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Why a French town became a haven for Jews fleeing from the Nazis

A new book looks at a part of southern France where tight-knit communities saved Jewish lives

By on Monday, 18 August 2014

France's then-president Nicolas Sarkozy walks past the Wall of Names during his visit to the Shoah Memorial in Paris. In one part of France in particular locals resisted (AP Photo/Philippe Wojazer, pool)

France's then-president Nicolas Sarkozy walks past the Wall of Names during his visit to the Shoah Memorial in Paris. In one part of France in particular locals resisted (AP Photo/Philippe Wojazer, pool)

I have been reading a very thought-provoking book, recently published, called Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead (Chatto & Windus, £20). It tells the story of a village in Vichy France, le Chambon, on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, where for four years during the war Jewish children and young people were safely hidden from the Nazis. Actually, the village was the “hub” for the clandestine activities of the villagers; other small villages, hamlets and communities were also drawn in to this exceptionally dangerous but life-saving work. All in all, the author thinks the inhabitants of the area managed to save 800 Jews, mainly children. It seems a small number compared to the thousands who were deported from France to the Nazi death camps, but proportionately the Plateau saved more Jews than anywhere else in France.

How did this come about? That is what is so intriguing. All over Europe there were heroic individuals and even families who helped to save Jews; but these were generally isolated efforts, if loosely coordinated by the local Resistance. In le Chambon and its neighbouring villages there seems to have been a widespread, powerful tradition of religious non-conformism, pacifism and social isolation. It was as if enough of the local farmers, shop-keepers, pastors and others had all arrived at the same conclusion: they simply would not obey official orders to hand over Jewish refugees who had fled to the Plateau, and that was that.

This attitude was so rare in occupied Europe at the time that it merits investigation and the author has done a thorough job. She describes an “esprit” among the inhabitants – mainly Protestant but also Catholics, as well as a few atheists and agnostics – who supported each other in what they were doing without fanfare or publicity. There were a few exceptional individuals involved, such as the Protestant pastor of le Chambon, Andre Trocme and his wife Magda, but essentially the children were saved because everyone cooperated in the enterprise, seeing it as their Christian and human duty.

There are other factors: the area had been an ancient stronghold of persecuted Huguenots. It was a close-knit community. There was a long history of silence, independence and discretion among the remote farms. It also helped that the Plateau was inaccessible for weeks at a time during the winter months and that it had links to neutral Switzerland, so that towards the end of the occupation refugees could be regularly smuggled over the border. The local policemen, who were generally unsympathetic to the Germans, had themselves come from families that were now sheltering Jews. And there was also luck: the prefect of the region, Robert Bach, dragged his heels when ordered by the Vichy government to search for hidden Jews, and Schmahling, the Wehrmacht officer in Le Puy, the nearby large town, was a decent man, unlike Klaus Barbie of Lyons, notorious for his cruelty and anti-Semitic zeal.

After the war an Englishwoman living on the Plateau during the crucial four years of 1940-1944 and who took part in the rescue mission of the whole community, described the experience as “a time when we lived according to an ideal”. It made me think that one only achieves a compassionate and moral society when enough people individually who believe in it come together; this creates its own “tipping point” – the point at which such behaviour becomes the norm rather than exceptional. This raises a further question: in our own atomised, individualistic society would it be possible to persuade a community to rise to its better self? Local people, as we know, will unite for a common cause – to stop an airport, a high-speed rail link or travellers’ caravans from threatening their way of life. But when a united stand involves prolonged commitment, danger and self-sacrifice, it is much harder to achieve. Thus, in those rare historical instances when it does happen, as on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in south-east France during the war, it is to be admired and remembered.

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