You know, Buzzkillers, I have the best friends. One of them recently asked me about the now-famous and heartwarming story of the Bonne Maman jam company sheltering Jews in France during the Holocaust. It has been one of the most viral history stories of the past year, and has now become firmly entrenched in popular consciousness. So I jumped at the chance to make it an episode. It’s perfect for this podcast because:
- The story has become accepted as fact. As so often is the case, however, the historical evidence for it is very weak and tangential. This is extremely common with internet/Facebook/Twitter stories.
- But the larger implications, and questions about inherited virtue (and, by contrast, inherited sin), are very important, particularly when it comes to assessing things like generational responsibility for things like the Holocaust. I’ll return briefly to that point at the end of this short episode.
OK, so what happened? A St. John’s University professor was shopping at his local grocery store in early 2021. An elderly woman asked him to retrieve a jar of Bonne Maman jam from a high shelf because she couldn’t reach it. “Do you know why I buy this brand,” she asked him. It was because “the family that owns the company hid my family in Paris” during the Holocaust.
The elderly woman was a Holocaust survivor, and her loyalty to that brand of jam was her way of saying thanks to people who may have been responsible for that very survival.
I assume that all of you know Bonne Maman jams and preserves. It has long been the preferred jam in the Buzzkill Dynasty, and the managers at our various houses know to have it constantly in stock. Fellow fans of Bonne Maman like it because of its high-quality ingredients, its homemade taste and throwback packaging, and the fact that it’s yummy.
And if this Holocaust story were true, that’d be even more reason to buy the jam and support the company.
Well, you know what I’m going to say, Buzzkillers. There is no good evidence that this story is true. And what factoids there are that might support the story are tenuous and require imagination to make connections to historical events. But don’t think that I’m going to dump on the person who first told the story, and on the elderly lady who told it to him. You’ll see at the end of the show why I think their experiences were genuine, at least in terms of the processes of history and memory.
I’m sure that the professor who posted the original story on the internet is very tired of the attention, questioning, and fact-checking that’s been going on since he put his simple, heart-warming encounter on Twitter. So I’m going to spare the rest of you the same hassle by giving you the short version (and by leaving his name out of it).
The Bonne Maman brand was founded in 1971, and the company that now owns it, Andros, was started in 1959. You might think that that’s enough to prove that the story can’t be true. But it’s more complicated than that. The Andros company was started by two men, Jean Gervoson and Pierre Chapoulart, again, in 1959. But the Chapoulart family had a fruit and nut business in the small village of Biars-sur-Cère since at least the 1910s. When Jean Gervoson married into the family in the late 1940s, he started turning some of his in-laws’ fruit into jams and other preservatives.
These were successful enough that they decided to upgrade to a larger scale business, with broad distribution. Bonne Maman was born out of this idea in 1971. Since then, and especially with the increased desire to move away from the bland and watered-down jams and jellies available in modern groceries stores, Bonne Maman has been very successful. As an aside, and for Americans especially, if you’re under age 45, you probably don’t remember that, even as late as the 1980s, if you really wanted good stuff with fresh ingredients, you had to have homemade food. The chain grocery stores that took over during the boomer years were mostly stocked with bland white bread, canned and boxed food, and maybe fresh (ish) meat and green vegetables. The organic, Whole Foods-ification of our palates is a relatively new thing.
There appears, therefore, to be no direct evidence at all that Bonne Maman was involved in anything related to World War II. The founding dates of the companies involved point to that, at the very least. In addition, the Bonne Maman company and the descendants of the original families involved have turned down requests for interviews or confirmation of the story, saying that they don’t comment on family matters. And that’s what a number of journalists and “internet sleuths” have pointed out during the viral spread of the original post.
Alas, the whole thing is even more complicated than that. Remember, the old woman in the grocery store in 2021 said that “the family that owns the company hid my family…” and prevented them from being captured by the Nazis and their collaborators in France. And I apologize for the “would this hold up in a court of law” rabbit hole I’m about to take you down. You’ll soon see why I’m going into this much detail and putting in so many caveats about jumping to conclusions about a story that, admittedly, even I want to be true.
Anyone who is 2021 old enough to have lived through the Holocaust and yet be spry enough to shop for herself must have been a very young girl during the occupation of France. Keep her age in mind.
The old lady said that her family was in Paris during the war. The Bonne Maman family and company are from the village of Biars-sur-Cère, 528 kilometers south of Paris, that’s slightly more than 328 miles away. Internet fact-checkers and dinner party conversationalists have said that it’s possible that some members of the Bonne Maman family lived in Paris during the war, and that they may have hidden Jews there.
It is also possible that members of the old woman’s extended family who lived in Biars-sur-Cère were sheltered by the original Bonne Maman family there. Some internet commentators have said that “they have heard” that Jews were protected there. Again, there’s no real evidence that Jews were hidden in that village.
How do you know that, Professor? Well, again, I keep saying “no historical evidence.” I am not saying that it couldn’t have happened. It may well have. We just don’t know. There are towns all over France that have been recognized for this by Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center), but Biars-sur-Cère is not one of them. The historians, genealogists, and researchers at Yad Vashem are well-known for their dedication to researching these things extensively, even decades after the Holocaust. And it’s perfectly plausible that they will find more about sheltering and rescue efforts all over Europe as more evidence is found. And I want to come back to the importance of local historical research later.
Several journalists and newspapers have researched this story and have pointed out that all these “ifs” and “maybes” make the story unlikely to be true. But the professor who first told us about his encounter with the old woman has reacted to some of this nit-picking with a response on Twitter. He wrote, “let me ask you one question – what possible reason would this woman have to go out of her way to lie to a perfect stranger who just retrieved a jar of preserves for her?”
I’m going to respond to him by saying that she wasn’t lying.
Here’s the crux of the matter, and what I think probably happened. Remember, the old woman was just a very young girl when she and her family were protected in France during the Holocaust. As she grew up, she undoubtedly heard many stories of her family’s survival during the war. The stories came from all over – grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, distant relations, and even family friends. It’s very likely that the story started as a perfectly true and historically-accurate one – her family was sheltered by French people during the Holocaust. But as the stories were told around and around her extended family and handed down through the generations, facts got jumbled and specifics of different stories were conflated. This is a little like the game “telephone” (what the British call “Chinese whispers,” and is called “pass the message” in other cultures). So many historical myths owe their persistence to what experts call mistakes in “transmission chains” within cultures or groups.
Even complete rumors, such as the one about names being changed at Ellis Island, end up as “solid” family stories that are held onto with immense strength, to the point where the family stories become family history handed down through the generations. It’s almost impossible to count the number of people who know they are related to Jesse James, have Native American ancestry, or had a wayward member of their family in the mafia. Those stories become almost a matter of faith, even when there’s no evidence for them (and, usually, a great deal of evidence against them).
So what’s my final answer? Well, it’s that we don’t know if the Bonne Maman family hid Jews from the Holocaust. There’s no solid evidence that they did. And before you go off and tell everyone that “Professor Buzzkill says the Bonne Maman story is just a far-fetched family tale,” remember what I said – the family story miscommunication chain is “what I think probably happened.”
Now, I mentioned “larger implications about ‘inherited virtue’ and ‘inherited sin’” at the beginning of the show. Here’s what I mean by that. Consumers have always used boycotts or campaigns to “buy only …” During the late colonial period of American history, a number of “non-cooperation” associations were formed to boycott British goods based on the belief that British taxes and new regulations were harmful. These were very successful. And, of course, the various boycotts of British goods by the Indian National Congress in the early 1930s were instrumental in gaining support for eventual Indian independence (even if the boycotts weren’t successful themselves in crushing the British imperial economy).
Nowadays, support campaigns for virtuous companies are sometimes called “procotts.” It’s not as well known a neologism as perhaps it should be, but these movements have also existed for a long time. Displaying your patriotism during the American colonial period by boycotting British goods and clothing, and making do by relying on homemade (especially “homespun” cloth) actually became fashionable.
Most boycotts or procotts don’t end up accomplishing their larger political or social goals. People get tired of them, join them only as fads, or the power of the movement wanes for innumerable different reasons.
What does this have to do with Bonne Maman and the rescuing Jews story? Well, in addition to fact that it can help us understand consumer activism in general, it can reveal some very interesting and troubling aspects about products and companies that started under the Nazis, whether they were involved in the Holocaust, and whether they suffered after the war because of that.
We all know that a great many Nazi political leaders were tried and punished at the famous Nuremberg Trials from late 1945 to late 1946. At the same time, Operation Paperclip, run by the US military and the Truman administration, took top-level German scientists (especially those involved in rocketry and advanced weapons technology) into US custody. They were first put to work trying to bring the war with Japan to a close, and then on cold war nuclear weapons and the space race. Turns out that several of these scientists were Nazi party officials. So on the one hand, the US and other allies immediately brought some Nazis to justice at Nuremberg, but the US was willing to overlook Nazi (and possibly war-crime) connections in the short run for Operation Paperclip.
In terms of products for consumers, the case of Volkswagen has always bothered me. It was founded and formed by the German Labor Front (the Nazi Party’s version of a trade union that subsumed traditional German unions under Hitler) in 1937. During the war, it enslaved 15,000 workers from various concentration camps and put them to work manufacturing military vehicles for the Nazi war machine. Yet all that was forgotten after the war. Within 20 years, its iconic Beetle design had become very popular in former Allied countries such as Britain and the United States. In my youth, it was kind of seen as a hippie car, which didn’t exactly jibe with some of that movement’s other political beliefs.
Volkswagen set up a restitution fund for surviving slave laborers only after being compelled to do so by a 1998 lawsuit. 59 years (1939 to 1998) is a long time to operate without any recognition of the company’s contributions to Nazi inhumanity.
Compare these actions with the now-popular practice of buying Bonne Maman based on the story of the company’s family hiding Jews during the Holocaust.
What I’m saying is, there are huge inconsistencies in whether societies or groups of people choose to praise or punish certain entities based on things that their forebears did (or supposedly did). This is to be expected somewhat. Humans can have notoriously short memories when it comes to implementing actions that may inconvenience them. And it’s often difficult to know (if we ever can know for certain) which entities are responsible for atrocities in the past. The record will always be incomplete, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep looking.
And that brings me to perhaps the largest point I’d like to make in this show – we need more history, and especially more local history (or small-scale history, if you will). And by “more history” I mean, of course, more historical research. A few weeks ago, I used the case of Samuel Tucker, a champion for civil rights in Arlington, Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s to make this exact point. Precious few people have ever heard of him, yet he was a civil rights hero and accomplished a great deal. I argued that there must be hundreds of examples of such people who did tremendous things to improve life in their communities and regions, yet we haven’t fully recognized them and their value to our common humanity. And so I urged all of you, if you have some time, to go to your local historical society, archive, or library and ask about “everyday heroes” from the history of your community.
And although Yad Vashem and similar organizations do amazing and extensive research in trying to find out about people from the era of the Holocaust who did heroic things in saving and protecting (as well as _trying_ to save and protect) people, they can’t do it all. Much more local historical research needs to take place across Europe to try to find out as much as we can about the many different ways that communities reacted to the Holocaust. By doing so, we might find many villains who have escaped the condemnations of history. We might also find out whether stories like the Bonne Maman one are true.
And this reminds me of another aspect of this story. Journalists Gabe Friedman and Philissa Cramer from The Times of Israeli did some serious investigation of this story in February 2021. Among other experts, they interviewed Jennifer Mendelsohn (a noted genealogist and expert on the family lineages of Holocaust resistors – see http://resistancegenealogy.com/). She gave them much of the crucial information about the Bonne Maman family, but, in a tweet related to the story, she added something we all feel, “can’t it be like Santa Claus?”
We all want the story to be true, and that’s almost certainly why it has had such resonance in the relatively short time that it’s gone viral.
At the very least, the original professor who helped the elderly woman in the grocery store and first heard the story, Yad Vashem, Ms. Mendelsohn, and all the journalists and researchers who’ve fact-checked it would agree that we, as I say, need more history and more digging to find those more of those unheralded people who risked their own lives during humanity’s worst years.
Talk to you next time.
Please visit the Yad Vashem website: https://www.yadvashem.org/
10 March 2022