As World War Two ended and the various welfare organisations took stock of the tragedy that had overtaken Nazi occupied France, they estimated there were some 5-6,000 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 French at all but Polish, German, Russian, Austrian or Romanian. They were the children of tailors and leatherworks 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.
That any had survived at all was miraculous in a France which had at times done more for the Nazis in exterminating Jews than the Germans wanted or could deal with. Moorehead points out that from 1942 onwards many of these Jews were to become the only Jews in Europe to be turned over to the Germans by a sovereign state. The fundamental difference between France and the Netherlands, Belgium or Denmark is that France was the only occupied country in Western Europe where there was an autonomous and legitimate 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.
Therefore, 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 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 in fact it is a story not just of one village, Le Chambon, but several villages which 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, but also 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 German torturers and collaborators, and of course the children themselves, some of whom are still alive and have 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 only 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.