Not just heroes and monsters
Ordinary people respond to a world of Nazi cruelty
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