The cold, remote plateau of Vichy France where good was done

A review of Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France, by Caroline Moorehead. Parallel to the squalid map of Vichy was a map of decency

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France Caroline Moorehead

Chatto, pp.357, £20, ISBN: 9780701186418

It is with a heavy heart that I pick up anything to do with the Holocaust. Not because it’s wearisome or too familiar, or because — in Solzhenitzyn’s memorable phrase — you need only a mouthful of seawater to know the taste of the ocean. No: my reluctance to contemplate that world, even as a distant spectator, is because it was so awful and the detail so compelling that I’ll be unable to put the book down. It will echo inside my skull for as long as I inhabit one.

So it is with this vivid account by Caroline Moorehead of remote mountain villagers high up in France’s Massif Central during the second world war. These were ancient, largely Protestant communities, whose ancestral memories of the Huguenot persecutions engendered isolation, independence, undemonstrative endurance and a grim biblical devotion that enabled them to survive almost untouched by the modern world or the Enlightenment. Their lives were narrow, hard and poor, yet they sought no other and their words and actions expressed a religious intensity lost to the rest of Europe sometime in the 17th century. Probably almost all Christians believe that they should do good — or at least do no evil — and many try, but very few do it as these did, principled, disinterested and at great risk to themselves. To paraphrase a saint they would not recognise, they gave and did not count the cost.

What they gave was refuge to persecuted strangers, mostly Jewish and mostly children, whom they hid from the Gestapo and their own French Vichy government. Estimates vary — one of Moorehead’s themes is the fallibility of memory, the variety of truth and the potency of myth — but she reckons they probably helped about 3,000 escape to Switzerland and elsewhere and saved (by permanently hiding) a further 800. Infants and children were secretly transported from the towns and Vichy-run internment camps to the Plateau Vivrais Lignon where they were hidden by adoptive families in villages and farms, fed and schooled in the stern, hard-working environment of the native children. With this difference: they were ready at an instant to flee into the woods with food and clothing whenever German troops or Vichy police approached the plateau, hiding until the farmer’s songs told them it was safe to return.

Some were caught, and the fate of their host families and the organisers of their refuge was at best imprisonment, at worst torture and death. Moorehead quotes many individual accounts of escape or capture, of private endurance and hidden heroism, but she also gives an unsparing yet balanced account of the Vichy years. During postwar decades the myth of resistance was cultivated by successive French governments to the exclusion of the truth of collaboration. Moorehead rightly concedes that it is hard ‘to distinguish between refusal and endurance, between saying nothing and saying no’, but she is also right to point out the brute facts. France was one of only two sovereign states (the other was Bulgaria) to do the Nazis’ work for them, rounding up and deporting over 150,000 — half of them Jews — to death or slavery. From the start, Vichy ‘consistently offered more than Germany asked for, more and also sooner’.

She writes of the squalid detail of collaboration with a fine, controlled anger, of children torn from their screaming mothers, of neighbourly betrayals, of the wilfully blind eye of the Roman Catholic hierarchy (partly redeemed by the actions of a few brave parish priests). She is aware, too, of how easy it is to accept myth in the cause of postwar reconstruction, to believe in the ‘complaisant regional prefect and a good German officer’ when the reality was ‘a fairly decent regional prefect and a less than murderous German officer’. But she is also aware that ‘parallel to the map of Vichy is a map of decency’, especially on that cold, remote plateau where there were no denunciations, no informers, and where good was done with no thought of reward and for no reason other than that it should be done.

For we who were spared the trials of occupation, it is impossible to read this book without asking ourselves discomfiting questions. Would you risk your own children’s lives to save a stranger’s children? Perhaps the most honest answer is silence. We may feel we need no reminders of that prolonged awfulness, but we need books like this to make it impossible for us to forget.

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  • HenryWood

    Your opening paragraph resonates so much with me. In 1970 I became
    friendly with a Scot I met through work who was married to an Israeli.
    Two things occurred during that friendship which led me to one of my
    interminable searches for truth. First of all, the Israeli wife’s mother
    came to visit from Israel. It turned out she was a Polish Jew, all of
    her family had perished during the Holocaust but she had survived and
    managed to reach Israel where she married and had her daughter.

    have never forgotten one night in an East Coast of Scotland town when
    we were all out for a night in a local club and someone decided to
    introduce to our company an ex-German soldier who had settled in
    Scotland post WWII after being a POW there. Both the person introducing
    him and the German himself thought it would be a good idea to “shake
    hands and let bygones be bygones”. This was without any single word of
    preparation to the elderly Polish/Israeli woman. I have never, ever seen a
    woman so terrified than when the ex-German soldier attempted to
    introduce himself using Polish he had learned as an invader. As she
    later explained, the accent of the German gentleman immediately brought
    back dormant memories from some thirty years before and the sound of the
    “foreign” attempt at speaking Polish almost caused her to collapse. She
    thought she would never ever hear such a voice again.

    The next
    thing that happened was in October 1973, the Yom Kippur war. Again I was
    in their company when news flashes (remember them!) came over the radio
    about the start of the war. The fear on the face of the Israeli woman who was
    married to my friend the Scot has always stayed with me. The only
    thoughts of the couple were, they had to “get home”. This from two thrusting, go-ahead
    people in the hospitality industry who were prepared to throw up
    everything that very night and return to a place they felt needed them.

    all this I started reading books about the Holocaust and I cannot
    better describe what happened to me every time I sought out another
    book, then another and another as the labyrinth grew and grew, than use
    your opening words:

    ” […] because it was so awful and the
    detail so compelling that I’ll be unable to put the book down. It will
    echo inside my skull for as long as I inhabit one.”

    That is what
    has happened to me. Over the intervening forty years I have sought out
    book after book looking for an explanation and finding none. I now have
    shelf upon shelf of books relating to the Holocaust and some secondhand
    books are heartbreaking to read when opened. I have some sets of books
    purchased auction site and bookstores and inside the covers of each book are
    pasted news cuttings from the fifties. The handwritten notes on the
    cuttings obviously mean that the person who added these cuttings to
    these once expensive books had a very personal reason and was carrying
    out a very personal search of not only books, but also news reports
    wherever they might come from. How many such people were left always searching?

    all still echoes inside my skull and will do until the day I die. I now
    live alone and have never mentioned my collection to distant family
    members as they will probably not understand my collecting the books. Now, I am almost at the stage that I cannot bear to open another book on
    the subject, yet after reading your review I rather suspect this book
    will go from my Amazon wishlist to my recent purchases quite soon.

  • Eric-Odessit

    I always thought Bulgaria saved its Jews from the Nazis. Maybe, they di round up those who were not Bulgarian citizens?

    • Gary Anderson

      I wondered about that statement in the review and checked Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem where she outlines the fate of Jews in the various occupied nations. In Chapter 11, she records the deportation of 15,000 Jews in lands annexed from Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece by the Bulgarian army. Arendt gives them the benefit of the doubt as to knowing the ultimate fate of these people. As for Bulgarian Jews themselves, the Bulgarian government was resistant and frustrating to the wishes of the Germans. Their resistance was so pervasive and strong that she compares it to Denmark where the local German officials came to be considered unreliable in Berlin. To quote Arendt, …”the result of this was that not a single Bulgarian Jew had been deported or had died an unnatural death when, in August, 1944,with the approach of the Red Army, the anti-Jewish laws were revoked. I know of no attempt to explain the conduct of the Bulgarian people, which is unique in the belt of mixed populations.” I’m not an expert in Eastern European history, but there seems a discrepancy in the facts here or their interpretation.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Check the movie “Conspiracy” on YouTube. In the same league as “Downfall”.

  • Shorne

    The sad thing is that, as a result of a rise of anti-Semitic attacks and other factors French immigration to Israel has increased by 289%(!) so far this year.