Excelsior Hotel – Nice in WWII


It is one more in a line of guidebooks going back to the early days of Riviera tourism. This one’s called Nouveau Guide touristique de la Côte d’Azur, 1940 edition. It is published by Nice’s largest newspaper, L’Eclaireur, and sells for eight francs. Its cover is bright red, save for an inset that stylishly integrates the region’s icons – palm trees in the foreground, the arc of the shore, the blue of the sea, a village clinging to a precipice, and, rising above the whole tableau, jagged Alpine peaks …. But this old guidebook, from this year, sears your fingertips. For 1940 was the year France fell; when the Nazis occupied its north; when Jewish refugees fled to the Riviera to escape their persecutors. Some of them, certainly, clutched guides such as this. Maybe this one.

From 1940 to 1945, Nice’s hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, parks, theatres, and casinos became a stage set for tragedy. During the First World War, Nice had been six hundred miles from the front. During the Second, Nice was the front. Not for the whole war, and not for pitched battles like Normandy or Stalingrad. But in Nice, the Gestapo tracked down men, women, and children and sent them to their deaths. In Nice, Allied bombing raids took civilian lives. Resistance fighters fell. And just a few miles down the coast, in mid-August 1944, the Allies invaded southern France. In five years, control of Nice passed from France’s Third Republic, to the Vichy regime, to the Italians, to the Germans, and finally to the Americans, before being restored to France in 1945.

During these years, hotel rooms where once people made love or silently contemplated the sea became military command posts, torture chambers, or temporary asylums that reeked with fear.
In September 1939, after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, France and England declared war. The impact on the Riviera was swift. Railway companies that fed travellers to Nice from Lyon, Avignon, and Marseille, their rolling stock requisitioned by the military, drastically cut service. The first Cannes Film Festival, set to begin the same day as the invasion, was cancelled. Overnight, Nice hotels lost half their business. The same went for the big department stores, where sales of jewelry, perfumes, and other luxury items dropped 70 percent.

In May 1940, German armies swept into Belgium and France. Within weeks, Paris fell. By the cease-fire terms, Germany occupied the northern half of France. The other half, l’Etat français, a French with its capital in Vichy, remained unoccupied, though at Germany’s sufferance; “Vichy” became forevermore a synonym for spineless collaboration with a cruel enemy. Nice and the rest of the Cote d’Azur lay in unoccupied France, to which hundreds of thousands now fled. As historian Julian Jackson has astutely written, “This ‘exodus’ of the summer of 1940 seems like some hideously distorted mirror image of that no less famous exodus of summer of 1936, when hundreds of thousands of workers departed their first ever paid holidays.”

Nice’s guests from Britain and Belgium, of course, were gone. They were in part supplanted by soldiers on leave; refugees from north, their possessions reduced to diamonds sewn into the linings their coats; and nouveaux riches bent on profiting from the black market. For a while, if perversely, cabarets, theatres, and movie houses thrived. During the winter of 1941, betting at Nice’s racetrack beside the Var, broke every record. The hotels – many larger ones now run on behalf of German or Italian interests – at first didn’t do as well; one in six Niçois, unemployed at the end of the summer of 1940 was a hotel worker. By the following spring, however, with the reopening of the casinos, business was better. In June 1941, a regional committee for tourism was formed in Nice, replacing an earlier “festivals committee” that the Vichy regime deemed unduly frivolous.

Among those arriving in Nice, Cannes, and other Riviera towns during these first two years of the war were Jews from all over Europe. Jews had lived in Nice for centuries, had their own cemetery on the Chateau Hill, numbered perhaps a thousand. Now, though, many more came from Paris and elsewhere in France; from Germany, Austria, Eastern Europe. By one account, they and other Northern refugees were “the ones dressed in black, the men and women whose clothes looked too big for them, cramming the sidewalk cafés, crowding the parks, spilling over onto the beach.” Nice sheltered five thousand Jews on the eve of the war. Some carried Baedekers and Michelins as if they were on vacation. But they weren’t on vacation. They were running for their lives.

Some of the well-off and well-known among them, including actors, writers, and musicians, took rooms in hotels on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, or the Croisette in Cannes, its Promenade; one anti-Semitic screed took to calling it “Kahn.” But, as one account recalls, most of the Jews “faced hardship and holed up in miserable hotels.” The International Red Cross helped. So did Jewish self-help societies in Nice. The Hotel Roosevelt became a centre of Orthodox Jewry. “Here,” it was said, “one could see rabbis in their traditional apparel walking through the streets, listen to Talmudic discussions and hear the old tunes of Hebrew prayer and Talmudic study.”

We have at least one other slant on Nice’s Jews from this period, thanks to a memo written by SS Hauptsturmführer Dannecker, chief of the Gestapo’s Jewish office in France. Charged with ridding France of its Jews, Theodor Dannecker visited Nice in mid-July 1942. He reported that on the Promenade des Anglais there were “an enormous number of Jews,” that the Niçois avoided the Promenade because of them; that the Jews at one casino represented 60 percent of its visitors.

From the start, the anti-Semitic Vichy regime painted Jews as living extravagantly while real Frenchmen suffered; as criminals, speculators, and black-marketeers who sucked the lifeblood out of France. In Nice, the names of rue Rothschild and another street honouring a Jew had been changed. Jewish businesses had been shut down. Affiches went up saying “Down with the Jews.” Foreign Jews were the special target of these attacks. To most native French, even including some French Jews, the refugees from the North seemed alien. They looked different, spoke strangely. And they weren’t French. So, after Dannecker’s visit, as Vichy stepped up its anti-Semitic measures, it aimed them at the foreigners. On August 26, 1942, police rounded up six hundred of them in Nice and, five days later, shipped them to Drancy, the infamous camp outside Paris that served as waystation for Auschwitz.

The police, wrote one Jewish survivor, “surrounded hotels, villas, whole blocks of houses and dragged out of their beds terrified Jews who had come to France after 1936. The shouts, the wailing and the groaning broke the stillness of the morning: “These performances did not enjoy wide acclaim among the Niçois. “The methods employed,” a subsequent report admitted, “are dearly unpopular.”
In November 1942, Hitler ordered his armies into southern France – except, that is, for eight départements east of the Rhone; this pocket of France, which included Nice, was ltaly’s. But Fascist rule didn’t make things worse for Nice’s Jews, it made them better; ignoring protests from their German allies, the Italians scarcely laid a hand on them. German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop complained personally to Mussolini when he met with him in February 1943; oh, yes, certainly, the Italian dictator assured him, but he did nothing. An SS officer’s report three months later lamented that the Italians had resolved the Jewish question “in a special manner – to use their expression, ‘in the Latin way: the antithesis of ‘the German way'” prevalent elsewhere in France. In other words, they left the Jews alone, as they mostly did during the war. Even those holding plainly false papers, lamented this officer, enjoyed Italian protection.

By train and boat, Jews from the rest of France converged on this sun-blessed haven; thirty thousand of them crowded twenty miles of coast. The Italian carabinieri protected Nice’s Jewish sites; when French anti-Semites marched on a Nice synagogue, the local commander ordered the arrest of anyone who threatened it. For almost a year, in the middle of the war, at the height of the Holocaust’s fright -l fury, the hotels, villas, boarding houses, and apartments of the Riviera represented life and hope to European Jews . But in September 1943, following the Allied invasion of Sicily and southern Italy, the Italians capitulated. German armies rushed south to fill the Axis void, occupying Nice, which Italian forces were evacuating. Raoul Mille depicted the moment in a novel, Les Amants du paradis:

From the west, where the sky glowed with a faint, milky light, rose the distant murmur of a panting beast. Its moan grew into a throbbing. The soil, the foundations, the walls, the beach itself shook in slow, heavy spasms. The day dawned, grey and pink, like the belly of a fish pulled from the sea. A mist blurred the horizon. It was against this surreal and quavering backdrop that the first tank appeared, then cars and trucks. The Germans were on the Promenade des Anglais.
Could any contrast be more grotesque? On the one hand, the grey uniformed German troops, with all they conjured up of merciless severity. On the other, the wide, palm-crowned Promenade, with all it conjured up of abandon, of easy living, of a leisure that workers and worriers everywhere – all the world’s hurried, nervous, and sick – craved. And now it shook to the roar of German tanks. The Germans tried to come across as benign. They sent out photographers to snap soldiers at tourist spots – gesturing meaningfully beside the Emperor Augustus’s monument at La Turbie; or mingling with street urchins; or camera in hand, strolling along the Promenade, flanked by beach umbrellas and sidewalk merchants. If the Germans were just tourists, the photographs as much as said, why fear them?

hotelexcelsiornice

For a while, cabarets filled with Wehrmacht officers and Gestapo men, and cash registers rang with purchases of perfume, furs, and wines for frauleins back home: But as the war wore on, such extravagance dried up. Receipts from the taxe de sé‚jour fell from 190,000 francs in December 1943, soon after the Italians left, to fourteen thousand the following May. With its principal source of revenue gone and Germany siphoning its resources to the Fatherland, Nice had trouble even feeding itself. StapIes became scarce. As malnutrition took its toll, teeth grew brittle, finger- and toenails tore loose. All anyone talked about, besides the war, was food. As the Allied noose tightened, and after Field Marshal Erwin Rommel expressed displeasure with anti-invasion defences he’d inspected along the south coast, the Germans began to disfigure the pretty tourist face of Nice. In October 1943, they banned bicycles from the Promenade. In December, cement barricades twelve feet high went up, blocking access to the Promenade save for a small pedestrian opening. In January, the Germans dosed all of Nice’s restaurants and cinemas and declared the Promenade off limits. Blockhouses were erected, machinegun and anti-aircraft emplacements set up. Young, bare-chested soldiers, rifles stacked neatly beside them as they worked in the sun, dug trenches, laid barbed wire, mined the beach.

In April 1944, Elizabeth Foster, an elderly American unaccountably stuck in Nice for the duration of the war, recorded in her secret journal that the authorities had ordered every civilian to “produce a specified amount of copper;’ else draw a heavy fine; her quota was thirty pounds, which sent her rummaging among candlesticks and fireplace ornaments. The Germans demanded copper, among other metals; the previous month, they’d turned to that tourist shrine the Jetée-Promenade for a thousand tons of it. Back in the thirties, Klaus Mann, son of German novelist Thomas Mann, had described the Jetée as an “enchanted Moorish palace” that was “frankly hideous, in abominable taste:’ And yet, he admitted in the same breath, when it sparkled in the night, glowing like “the sumptuous centre of some enormous jewel,” irony evaporated and the Jetée truly was an enchanted palace. The Germans scavenged the Jetée’s brass and bronze, its electric cabIe, its zinc counters, stripping it of finery that had delighted generations of visitors. A small army of workers dismantled the rest of the edifice. Soon its great cupola was just a filigree of bare ironwork. Finally, Nice’s Eiffel Tower was reduced to stumpy pylons-in the right light, they looked like tombstones-washed by the sea.

Soon after their arrival, the Germans moved key offices into Nice hotels. The German commander installed himself at the Atlantic, on boulevard Victor-Hugo. The navy took over the camouflaged Hotel Suisse, built into the Chateau Hill. The Gestapo got the Hermitage. The Milice, the French Gestapo with whom the Germans collaborated, got the Concordia. As for the Jew-hunting operation that followed German armies across Europe, this, too, had its headquarters. Arriving in Nice on September 10, 1943, on the heels of the Wehrmacht, was SS Hauptsturmführer AIois Brunner, fresh from rounding up Jews in Austria and Greece. Brunner, a thirty-one-year-old Austrian, was charged with overseeing the final solution of the Jewish problem in the AIpes-Maritimes. He established his headquarters at the Hotel Excelsior.


Originally known as the Saint-Ermin, the Excelsior – it had no connection to the old Excelsior Regina – had gone up around the turn of the century, and for years had served as one of Nice’s many second rank hotels. Today it remains a hotel, a handsome one, all arches and pediments and Belle époque detailing. Its charming inner courtyard, dotted with blue umbrellas, is lush with flowers and bushes. The courtyard’s whole interior façade is green with luxuriant ivy that hangs down from iron balconies. The desk clerk gives you a brochure that recounts the hotel’s history and architectural features – florid stuff about harmonious proportions and restored ornamental plasterwork.

The brochure does not, of course, mention 1943 and 1944, when its wide hallways bore the tread of AIois Brunner and his men, when Jews were stuffed into bedless rooms until they were ready to be marched up the street to the station and loaded onto rail cars. Nice’s Jews had been trapped by fast-changing events. Before the Italians surrendered, an influential Italian Jewish banker had worked out a way to get most of them across the border to Italy or North Africa. But all depended. on word of the Armistice’s being delayed for a few weeks. It wasn’t; the announcement came on September 8. “By nightfall,” according to one account, “Nice was one huge party,” with women kissing Italian soldiers, accordions playing, couples dancing in the street.

The jubilation, however, was short-lived. When Hitler sent his crack Panzer divisions into northern Italy and the Italian-occupied zone of France, panic seized Nice’s Jews, now swollen to perhaps twenty thousand. Desperate to reach safe haven, a few would trek for days through the AIps. Most, though, stayed in the city and nervously waited. On September 9, the day after the announcement, German troops crossed the Var; two days later, they arrived in Nice. Immediately, Brunner’s men set to work. They picked up forty-five Jews as they tried to cross the Var, arrested a hundred more at the train station on September 13. Even from high up in her apartment over rue de Rivoli, Elizabeth Foster could sec what was going on. “Poor souls;’ she wrote on September 21. “All Jews are arrested wherever found, their belongings confiscated.”

In menacing black Citroëns, the Germans and their French henchmen hunted down Nice’s Jews. They’d abruptly surround an intersection, a market, or a street and stop anyone they even remotely suspected. They’d subject the men to “medical examinations”; those circumcised, including some Christians and Muslims, were seized on the spot. Women were judged Jewish on the basis of facial features. A Catholic nurse was arrested because her name was Esther. Official papers meant nothing; they were assumed fake. Brought by truck to the Excelsior-Brunner would watch them pull up from a second-story balcony overlooking rue Durante – the Jews were relieved of their possessions; their money and jewelry were supposed to reimburse the hotel for food and lodging during the days or weeks before they went to Drancy. Many were tortured for information about brothers, parents, and children not yet caught in the net. One begged an attending physician for a lethal injection; refused, he threw himself from a window. Some young Jewish women, it was rumoured, were kept at the Excelsior, sterilized, then shipped out “for the pleasure of the soldiers on the eastern front.”

Finally, in groups of sixty or so at a time, they’d be herded to the station, a few hundred shuffling paces up the street. “The road between the sinister hotel-prison ‘Excelsior’ and the station became, by one 1944 account, “a Calvary for the Jewish population of Nice. Two or three times a week the same heart-rending procession takes place, before a silent, tearful crowd held back by a large police contingent.”Then it was onto the train. Some Jews, picked up on the beach, arrived at Drancy in shorts, shivering. Many of the first seizures took place in hotels. The Germans would barricade the street, burst into the hotel, and haul off anyone suspected as Jewish. They picked up Joseph and Etka Dyzenchanz, Polish Jews in their sixties, who were staying at the Hotel P.L.M. (“Moderate prices, open all year” said the hotel’s ad in a 1939 guidebook.) They picked up Abram Klajman, forty-two, and his family, at the Hotel Busby. (“Every Modern Comfort.”) One who survived the war, Léon Poliakov, then staying at Hotel de Lausanne, on rue Rossini, noticed that the Germans hit ten of Nice’s 170 or so hotels each night. Before going to bed, he’d reassure himself that there was only a one-in-seventeen chance they’d come for him.

Early on, the Gestapo stopped a married Jewish couple in the lobby of the Negresco. “May I go upstairs to get my coat?” asked the wife. “Yes, but if you try to get away, your husband will answer for it.” When she didn’t come right back down, they went up to the room, only to find her dead; she had poisoned herself Soon the Jews abandoned the hotels that had given them such fleeting refuge. The Splendid, a hotel doing a particularly brisk business in refugee Jews, lost two-thirds of its trade within a month. A German dispatch exulted in late September. The city of Nice has lost its ghetto appearance. The Jews no longer circulate. The synagogues are closed. And the Promenade des Anglais offers to Aryan walkers numerous chairs which, up to now, were occupied by Jews. Tourist Nice had become judenrein, free of Jews. The manhunt moved from hotels and other tourist haunts to hospitals, apartments, basements, and other refuges. In the end, the Germans in Nice wound up shipping off to Drancy about three thousand Jews, most of whom died at Auschwitz.

After the initial easy harvest, the Germans had increasingly to rely on informers who – paid a hundred, a thousand, even five thousand francs per Jewish head – would come by the Excelsior to report, and collect. On August 15, 1944, two months after D-Day in Normandy, the Allies landed across a forty-mile-wide front near Saint-Raphaël and quickly moved inland. Four days later, about a week before the city’s liberation, Elizabeth Foster noted how few blows the Niçois were striking against the occupiers, even now, with the issue little in doubt and the Germans set to pull out. “If one lives on the Riviera it is very hard to believe in the Resurrection of France,” she wrote. The rest of the country, she felt, had exhibited courage, patience, and now joy. But not, from all she could see, Nice. “I try not to forget that the Riviera is, as someone said of Palm Beach, an atmosphere which “melts the moral marrow.” Tourist towns, she was saying, did not make for men and women ardent of principle.

As for Nice. whether because of its historically blurred national identity, or its sweet Italian streak, or tolerance born of welcoming visitors from everywhere, it couldn’t be much bothered with choosing sides. Italians? French? Germans? Americans? Did it matter in the end? Not so long as visitors filled the hotels, crowded the clubs, and left fat tips. The Niçois, it seemed to Foster, wanted nothing more than that   the war end – whoever won.

World War II left people with plenty to say. The workers liberated from their factories, the lovers arm in arm, were gone. In their stead were Nazi stormtroopers, Jews running for their lives, Resistance fighters, black-marketeers, most of them riven by urgency, worry, or fear; these were Nice’s wartime visitors, and later they’d have no want of life-and-death drama with which to regale their grandchildren. Here, then, is the perverse paradox of tourism: It is mostly banal, it is often artificial and contrived, it makes little claim on the intellect. And yet it stands high among the dividends of peace. For it supplies some of those rare moments of life at its sweetest – of repose, amusement, pleasure, and joy – for which the mass of men and women ache.

Source: “High Season in Nice”, by Robert Kanigel
ISBN 0 349 11347 5

About Jack Vanderwyk

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13 Responses to Excelsior Hotel – Nice in WWII

  1. I was really interested to read your piece about the Excelsior. I used to get taken to the South of France for holidays when I was a small child in the 1950’s. Nobody would have known there had been a war. My father lived in England at the time but he was half Italian and from San Remo to boot, so obviously knew all about it. For my third book I am trying ( very trying!) to write a story about Polish Jewish children hidden after ’43 in the Maritime Alps and about the Italian spy network so finding your blog about Nice and the Jews being rounded up was a bit of gold dust..as you say they don’t want to think about any of that stuff so there isn’t much info….. best wishes Rebecca Gethin (Ps my first book Liar Dice was about partisans in the mountians)

    • Thank you, Rebecca. Good luck with your book!
      The Jewish community in Nice is rather closed, but if there’s anything I could help you with, please let me know.

      Jack

      • Thank you v much,Jack. I have been reading about 2 Jewish children hidden in a village in the village of Creppo nearTriora. They had escaped to Nice where events caught up with their parents. Moreover, in fact, I am currently in the next door village ….. But thanks I will ask you if I get stuck. At present, I am not sure I know what to ask! So am well stuck. Best wishes Rebecca x.

  2. Mutemouia says:

    Nice is my hometown, and yet I never knew about all of this ! I’m used to walk in front of the Hotel Excelsior almost everyday. Thank you so much for this interesting article, I’ll never look at this city the same way I did before !

  3. kimbalarcl says:

    Hi Jack,

    I’m actually in Nice right now studying journalism. I’m writing on a topic about World War II and also looking at Hotel Excelsior. Would you or someone else maybe be able to talk with me about it more? I would absolutely love that. I thought your piece on this was fantastic and very interesting!

    Thank you,

    ~Amelia

  4. Eileen Kennedy says:

    My mother was a WWII Army Nurse and was part of the 69th Station Hospital group who came to Nice from N Africa at the end of ’44. They worked at a hospital that was apparently previously a TB sanitarium and used for injured soldiers through the fall of ’45 when they all sailed back to the states. The medical staff, including my mother stayed at a Villa that was turned over for their use while they cared for the patients in the hospital. The villa as my mother described in her letters was up a pretty steep hill from the hospital. I am traveling to Nice this October and am trying to locate the hospital or villa. All of her letters to my Dad never gave a name, but just described the beautiful surroundings of the villa. My parents were married in the garden of the villa. My father was stationed in England and came on leave to marry my Mother.
    This is very little information to go on, but if you know any hospital near a hill with a villa on top, please pass on any clues. My parents wrote to each other every day for 2 1/2 yrs and their story is amazing.
    Thanks,
    Eileen Shrieve Kennedy

    PS they had a civil ceremony at the Nice courthouse and perhaps they may have records?

    • Hello Eileen,
      I don’t know about the records, but the way you describe the walk uphill, it could very well be Nice-Cimiez. In 2010 I walked the same route uphill and I wrote this blog about it: https://nicebrighton.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/a-visit-to-cimiez-2010/

      • Eileen Kennedy says:

        Thank you so much Jack. Cimiez is a hotel, correct, not a hospital? I was trying to find the hospital they worked out and then returned home uphill to the villa they were living in. I have been trying to look at the sites of the current hospitals in Nice and maybe suspect theSaint Roche or the Centre Antoine. re you familiar with those? From the description the Saint Roche is very old and is being replaced by a new one.
        Thanks so much. The pictures of The Cimiez are gorgeous and the park above it.
        Eileen

      • At St, Roche, near the city centre, it’s all flat, but it’s very close to Boulevard Cimiez, where it starts to go uphill.

  5. You will find many villas in Cimiez, Eileen.

  6. Eileen Kennedy says:

    Thanks Jack. I’m sure there are many villas. I will dig deeper into their letters. I will enjoy Nice if I locate the villa or not. Thanks for your assistance and responding so quickly.
    Eileen

  7. Eileen Kennedy says:

    Jack, was the Excellsior Hotel used as a TB Sanitorium and then a hospital for WWII American servicemen in 1945?
    I also got another clue from my Mother’s letters (see my previous emails) that the villa that she lived had caves behind the villa. Does that ring any bells?

  8. Will Kerley says:

    Jack – I was on holiday in Nice for a week – staying in an apartment off the Avenue Gambetta – across the road from our apartment block there was a plaque to Dana Sauveur – a resistance fighter – thank you so much for the information you posted in this blog. Could you please point me in the direction of more books to read about the subject of Nice under German occupation & the terrible rounding-up of the Jews – perhaps the titles of the books you mention? Just extraordinary to think of Nice’s dark past & how little we are challenged in our fortunate lives – compared to those dark days….. thanks again for this fascinating & moving blog – all best Will Kerley

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