BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
French sanctuary for endangered Jews
, January 31, 2015
A GOOD PLACE TO HIDE:
How One French Community Saved Thousands Of Lives In World War II
by Peter Grose
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014)
Paperback: 352 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Here is yet another contribution both to the ever-expanding Holocaust genre, and to one of its minor sub-sections: a grass-roots campaign to help Jews during World War II on the Vivarais-Lignon plateau in the Auvergne region of central south-eastern France.
It is one of two books about this very circumscribed locality published in 2014, and they are just the latest of a number of publications and films which have emerged since 1945.
The story also deals with other ongoing painful issues related to World War II, such as the conduct of occupied France, and the attitude of churches toward the persecution of Europe’s Jews, as well as the perennial and universal mysteries of providence, theodicy and human nature.
The setting is an isolated cluster of predominantly Huguenot (French Protestant) villages and small towns centred on Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, straddling the border between the two departments of Haute-Loire and Ardèche.
After the invasion of 1940, the Germans occupied the north and west of France, while the south and east were placed under the reactionary and anti-Semitic Vichy regime, led by Marshal Pétain.
In 1942 the Germans took over the whole country, reducing this collaborationist administration to an even more puppet-like existence.
Led by the Protestant clergy, and dominated by the members of their congregations who were spread across the villages and outlying farms, participants in the informal rescue network also included Jews, Roman Catholics and even a few Marxist atheists.
They hid and protected not only Jews who made their way to the plateau from other parts of France and other countries of Europe, but also political dissidents, such as refugees from Franco’s Spain; Frenchmen who were under threat of deportation to forced labour in Germany; and members of the Resistance.
The network and its activities extended beyond the plateau, smuggling Jews across the border into neutral Switzerland.
Grose goes into some detail about the difficulty of estimating numbers, but concludes, provisionally, that in round figures about 3,500 Jews were rescued.
The first question is: Why?
Eastern Europe had a far more virulent tradition of anti-Semitism than Western Europe, resulting in more enthusiastic co-operation with the Nazi extermination programme and a greater percentage of Jewish deaths (though there were exceptions, such as Bulgaria and Romania).
However, even in the west of the continent, the mass of the population looked the other way and ignored the plight of their Jewish compatriots and fellow human beings, while in France itself (and not just in Vichy France), where the Dreyfus Case was still a living memory, zealous officials worked hand-in-glove with their German conquerors to round up French Jews and deport them to the death camps of the east.
So what enabled some communities, such as the one surrounding Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon (which is one of only two villages to be recognised as Righteous Among the Nations; the other is in Holland, a country which produced the greatest per capita number of SS recruits outside Germany) to buck this trend?
Grose suggests that this ability was attributable to a compassion based on centuries of Huguenot experience: “Their history and folklore told them what it was like to be persecuted, hounded and victimised.”
It is also possibly worth noting that Huguenotism represents the Reformed stream of Protestantism, and that John Calvin, while scarcely philo-Semitic, produced nothing like the virulent anti-Jewish diatribes of Martin Luther, founder of a rival stream.
The second question is: How?
Common decency might have motivated their altruism, but how did they get away with implementing it?
Grose provides a few possible explanations, including the isolation of the Plateau; the absence of any German military units stationed there; the paucity of resources available to the Vichy police, paramilitary and local government for regulating a population scattered across a rugged landscape; and the close, integrated nature of that community, with its ethos of loyalty and trust.
Another, and more practical, reason for their success was the brilliant system they developed for forging paperwork to hoodwink the bureaucracy, a method of deception difficult to imagine working in today’s computerised world.
Two of the many informative, inspiring and entertaining aspects of this book are worthy of mention.
For simple and devout villagers, confronting a ruthless and amoral enemy raised the issue of ethical compromise.
A number of their leaders were pacifists who opposed violence against the Germans and Vichy collaborators during the war years, and vengeful retaliation against the latter after the German surrender.
Then there was the question of lying to the authorities, and denying help to some Jews in order to help a greater number of others — in other words, the permissibility in any situation of choosing the lesser of two evils.
Secondly, a considerable proportion of the characters in the story, both natives and asylum-seeking newcomers from outside the Plateau, were adolescents.
It is not only interesting to watch them coping with teenagers’ usual challenges — relationships, sexuality, education, independence — in the distinctly unusual and makeshift conditions of wartime.
It is also humbling to read of these school-age young people taking on responsible and dangerous tasks, not only acting as look-outs and messengers, but accompanying border-crossers to Switzerland, and smuggling money, food and equipment under the noses of the authorities.
A rigorist might deplore the occasional inappropriate facetiousness (“bumping off the odd tsar”, or “Louis XVI parting company with his head”), and a pedant the odd mistake (Jacob/Israel, not Abraham, was the patriarch with the 12 sons), but overall this is a thoroughly worthwhile book and a great read.