Monday, December 8, 2014


Growing up in post-war Britain near a city where smoke still hung in the air from industrial waste still smouldering from war-time bombing, I had a deep, personal and abiding interest in the Second World War. As I grew old enough to view the terrible news footage of liberating Nazi camps and able to read Primo Levi, Anne Frank and other astounding authors about the holocaust, I became fascinated at the motivations of the oppressors and petrified at the magnitude of their terrible deeds. As a teen I was fortunate to see Edgar Reitz’s 32 episode series Heimat and I began to glimpse some of the nuances that might illuminate how a community might be more than merely monsters.

Caroline Moorehead’s finely drawn book Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazi’s in Vichy France is a portrait of a community that opened its doors, both institutional and private, to harbour thousands of Jews and other persecuted people during the war. This noble history has become mired in controversy and hagiography since and Moorehead is painstaking in her research to avoid over-blowing the extraordinary story.

Le Chambon-sur-Lievre emerged from its existence as a pre-war holiday resort, remote and lacking in transport, where city folks and orphans could visit for the healthy air and peaceful countryside. What made the community doubly unique was its concentration of devout Christians, many of whom held to archaic non conformist traditions. Hugenots and Darbyists stayed close to home and had strong traditions of not talking, or gossiping. They also demonstrated a commitment to non-violence and protection of the innocent and with the urging of several charismatic and practical leaders they took in increasing streams of displaced people, as well as guiding some to Switzerland and freedom.

Descriptions of the appalling conditions in French holding camps, the arbitrariness of who was shipped off to the camps or who was interrogated and returned to the community, defy logic. Of course there is no logic, only disbelief and admiration for a community that did not lapse into apathy or denial so common elsewhere. The many photographs in the text help to demonstrate how, despite privations, some did enjoy some insulation from the atrocities. What is also clear however is the impossibility of undoing what had been experienced and the distrust deeply sown into the collective psyche. Moorehead does not pretend the miracle is anything more than a gift of chance, she does acknowledge even in paradise betrayals and sacrifices were experienced.

Moorehead’s extensive research painstakingly peels back the layers of memory to reveal the unique alignments that created this chance haven. Le Chambon stands as a proof that monster regimes can be defied and that it takes a village to counter an unthinkable threat. As a book that illuminates a little explored element of the war, this is a highly recommended read. It will certainly convince you that even miracles are underscored by ambiguous fact but that heroic achievements deserve to have a light shone upon them - all the more when a whole community is characterized by the response. 

- Rosslyn Bentley 

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