an opportunity to assess whether Jews active in certain professions who live in segregated or integrated neighborhoods were more or less likely to evade deportation, and whether these processes depend on the broader structure of the local economy or occupation regime.  

What are the next steps within your research? 

Working separately, the researchers have already collected the required archival documents. Digitalization and geocoding data for the Low Countries (Braun) and selected cities in France and Poland (Zalc) has been nearly completed. We are currently harmonizing the two datasets and standardizing the coding of professions. If successful, this project would be the first of several to bring careful, large-scale data analysis to bear on the Holocaust. Further, this project would serve as a “proof of concept” in our applications for follow-up funding, which is needed to extend our work to different countries and link different sources such as expropriation records, home values, and post-war claims.  With the founding of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities (ODH), grant support for digital humanities has become more robust and encouraging of interdisciplinary projects. We are, therefore, confident that this seed grant from the France-Berkeley Fund will lead to a Jewish victimization database spanning several countries and linking a wide range of sources, providing Berkeley and EHESS with a leading role at the intersection of Data Science and Holocaust studies around the world.  

What has the FBF done for your research?  What type of opportunities did it open for you?

We have used/are going to use the funds to organize two conferences (one in Paris and one upcoming in Berkeley) to discuss our respective projects. Our research teams will meet and this will help us harmonize the data.

We want to thank both Robert Braun and Claire Zalc for their time to answer our questions, and wish them all of the luck for the rest of the rest of their study.