In this concise and beautifully written book, Caroline Moorehead has re-examined and recalibrated the myths and the history of a group of villages in France between the years of 1936 and 1944. One village, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the mountains of the Massif Centrale in France received the signal honour of being added to the Yad Vashem roll call of Righteous Among Nations. But in her carefully researched piece, Ms Moorehead demonstrates that it was not one village, or significantly one person who rose to the challenge of the years of the war in particular, but many small hamlets, farms and villages and many people.
The hero of the region is generally assumed to be a Protestant Pastor, André Trocmé. Without doubt his strongly held belief in non violent resistance and his outspoken sermons on the necessity for Christians to uphold the message of the Gospel before the law, coupled with his strong identification with all the People of the Book helped many other people, and other pastors hold a line that might well have crumbled earlier.
The area, the mountains of the Southern part of the Massif Centrale and the Vivarais-Lignon plateau were well known for the health-giving properties of the clean air and many families spent summer months there in various guest-houses and farms. Albert Camus spent some time there while writing La Peste, and in the winter the snow kept the area isolated and impregnable.
So it became a natural place to move the children from the hideous, filthy and lice-ridden camps which had been set up firstly to house refugees from the Spanish Civil War and subsequently to house the Jews once France had capitulated to Germany at the beginning of the Second World War. It took quite a long time before the Jews of France felt the full force of the Final Solution.
After the decimation of the population in the First World War, France was only too happy to allow mass immigration from countries to the East who were fleeing persecution and pogroms and once established, the nation was perfectly happy to allow naturalisation. France was therefore filled with people from other nations who became French Nationals, and this included many of Jewish origins. These immigrants got the country back on its feet – industrialists, engineers, chemists, textile workers, tailors, cobblers all vital to the economy. And so it went of for twenty years, comfortable integration.
With the fall of Léon Blum’s government in 1938, however, opinion in France became suddenly more virulently anti-Semitic and so when his successor, Edouard Daladier spoke openly of ferreting out the illegal foreigners there were many who were happy to listen. In 1940, with the capitulation to Nazi Germany the writing was on the wall. But it took a long time for those happy, prosperous French Jewish families to realise that this would include them.
Meanwhile in the mountains the Protestants, many of them descendants from Huguenot stock, took note and made arrangements. Led by their religious compatriots, urged on by their priests many villagers and farmers took in children hid them and asked no questions.
Later on, these children were joined by adults hiding from forced labour required by the Germans, a ruling with which many were reluctant to comply. Young men hid in the mountains, eventually joining the Maquis.
Caroline Moorehead interviewed many survivors, read unpublished memoirs, and looked at archives from many organisations both those who were desperately trying to save as many people as possible and those who were equally fanatically trying to do the opposite and from these resources she has unpicked the myths and put in their place a more truthful and balanced account of the heroism, steadfastness and courage of these brave people in the face of terrible losses and reprisals. This book and its companion A Train in Winter give us an unvarnished look at life in France during the war. Hopefully, we will come away with a better understanding, a more nuanced view of what it meant to those who lived and survived to tell the tale.
In his film, partly autobiographical, Louis Malle covers much the same story. Less complex because of the exigences of a film in which one can only tell part of a story, but equally intense. In a boy’s school in France, the Brothers of a Carmelite Order teach pupils of all ages, unbeknownst to many of the children, hidden among them are many Jewish boys who are being kept safe. But the Fathers are betrayed, someone denounces them and the buildings are searched. Before the entire school, the Jewish boys are led away with the Superior. The boys died in Auschwitz and the priest in Malthausen. Louis Malle witnessed it, but it took many years before he felt able to put the story out on to the screen. This classic film has won many prizes and has been seen by millions.