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Book Review // Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France

Book Review // Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France

December 1, 2014 in 2014 November/December, Arts & Culture, World
1 Comment

Village of Secrets:
Defying the Nazis in Vichy France
Caroline Moorehead
HarperCollins
2014, pp. 368, $27.99

A Tale of Two Frances

by Stefan Kanfer

French anti-Semitism, c’est une vieille histoire. True, following the Revolution, les Juifs were liberated from their ghettos. True, the Jewish Leon Blum was elected prime minister of France during the late 1930s. And true, except for the United States and Israel, no other country contains so many Jews—some 600,000 according to the latest statistics.

Yet from the 11th century to the latest Islamic attack on worshippers wearing yarmulkes, the history of la belle France is stained with Jewish blood. During the First Crusade in 1056, the libel of “Christ-killers” was hurled at French Jews. It led to centuries of arson, murder and isolation. Indeed, in 1394, Charles VI forbade any Hebrews from dwelling in his kingdom. Following the king’s death, Jews slowly trickled back into Paris and the larger cities. But they were usually viewed as a foreign people with strange customs and allegiances, never authentically French.

Until World War II, the most notorious instance of this bias was the Dreyfus Affair. In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of the crime of espionage. In the courtyard of the École Militaire, standing under the Tricoleur flag, he was publicly stripped of his rank. Weeks later he was exiled to the penal colony of Devil’s Island. More than half of France thought him guilty—the man was, after all, a Jew. The prisoner was eventually exonerated and promoted, thanks to the work of novelist and muckraker Emile Zola and other self-proclaimed Dreyfusards who exposed the plot and the conspirators. But it took ten years for justice to prevail.

During that time, Theodor Herzl had a dark vision of what was to come: “If France,” the nascent Zionist wrote, “bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism, can get caught up in a maelstrom of anti-Semitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ where can they be safe once again—if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated.”

Yet even this pessimist could not have imagined the death camps of the Third Reich, or the villainy of Adolf Hitler’s French collaborators. Their indecency has been exposed many times since the end of World War II, but rarely with the force and detail of Caroline Moorehead’s Village of Secrets.

After the fall of France in 1940, she points out, the Vichy administration was more than a puppet of the Third Reich. It was an enthusiastic proponent of Germany’s racial policies. Governments of other nations also collaborated with their conquerors, but many dragged their feet. Denmark rescued more than 90 percent of its Jews; Hungary, Bulgaria and even Italy, where the word “fascism” was coined, never fully satisfied Nazi demands for Jewish victims. Not so France.

When the Germans asked for Jews to be identified and transported to the Drancy concentration camp, a gateway to Auschwitz, Vichy officials enthusiastically went to work. They soon exceeded their quotas. Jewish citizens were rounded up, families torn apart, children—even infants—sent on their way to the Nazi ovens.

And yet some 330,000 French Jews evaded Hitler’s “Final Solution.” How was this possible? Only because some ordinary citoyens refused to be pushed around by the occupiers. They fought back by hiding their fellow human beings. The strategies were complicated and perilous; to be caught saving Jews from the Final Solution always meant torture and often meant death. The rescuers persisted nonetheless.

The most valorous of them were the fiercely independent folk in and around Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, in the mountains of south-central France. Most were descendants of the Huguenots, Protestant farmers who first turned their territory into a refuge during the wars of the 17th century when the Catholic Church was at its most militant and censorious. Even after the religious fever abated, Moorehead observes, the villagers remained insular and suspicious of all outsiders. “Since it was only possible to be a true Christian when living a life of faith, the solution was to have as little as possible to do with the ways of the world, which was seen as entirely evil.”   

But that world had a way of crowding in on them, and they learned to their collective regret about a new persecution, this one of the Jews, “the chosen people, whose salvation was implicit for their own.” The mountaineers were led by an upright, zealous pastor, André Trocmé, whose moral stance was informed by the Old Testament, “with its many references to the rescue of the oppressed, the sharing of bread with the hungry, the taking in of the homeless into one’s house.”   

Accordingly, his followers mixed Jewish children among their own, supplying safe new surnames, furnishing Jewish adults with forged identity cards and guiding them to neutral Switzerland. Freedom was not free; the Gestapo raids netted some villagers, who were beaten and murdered. A local doctor who dared to express his disdain for the occupying army was shot. A young woman who had saved dozens of children was finally arrested and sent to Drancy. There she tried to comfort three orphaned Jews. All four were deported to Auschwitz. The little ones were sentenced to death. The young woman was not. But she refused to be separated from her charges and accompanied them to the gas chamber.

When the war ended and these stories came to light, Israel honored Trocmé at its memorial to the fallen, Yad Vashem. A small garden and plaque on the way to the Valley of the Communities and the Garden of the Righteous were dedicated to the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

In 2004, President Jacques Chirac journeyed to the village to deliver a speech. “We are here,” he sonorously informed his audience, “in a place steeped in history and emotion. Here, in adversity, the soul of the French nation manifested itself. Here was the embodiment of our country’s conscience.”

This was political boilerplate. France has no conscience. It does have exceptional men, women and children like those in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. They offered sacrifices and contributions that define the word courage. But the part the French nation played in the 20th century’s central crime—the Holocaust—has permanently stained the Tricoleur. As Village of Secrets demonstrates in every harrowing and luminous chapter, it can never be scrubbed out.

Stefan Kanfer, a member of President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust, is a former editor of TIME and the author of 15 books, including novels, social histories and best-selling biographies. 

1Comment
  • Steven Jacobs 11:05h, 16 December Reply

    A very, very serious critique about this text and its author by Pierre Savage, a Jewish child-survivor of Le Chambon, has been posted on Tablet Magazine. It is both worth the read and worthy of a response by Moorehead which, to date, she has not chosen to do. To the degree that Savage’s critique is accurate, this is a seriously-flawed text.

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