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The Righteous of Le Chambon.
on 12 July 2014
At a time when 12 more ex Nazi thugs who helped to murder thousands of men, women, children and babies are about to be tried for their unspeakable crimes, this excellent book by Caroline Moorehead is very weicome.
The author tells the remarkable story of the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon a village in south central France. It is, as she explains, located in mountainous and very inhospitable terrain. Her story is about the inhabitants of this village who sheltered thousands of people from the evil Gestapo who were willingly aided and abetted by the Vichy government and its many supporters. Other villages in the area also sheltered those escaping from the Gestapo but to a lesser extent.
As the author explains, the location of the village, often cut off for months in the harsh winters, aided its ability to protect the innocent. Deep forests furtherance enhanced this ability.
Moorehead has written biographies of Bertrand Russell, Freya Stark and Martha Gellhorn. She is heavily involved in human rights, and has written a history of the Red Cross. Her book 'Human Cargo'was well reviewed. At present she resides in London.
The village is high up in the Massif Central, and very remote. The story of how Le Chambon came to save so many has never been fully told before. Several of those involved are still alive, as are some of those saved. They have been interviewed by the author as part of her research. She also had access to archives hitherto unavailable. The result is a riveting account of what can be done to oppose tyranny. The village was in a region where many generations of Protestant Huguenots had hidden away from Catholics. Those saved, however, were not in fact saved by non violence but by 'imagination and cooperation'. It was not the only place in France that helped the threatened but its work was quite remarkable and in some ways unique.
The saved were, of course, mainly Jews (36%). The decision to do this was the result of a meeting between Andre Trocme, the pastor of the village and some Quakers in Marseilles. Trocme was a pacifist. He was half French, half German. He was instrumental in saving some 5000 ( this figure is disputed) communists and Freemasons as well as Jews. Trocme and many others helped to take hundreds of children to the safety of the farms on the plateau. Some were smuggled to safety in Switzerland. Trocme was a firm believer in the power of non-violence, and hence a supporter of Gandhi's beliefs. He died in 1971. Not everyone subscribes to the view he was a hero. The author explains why. A remarkable aspect was that several recuperating German soldiers were in the area for weeks yet they never realised who was being sheltered near them.
Moorehead points out that many others, teachers, scouts, Darbyists, Ravenists, doctors and agnostics all played key parts in the saving of lives. The vows of silence taken by the Darbyists made it easy for them to avoid inadvertently giving away what they were doing.
Those that were caught doing this were tortured and murdered. The decision to risk their lives for the sake of Jews had also a religious base; the area had a reputation over centuries for resisting. The Bible was at the core of their beliefs. Moorehead writes that this meant the villagers 'were alive to the fate of the Jews, the chosen people, whose salvation was implicit for their own'.
At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, which all ought to visit, some 70 people from the plateau on which Le Chambon is located, are listed as 'Righteous Among the Nations'. Only one other place has been given this honour.
It is frequently forgotten that Vichy France had concentration camps. Many thousands of Jews were incarcerated in them. The villagers rescued many of the children in these dreadful camps. Those who could not be rescued ended up in
Auschwitz; many were aged under 4. Their fate, and that of many thousands of others, never ceases to provoke horror and hatred of their willing executioners.
After France was liberated, Moorehead tells how those children who had been saved suffered again once reunited with their parents. It is a harrowing tale she describes. Many parents were 'simply unable to behave like proper parents again'. All involved were deeply scarred.
As the author reminds us, the Vichy period, from June 22nd 1940, was not erased from the memory of the French once liberated. To this day it is a wound very easily reopened. Memories of collaboration with the hated Germans still linger and fester.
One of the great virtues of this book is the way Moorehead destroys much of the myth surrounding what went on. As she says, the truth is much more interesting.
She points out that the myth has caused feuds, jealousies, hearsay and prejudice, pitting Catholics against Protestants, pacifists against resisters, and those who seek glory against those who prefer silence. To this day the whole topic is heated. In 2004, President Chirac called le Chambon: 'la conscience de notre pays'. Moorehead says what took place on the plateau during the terrifying years of German occupation is not only about bravery and morality, it is also about 'the fallibility of memory'.
This book is a reminder that brave people risked their own lives to protect those of all ages who were threatened by a murderous and evil regime led by Hitler. They should never be forgotten.
The illustrations are very good. They include maps and photographs. The detailed list of the principal characters is very useful.
Readers may like to note that another book covering the same topic has just been published: 'The Greatest Escape' by Peter Grose. An unfortunate piece of timing- for the authors that is, as his book covers virtually the same ground as Moorehead's. The book is also based on interviews with some of the survivors.