Arts & Books

Book review: The close-knit village that outwitted the Nazis

The railway station at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where many Jewish people arrived

Village of Secrets
by Caroline Moorehead, Chatto, £20
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The Greatest Escape
by Peter Grose, Nicholas Brealey, £16.99
Buy here

Having read so many dispiriting stories over the years of how defeated countries during the last war capitulated to the Nazis’ demand that they hand over their Jewish citizens, it is inspiring to learn of one small corner of France where this did not happen. This was in the south-east of Vichy France, on the high plateau Vivarais-Lignon, and in particular in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and surrounding hamlets. There, many residents became involved in the hazardous enterprise of sheltering Jews, especially children, rescued from internment camps by dedicated members of relief organisations. The Protestant parish of Le Chambon, run by a determined husband and wife team, André and Magda Trocmé, lay at the heart of the enterprise.

Caroline Moorehead has done excellent research into how Vichy France functioned, both before and after it was taken over by the Germans, and which individuals and groups risked their lives to save Jews from deportation. Two women, Madeleine Dreyfus, a Jew, and Madeleine Barot from Cimade, an organisation of Protestant women, were particularly involved in rescuing Jewish children and young people from Gurs, the internment camp in south-west France, and smuggling them up to the Plateau. They would take them to the main square in Le Chambon and wait in a cafe; bush telegraph would then alert local farmers and other volunteers to find hiding places for them.

So how and why did this region manage this feat in a quietly coordinated fashion when, apart from heroic individuals, it did not happen in the rest of Europe? Some of the answer lies in its history. As Moorehead explains, it was an ancient stronghold for persecuted Huguenots and their descendants, people whose outlook was proud, independent and at variance with that of mainstream France.

The locals understood the persecution of minorities and their biblical Christianity was sympathetic to Judaism. Geography was also important: the plateau was remote and cut off for months on end in the winter. In such a tight-knit community, no one wanted to break the common code of silence, mutual support and good neighbourliness. Modesty, silence and discretion were ingrained.

Again, the plateau had the luck of official negligence. The prefect of the Haute-Loire, Robert Bach, was sympathetic to the plateau’s inhabitants and did not over-exert himself in searching for Jewish fugitives among them. The German commander of Le Puy, Julius Schmahling, could not be described as “a zealous anti-Semite”. Thus it was that among the 22 communes and isolated farmhouses of the plateau, “more people proportionately were saved than anywhere else in France”.

Moorehead relates that “modest Catholics, Protestants, atheists and agnostics” supported each other in the enterprise, with little thought for their own safety. Her book, thorough and detailed, is reluctant to single out individuals for particular praise. But nevertheless, Pastor André Trocmé stands out for his courage, hospitality and commitment to his Christian and pacifist principles. In a sense he was the unofficial “leader”, who articulated what his parishioners, other villagers and the wider community implicitly accepted: that they had a duty to protect the refugees sent to them.

Peter Grose, a former journalist, has tackled the same theme as Moorehead. While her book is comprehensive, he focuses on individuals and vivid anecdotes to bring his account alive. Thus it is more readable both in style and substance. His chapter titles, such as “Camps” and “Jews”, set the tone, focusing on the different elements that make the story so fascinating. He builds a dramatic picture of desperate times, with the Nazi net closing in on French Jews and the urgent work of stopping some of these hunted people being deported from Drancy train station.

Unlike the more judicious historian’s approach of Moorehead, Grose’s account is alive to the drama of individual personalities, describing Magda Trocmé as “tirelessly unsentimental, practical and sceptical” and her husband as a “restless, charismatic, multilingual, trouble-making, notorious pacifist”. Edouard Theis, a close friend of André Trocmé and headmaster of the plateau’s New Cevenole School, was “a dab hand at forgery”. Hiding Jews around the villages “was haphazard, spontaneous, clandestine, burgeoning and unstoppable”.

Magda Trocmé died, aged 94, in 1996. I read her obituary at the time and wondered why no one had given away the collective secret of the village. Reading these two books explains how such an exceptional occurrence was possible. As an Englishwoman called Miss Maber was to explain afterwards: it was “a time when we lived according to an ideal”. Instead of collaboration or resignation, this remote mountainous plateau could be quietly proud of its unique contribution in saving lives.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/2/15). Also in this week’s issue: John Charmley on how to respond to those who claim Catholicism is not compatible with British values, Mary Kenny glimpses the future of the family and Freddy Gray says we must beware the wristbands that are ruining our lives

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