Posts Tagged ‘Defying’

Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead, review: ‘riven with complexity’

July 7th, 2014

Before the war, the area had grown as a hikers’ resort in summer months; in the winter, snow made it almost inaccessible. This meant there were lots of guesthouses, hotels, schools and spare rooms. Pastor Andre Trocme, Eduoard Theis, an Englishwoman called Gladys Maber and many others began taking in Jewish children. There is the story of the Bloch family, who arrived later in the war, having been forced to leave an increasingly oppressive and menacing Lyon. The two Bloch boys loved the adventure of this new landscape. They were sometimes challenged by German soldiers, who demanded to know if they were Jewish. They replied that they were Protestant. Almost 50 years later, Pierre Bloch thanked the village “for my happy childhood as a little Jew during the Holocaust”. But it was still a nerve-shredding existence. All families on this high plateau – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish – were subject to aggressive police visits; children would frequently have to be hidden in barns, in cupboards, out in the snowy woods. And there were many heart-in-mouth efforts to get groups of refugees across the heavily guarded border to Switzerland. The daily suspense grew more intense with the opening of a convalescent home for wounded German soldiers. Then there were the arrests and interrogations of community leaders.

Moorehead analyses the web of relations between villagers and local Vichy officials and even Wehrmacht officers who seemed intriguingly ambiguous. But she widens this investigation across the region, drawing in stories of astoundingly brave resistance, contrasted with the SS’s steadily more psychopathic behaviour as the Allies closed in.

Her book is also about ownership of history. Moorehead analyses how, in recent years, the story of Chambon-sur-Lignon has been fluffed up as a sort of national comfort blanket – a beacon of redemptive light in Vichy darkness – at the expense of other people and communities who defended Jewish fugitives. And at the expense of difficult truths. Some farmers who took in Jewish children, for instance, didn’t always treat them kindly. Equally, one German officer who wanted to hold a Jewish child on his lap at the circus was – that boy realised later – actually desperately missing his own boy.

If anything, Moorehead’s pacy, headlong narrative, zigzagging across the war years and different territories with so many piercing vignettes and close detail, packs too much in and the structure suffers. A longer book would have given more room for reflection, especially on the years that came after the war, the aftershocks of trauma for so many.

Having said that, stories of this weight could occupy several volumes and would still disorientate with all the possibilities – both altruistic and malevolent – of human nature.

Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead

356pp, Chatto & Windus, Telegraph offer price: £18 (PLUS £1.95 p&p) (RRP £20, ebook £11.99). Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

READ: Best books of 2014


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