It is with a heavy heart that I pick up anything to do with the Holocaust. Not because it’s wearisome or too familiar, or because — in Solzhenitzyn’s memorable phrase — you need only a mouthful of seawater to know the taste of the ocean. No: my reluctance to contemplate that world, even as a distant spectator, is because it was so awful and the detail so compelling that I’ll be unable to put the book down. It will echo inside my skull for as long as I inhabit one.
So it is with this vivid account by Caroline Moorehead of remote mountain villagers high up in France’s Massif Central during the second world war. These were ancient, largely Protestant communities, whose ancestral memories of the Huguenot persecutions engendered isolation, independence, undemonstrative endurance and a grim biblical devotion that enabled them to survive almost untouched by the modern world or the Enlightenment. Their lives were narrow, hard and poor, yet they sought no other and their words and actions expressed a religious intensity lost to the rest of Europe sometime in the 17th century. Probably almost all Christians believe that they should do good — or at least do no evil — and many try, but very few do it as these did, principled, disinterested and at great risk to themselves. To paraphrase a saint they would not recognise, they gave and did not count the cost.
What they gave was refuge to persecuted strangers, mostly Jewish and mostly children, whom they hid from the Gestapo and their own French Vichy government. Estimates vary — one of Moorehead’s themes is the fallibility of memory, the variety of truth and the potency of myth — but she reckons they probably helped about 3,000 escape to Switzerland and elsewhere and saved (by permanently hiding) a further 800. Infants and children were secretly transported from the towns and Vichy-run internment camps to the Plateau Vivrais Lignon where they were hidden by adoptive families in villages and farms, fed and schooled in the stern, hard-working environment of the native children. With this difference: they were ready at an instant to flee into the woods with food and clothing whenever German troops or Vichy police approached the plateau, hiding until the farmer’s songs told them it was safe to return.
Some were caught, and the fate of their host families and the organisers of their refuge was at best imprisonment, at worst torture and death. Moorehead quotes many individual accounts of escape or capture, of private endurance and hidden heroism, but she also gives an unsparing yet balanced account of the Vichy years. During postwar decades the myth of resistance was cultivated by successive French governments to the exclusion of the truth of collaboration. Moorehead rightly concedes that it is hard ‘to distinguish between refusal and endurance, between saying nothing and saying no’, but she is also right to point out the brute facts. France was one of only two sovereign states (the other was Bulgaria) to do the Nazis’ work for them, rounding up and deporting over 150,000 — half of them Jews — to death or slavery. From the start, Vichy ‘consistently offered more than Germany asked for, more and also sooner’.
She writes of the squalid detail of collaboration with a fine, controlled anger, of children torn from their screaming mothers, of neighbourly betrayals, of the wilfully blind eye of the Roman Catholic hierarchy (partly redeemed by the actions of a few brave parish priests). She is aware, too, of how easy it is to accept myth in the cause of postwar reconstruction, to believe in the ‘complaisant regional prefect and a good German officer’ when the reality was ‘a fairly decent regional prefect and a less than murderous German officer’. But she is also aware that ‘parallel to the map of Vichy is a map of decency’, especially on that cold, remote plateau where there were no denunciations, no informers, and where good was done with no thought of reward and for no reason other than that it should be done.
For we who were spared the trials of occupation, it is impossible to read this book without asking ourselves discomfiting questions. Would you risk your own children’s lives to save a stranger’s children? Perhaps the most honest answer is silence. We may feel we need no reminders of that prolonged awfulness, but we need books like this to make it impossible for us to forget.
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