Not just he­roes and mon­sters

Or­di­nary people re­spond to a world of Nazi cru­elty

Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - SIN­CLAIR MCKAY

The dark­ness that set­tled on France dur­ing the Sec­ond World War is the type that makes us all think: What would we have done? No­body wants to imag­ine they would have obeyed Nazi or­ders. In­stead, we think we may have helped the Re­sis­tance, risk­ing ev­ery­thing to aid sab­o­tage.

His­tory isn’t an ab­stract game, though: This still mat­ters, and it is still hugely sen­si­tive. “No Euro­pean coun­try has been more in­ter­ested than France in the na­ture of mem­ory and his­tory,” writes Caro­line Moore­head.

Her book — an ac­count of a re­mote moun­tain vil­lage that pro­vided sanc­tu­ary and es­cape for num­bers of Jewish people — is torn apart with com­plex­ity. Her war is not so much about he­roes and mon­sters. In­stead, she sees or­di­nary people re­spond­ing in dif­fer­ent ways to a world of cru­elty.

In con­trast to the bru­tal­ity the Nazis in­flicted in east­ern Europe, there was some­thing more in­sid­i­ous about the creep­ing threat to the Jews in France af­ter the oc­cu­pa­tion, es­pe­cially in the ter­ri­tory run by the Vichy govern­ment. There was the speedy ma­te­ri­al­iza­tion of the squalid in­tern­ment camps for Vichy’s “un­de­sir­ables” — Gyp­sies, com­mu­nists and for­eign Jews. This ini­tial fo­cus on “for­eign” Jews meant some French Jews imag­ined that even in this nightmare world, they had a mea­sure of se­cu­rity. They didn’t. It wasn’t many months be­fore roundups led to trans­por- Caro­line Moore­head Ran­dom House Canada tation — first back to a grim hold­ing camp in Paris, and then on to cat­tle trucks head­ing east, into the deep forests to­ward those fac­to­ries of slaugh­ter.

Yet as Moore­head re­lates, this hor­ror was not met with com­plete si­lence. There were French cit­i­zens of other faiths who voiced their dis­tress at the spec­ta­cle of trau­ma­tized chil­dren be­ing sep­a­rated from doomed par­ents. More im­por­tant, there were cit­i­zens such as those in the vil­lage of Le Cham­bon-surLignon, high in the moun­tains on the Vi­varais-Lignon plateau, who made it their busi­ness to help as many as pos­si­ble, at great per­sonal risk.

Be­fore the war, the area had grown as a hik­ers’ re­sort in sum­mer months. In the win­ter, snow made it al­most in­ac­ces­si­ble. This meant there were lots of guest houses, ho­tels, schools and spare rooms. Pas­tor An­dre Trocme, Eduoard Theis, an English­woman called Gla­dys Maber and many oth­ers be­gan tak­ing in Jewish chil­dren.

There is the story of the Bloch fam­ily, who ar­rived later in the war, hav­ing been forced to leave an in­creas­ingly op­pres­sive and men­ac­ing Lyon. The two Bloch boys loved the ad­ven­ture of this new land­scape. They were some­times chal­lenged by Ger­man soldiers, who de­manded to know if they were Jewish. They replied they were Protes­tant. Al­most 50 years later, Pierre Bloch thanked the vil­lage “for my happy child­hood as a lit­tle Jew dur­ing the Holo­caust.”

But it was still a nerve-shred­ding ex­is­tence. All fam­i­lies on this high plateau — Protes­tant, Catholic, Jewish — were sub­ject to ag­gres­sive po­lice vis­its. Chil­dren would fre­quently have to be hid­den in barns, in cup­boards, out in the snowy woods. And there were many heart-in-mouth ef­forts to get groups of refugees across the heav­ily guarded bor­der to Switzer­land. The daily sus­pense grew more in­tense with the open­ing of a con­va­les­cent home for wounded Ger­man soldiers. Then there were the ar­rests and in­ter­ro­ga­tions of com­mu­nity lead­ers.

If any­thing, Moore­head’s pacy, head­long nar­ra­tive, zigzag­ging across the war years and dif­fer­ent ter­ri­to­ries with so many pierc­ing vi­gnettes and close de­tail, packs too much in and the struc­ture suf­fers. A longer book would have given more room for re­flec­tion.

Hav­ing said that, sto­ries of this weight could oc­cupy sev­eral vol­umes and would still dis­ori­ent with all the pos­si­bil­i­ties — both al­tru­is­tic and malev­o­lent — of hu­man na­ture.

At the start of Mira Ja­cob’s beau­ti­ful de­but, The Sleep­walker’s Guide to Dancing, Amina Eapen’s mother sum­mons her home to Al­bu­querque, N.M., claim­ing that her fa­ther is act­ing strangely (though it’s pos­si­ble the real rea­son Ka­mala wants her daugh­ter home is so she can set her up with a doc­tor). When Amina ar­rives, how­ever, she learns that her fa­ther’s con­di­tion is more se­ri­ous than her mother let on, and bears some con­nec­tion to the feud 20 years ear­lier with the fam­ily back in Salem, In­dia, that per­ma­nently es­tranged Thomas Eapen from his mother and brother.

Even as it deals with weighty, dark sub­jects like loss and grief, and the strug­gles of an im­mi­grant fam­ily, Ja­cob’s novel is light and op­ti­mistic, un­pre­ten­tious and re­fresh­ingly witty. Ja­cob has cre­ated char­ac­ters with ev­i­dent care and treats them with gen­tle­ness even as they fight vi­ciously with each other. Her prose is sharp and true and deeply funny. The book is 500 The Sleep­walker’s Guide to Dancing Mira Ja­cob Ran­dom House pages long and had I the lux­ury of time I would have read it in one sit­ting. This is the lit­er­ary fic­tion I will be rec­om­mend­ing to ev­ery­one this sum­mer, es­pe­cially those who love multi-gen­er­a­tional, mul­ti­cul­tural fam­ily sa­gas.

Vil­lage of Se­crets: De­fy­ing the Nazis in Vichy France

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