As I continue to embrace audiobooks, I was excited to come across Caroline Moorehead’s, 2014 book, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France while at the library. As a baseline, WWII is a broadly interesting subject matter, obviously, but I’ve specifically been interested in learning the large segments of it I still don’t know much of anything about, like Stalingrad, England’s role, and France’s resistance to the Nazi occupation. The audiobook is read by Suzanne Toren.
I do have to admit, I found the audiobook hard to follow as an English-speaker, and perhaps also due to my general ignorance of the subject matter. Maybe it would have been “easier” to follow if I was reading it versus listening to it? But a fair amount didn’t translate, literally, for me, and it was particularly hard to keep up with different character names and such. That’s just a language barrier thing, but also, I say “literally” because sometimes, certain passages weren’t translated into English, so I didn’t get the added context.
That difficulty aside, it’s impossible not to be enthralled by the real life story of France folding to the Nazis for myriad reasons, the Vichy government of France, which collaborated with the Nazis, and the resistance types of all stripes, who pushed back nonviolently and violently, and also, saved scores of Jews from the Holocaust (as well as other resisters, Freemasons, and communists), primarily children.
Much of the latter resistance took place in a particular French village, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon.
Moorehead argues off the top that the latter is perhaps overwrought in modern French myth-making in the sense that, 5,000 Jews weren’t saved by inhabitants of the village, but more like 800 were hid there, and perhaps 3,000 crossed through the village on the way to Switzerland, but to what extent they were aided is unclear. And I think, if I’m understanding Moorehead right, her theory would argue, the reason there is myth-making about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is to compensate for the shame and guilt France collectively feels toward enabling the extermination of the Jews through collaboration with its police forces, Vichy government, and a general anti-Semitism even before the Nazis came to Paris.
Something I couldn’t help but think about, too: Religions, sometimes rightly, get lumped in as appealing to our most base impulses with deleterious consequences, but they also appeal to our most humane impulses, too. After all, many of those who saved the Jews in France (and elsewhere in Europe) were deeply religious. In this case, Moorehead is talking about Protestants primarily, the Huguenots and Darbyists. It was their faith that called them to be the sort of people who stood athwart the wave of anti-Semitism washing over the globe, and backed by the guns of the Nazis and the Gestapo, and said, “No, we will not partake.” And in fact, “We will actively resist and provide safe harbor to those in need.”
That level of courage and bravery, which they wouldn’t think of it as anything other than an obvious and even ordinary thing to do, sends goosebumps up and down my flesh. It is the sort of person I aspire to be, if ever a moment like it arises.
I was particularly enamored by the story of Pastor André Trocmé and his wife, Magda, of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, who actively spoke out against Nazi Germany and advocated for helping to hide Jewish refugees. He was also a strident pacifist. It is hard to overstate how immensely courageous it is to stand at the pulpit when Nazis are swarming the land, and when fellow French citizens are collaborating with the Nazis, and say to your congregation, “We will resist when our enemies demand from us things that our teachings forbid or that contradict the commands of the gospel.”
Another character I was enamored by was Virginia Hall, an American who worked in France during WWIII, specifically with the resistance forces. It is cliché to refer to a woman as bad-ass, but if anyone deserves that honorific, it is Virginia Hall. She was the first female agent in France who supplied pretty much anything the resistance needed, and then was still able to evade capture and escape France. She received the Distinguished Service Cross after the war, the only one awarded to a civilian woman. She didn’t even care to get a medal from President Truman because she said she was “still operational.” She also seemed famously, as Moorehead explains, to demur on talking about her activities during WWII or thereafter, which is probably why there hasn’t been that many big movies about her.
So, Moorehead shows these twin forces going on in France at the same time. First was the rising anti-Semitism in France on the eve of another global war. As she points out, France had more immigrants by percentage around 1938 than all of Europe (I believe that’s right), but when the economic downturn that was affecting the rest of the globe finally washed ashore France, they blamed the Jews, felt there was “Jewish saturation,” and the government and citizens wanted to expel them.
One woman powerfully said that bombs didn’t scare her because they are indiscriminate, but anti-Semitism did because it targeted the Jews.
When the Nazis occupied France, I was surprised at how French politicos, pundit types of the day, and citizens blamed the French Republic becoming a “republic of women and homosexuals,” and essentially, drowning in too much liberty. That in fact, it was such decadence which caused the Nazi occupation, and France, in a way, deserved what she sowed. (Digression, but there is a throughline of a kind between that thinking then, and the thinking now among the American right that what befalls America is deserved for our own decadence in our own time.)
Secondly, the other current, is of course the minority of religious leaders, like Trocmé, who were primed to resist and to hide. It seemed these religious leaders were in the minority. While I gave religion credit earlier, here is where it gets its criticism: France was predominately a Catholic country, and there were those agitating to “re-Christianize” France and end the separation of church and state (which from what I can tell stretches back to 1905) as a response to the Nazis.
I also find the Vichy government bizarre: They were so worried about bad press beyond French borders, where other countries would learn about what they were doing to enable the discrimination and extermination of the Jews, and it’s like, huh? That tells me they knew they were doing something wrong, right? If they believed in what they were doing and thought it righteous, why be ashamed? The primary issue is the actual discrimination and aiding and abetting extermination, but that secondary follow-through of trying to obfuscate that you are doing it fascinates me, too. So much energies get expelled on trying to deny that which you are clearly doing.
Unfortunately, a familiar theme arises in, Village of Secrets, if you’ve read any prior Holocaust stories: The belief that persecution will only be applied to them, but not us. French Jews figured such persecutions would only be applied to foreign Jews, but not French Jews, and thus, they had nothing to fear. But of course, such persecution didn’t stop with foreign Jews.
Another Jewish woman was quoted as saying about living in France during WWII, “We live somewhere outside life in a bath of death.”
In the time it has taken me to listen to the audiobook, I’ve noticed, incidentally, that the Auschwitz Memorial Museum on Twitter, which regularly posts pictures and names of those who perished in the Holocaust, were Tweeting out the French ones. Like a French girl, Anni Molho, who was born in Southwestern France, and at age three, was gassed at Auschwitz. (I recommend giving them a follow, by the way. They are trying to reach 1.5 million followers.)
Or another French Jewish girl, Jeanine Nicole Heimer, who also perished at Auschwitz. She would have only been around 14-years-old.
That is what we are talking about: Collaboration meant death for three-year-old girls like Molho, and 14-year-old girls like Heimer, for no other reason than hatred of their Jewishness. Collaboration meant terrible, ugly treatment and separation from their parents. And collaboration meant that parents pleaded and begged for governments, like the United States, but others, too, to take their children, and to save their children.
Back to Trocmé, his inspiration, in part, was Deuteronomy 19:10, which states, “Do this so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land, which the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance, and so that you will not be guilty of bloodshed.”
In Trocmé’s interpretation, he took innocent blood to mean the refugee. And I believe it is he who Moorehead quotes as saying, “I believe in the final triumph of good over evil.” Without violence, mind you, as again, he was a pacifist.
Another rebellion quote about the Vichy government was, “I will disobey if justice and truth demand it.”
You can see why, as Moorehead argues, that the French have so ardently held to the myth-making of a kind about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, because it’s much better than confronting the ugliness of that time period, what the French refer to as “les ann es noires,” or “the dark years.”
But also, in some ways, the retaliation and vengeance was swift, and a stark contrast to Trocmé’s pacifism: Moorehead mentions that the resistance executed 9,000 Nazis and/or collaborators.
I also found the Afterword that Moorehead does when the war ends fascinating, to see where those who helped or survived ended up (many in America, Israel and elsewhere), and of course, how the French reckoned, or didn’t, with its collaboration with the Nazis.
To the former, one person was quoted as saying about why he couldn’t stay in Europe, “Europe had become one vast Jewish cemetery.”
The death toll of six million Jews is nearly unimaginable (until you see the pictures and names, which is why I recommended giving the Auschwitz Memorial a follow on Twitter), but also, there is the ripple effect of that trauma, as explained by that quote.
History, by its nature, feels like the distant past, far removed from the present, but we can’t forget that there are still Holocaust survivors alive right now! Heck, there was just a Nazi sentenced for WWII crimes at the age of 101!
History is the present, and it is the clarion call to ensure it doesn’t become our future. For that reason, I recommend, Village of Secrets. It is a challenging listen (and so, I imagine, a challenging read), but well-worth it.