An oa­sis of hu­man­ity

An­neSebba is moved by a com­mu­nity res­cue act. Madeleine Kings­ley en­joys sur­prises

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - RE­VIEWED BY ANNE SEBBA

mate govern­ment in one part of the coun­try. In Bel­gium and the Nether­lands, the Ger­mans ad­min­is­tered the coun­try di­rectly. This meant that, af­ter the war, the French could not say “no, it was not us” be­cause in fact it was their state.

How one par­tic­u­lar group of chil­dren and ba­bies (as well as some adult re­sisters, Freema­sons and com­mu­nists) sur­vived, hid­den and with (just) enough food and cloth­ing high in the moun­tains of France, is the grip­ping sub­ject mat­ter of Vil­lage of Se­crets.

Pres­i­dent Chirac in 2004 called the vil­lage of Le Cham­bon-sur-Lignon, “la con­science de notre pays”. Al­though, as Moore­head shows, the vil­lage did not save 5,000 Jews — the real fig­ure is closer to 800 lives saved — nonethe­less, it is likely that 3,000 may have passed through, helped on their way to safety.

And it is a story not just of one vil­lage, Le Cham­bon, but sev­eral that formed part of the high moun­tain plateau Vi­varais-Lignon in the south­ern Mas­sif Cen­tral where a small num­ber of heroic in­di­vid­u­als risked their lives to op­pose tyranny.

The res­cuers were a mix­ture of Protes­tant pas­tors steeped in the Old Tes­ta­ment and Ju­daism, along with doc­tors, teach­ers, farm­ers, shop­keep­ers and, cru­cially, café own­ers who could sit out­side and watch and give warn­ings — or­di­nary people who opened their hearts and ex­tended a hand.

The cast of char­ac­ters also in­cludes Jewish res­cuers and passeurs as well as col­lab­o­ra­tors and Ger­man tor­tur­ers, and of course the chil­dren them­selves, some of whom are still alive and have

VIL­LAGE OF SE­CRETS: DE­FY­ING THE NAZIS IN VICHY FRANCE

Chatto & Win­dus, £20

AS T H E S e c o n d World War ended and the var­i­ous wel­fare or­gan­i­sa­tions took stock of the tragedy that h a d o v e r t a k e n N a z i - o c c u p i e d France, they es­ti­mated there were some 5,000-6,000 Jewish chil­dren who were now or­phans, whether hid­den in non-Jewish homes around France or over the bor­der in Spain or Switzer­land.

What to do with them was one more nightmare af­ter so many in the pre­vi­ous four years as many of them had for­got­ten their real names or did not know that they were Jewish.

As Caro­line Moore­head re­lates in this pow­er­ful and ul­ti­mately up­lift­ing book, most of them were not ac­tu­ally French but Pol­ish, Ger­man, Rus­sian, Aus­trian or Ro­ma­nian. They were the chil­dren of tailors and leather­work­ers as well as doc­tors, busi­ness­men and min­ers who had come to France in the early years of the century be­liev­ing it to be the coun­try which, hav­ing con­ferred equal rights on all re­li­gious mi­nori­ties as part of the legacy of the 18th-century revo­lu­tion, ac­tu­ally wel­comed Jews.

In fact, that any had sur­vived at all was mirac­u­lous in a France which had at times turned over more Jews to the Nazis than they wanted or could deal with.

The f un­da­men­tal di f f e r e nce be­tween France and the Nether­lands, Bel­gium or Den­mark is that, in France, there was an au­ton­o­mous and le­giti- spo­ken to Moore­head for this book. What emerges is a far more nu­anced ac­count of courage — in which some Catholics did in­deed help, and the links with neu­tral Switzer­land were oc­ca­sion­ally help­ful — than pre­vi­ously re­counted about Le Cham­bon.

The Protes­tant Pas­tor, An­dré Trocmé, who be­lieved in non-vi­o­lence and paci­fism, is shown as an oc­ca­sion­ally trou­bled fig­ure and cer­tainly not the sole ar­chi­tect of the res­cue plan but one of many who, by com­ing to­gether were able to re­sist the Nazis and save lives.

In 1988, Le Cham­bon be­came the first vil­lage in the world to be hon­oured by Yad Vashem as Right­eous Among the Na­tions. Anne Sebba is writ­ing a book about Paris from 1939-49 through women’s eyes.

Safe pas­sage: Jewish and Chris­tian chil­dren play to­gether in war­time Le Cham­bon-sur-Lignon

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