Book Review – Defying The Nazis In Vichy France – Caroline Moorehead

Before moving on to more Camus, my latest library book to read was a new non-fiction book that was released this year, and oddly enough was about  the real world history that provided Camus with his allegory for The Plague (“La Peste”).

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This historical account looked to explore the reality behind a world that saw  communities on a geographically – and in some sense spiritually –  remote Plateau in southern France save or assist the lives of hundreds if not a few thousand children from the violent fate of internment and deportation and subsequent death in the Polish camps.

Like many accounts of French resistance during the war, this event  has not escaped the mythologizing trend of the post-war generations and Moorehead is upfront about the challenges of discovering and re-constructing the ‘truth’ from a multitude of competing sources, and eye-witness accounts. She has travelled around the world interviewing survivors and has immersed herself in the documents of the period including several personal diaries of key protagonists. That these numerous accounts do not always match up is a fact the author ensures we are keenly aware of.  She further references a colloquium that was held in 1990 on the Vivarais-Lignon Plateau at Le Chambon,  attended by many inhabitants and survivors  that broke into fierce rancour over memory wars.

Certain memories have more favourable impressions of some of the german officers stationed there, such as Bach and Schmauling, whereas others are more cynical. In a world where secrecy and the ability to possess a deceptively deadpan grasp for duplicity, asserting knowledge of the motive for many of the actors here is naturally challenging. The capacity for resistance was not uniform,  and for some it was as simple as passively accepting the enlarged community, others it was a case of not informing the authorities, on a point of principle: this is our world, outsiders can sod off, including Vichy and Hitler. Moorehead, fronts up about the ambiguous recollections and representations of these, and other personalities, allowing as far as possible the reader to consider the reality for themselves.

With this in mind, Moorehead does exceptionally well to create a coherent thread that weaves through many of the key characters who helped rescue, shelter and protect the children in the villages upon the hill, whilst also deploying the typical caution of a historian wary of asserting a definitive truth where evidence is either limited or too conflicted.  The narrative unfolds along a broadly chronological strand, introducing initial victims of the internment camps at Gurs or Rivesaltes, with accompanying depiction of the appalling conditions those detained there endured.

The spectre of the Holocaust remains central to the narrative: this is in no way a focus on a secluded, detached world far from the horrors of persecution. There are numerous tales of those for whom the capriciousness of fate saw one set of children successfully escape a camp, whilst another did not, and died either at Drancy or in Poland.  However many Holocaust testimonies one may read, the power of reading emotive histories of the tragedy never fails to leave an impact, such as happens with that of the naming of little Sylvie Mancker… ‘who was gassed on arrival at Auschwitz, on her first birthday.’

Religion appears to play a significant part in this particular tale, with many of the resisters fiercely protestant in their devotion to resisting evil. And whilst the general community are mainly Protestant here – Moorehead includes an interesting account of the religious background of the locale – they are assisted by many other denominations, not least of all the very active Darbyists sect whose role is to be thoroughly commended, whilst there are Jewish groups ( where it is possible ) and some Catholic priests too who also provide assistance. Indeed, despite the rather sad and depressing decision making taken at the head of the Catholic Church during this period, at the ground level there were plenty who were revolted by the treatment of Jews.

The greatest strength in this book is in how Moorehead brings great depth to the Pastors, Abbe’s and individual lives of those who lived there; the impact of the magnetic Andre Trocme or the resilient spirit of Daniel Curtet for example;  those who ran the multitude  schools and homes that were established there to care for the effectively orphaned children by this point, and those who rescued kids from the internment camps and/or helped take some across the Swiss borders into safety, at extreme risk, and sadly not all were successful. It is also a complex web that links many of the characters together, and it is far from a clearcut depiction of simple heroism. As mentioned, there are enigmatic characters, for whom neither a characterisation of ‘collabo’ or ‘resisteur’ would be appropriate,  and many inhabitants who acted out of a sense of unavoidable duty rather than a pro-active direct warmth towards the voluminous guests that were imposed on their villages.

Lucid, evocative and informative it provides a fascinating historical narrative of a community for whom a natural sensibility for humility and quiet spirit has not been as broadly known as perhaps it should be. It touches on the memorial debates that have persisted for decades ever since the first challenges to the Petainist and de Gaullist myths of the immediate post-war world arose from the mid 1960s onwards, and invites the reader to examine the history with a cautious mind but throughout, the level research and engaging articulation successfully convey the tension and danger of the activity that was undertaken during the Occupation.

Furthermore, on a personal note it is interesting as a companion piece to reading La Peste previously There are frequent references to Camus’ stay in this region and it’s impact on his creation of his famous allegorical tale, and meeting characters who may well have provided the real life inspiration for characters such as Dr. Rieux – in Moorehead’s book we meet a Dr. Forestier – a deeply principled man – whose characterisation is humane, memorable and all more tragic for it’s fatal ending – he was one of the unlucky ones caught by the Gestapo and Milice and executed, but not before playing a hugely vital role in assisting the saving of many others. Forestier, like all the others named here, deserve their stories to be heard, for there positive model of human resistance, and affirmation of decency in a tremendously dark spell in European history, are welcome histories.

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