Vil­lage that de­fied the Nazis

The lit­tle her­alded hero­ism of a small French com­mu­nity en­abled 3,500 Jews to sur­vive, a new book re­veals

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - BY SI­MON ROUND

IN THE cat­a­logue of geno­cide and bar­barism that was the Holo­caust there were heart­warm­ing in­stances of peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties risk­ing their lives to res­cue Jews. One thinks of the res­cue of Dan­ish Jews, the work of Oskar Schindler and many other cases of in­di­vid­ual brav­ery. How­ever, one of the largest, best or­gan­ised and re­mark­able res­cues has barely reg­is­tered on the radar, de­spite the fact that the peo­ple of a small French vil­lage and its sur­round­ing area man­aged to pro­tect thou­sands of Jews through­out the war.

The ef­forts of the in­hab­i­tants of Le Cham­bon-sur-Lignon have not gone un­no­ticed at of­fi­cial level — it is one of only two vil­lages in Europe to be given the ac­co­lade of Right­eous Among the Na­tions by Yad Vashem. How­ever, the vil­lagers’ hero­ics re­main lit­tle known, even by their own coun­try­men.

Aus­tralian au­thor Peter Grose is at­tempt­ing to cor­rect mat­ters in his book, The Great­est Escape, which tells the story of the in­de­fati­ga­ble vil­lagers and their ef­forts to save around 3,500 Jewish lives.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of French Jews in the Sec­ond World War was a mixed one. A large pro­por­tion found a way to sur­vive but more than 70,000 were de­ported to the death camps, many with the en­thu­si­as­tic as­sis­tance of their coun­try­men. In the so-called un­oc­cu­pied por­tion of France ad­min­is­tered by Mar­shal Philippe Pe­tain’s Vichy gov­ern­ment, the anti-Jewish edicts of his regime were ac­tu­ally more dra­co­nian than those for­mu­lated by the Nazis them­selves. Yet in the en­clave of Le Cham­bon, some­times re­ferred to as The Plateau, things were dif­fer­ent. The Protes­tant in­hab­i­tants of the area were de­scended from Huguenots, who had their own his­tory of per­se­cu­tion and a con­se­quent sym­pa­thy for the plight of the Jews. The town’s pas­tor was a re­mark­able man named An­dre Trocme who preached non-vi­o­lent re­sis­tance against the Nazis. He in­sti­gated the res­cue and shel­ter­ing of Jews and his ac­tions were en­dorsed and copied by thou­sands in the area.

Grose, who has lived in France since 2008, was t ol d the story by a fel­low aca­demic. He im­me­di­ately felt it was a likely sub­ject for a book. And the more he dis­cov­ered the more fas­ci­nated he be­came. “As I started pre­lim­i­nary re­search, I could see this was an amaz­ing tale, yet my French neigh­bours knew noth­ing about i t, ” he re­calls. “The most ex­tra­or­di­nary thing was that there was this in­tri­cate net­work of homes and farms all shel­ter­ing Jews. There were forg­ers cre­at­ing false iden­tity doc­u­ments and ra­tion cards and there was an es­tab­lished route for guid­ing Jewish and other refugees to the Swiss bor­der. Yet there were no com­mit­tees and no or­gan­i­sa­tion to speak of. This was mainly spon­ta­neous ac­tion.”

Grose adds that an­other re­mark­able as­pect was the al­most to­tal co-op­er­a­tion of ev­ery­body in the area. “Not a sin­gle Jew was de­nounced or be­trayed dur­ing the course of the en­tire war.”

Geog­ra­phy was on the vil­lagers’ side as The Plateau is a re­mote, moun­tain­ous area away from ma­jor trans­port routes. There was never a Ger­man gar­ri­son in the district, even when Vichy France was oc­cu­pied later in the war. And al­though there were spo­radic at­tempts to round up Jews, the lo­cal gen­darmerie were de­lib­er­ately slow and in­ef­fi­cient, al­low­ing the Jews time to flee. The few Ger­man in­cur­sions were also largely thwarted.

There re­main a few sur­vivors who owe their lives to the vil­lagers. Hanne Hirsch and Max Lieb­mann were among the only group of Ger­man Jews who were de­ported west to France rather than to the east. They were housed in the Gurs in­tern­ment

Le Cham­bon­sur-Lignon

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