Chatto & Windus, €15.99; ebook, €12.99
VILLAGE of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France tells the remarkable story of a clutch of villages in the mountains of France’s Massif Central which harboured runaway Jewish children during WWII.
By dint of an extraordinary rescue network, about 800 children were saved from murder at the hands of the Nazis. Caroline Moorehead, the book’s author, reckons a further 3,000 managed to escape to Switzerland.
The book has an extensive cast of characters, including pastors, safe-house owners, British agents, gallant social workers, passeurs (the guides who spirited the children over the Swiss border for money) and, of course, villains like Inspector Léopold Praly — the local French policeman who collaborated with the Nazis.
It is the experiences of the children, however, much of it rendered in vivid detail by first-hand testimonies, which resonate the most.
“There were scenes when the parents were deported first from the internment camps, leaving a lot of children behind,” says Moorehead.
“This great conceit was made that the children were going to join their parents in some wonderful place so they had little labels put around their wrists, but, of course, these labels came off. It was clear to everybody that these labels were a fiction because nobody intended for them to join their parents.
“Sooner or later, these very small children would be dragged and put onto these trains and sent up to Drancy, which was a way-station camp for Auschwitz. In those internment camps, the children became sort of feral. They became wild, liable to bite.
"Their parents, if they were with them, very often were so traumatised that they were unable to care for them.
"These children were hungry. They were frightened and clustered in little gangs. I found that very upsetting.”
The food in one of these internment camps, Gurs in the southwest corner of France by the Pyrenees, was less plentiful than Dachau. The sound of crying lasted through the night.
In the morning, a man would push open the door to the huts the internees slept in, and ask heartlessly: “Have you got anything?” He was part of the burial detail.
The extent of France’s collusion with the Nazis’ Final Solution — in handing over so many Jews — surprised Moorehead. “The fact that the French did the Germans’ bidding without being asked,” she says.
Along with Bulgaria, it was the only sovereign state in Europe that turned Jews over to Germany.
“The only Jews we have are your Jews. We will send them back to you anytime you say,” the French Prime Minister Pierre Laval reportedly said to the German responsible for Jewish Affairs in Vichy France.
“What is said in France is that the same numbers of people were resisters as were collaborators,” she adds, “but that 80% of French people lay somewhere in the middle and just got on with their lives, but the 10% of collaborators really did collaborate.
"What fascinated me about the village, le Chambon, was the line between somebody deciding I’ll do something to help and those who said I’ll do nothing and will be all right. I’m interested by those lines, that moral cliff if you like.”
Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was the hub of the rescue operation, although it was one of half a dozen villages and outlying hamlets perched on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, which gave refuge.
There were other villages around France that sheltered Jewish children on the run, but none saved as many proportionally.
There were several factors that made it an ideal haven. Heavy snow over the long winter, with drifts that piled eight metres high, made it a forbidding location.
Much of it was covered in pine forests that had narrow roads which were difficult to follow.
Crucially, too, its history was steeped in the spirit of resistance. It was a stronghold of persecuted Huguenots and home to two obscure religious sects — the Darbyists and Ravenists — that bent easily to righteous moral obligation.
A group of children would be collected from some central point in the occupied zone and ferried to le Chambon by train. The rescue network would have sent a coded message in advance: “We are sending you marmites [pots].
Will you be ready to receive them?” Within minutes of arrival, while the children waited in a café in the village’s main square, a farmer would stick his head in the door: “I can take two girls” or the like. The children were invariably in rag order — thin, many with rickets and little hair, their skin “as dry as a snake”.
If they were old enough, they would be expected to work on the farm for their keep.
The children had mixed experiences. Some found loving hosts, others — cold ones, especially to their frequent bed-wetting.
Moorehead writes movingly about how withdrawn many of the children became. When there was a raid, the children would be dispatched to the woods, where they had to wait until they heard the farmer’s song that told them it was safe to return.
The foreign Jewish children, with their strong accents and poor French, were coached about their new identities: “What’s your name?” “Philippe Crochet.”
“Repeat it.” “Philippe Crochet.”
“Where is your father?” “He died.”
“How did he die?” “He was killed in a bombardment.”
“Where?” “In Lille.”
“Now start again. What is your name?”
Some of the children who made the 250-kilometre trek by train and foot across the Swiss border were as young as one-year-old babies. They were stuffed into rucksacks.
For the children who survived, it was — strangely, perhaps — the most exhilarating time of their lives.
Moorehead found one of them, Pierre Bloch, on a kibbutz on the Lebanese border.
“We lived a very big adventure, an exceptional moment of time and place.
"It was something extraordinary to be young, engaged at a moment when France was so dark.
"There was something in the air, in the spirit of the people, that none of us ever forgot.
"All my life I have tried to live up to that moment.”