Book reviews: Village of Secrets, The Greatest Escape

Le Chambon villagers take a break from their wartime heroics. Photograph: The Chambon Foundation
Le Chambon villagers take a break from their wartime heroics. Photograph: The Chambon Foundation
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THE Auvergne villagers who saved thousands of Jews have inspired two fine books, says Roger Hutchinson


by Caroline Moorehead

Chatto & Windus, 384pp, £20


by Peter Grose

Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £16.99

In the winter of 1942-1943, Albert Camus sat down in an isolated French village and began to write his great novel, La Peste. Superficially, this deals with a pandemic of bubonic plague which quarantined within their city walls the inhabitants of Oran in Camus’s native Algeria. In reality, it is also an allegory of the occupation of France by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Camus was an active member of the Resistance. The village in which he began to write his novel is called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. It is surrounded by smaller hamlets and steadings, on a lonely wooded plateau in the Auvergne. During the Nazi puppet regime at Vichy, and then during the full German occupation, the few thousand people of Le Chambon and its region saved almost the same number of hunted Jews and other fugitives from the death camps.

That extraordinary effort was late to be recognised. A flawed book was published in the US in 1979. A documentary film was made about it in France in the 1980s, which led in 1990 to the Israeli government bestowing the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”, an honorific usually reserved for non-Jewish individuals who protected Jews during the Holocaust, to the entire village of Le Chambon.

Now, in one of those snarl-ups which drive publishers mad and authors to drink, two good books by two writers on the wartime events in Le Chambon have been written and published simultaneously.

They are, in order of preference, Caroline Moorehead’s Village of Secrets and Peter Grose’s The Greatest Escape. They have both devoted 300 pages to the same fascinating and heartening story in a small place, with the same narrative and the same few prominent characters and incidents. The wonder is that they did not bump into each other in an Auvergne cafe sometime last year and strike a deal.

But they did not, so we have two new books about Le Chambon, hissing at each other on the shelves. Moorehead’s is the more thorough, objective and readable, but both tell a captivating story.

The Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, on which Le Chambon is the largest township, was unique long before the Second World War. Its isolation had made it a haven for Huguenots, with their own history of persecution. As a result of 19th-century evangelising from Britain, some of the plateau’s Protestants were actually Plymouth Brethren.

They were also, perhaps curiously in a community of smallholders, overwhelmingly left wing. In 1936, the last elections before the war, between 80 and 90 per cent of the people of the plateau voted Socialist. That cocktail of a Protestant hegemony which was, unlike the Catholic Church, sympathetic to Jews; which had suffered its own religious pogroms; which was politically far to the left of Vichy and its Nazi masters; which lived amid impenetrable snowdrifts and forests at least a thousand feet above sea level, produced the wartime exceptionalism of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon.

It was assisted by a couple of relevant assets. In 1938 L’Ecole Nouvelle Cévenole, a co-educational, progressive, Protestant school had been founded in Le Chambon by André Trocmé and Edouard Theis, two exceptional pacifist pastors. The school attracted radical teachers. It would also provide both cover and accommodation to young Jews on the run.

Among French Protestants, the plateau was far from secret. In the pre-war years it had advertised itself as a healthy non-conformist summer resort, where French families of a similar persuasion could escape the lowland swelter and enjoy fresh mountain air in the company of their co-religionists and in the proximity of their own chapels. There were therefore boarding houses on the plateau, as well as a tradition of hospitality for which 3,000 to 4,000 fugitives, most of them Jewish, would have reason to be grateful.

The Plateau Vivarais-Lignon was within “unoccupied” Vichy France, and the position of Vichy towards “the Jewish question” hardened as the war progressed. By 1942 Vichy was happier to transport Jews to Germany than the Nazis were to receive them. By 1943, however, German troops had overrun Vichy France to defend against an Allied landing on the Mediterranean coast, and the Final Solution was as firmly in place in the Auvergne as 
in Austria.

The role of the people of the plateau was relatively straightforward. They would feed, shelter and hide Jews. They would provide them with false papers expertly forged on the plateau. Then their terrified guests could be moonlighted either 18 miles to the Italian zone of south-eastern France or across 125 miles of wild land to the Swiss border.

They were certainly assisted by the blind eyes of some sympathetic local gendarmerie, and probably also by some Vichy officials who by 1942 and 1943 could see that Germany was likely to lose the war. Another small miracle of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon was that the region harboured vanishingly few collaborators and informers.

There were some who dispatched harmful anonymous letters to Vichy. A small number of turncoats were executed by the Resistance. Following information received, some good people were murdered by the Gestapo. But any concerted snooping and tale-telling, such as occurred in other parts of France, would have brought apocalypse to the plateau, and it never arrived.

The reason may be connected to the silence which lay over the plateau’s story for three decades after the war. In saving Jewish lives, the people of Vivarais-Lignon did not consider themselves to be doing anything exceptional. They were simply acting as their faith and their traditions dictated. Even if that was anything to boast about, boastfulness was not in the nature of those taciturn, humble Huguenots.

In 2004 President Jacques Chirac visited Le Chambon and called the town “the conscience of France”.

Embarrassed as they may be to hear it, the Chambonnais and their neighbours were more than that. They were the modest repositories of the spirit of a republic which had famously been founded on the precepts of liberty, equality and fraternity. Without them and the minority of the righteous in the rest of the hexagonale, the image of that republic could have disappeared from the face of Europe. They deserve two books. They deserve 200.

• Caroline Moorehead is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 13 August