From the author of the runaway bestseller A Train in Winter comes the extraordinary story of a French village that helped save thousands, including many Jewish children, who were pursued by the Gestapo during World War II.
Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a small village of scattered houses high in the mountains of the Ardèche. Surrounded by pastures and thick forests of oak and pine, the plateau Vivarais lies in one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Eastern France, cut off for long stretches of the winter by snow.
During the Second World War, the inhabitants of the area saved thousands wanted by the Gestapo: resisters, freemasons, communists, downed Allied airmen and above all Jews. Many of these were children and babies, whose parents had been deported to the death camps in Poland. After the war, Le Chambon became the only village to be listed in its entirety in Yad Vashem's Dictionary of the Just.
Just why and how Le Chambon and its outlying parishes came to save so many people has never been fully told. Acclaimed biographer and historian Caroline Moorehead brings to life a story of outstanding courage and determination, and of what could be done when even a small group of people came together to oppose German rule. It is an extraordinary tale of silence and complicity. In a country infamous throughout the four years of occupation for the number of denunciations to the Gestapo of Jews, resisters and escaping prisoners of war, not one single inhabitant of Le Chambon ever broke silence. The story of Le Chambon is one of a village, bound together by a code of honour, born of centuries of religious oppression. And, though it took a conspiracy of silence by the entire population, it happened because of a small number of heroic individuals, many of them women, for whom saving those hunted by the Nazis became more important than their own lives.
Caroline Moorehead is the New York Times bestselling author of Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France; A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France; and Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. An acclaimed biographer, Moorehead has also written for the New York Review of Books, the Guardian, the Times, and the Independent. She lives in London and Italy.
Village of Secrets is a long and often complex book about how the people of the mountainous area of the south Massif Central in France helped to protect the Jews from the Nazis and helped many of them to escape to safety.
It is so thoroughly researched that it is just about the book's only weakness that there are so many characters it's easy to forget some of them.
In some ways Village of Secrets redresses the balance in revisionist French history which has tended to put its hands up in admitting responsibility for World Was Two collaboration yet perhaps not given true credit to those who resisted the German occupier. This book is also about religious tolerance. Catholics, Huguenots and other Protestant groups set aside their differences to save as many Jews as they could.
The brutal truth is that tens of thousands of French people collaborated disgracefully with the Germans between 1940 and 1945 and many actively helped in the round ups of Jews. The attitude of the Vichy government towards the Jews is one the blackest moments in French history. Those punished at the end of the war deserved it.
But, as Village of Secrets tells us, it is equally true that large numbers of the French people resisted, either actively or passively, and many were involved in trying to save the Jews, especially the children, from transportation to the Polish death camps. There were policemen, often with their own liberty at stake, who turned a blind eye to the hidden Jews. There were even some members of the Wehrmacht who did this.
Inevitably, as in any Holocaust story, there are tragedies which Village of Secrets does not ignore. Ultimately, however, this great book is about brave people who put their own lives at risk to save those of others.
David Lowther. Author of The Blue Pencil (thebluepencil.co.uk) davidlwtherblog.wordpress.com
here's how far behind I am -- I finished this book the end of last month and am just now getting to it here. aarrghh!
Village of Secrets begins with the coming of the Nazis to France in 1940 and the establishment of the Vichy government under Pétain. It wasn't long until measures of repression against certain targeted groups ("foreign" Jews, Freemasons and Communists) began; the campaigns against them were accompanied by propaganda that targeted these groups as "dark forces of the 'anti-France'." However, as time went on, it became clearer that the Vichy government was expected to play a role in helping the Nazis implement their anti-Jewish policies -- not just the foreign-born, naturalized citizens, but eventually the French-born Jews, who'd mistakenly believed that their status offered them some modicum of safety.
If you believe the myth that started circulating in 1953, a pacifist-oriented pastor named André Trocmé in the French parish of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon "helped save some 5,000 hunted communists, Freemasons, resisters and Jews from deportation to the extermination camps of occupied Poland." According to a magazine article that year, Trocmé had instilled his own belief in non-violent, peaceful resistance among his parishioners, and it was in this spirit that they were led to take in, hide, and sometimes get people whose names "appeared on Nazi death lists" safely over the Swiss border. Over two decades later, in 1988, Le Chambon was designated by Yad Vashem as the only village in the world to be "Righteous Among Nations," an appellation that in combination with a number of articles, documentaries, and memoirs about this remote village in the Massif Central, perpetuated the ongoing myth about Trocmé's role and that of Le Chambon as well.
But there's a problem here: by focusing solely on this small, remote village and this peace-loving Protestant pastor, over the years that "myth" has ignored a lot of other people -- those from other places, of other beliefs, and even a number of humanitarian authorities who literally risked everything to help save people designated for the camps. In this book, the author takes on the realities behind the myths and examines the changing and still-controversial discourses evolving from this historical period.
Either I add a too-long review, or you can click here for the long one at my online reading journal. Here's the short version: as its bottom line, this book most thoroughly examines how ordinary people responded to very extraordinary circumstances during this time period. It is a well written and meticulously-researched narrative that uses first-person accounts of people who lived to tell their tales due of the help they received from others, as well as accounts from some of those who helped them to survive.
The story of Chambon is incredibly moving ... my wife and I had the experience of visiting the village and feeling the powerful sense of "goodness" which still resides there. This town, in a remote part of France, led by the Huguenot pastor Andre Trocme, was the place of refuge for perhaps 2500 Jewish children, hidden and then moved on to safety.
(NOTE: see also my review of Phillip Hallie's "Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.")
On Saturday 26 August, 1942, some 50 to 60 police and gendarmes wound their way up the steep roads in police trucks and on motorcycles and stopped in front of the Mairie in le Chambon. Trocmé and the mayor were summoned and ordered to hand over the names of all Jews resident in the area.
‘I am their pastor,’ Trocmé is reported as saying. ‘That is to say their shepherd.’ He said he had no idea whether there were any Jews among his parishioners, and had he known, he would not tell them. The policeman in charge informed him that he had just 24 hours in which to come up with the names, and that if he failed to obey, he personally would be arrested.
As darkness fell, the children were collected by boy scouts and moved to more remote farmhouses, where they were hidden in attics or behind wood piles, only emerging after nightfall while the police remained on the plateau.
When no list of Jews was forthcoming, the police, who had brought a list of their own with 72 names on it, began to search the village. They checked documents, opened cupboards, combed through cellars and attics, banged on walls to see if they contained false panels. They found no one.
Next morning at dawn, they set out to explore the surrounding villages and the countryside ... Day after day, for three weeks, the villagers listened to the police firing up their cars and motorcycles in the early morning before leaving to scour the countryside for hidden Jews. They found no one.
With the police finally gone, calm of a kind returned to the plateau. The Jewish children left the forests and the isolated farm buildings and came back to their homes and pensions; the pastors resumed their parish visits and Bible classes; the farmers once again took up the slow rhythm of their agricultural lives.
I have read the sections of this remarkable account which pre-date the activities in Chambon ... a series of French Catholic and Protestant leaders resisted the Nazi demands to collect and deport Jews ... eventually, they realized that saving all the Jews was impossible and they chose to focus on the Jewish children.
There are very few thrilling stories to emerge from the Nazi experience. This is one of them. Some excerpts ...
... the Maréchal (Petain) was aware that plans were going ahead to deport 10,000 foreign Jews … A gigantic net was already descending over Vichy’s internment camps. … The camps had been sealed. Throughout the countryside, convents, boarding schools, presbyteries and hostels were searched and the forests patrolled for Jews; those found were arrested
... The trains were all bound for Drancy ... By the time Ella was taken from Drancy and put on a train for Auschwitz, there were three convois, transports, leaving every week ... The first transport to take children on their own, without parents, left Drancy on 17 August. Five hundred and thirty of the children on board were under 13. ... Between 17 and 31 August, seven trains left for Auschwitz. Among those on board were 3,500 children.
...For the children in Vénissieux, a new drama was unfolding. Three buses had arrived, driven by volunteers, to take the children away. Those over 18 – technically the age at which the Germans considered them to be adults – were concealed under the seats. Rachel’s only other memory of that time is of these hidden children. ... There was just time to scatter the children around Lyons, to convents, schools, hospitals and private houses. The older ones were put into scout uniforms and sent to join a pack leaving for a trip to the country. When the police arrived at the OSE office, the children had gone ... Chaillet declared that, in all conscience, L’Amitié Chrétienne would never hand over children entrusted into its care by their parents. Word got out. A leaflet with the words ‘Vous n’aurez pas les enfants’ was soon circulating around Lyons
... ‘Let us save children by dispersing them,’ he said. For this, he added, Garel would need a cover, helpers, money, families, false documents and safe houses.
The second in Moorehead's proposed trilogy of French Resistance histories. What I had assumed might be a sweetened story of rescuers and goodness in the midst of the Holocaust turned out to be a complicated story - the truth is not so black and white. It's also the story of the Nazi occupation of France and how this region stood slightly apart from the Vichy regime. One man is often credited with the rescue and hiding of Jewish children at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, but the region itself had a history of resistance, and many other women and men were instrumental and perhaps more crucial than Trocmé. This historical memory is disputed as well, and apparently Moorehead received threats after publication. Why are some rescuers honored by Yad Vashem and others are ignored? - it's political and controversial, of course. (Made me think of the David Rieff book I just read, In Praise of Forgetting, and his suggestion that historical memories can be problematic if they become dogma.)
I read this soon after listening to A Train in Winter, so I had a terrifying and immediate understanding of the agonies any of those unfortunate enough to be caught and deported would undergo.
I am a bit ambivalent about this book. The subject matter is interesting as it describes the valiant attempts by the people of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in Vichy France to protect and hide Jews fleeing from arrest by the Germans and the Vichy government. It appears that a tremendous amount of research has been done by the author but the veracity of that research has been questioned by other historians and family members of those who lived on the Plateau. So, what are the true facts and what are exaggerations......the reader is left to decide. Aside from the question of the authenticity of sections of the history, the basis of the story is fascinating and provides some insight into the collaborative government of Vichy. There are so many characters in the story that it is impossible to keep track of them and they often appear and disappear just as quickly. But there was still enough there to hold my interest.
This is not the first time that an author has told the story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon - an Alpine French community that was among those that hid Jewish children and adults during the Second World War, but it is the first account I have read.
Caroline Moorehead is intent on correcting what she sees as the oversimplification and mythologisation of some earlier accounts. Other reviews on Goodreads certainly have taken her to task on this.
But first and foremost it is an amazing and moving story. Families in the village and surrounding communities taking great personal risks to shelter thousands of Jews from the Nazis (and the French Vichy regime), and saving lives.
We also hear about the individuals who took terrific risks to transfer Jewish families from camps and places of danger to the villages of the Alpine plain, or across the border into Switzerland.
A huge amount of research has clearly been done, and although the cast of characters is large and confusing at times, the personal testimony is remarkable.
Some though have accused Caroline Moorehead of downplaying the religious aspect of this story - diminishing the role of the Huguenot community and protestant pastors in sheltering Jewish families.
But I do not think that's the case at all. Caroline Moorehead makes it quite clear how important a part the Protestant faith played in the decisions of individuals to help Jewish refugees.
She just chooses not to make it a simple narrative of good versus evil. The truth is often more nuanced than myth, and many individuals played a part in this remarkable story, and many with different motivations. Jews were not just passive - many played an active part in saving lives. Catholics and those with no faith also were capable of heroic behaviour.
Some of the most shocking parts of the book though expose the complicity of the Vichy regime in the attempts to exterminate Jews. There may have been no gas chambers - but Jewish families died in French-run camps because of starvation and illness, and Vichy officials allowed many more to be transferred to their death n the East.
Anti-semitism was present in France - even if it was not as widespread and institutional as in Germany. But that just makes the heroism of those who chose to defy the Nazis and the Vichy government more inspiring. Some of those who helped save lives lost theirs in the cause.
And, as in any real life story, there is ambiguity. The main French official may have actively helped to save Jews; he may just have turned a blind eye; but he also may have been culpable in some deaths. Equally the ambiguous attitude of the local German general may have made a contribution.
Although many Jews did owe their lives to the village, this was far from a paradise. Many of the children lost their parents, and their identity. Not all their hosts were kindly. Some of those saved struggled to adjust to life after the war.
So although there is hope and heroism here, there is also darkness and despair. These are ordinary people responding to extraordinary times - truth not fable - and I believe the book is more powerful because it is honest about that.
And like many accounts of the Holocaust you ask yourself what your own response would have been to the same circumstances. We all hope we would "do the right thing" but how much would we be prepared to risk to protect others? Village of Secrets shows how difficult those choices always are, and how remarkable - and reprehensible - people can be.
The story is truly inspiring, but it's not the first time it's been told, even in English, and the book has been severely criticized for its distortions and many inaccuracies. The criticisms have been made by three people the author sought assistance from while researching her book, who feature significantly in it and who are well qualified to comment on it.
One of them, Pierre Sauvage, who made the award-winning documentary Weapons of the Spirit about the village in question, has given a very detailed critique of the book in a review at http://tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-... , supplemented by additional material at http://chambon.org/moorehead.htm (which also reproduces the one-star reviews by Max Liebmann and Nelly Trocmé Hewett on Amazon.com.)
At least two books have told the story before - first the late Professor Philip Hallie's Lest Innocent Blood be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (1979) - which Ms Moorehead criticizes strongly in her own book - and latterly Dr Patrick Henry's We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France During the Holocaust (2007).
Like Moorehead, Henry discusses Hallie's book and the controversies it aroused among some local inhabitants, though unlike Moorehead, he sees criticisms of Hallie as unfair (see pp. 6-8 and p.18f. at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Hh... ). For whatever reason, however, Ms Moorehead does not refer to Henry's book in either the body of her text or her source-notes, and only includes an entry for the French translation in her bibliography.
Henry writes (p. 8): "The 700-page volume containing the proceedings of the three-day 1990 colloquium held in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon constitutes our greatest single source of knowledge regarding the extent and nature of rescue work on the plateau [Vivarais-Lignon]. [...] [T]his volume is our best source for moving beyond the legends into a true history of the plateau from 1939 to 1944." Despite mentioning the colloquium on p. 334, however, Ms Moorehead does not refer to the published proceedings or include them in her bibliography.
By an uncanny coincidence, another retelling of the story was published in the same month as Ms Moorehead's, Peter Grose's The Greatest Escape: How one French community saved thousands of lives from the Nazis - A Good Place to Hide (http://www.amazon.com/Greatest-Escape... ), which has been praised by Thomas Keneally, the author of Schindler's List. Either this or Henry's We Only Know Men would seem preferable to Village of Secrets, despite the favourable publicity and reviews it has received.
My parents were among the Jews who found shelter in the area of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, during the Holocaust--the subject of this astonishingly inaccurate book--and I had the good fortune to be born there at that time. I thus care deeply about the remarkable rescue mission that profoundly affected my life.
It is thus dismaying that this account of those events preposterously asserts that the French Protestant (Huguenot) dimension of the rescue effort has been inflated into a myth, that the village's remarkable pastor can be plausibly charged with being a self-aggrandizing pathological liar, that nonviolence was only a small part of the story, that unnamed atheists and agnostics played an equal role in providing shelter, that indeed the religious beliefs of the rescuers deserve only passing mention... Incidentally, among the many dozens of misrepresentations and errors in this sloppy book are the very photograph on the cover: the reader has no way of knowing that the "Village of Secrets" portrayed is not Le Chambon!
Furthermore, in the author's eagerness to be able to claim that she is, at last, setting "the record straight" and describing for the first time "what actually took place" in and around Le Chambon, she feels it necessary to go out of her way to malign the late Philip Hallie and me--who have told the story before her. In my case, she goes so far as to fabricate the utterly false allegation that key figures in Le Chambon's wartime events branded my well-received feature documentary on the subject, "Weapons of the Spirit," as nothing less than a "mutilation of historical truth." This is very mean-spirited fiction indeed!
I give this high marks for a well-written and well-researched book. This is a comprehensive study of heroism and courage of many individuals who worked as a network to protect and rescue children and adults from certain death amid World War II. The selfless acts of these people for strangers in need showcase the aspects of human nature that we should aspire to.
The writer is clear in her information and it is easy to understand, but the wealth of information and the people and their lives, past and present, is a lot to digest and seems to go on endlessly. Having said that, it is overwhelming at times, but you could not tell the depth and breadth of this harrowing tale without going into this detail. It's both appalling and amazing at the same time. It's a hard story to tell, but one that leaves you in awe of the capability of what humanity can be.
Nazi opposition succeeds surrounding the small eastern French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the mountains of Adèche.
Village of Secrets tells of the large number of French who resisted in some form involving themselves to save Jews, particularly the children from transportation to death camps. Many feigned ignorance and looked the other way, mainly law enforcement, risking their freedom. Religious intolerance set aside, as varying groups forgiving their differences in saving as many Jews as possible. One standout, Pastor Andre Trocmé, a man urging nonviolence resistance to oppressors, hid many Jews, as well as his parishioners with the utmost of secrecy, thus saving many from certain peril.
The blot forever staining French history is the fact thousands of French people sadly collaborated with Germans, many actively aiding in the herding of Jews. Vichy government attitude towards Jews permanently mars French history. A sobering fact, heartbreaking to comprehend, painful to revisit.
The atrocities of the Holocaust are described as expected, however the courage demonstrated by remarkable people willing to put their lives in great danger to save others creates for a well researched memorable read.
Moorehead's clean writing and extensive research provides a brutal yet beautiful story of the harshness of some and the imperious kindness of others.
It can be difficult to comprehend all that happened in France during World War II—fighting against Germany, surrendering, collaborating, resisting, starving, running black markets, and of course bring up families and trying to stay alive. This book tells the stories of the people who lived in the tiny mountain village of le Chambon and the surrounding plateau, both the residents who hid Jewish men, women, and children whose lives were in peril and those they hid. Their stories are tragic, triumphant, and quotidian.
History is finding meaning in details, otherwise it is a recitation of meaningless facts. Why did this tiny village become one of the few safe spaces for Jewish children, in particular? In part the answer lies in their Huguenot past. Persecuted since the 17th Century, the people of Le Chambon valued life and sympathized with the situation of the hunted. They were a tight-knit and tight-mouthed group, able to keep secrets. Local ministers were central to the system both as spiritual leaders and as the hub of information networks that were necessary. In addition, the French authorities were often, bit not always, willing to look the other way.
The power of this book is in the stories of the families that stayed there and their hosts. Le Chambon was a summer holiday destination, so rooms were plentiful. Aid groups brought Jewish children to the village where they were quickly moved out to family hostels or isolated farms. One man made a full-time job of forging convincing identity papers and ration books for every displaced person. Local cafe owners passed on useful intelligence about what the Germans were up to. The prefect of the Haute-Loire Departement appeared at times to ignore clear evidence of subterfuge but at other times he seemed to collaborate with the Nazis (he was cleared of collaboration by a tribunal after the war on the grounds that he did what he could).
It’s the stories of the children that are the most heartbreaking. The came from every social class and background. Many were French by birth but their Jewish parentage marked them for deportation and extermination. Their parents sent them alone with strangers to a new life. When they later met their parents, many did not know them and wanted to stay on the plateau with their foster families. Many were emotionally hollowed out by the experience.
As the Nazi net tightened around the plateau, the resistance grew and spawned an active group of men and women who acted as couriers, saboteurs, assassinators, and local militia. Not wanting to attract attention to the place where so many were hidden, it fell to local leaders to calm down and moderate the group’s actions, no easy task.
In an Afterword, the author reveals the subsequent lives of many of the major players, who became a kibbutz member, who a social worker, who a farmer, and who a success in business. Their afterlives reveal the ordinariness of the people caught up in this extraordinary drama.
Le Chambon was not an isolated case. An old friend, since deceased, told me the story of his teen years hidden in the isolated village of Gap in the Alps, where his parents sent him to avoid being drafted by the Germans for work in munitions factories. He described his life in the “auberge de la jeunesse” as not unhappy. He went on to expand his family’s ancient mustard business in Dijon into an international food conglomerate and enjoyed life thoroughly into old age.
One quirk of this book: the translator has consistently translated the common French word, sportif, as sporty instead of athletic, which made for some odd descriptions.
This time it is Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead.
For those that haven’t seen my new method on book reviews, here’s the scoop. I am going to blog about books I’ve read in a question and answer format. The premise is that one of my readers is asking me questions. For the record, this is just a device I am using to have fun. I’m the one asking and answering. It’s more interesting for me to write them this way, and it gives the other voices in my head a chance to talk. If you don’t like it, well, there are plenty of other things to do online.
Should I read this book?
Maybe. It was very interesting, and definitely a story worth telling, but you probably have to be pretty committed to wanting to know the story to read it.
It sounds like you didn’t like this book, is that true?
No, I liked this book. It’s just that some stories are conducive to being swept along as a reader, I don’t think this is one of those stories. In a lot of ways I’d use the word sprawling to describe it. There are a lot of people, a lot of places, and it’s the type of book that can almost discourage you because it can be a little hard to find a rhythm as a reader because it seems to be constantly changing direction. This isn’t a criticism of the author so much as a commentary on the difficulty that I’m sure was there in attempting to do justice to the reality of what happened.
What prompted you to read this particular book?
A couple of things. First, I’ve got an idea for a book bouncing around in my head that might use this time and place in France as a background, so there was definitely a “research” element for me. Second, I am always up for reading about World War 2, and this was a piece of the puzzle that I knew nothing about.
Was there anything you read in this book that you think we can learn from in our current world?
Man, there were lots, but there is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot the last few days. I’m going to try to thread a needle here politically (which I’m sure I won’t be successful at), but here goes. We live in a hyper-partisan, polarized world, particularly in the U.S. That isn’t a terribly insightful observation, and if you think it is you need to get out more, but what I have been thinking about is this idea of being a collaborator. Not in the sense of someone who is good at working with other people, but in the WW2 sense of working with the enemy. We have come to a place that whichever side of the fence you are on politically you generally think your side is good, and the other side is evil. Because of this anybody who works with or for the person you find reprehensible gets branded a collaborator. Obviously, there is a line that if crossed you are aiding people in unethical and bad behavior, I’m not suggesting we ignore that. What I have been pondering though is that there may be good people who may be in tough spots because they have decided that’s the best way to stave of disaster. I think of this line near the end of Village of Secrets, “From one end of France to the other, there were civil servants who falsified ration books, policemen who turned a blind eye, telephone operators who warned of impending raids. Parallel to the map of Vichy is a map of decency.”
Our political landscape is such that I think the red and blue teams largely view each other as Nazis, or at best the Vichy French, but all throughout our country there are legions of people, some of which we may view as “working for the other side,” who do what they do for the common good of as many as they can. I think there are definitely things going on in the world that we should have moral clarity on, but there is an awful lot of gray area on what the best way to deal with a particular problem is. Our world isn’t complicated in the same way as trying to exist under the Nazi regime, but doesn’t mean that the world hasn’t gotten less complicated. We are blessed in the United States not be dealing with being overrun by Nazis, but we do live in a time with serious problems and questions, perhaps it’s time to do a little less tarring and feathering.
There were a lot of people who appeared in this book, that almost 80 years later we aren’t really sure if they were collaborators or not. Were they trying to help? Were they trying to save their own skin? Were they willing to switch sides depending on who looked to be winning? History hasn’t given us answers, and I think the same questions still exist about a lot of people today, and maybe we don’t know the answers as well as we think we do.
At this point 8 of the 10 people who read this post now believe that I am a heretic, so let’s hurry along to another question shall we?
You sure you don’t want to talk about your thoughts on collaborators anymore?
If any educational institution I attended before grad school still existed I’m pretty sure they’d be revoking my diplomas, so yeah, let’s move along.
If we must move along, then what about this book surprised you?
There were several things, but one of them was the appearance of John Nelson Darby. Darby is considered the father of the theological system of Dispensationalism. I grew up steeped in dispensational theology, and even attended Dallas Theological Seminary, the most famous dispensational institution out there, but I had no idea that his followers in France were instrumental in saving so many Jews. They weren’t the only ones. French Huguenots, Quakers, and other Protestants did their share. A number of Catholics were also involved in saving Jews, but I never knew that there were Darbyist enclaves in France, and that they were committed to saving as many Jews as they could. Maybe I just don’t know that much about France, a distinct possibility.
Here’s a good quote from the book about there prevalence:
“There was, however, something else that made the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon exceptional in France, and it would become crucial in saving the Jews in the months to come. Among its inhabitants were not only a very high percentage of Protestants, steeped in the embattled faith of the Huguenots, but also a number of Darbyists, followers of a nineteenth-century English preacher, John Darby, sober, austere, very private people sometimes likened to Quakers and the Amish. By the outbreak of war, the plateau had 12 Protestant parishes, and some 9,000 of its 24,000 people were Protestant, in a country in which Protestants counted for less than 10 per cent of the total population. The Darbyists, and an even smaller and more obscure sect, the Ravenists, were said to number about 2,000, making these communities some of the largest in Europe.”
This is getting long so two final questions.
First, did you have to look up how to spell Huguenot?
Second, do you have a favorite quote from the book?
Well, I read this as an ebook, and I did so specifically so I could highlight easily and access those highlights efficiently. That is to say, there were lots of highlights.
One quote that stood out to me was from a Jewish woman in an interment camp in France, many of whom would be shipped to Auschwitz, never to be heard from again, “We lived somewhere outside life,” she wrote, “In a bath of death.”
Moorehead doesn't gloss over facts. A lot of French people were antisemites, including intellectuals like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre to my disappointment.
Even the indifferent were outraged when the Vichy government started deporting children. This is a fascinating portrait of a time and place where one had to choose sides when the costs were tremendous and it wasn't always easy to know whom to trust.
As I continue to embrace audiobooks, I was excited to come across Caroline Moorehead’s, 2014 book, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France while at the library. As a baseline, WWII is a broadly interesting subject matter, obviously, but I’ve specifically been interested in learning the large segments of it I still don’t know much of anything about, like Stalingrad, England’s role, and France’s resistance to the Nazi occupation. The audiobook is read by Suzanne Toren.
I do have to admit, I found the audiobook hard to follow as an English-speaker, and perhaps also due to my general ignorance of the subject matter. Maybe it would have been “easier” to follow if I was reading it versus listening to it? But a fair amount didn’t translate, literally, for me, and it was particularly hard to keep up with different character names and such. That’s just a language barrier thing, but also, I say “literally” because sometimes, certain passages weren’t translated into English, so I didn’t get the added context.
That difficulty aside, it’s impossible not to be enthralled by the real life story of France folding to the Nazis for myriad reasons, the Vichy government of France, which collaborated with the Nazis, and the resistance types of all stripes, who pushed back nonviolently and violently, and also, saved scores of Jews from the Holocaust (as well as other resisters, Freemasons, and communists), primarily children.
Much of the latter resistance took place in a particular French village, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon.
Moorehead argues off the top that the latter is perhaps overwrought in modern French myth-making in the sense that, 5,000 Jews weren’t saved by inhabitants of the village, but more like 800 were hid there, and perhaps 3,000 crossed through the village on the way to Switzerland, but to what extent they were aided is unclear. And I think, if I’m understanding Moorehead right, her theory would argue, the reason there is myth-making about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is to compensate for the shame and guilt France collectively feels toward enabling the extermination of the Jews through collaboration with its police forces, Vichy government, and a general anti-Semitism even before the Nazis came to Paris.
Something I couldn’t help but think about, too: Religions, sometimes rightly, get lumped in as appealing to our most base impulses with deleterious consequences, but they also appeal to our most humane impulses, too. After all, many of those who saved the Jews in France (and elsewhere in Europe) were deeply religious. In this case, Moorehead is talking about Protestants primarily, the Huguenots and Darbyists. It was their faith that called them to be the sort of people who stood athwart the wave of anti-Semitism washing over the globe, and backed by the guns of the Nazis and the Gestapo, and said, “No, we will not partake.” And in fact, “We will actively resist and provide safe harbor to those in need.”
That level of courage and bravery, which they wouldn’t think of it as anything other than an obvious and even ordinary thing to do, sends goosebumps up and down my flesh. It is the sort of person I aspire to be, if ever a moment like it arises.
I was particularly enamored by the story of Pastor André Trocmé and his wife, Magda, of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, who actively spoke out against Nazi Germany and advocated for helping to hide Jewish refugees. He was also a strident pacifist. It is hard to overstate how immensely courageous it is to stand at the pulpit when Nazis are swarming the land, and when fellow French citizens are collaborating with the Nazis, and say to your congregation, “We will resist when our enemies demand from us things that our teachings forbid or that contradict the commands of the gospel.”
Another character I was enamored by was Virginia Hall, an American who worked in France during WWIII, specifically with the resistance forces. It is cliché to refer to a woman as bad-ass, but if anyone deserves that honorific, it is Virginia Hall. She was the first female agent in France who supplied pretty much anything the resistance needed, and then was still able to evade capture and escape France. She received the Distinguished Service Cross after the war, the only one awarded to a civilian woman. She didn’t even care to get a medal from President Truman because she said she was “still operational.” She also seemed famously, as Moorehead explains, to demur on talking about her activities during WWII or thereafter, which is probably why there hasn’t been that many big movies about her.
So, Moorehead shows these twin forces going on in France at the same time. First was the rising anti-Semitism in France on the eve of another global war. As she points out, France had more immigrants by percentage around 1938 than all of Europe (I believe that’s right), but when the economic downturn that was affecting the rest of the globe finally washed ashore France, they blamed the Jews, felt there was “Jewish saturation,” and the government and citizens wanted to expel them.
One woman powerfully said that bombs didn’t scare her because they are indiscriminate, but anti-Semitism did because it targeted the Jews.
When the Nazis occupied France, I was surprised at how French politicos, pundit types of the day, and citizens blamed the French Republic becoming a “republic of women and homosexuals,” and essentially, drowning in too much liberty. That in fact, it was such decadence which caused the Nazi occupation, and France, in a way, deserved what she sowed. (Digression, but there is a throughline of a kind between that thinking then, and the thinking now among the American right that what befalls America is deserved for our own decadence in our own time.)
Secondly, the other current, is of course the minority of religious leaders, like Trocmé, who were primed to resist and to hide. It seemed these religious leaders were in the minority. While I gave religion credit earlier, here is where it gets its criticism: France was predominately a Catholic country, and there were those agitating to “re-Christianize” France and end the separation of church and state (which from what I can tell stretches back to 1905) as a response to the Nazis.
I also find the Vichy government bizarre: They were so worried about bad press beyond French borders, where other countries would learn about what they were doing to enable the discrimination and extermination of the Jews, and it’s like, huh? That tells me they knew they were doing something wrong, right? If they believed in what they were doing and thought it righteous, why be ashamed? The primary issue is the actual discrimination and aiding and abetting extermination, but that secondary follow-through of trying to obfuscate that you are doing it fascinates me, too. So much energies get expelled on trying to deny that which you are clearly doing.
Unfortunately, a familiar theme arises in, Village of Secrets, if you’ve read any prior Holocaust stories: The belief that persecution will only be applied to them, but not us. French Jews figured such persecutions would only be applied to foreign Jews, but not French Jews, and thus, they had nothing to fear. But of course, such persecution didn’t stop with foreign Jews.
Another Jewish woman was quoted as saying about living in France during WWII, “We live somewhere outside life in a bath of death.”
In the time it has taken me to listen to the audiobook, I’ve noticed, incidentally, that the Auschwitz Memorial Museum on Twitter, which regularly posts pictures and names of those who perished in the Holocaust, were Tweeting out the French ones. Like a French girl, Anni Molho, who was born in Southwestern France, and at age three, was gassed at Auschwitz. (I recommend giving them a follow, by the way. They are trying to reach 1.5 million followers.)
Or another French Jewish girl, Jeanine Nicole Heimer, who also perished at Auschwitz. She would have only been around 14-years-old.
That is what we are talking about: Collaboration meant death for three-year-old girls like Molho, and 14-year-old girls like Heimer, for no other reason than hatred of their Jewishness. Collaboration meant terrible, ugly treatment and separation from their parents. And collaboration meant that parents pleaded and begged for governments, like the United States, but others, too, to take their children, and to save their children.
Back to Trocmé, his inspiration, in part, was Deuteronomy 19:10, which states, “Do this so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land, which the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance, and so that you will not be guilty of bloodshed.”
In Trocmé’s interpretation, he took innocent blood to mean the refugee. And I believe it is he who Moorehead quotes as saying, “I believe in the final triumph of good over evil.” Without violence, mind you, as again, he was a pacifist.
Another rebellion quote about the Vichy government was, “I will disobey if justice and truth demand it.”
You can see why, as Moorehead argues, that the French have so ardently held to the myth-making of a kind about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, because it’s much better than confronting the ugliness of that time period, what the French refer to as “les ann es noires,” or “the dark years.”
But also, in some ways, the retaliation and vengeance was swift, and a stark contrast to Trocmé’s pacifism: Moorehead mentions that the resistance executed 9,000 Nazis and/or collaborators.
I also found the Afterword that Moorehead does when the war ends fascinating, to see where those who helped or survived ended up (many in America, Israel and elsewhere), and of course, how the French reckoned, or didn’t, with its collaboration with the Nazis.
To the former, one person was quoted as saying about why he couldn’t stay in Europe, “Europe had become one vast Jewish cemetery.”
The death toll of six million Jews is nearly unimaginable (until you see the pictures and names, which is why I recommended giving the Auschwitz Memorial a follow on Twitter), but also, there is the ripple effect of that trauma, as explained by that quote.
History, by its nature, feels like the distant past, far removed from the present, but we can’t forget that there are still Holocaust survivors alive right now! Heck, there was just a Nazi sentenced for WWII crimes at the age of 101!
History is the present, and it is the clarion call to ensure it doesn’t become our future. For that reason, I recommend, Village of Secrets. It is a challenging listen (and so, I imagine, a challenging read), but well-worth it.
Lately, I've been more interested in World War II so have been looking for a variety of books on the subject. This one looked promising despite some mixed reviews. I try not to read too many reviews ahead of time because I want to form my own opinions.
So here are my opinions. Despite some good and compelling writing, and a lot of details, this book is a bit of a mess. There are so many threads woven in, but most are broken. There are not too many people when you consider all the facts in the book, but Caroline Moorehead would have done better to focus on a few people with the others being small parts. Here almost everyone is a small player.
The other problem with this book is that by the end I had no clue how many people were saved. There are many that don't seem to get saved, but there were so few memorable personages that I never formed a connection to any of them.
I understand that there are 3 other books by Caroline Moorehead about WWII, but I'll probably skip them, even though I've heard at least one of them is much better than this. I'm sad to give a lukewarm review for this book since so much research and work went into it.
The narration was better than the book. 4 stars for the narration.
Although in some ways this is a sad book to read, it is also uplifting to learn that despite the onerous penalties, French people with humanity still worked to help the Jews, and particularly Jewish children to escape from being shipped to the Nazi extermination camps. However, this is balanced by the overwhelming numbers of French people who reported Jews to the Gestapo, despite knowing that they would be transported to the camps and gassed. Even worse, many provided this information in return for a reward. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is singled out for special reference as this remote French location sheltered many Jewish families, and particularly children, from the Gestapo and later became a centre for the French resistance. The work of several Protestant clergy is singled out for their dedicated work. As I have said earlier, in some ways this could be regarded as a depressing book about man's inhumanity to man, but it is also a book that recognises the people, who despite the penalties did what they knew was right.
In principle this book tells a compelling story of how the residents of a remote part of France saved hundreds, possibly thousands of Jews, most of them children, from deportation and probable death during WWII. I found it a bit turgid though; there were too many characters, introduced, abandoned for a hundred pages or so, then reintroduced. Apart from a few, I soon lost track of who was who, which made it difficult to connect to the characters or indeed to follow what was going on. However I finished the book having understood that the pastor André Trocmé in the village of Le Chambon sur Lignon was one of the main instigators of an organised system for rescuing Jews and either hiding them or getting them across the Swiss border, and that the Huguenot heritage and Protestant faith of most of the inhabitants played an important part in their determination to save Jews -- although others of other faiths or none also participated.
Then I read some Goodreads reviews, and went down a wormhole. In the afterword Moorehead, who has previously presented an apparently balanced and well-researched account, adopts a surprisingly negative tone towards others who have also told the story. What really rang an alarm bell was when she refers to Pierre Sauvage, who directed a documentary about the events on the plateau during the war. He "happened to have been born on the plateau" says Moorehead dismissively. It turns out that Sauvage, while not having an obviously Jewish name, was the son of a Jewish couple hiding on the plateau during the war. Given the subject of her book, how could Moorehead think this fact was not worth mentioning? Moreover, according to Sauvage, he corresponded with her while she was researching, and also provided her with a number of photos; and she used material from his film in her account. Yet he doesn't appear in the acknowledgements. Why not? On reading further it looks as if Moorehead may have got tangled up in a feud between Sauvage and Oscar Rosowsky, who spent much of the war forging documents for Jewish refugees. Presumably she took Rosowsky's side. Still, very shabby, and it made me wonder what else she had omitted or distorted.
I followed a number of links to find out more; clearly Sauvage has a subjective view, claiming that Moorehead has tried to minimise the role of Trocmé and the Protestants. That's definitely not the impression I got, even if she does cast aspersions on Trocmé's unpublished autobiography, and his daughter Nelly was one of those who objected to Moorehead's portrayal. The most balanced review I found was this one (PDF) by academic Neil Foxlee. It's certainly true that all these years later, the topic of resistance and collaboration in Vichy France can still be a touchy one, so it's perhaps inevitable that an outsider addressing it will get some flack. But in this case, Moorehead has good intentions but has apparently made a number of errors, to put it mildly. So I don;'t think I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. Peter Grose's The Greatest Escape, published around the same time, sounds as if it might be more balanced.
Today’s nonfiction post is on Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead. It is 384 pages long including notes and a bibliography. The cover is a picture of village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. The intended reader is someone who is interested in War World 2 history and hopeful, real life bravery. There is no sex, no language, and the violence is just talked about. The story is told from third person close with letters and interviews added in for depth. There Be Spoilers Ahead.
From the back of the book- Le Chambon-sur-Lignonis a small village of scattered houses high in the mountains of the Ardeche, one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of eastern France. During the Second World War, the inhabitants of this tiny mountain village and its parishes saved thousands wanted by the Gestapo: resisters, Freemasons, communists, OSS and SOE agents, and Jews. Many of those they protected were orphaned children and babies whose parents had been deported to concentration camps. With unprecedented access to newly opened archives in France, Britain, and Germany, and interviews with some of the villagers from the period who are still alive, Caroline Moorehead pains an inspiring portrait of courage and determination: of what was accomplished when a small group of people banded together to oppose their Nazi occupiers. A thrilling and atmospheric tale of silence and complicity, Village of Secrets reveals how every one of the inhabitants of Chambon remained silent in a country infamous for collaboration. Yet it is also a story about mythmaking, and the fallibility of memory. A major contribution to WWII history, illustrated with black-and-white photo, Village of Secrets sets the record straight about the events in Chambon, and pays tribute to a group of heroic individuals, most of them women, for whom saving others became more important their own lives.
Review- I found this to be a very inspiring story. One group of people led by both their local leaders and their own sense of right decided that no one was going to the Germans. This village was truly something unique. Over the course of the occupation only 12 people were taken from Le Chambon-sur-Lignonis. They hid at least 883 people and if you count all the people who hid there for a short time or just passed through to get documents the numbers become staggering. The writing is approachable. The story is moving and the real people are interesting. Moorehead wants to try and set the record straight about this little village and the province that it is in. The people who live and lived there value silence so there has been rumor with little to no fact checking but Moorehead was able to get more information. With archives opening up, interviews with children who lived there and through the war, and just plain old research she wants to lift the veil on this story. I think she did but I knew nothing about this place and its people before reading this book. I am going to be doing some personal research into this now to see for myself.
I give this book a Five out of Five stars. I get nothing for my review and I was given this book by HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.
I found this book fascinating, and although it is factual, it is written in an easy narrative style. Being about France during the war, I had to have my map open as I was reading and I now have a new area of the country to visit - and I will do so at some future date. The area in question is on the eastern side of Le Puy-en-Velay. This is the Ardèche and the principle village in this true story is that of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. A scenic area with the village surrounded by dense forests of oak and pine on the Vivarais plateau known for its remoteness and inaccessibility. Looking at the map it reminded of the Vercors. Just why and how the inhabitants Le Chambon and the outlying villages came to save thousands wanted by the Gestapo - resisters, freemasons, communists, Allied airmen and above all Jewish people – is difficult to put into a nutshell. But save people - many of whom were children and babies, whose parents had been deported to the death camps – is exactly what they did. And you have to keep in mind that a lot of these villagers were just ordinary French people, farmers, drovers, the local bar owner or teacher. In addition, the villagers surrounded themselves with a wall of silence, which proved very difficult for the opposing forces to break. And after the war, Le Chambon became the only village to be listed in its entirety in Yad Vashem's 'Dictionary of the Just'. This is very much a factual book but Caroline Moorehead brings the story to life with her easy flowing narrative. She demonstrates the outstanding courage and determination of this small group of people who came together to oppose German rule. The book covers the whole period of the war, prior to the occupation in the north and western sea board and the creation of unoccupied Vichy France in the south. I’ve visited Vichy many times and have often wondered about the history behind that most difficult time in modern French history and this book provided many detailed insights in a non-judgemental way. An amazing read, carefully researched with an extensive bibliography at the back so I have earmarked other items to read. However, because of the subject matter, I found it to be a three-hanky book.
This was, at least in principle, a really cool story of courage and heroism in WWII. But I can't help but feel that it would have been better as a long-form magazine piece, or at least a shorter book. This was something like 320 pages; it felt like about 150 of those were filler. There simply isn't enough here for a full-length book.
Further, the subjects about which tremendous detail was offered were, at least in my opinion, the wrong ones. Way too much information about the names, occupations, and irrelevant traits of extended family members of central characters. I would have rather heard more about, for example, how exactly they went about forging things like ration cards. Little was said about this apart from the fact that the act happened.
I also didn't love the overgeneralized lionization of the Christians in this book. Absolutely there were many Christians in France whose deeds were heroic in saving Jews from persecution. But the Christians, in general, were far from noble in their intent or deeds during the war. Moorehead does imply that much of this is exclusive to the Christians-Darbyists and Huguenot-descended Protestants in particular-on the plateau where much of the story takes place, but it still felt dangerously close to ascribing the deeds of individuals largely to their faith, when the reality of the situation is that the people here were simply good people, and that isn't necessarily because of their religion.
Many Christians in France behaved abominably regarding the persecution of the Jews in France. To suggest that this was all that made the Christians in question act admirably is an insult to the character of the handful of individuals portrayed in the story who, let's face it, acted far more courageously and nobly than most of those with the same religious background.
All in all, not a bad book, certainly, but far from the ideal format for the story. Also, Moorehead is an excellent researcher but only a competent writer. She's fantastic at collecting and organizing information, but could use some improvement in taking that information and turning it into a good story.
The author has done an incredible amount of research for this and brings all of the research together so that is woven like a novel where all that she relates flows, and there are so many characters and incidents. The basis of the book is that this village on a plateau near Switzerland was used as a hiding place and conduit, especially for Jewish people, to try and assist them with escaping from the clutches of the Nazis. The focus is on how the organisation for escapees functioned, who the main players were and why they participated in assisting these people move to safer areas, despite the threat of death for giving such assistance. As people of the Jewish faith fled from Poland and other Eastern countries, the Nazi organisation kept tightening the noose and there were regular bulletins imposing more and more restrictions on the Jews so that even in Vichy France (large southern area of France controlled by a puppet French Government on behalf of the Nazis) where many had fled, the relentless pursuit and restrictions continued. Not surprisingly, many French citizens were willing to collaborate with their new masters in the hope that one day they would receive their rewards once the war was over. This then raises an interesting position for the author, for despite her thorough research, she has found many conflicting statements and pieces of evidence from those who are still alive. They have their current lives and lifestyles to maintain, and some also wish to be seen in whatever positive way possible, and consequently change their story to fit the desired outcome. The dynamics of a written history come to the fore. It has certainly helped me understand why so many of the French are so reticent in talking about their experiences during WW2. A very interesting read about how humans do try and help others in times of extreme adversity.
(Suffering a vicious man-cold and not reading for nearly a week on my commute, I had a long gap in the middle of this book (and burned through some of my goodreads challenge surplus - curses!) so what I say should be taken as a less than perfect review.)
I haven't read Train In Winter so I can't compare it to what Caroline Moorehead has done here. But this was a bit of a slog. Sure, the concept was interesting enough. French mountain villages of dissenting Protestant descent shelter Jews under Vichy. Okay, looks promising. But there wasn't enough focus (though, see my note above). Trocmé I remember. And a one-legged American. But the rest blend together. In a valiant effort to record so many deserving people of the mountain villages, Moorehead makes it hard to get to know any of them.
And what about the hidden Jews? Having appeared in the villages, or been rescued there, they disappear. How the vast majority live out the war is unrevealed. How did the communities get along? How did the Jews maintain their distinct religious life? Hints are dropped throughout the book in what is really it's hallmark: lots of stories are begun, but not enough finished or explored in depth. It's a book that skips like a stone across a river. Always threatening to sink into a great story before moving on.
But it merits at least three stars because the history is clearly contested. In an interesting final chapter on the Memory Wars, Moorehead talks about how no one has yet put together what really happened in those mountain villages. She is the brave first. I hope others will follow.
Of all the European nations torn apart by the 2nd world war and its aftermath, France is the one that has had the longest and greatest difficulty in dealing with it. It went through the immediate aftermath of dealing with a long list of collaborators and 'alleged' collaborators, then focusing for many years on the role of the 'resistance'. It was only in the 1970s that the country was forced to come to terms more fully with the extent to which the Vichy regime had not only co-operated with the Nazis but gone beyond what they were asked to do in relation to the jews and other 'undesirables'. Compared to other occupied countries, it did the least to protect its jewish citizens. More recently, there has been a return to recognising the role that many ordinary French citizens played in protecting both jews and ooponents of the Nazis, coinciding with the naming of a wide range of individuals as 'Les Justes'. Caroline Moorehead's book concentrates on these citizens and tells the individual stories in grest detail and, at times, with almost thriller-like suspense. However, what is most interesting about the book is her analysis of why this particular area of the Central Massif and these particular people behaved in the way that they did. In passing, she also tells the other side of the story - the complicity and more than subservience of the Vichy regime in rounding up jews and others and sending them to the death camps. Despite the fact that all this happened 70 years ago and there have been endless books written about it, ti is still a subject that fascinates and appalls.
3.5 stars. During the Holocaust, the remote French village of Le Chambon and the surrounding area saved a remarkable number of Jewish lives. Villagers sheltered Jews (and later, young men who refused military service) in their farmhouses and in children's homes. Moorehead thoroughly explores the narrative, identifying the actors and setting out the course of events and various factors that may have created the right setting for their actions. I was especially interested in the area's religious traditions, which she sets out very well. I never did manage to keep all the various individuals she discusses straight, which was a bit frustrating. The afterword describes how the history of Le Chambon has become contested over time, and engages in some analysis. I would have liked this to have been interwoven throughout the book.
Serving as a counterpoint to studies which pinpoint the success of a French village with their charismatic pastor and his devotion to non-violence, Moorehead reconstructs a much larger network of factors--repulsion or ambivalence to Vichy policies, personal ties to outlawed people, financial advantages, ideals of feminism, scouting and socialism, Republican Spanish Civil War veterans, local maquis, the presence of Tartar Legion Nazi soldiers at a nearby rest home, OSS and SOE agents and a desire to protect unaccompanied children. This practical reality is probably closer to the unknowable truth of a grey and messy situation than a single point of light, and Moorehead includes a final chapter in which the villages are still wrestling with memory, commemoration and secrecy.
This is a must read. Wonderfully written. Reads like a memoir. Lots of personal detail of characters' lives. Moorehead follows the characters lives though out the book & sums up with what happened to the main characters after the War. She really makes history live. Dovetails with A Train in Winter.
A memorable, disturbing (at times) and informative history of an area of France where there was a concentration of farmers, pastors, doctors and generally brave people who strived to save as many Jews and others threatened by the Nazi regime, often at great cost to themselves and their families. Well-written and easy to read yet a gripping tale - 8.5/10.
The beautiful myth of French resistance loomed large in our cultural imagination for decades post-war, summoned up in comedy such as in the sitcom 'Allo 'Allo, in war films such as The Great Escape but most of all, it was eagerly embraced by the French people themselves who were eager to reimagine a nobler history. Caroline Moorehead examines all sides in Village of Secrets in this in-depth and often harrowing account of the persecution of the Jews in wartime France. The village of the book's title is le Chambon-sur-Lignon, an apparently ordinary and sleepy French town set high in the mountains but one where approximately three thousand Jews were hidden successfully. Jacques Chirac praised the area as the nation's 'conscience' and in 1990, the town was honoured as Righteous Among Nations. However, Moorehead points on from very early on that there are several variations to the story and her book analyses not only the assorted divergences but also how ownership of memory itself can become a battleground. Full of first-hand accounts and dealing some painful truths, Village of Secrets invites the reader to wonder - what would they have done in that situation?
From very early on, Moorehead makes it clear that the Vichy government were independently keen to serve up their nation's Jewish population to the Germans. As the book continues, the contrast is made between their conduct and that of Denmark, who managed to save 93% of their Jews by getting them into Switzerland. Fascist Italy also dug in their heels and refused. It was Pétain's government who time and again handed over more people than were requested, desperately searched for more Jews to bundle onto trains, stretched the rules and betrayed their own people. Even the Nazi officers themselves remarked that there was 'little difficulty' in persuading the Vichy officials to comply. Just how far their attitudes summed up nation-wide opinions is unclear but one cannot help but be reminded of the bitterness behind eyewitness Irene Némirovsky's novel Suite Française which vividly summons up a country turning against itself. Moorehead quotes one veteran as remarking that the French did not much like each other as the war broke out, and they did not much like each other afterwards.
The story of the resistance within le Chambon is perhaps most appealing because it seems so mundane - good, hardy country folk who chose to do the right thing. It has a personal interest for me because in the summer of 2008, I worked in an English language immersion summer camp in that town. It is a two hour drive up the mountain to reach the summit, all of this with hairpin bends every couple of hundred metres. The forests are thick, the winters are long - Le Chambon is remote in the extreme. When one truculent camper demanded that her mother come and collect her, we joked that she would need a helicopter. It is a quiet town and the locals tend towards the taciturn yet I was struck by how strong its sense of community was. Moorehead's book conjures up vividly the streets I ran down, the river we used to go and sunbathe beside on our day off - it is a stunningly beautiful place but it is one which bears the weight of history. We took the children on the steam train for a day out; the train is small, there are two passenger carriages and then one at the back which looks more like a horse box and is there to make up weight. One local explained that the rear carriage had originally been used for transporting Jews.
caroline mooreheadMoorehead narrates the steady downfall of the Jews chronologically, starting with the internment camps for the 'undesirables' of the Vichy state - the communists, the gypsies, the foreign Jews. Conditions were horrendous; in Gurs alone, one thousand people died just in 1941. Outside attempts to provide aid to the detainees were blocked at every turn and even as the charities seeking to provide food and healthcare did their best to grit their teeth and work with Vichy, it became clear that they were only setting the trap - the camps were not the worst case scenario. Deportation fever swept across the camps. Again, the Vichy enthusiasm to please the Germans and dispose of as many Jews as possible is stomach-turning. Doctors and church officials raced around trying to declare as many as possible as unfit to travel. Exemptions were sought for children. Vichy refused.
There are some stories of success - children smuggled out in cars, under coats, in shopping baskets. Having discovered the night beforehand that officials were coming to deport the Jews, Abbé Glasberg and others went through the camps with hastily typed permission slips asking for parents to suspend guardianship of their children so that they could be taken away and hidden. Eighty-nine children were saved that night, a number of whom would end up in le Chambon.
Moorehead details the history of the Haute-Loire area, of their ties to the religious wars with the strong Protestant community descended from the Huguenots. They understood what it meant to be persecuted, they had survived the revocation of the Edict of Nantes - these were people who well understood the concept of discretion. They had read the Old Testament, the importance of sustaining the oppressed and sharing what one had. The general myth of le Chambon makes the dynamic local preacher André Trocmé the hero who called upon his parishioners to shelter those in need, yet Moorehead emphasises that the truth is more complex. Either way, there was a long history of children and young people being sent for holidays up into the mountain for the good air.
Resistance workers would bring groups of children and endeavour to place them - under the code, the Jews were referred to as stationery and often 'old Testaments', with one of the curates writing to his parents cryptically that he felt very blessed that the locals were so welcoming to this kind of literature. The children were hidden in plain sight, the strong culture of silence preventing discussion of what was truly going on. One local child was surprised to discover later in life that those youngsters who had lived in her family's pension were in fact Jewish. As another local pointed out, the people of le Chambon were 'pas bavards' - not talkative. Yet despite the 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude, it is clear that they were aware of what they were doing. One agent had difficulty placing a pair of teenage boys, since boys were generally held to be more difficult but when in desperation she told the farmer that the pair were not mere refugees, but in fact Jewish, the farmer responded impatiently that in that case, of course they would take them and that she should have just said that in the first place. When the town police were first ordered by Vichy to flush out any hidden Jews, they went into local cafes and loudly announced their itinerary, then waited a while before setting off.
Still, despite inspiring tales, this is not a book with happy endings. Some children found their hosts cruel, others simply mourned their childhoods cut short. Simon Liwerant and his infant brother Jacques made their way up to le Chambon but the trauma of what had befallen them prompted a bout of bedwetting in Jacques which caused his host mother to threaten to put the child out of the house. After lengthy remonstrations and having reached desperation, the young boy Simon struck the toddler Jacques. The bedwetting stopped but the bond of brotherhood was struck asunder. Even after the war was over, Jacques never forgave his brother. Even those children who were reunited with their parents had to deal with people they barely recognised, traumatised and prematurely old. In later life, one remarked that in this situation, they did not even have the luxury of being an orphan.
Trocmé attempted to preach a message of nonviolence and it is this which the town became known for. A group of German soldiers were sent to convalesce in the town hotel, yards from where Jewish children were being hidden and by and large, matters passed without incident. 1943 however was a tough year, for those trying to act as saviour as well as those in hiding. There are stories of true heroism however in those were caught; Marianne Cohn acted as passeur in guiding Jews across the border to Switzerland but was eventually caught and beaten to death. There had been a possibility to save her but she refused to take it lest reprisals fall on the children. Dr Le Forestier was one of the more exuberant characters of the book, seeking to amuse the children who had been through so much and blasting his car horn whenever the Germans tried to play their music. He was shot. Nicole Weil had worked hard to get children out of Nazi-controlled Nice but was caught and sent to Auschwitz where she took charge of three small orphans. Refusing to give them up even though she was exempted as a worker, she chose to follow them into the gas chamber. The litany of the lost is crushing and seemingly without end.
More than anything however, Village of Secrets makes it clear that the truth is rarely simple. For every person who is hailed in one place as a hero, there is another story that undermines them. The wonderful Madeleine Dreyfus saved countless children and managed to survive arrest and being sent to a concentration camp. When she returned home, she was back at work again within weeks. Yet her daughter remembers bitterly that her mother seemed to have time for all of the children in the world except her own. The Nizard family nursed a bitterness towards the undoubtedly well-intentioned young curate who failed to let the network know of their father and brother's arrest in a timely enough fashion for them to be rescued. The 'sainted' Trocmé is held as naive and self-deceiving by members of the community who point out the hard work of the Catholics, the Darbyists and others who worked hard to keep the Jews safe - not to mention the active local maquis network who certainly did not practice non-violence but who did save lives. Additionally, while some versions of le Chambon story puts the local police chief Schmähling as a hero who kept the Nazis off the trail, others point out that he allowed the murder of Dr Le Forestier and was happy to allow certain arrests take place. Even Inspector Praly, sent up to spy on 'the movements of Jewish refugees' and eventually assassinated, was described by some as having tried to stop the Jews being caught.
The story of le Chambon is one that rumbles on in discord - Moorehead notes the particular French obsession with national identity and memory. It took thirty years to agree on a museum within le Chambon and even the publication of this book itself prompted a fresh outbreak of disagreement. This seems unbearably sad because in so many ways, Village of Secrets reminds one again of the words of Schindler's List, that he who saves a life saves the world. More should have been done - the camps in Auschwitz should have been bombed, the Vichy government should not have betrayed its citizens (and that sentence does not even begin to describe the depth of their crimes), there were times even in le Chambon when warnings were missed and lives not saved. But as Moorehead describes the eventual careers of the survivors, that Max and Hanne Liebmann grew up and married each other, that Pierre Bloch thanked the people of le Chambon for his 'happy childhood as a little Jew during the Holocaust', one would wish that they could be celebrated for themselves - one would wish for healing.
Village of Secrets is crammed full of stories from survivors, tales of courage, betrayal, failure, success, hope, despair. It is a helter-skelter ride through the most extreme of human experiences. At times Moorehead's book is almost disorientating in its scope and reach. Her style is restrained, yet her judgment on the behaviour of Vichy is stern. With such a vast cast of characters, it was hard to keep track of everyone but yet all those who crossed the page emerged as flesh-and-blood humans. So many incidents are described in just a few lines and yet evoke such powerful emotions. For all the arguments of who did what and thought what and said what to whom and to what import, Moorehead is telling a story that needs to be remembered because the story of that beautiful village up in the Haute-Loire goes so much to the heart of what it means to be human.