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Village of Secrets
Defying the Nazis in Vichy France
Caroline Moorhead Chatto & Windus, 10 July 2014
It took a long time for a true picture to emerge of collaboration and resistance in wartime France. In many communities it still remains a closed book. Many skeletons are mouldering. Caroline Moorhead does a good job in bringing to our attention one of the more uplifting stories from that era. Village of Secrets focuses on the activities of the villagers of Le Chambon-sur –Lignon in the Massif Central (and its surrounding communities) to provide a sanctuary for many Jewish children, who would otherwise have followed their parents to the concentration camps in the East.
The foreword portrays an ever darkening scene as the Nazis, with the wholehearted support of the Vichy establishment, refine their methods for genocide, and gradually tighten the noose around the Jewish communities in this oddly divided nation. Moorhead has drawn from a very wide range of sources, leading to a book of great texture. Early we discover, for example, that one of the many angels of mercy was Princess Bernadotte of Sweden. There is plenty of heart-rending correspondence between family members sent to camps, and those who had yet to go. Various overseas agencies tried to organise the extradition or clandestine extraction of many Jewish children, but the end result remained pitiful.
The reader is one moment bombarded with dense economic data underlining the Jewish plight, the next exposed to the extreme stress suffered by families as they were torn asunder as the trains left to Drancy and thence to the camps.
Le Chambon was an essentially Protestant town, and an historic centre for a couple of strange Protestant sects. Indeed it is enlightening in 21stC Britain to read of a community for which religion was so central to its daily existence. A core theme to Village of Secrets is how the Protestant and Catholic churches in France came to terms with occupation, and what they did to save life. Some priests, such as Andre Trocme, by their deeds approached sainthood. Likewise the village doctor. The book is replete with examples of the moral dilemmas that confronted these brave French citizens on a daily basis. Regional prefects took against the sermons from the pulpits around the land denouncing the Third Reich’s treatment of the Jews.
Around this central theme there is plenty of scope for Moorhead to paint the cancerous parts of French society, the Milice, the Vichy politicians, the black marketeers , criminals and extorters – there are many families in France with skeletons in their tree.
There are many examples of regime thuggery of which readers may be unaware: the Nazis blew up the old town in Marseilles as an expedient to arrest all the Jews therein. Interesting too the attitude of the Vatican: “When, on 18 January 1943, the French Ambassador to the Vatican was called in to see Pope Pius XII, he was warmly congratulated on the excellent work being done by Petain ‘for the renewal of religious life in France’. About the Jews, not a word was said.” This was in contrast to the attitude of the Italians (both in the Italian zone of France and their home country) who were extremely unenthusiastic in pursuing Hitler’s policies regarding the Jews. The Swiss in contrast, did much less than was possible in saving the Jews and providing a sanctuary.
As the logical outcome of the Final Solution became clearer, more efforts were made to evacuate children over France’s mountainous borders in the South West and South East. The ‘passeurs’ who led these pitiful crocodiles of children and infants are amongst the conflict’s greatest unsung heroes.
After the Allied invasions, and as the Nazis became more worried about the longevity of the Third Reich, they became ever more keen to accelerate the Final Solution. Barbarity increased, and the reader will be left in no doubt of the moral depravity of that regime. Like the foreword, the last chapters are bleak. Indeed the only aspect of the book that is other than bleak is the insight into the brave souls who risked all to save these hundreds of Jewish children. But with the fate of their parents unknown, and an upbringing that was at the very least unusual, and often with stresses of their own, it is unsurprising that they rarely found a joyful adulthood.
Moorhead is extremely sympathetic to Jewish culture and religion, and the harrowing episodes reveal how humans will typically cling ever more tightly to their religious beliefs in times of acute stress.
A tale that needs telling, and a tale well told.
Petain with his best friend