ORT's activities in France started officially in 1921. French ORT originally concentrated on raising money for ORT programs in Eastern Europe. The organization’s first vocational courses were established only after refugees from Nazi Germany started arriving in France in 1933. In this year World ORT headquarters were moved to Paris and started intensive work on establishing courses both for the native community and for the immigrants. After the fall of France in June 1940, ORT moved its headquarters to Vichy and later to Marseilles. Despite the war the organization did not stop its activities. It continued with its vocational courses and expanded its work to French internment camps. The primary beneficiaries of the work of ORT France were not the French Jewish community but those Jewish refugees who had fled Germany and Austria and now found themselves interned  as ‘enemy aliens’ in France.  Teachers and other representatives were sent into the refugee camps to set up workshops. Within months of their establishment, as the popularity of the courses had increased, they started being attended even by French soldiers who wanted to gain extra skills. Soldiers, who were housed nearby, were given permission by the French authorities to attend the courses. According to historian Jack Rader ‘ORT, during this period, was much more than a training agency. The schools became centers for exchange of information among the wanderers, for inquiries about families and lost ones, an informal post office to receive and transmit messages, and for handling the multitude of handicaps that face a newcomer in a strange land.’[1] If the refugees could be released from the camps, they were placed in ORT agricultural training farms in La Roche, Cambes de Pujols and Les Angiroux. In 1939 ORT was training almost 1500 students in schools in Paris, Chelles and Montmorency. The courses were conducted mainly in sewing for women and radio technology for men. There was also a school for auto mechanics in Paris.

After the unoccupied zone of France was taken over by the Nazis in 1943, ORT had to stop its work in France and moved to Switzerland. Out of the 350,000 Jews who were in France in June 1940, 77,000 were murdered during the war in extermination camps.

France was liberated in the summer of 1944. After the liberation, the power in France was assumed by the Provisional Government of the French Republic led by Charles de Gaulle. The provisional government declared all acts by the Vichy government as illegal and accepted the Marshall plan. In 1946, De Gaulle stepped down and the Provisional Government was succeeded by the Fourth Republic. Despite quick economic growth in post war France, the times of the Fourth Republic were in general very politically unstable with constant changes of government and beginning of decolonization.

 Almost immediately after liberation French ORT restarted its activities in the country. Its aim was to help the survivors from among the French Jewish community as well as a growing number of refugees who came to France either to start new life there or considered it a stopping point in transit to Palestine. The first schools were being set up in the largest French cities. They were being established in places with long established Jewish communities, such as Paris, Lyons, Marseilles and Strasbourg as well as in Toulouse, Limoges and Grenoble, where refugee communities were established during and after the war. On 1 January 1946 ORT had thirty-nine institutions in for vocational training in France, fourteen of these were located in Paris. In the next six months eighteen new institutions were opened. The number of students grew from 1,225 in January 1946 to 2,925 in January 1948.

The types of courses offered in ORT schools included training workshops for adolescents and adults, proficiency courses for skilled artisans, placement services and complementary courses for apprentices and manual training workshops for children. The courses covered a wide range of topics. For example,  in mid 1947 the schools in Paris offered courses for adolescents in locksmiths training, mechanics, radio technology and dressmaking. Courses  for adults were conducted in electrical installation, welding, radio technology, cable fitting, haute couture, corsetry, leather work, tailoring, trouser tailoring and auto mechanics. They were attended by 347 students. Particular attention was devoted to retraining survivors who wanted to return to their pre war professions. Demobilized army men, ex-prisoners of war and people returning from deportations were provided with free machinery and technical help enabling them to reestablish their practice.  In the immediate post war years, ORT schools became not only vocational training providers but also important Jewish community centres. In 1946 ORT reported:

‘Considering the precarious situation of the ORT pupils and apprentices (75 per cent of our pupils are children of deportees or returned themselves from deportation), ORT cannot devote itself but to their vocational training. They could not give quietly their whole mind to their work and look forward to a better future if they were not given the material security they need and all the encouragement they so bitterly want. Therefore the ORT provides them with scholarships, school canteens deliver 300 free meals every day, medico-social services care for their physical and moral health. In the clubs for pupils  and apprentices find a Jewish atmosphere, most of them (especially the ‘rescapes’ from Buchenwald) having no home any more. Conferences, leisure time and instructive meetings are organized for them; on Sunday they make tours or play games.’[2]

ORT also operated a number of specialized schools. A marine trade school training seamen, fishermen, ship-carpenters and divers was opened in the end of 1946 in Marseilles. The school enrolled seventy-five students aged between fourteen and twenty-two, the majority of whom later planned to join the Israeli Navy.

In the field of agriculture, ORT training farms were established in Combes du Pujols, La Roche, Monbardon, Encoudrille, Les Bonnets and La Galiniere. Students were learning cattle breeding, poultry and diary farming, how to raise vegetables and cereals and maintenance of agricultural machinery. The training was broken into two stages: practical work and the application of theory to agriculture. Most of the courses lasted six to nine months. In cooperation with the Jewish Agency ORT conducted agricultural training for young halutzim preparing for emigration to Israel. After their departure, once the students were established on their own farms in Israel, ORT provided them with technical assistance as well as credits for the purchase of machinery. Pre-vocational courses for gardening were also conducted in a number of children’s homes for Holocaust orphans.

In April 1946, ORT France began its training activities for Jewish refugees who lived temporarily in the château d’Hénonville (French department of Oise, at 45 minutes from Paris). This castle was transformed after the war into a center for Jewish survivors coming from Central and Eastern Europe and was managed by a Jewish ultra-Orthodox organization, Poalei Agudat Yisrael (PAI).

From April 1946 to the end of 1948, ORT France set up (not simultaneously) workshops for sewing, mechanic’s, shoe-making, carpentry, house painting and gardening in the castle. The purpose was to teach the basics of a trade to the refugees in a just few months before the left France for Eretz Israël or another place.

After an interruption of ORT’s activities in Hénonville from the end of 1948, a gardening course for North African young people was organized in May 1950 by ORT and Aliath Hanoar, a Jewish institution specialised in youth immigration. Due to financial problems of Aliath Hanoar, this course was finally shut down one year later and the castle was no longer used by ORT.

Nine testimonies of Jewish refugees, including the testimony of Udel Stopnitsky, the chief of the centre, interviewed by David Boder at Hénonville in 1946 are available online (the oral version generally in Yiddish and the transcript in English).

[1] Jack Rader, By the Skill of their Hands (Geneva: World ORT, 1970) p.52

[2]World ORT Archive d05a022: The Work of the ORT in Europe January-May, 1946. Report presented to the members of the Executive Committee of the ORT Union at the meeting called in Paris June 2-4, 1946  p.33