Village that defied the Nazis
The little heralded heroism of a small French community enabled 3,500 Jews to survive, a new book reveals
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