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

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 1 (March 2015)

Review of Caroline Moorehead, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2014), 374 Pp., ISBN 9780307363084.

By Stephanie Corazza, University of Toronto

Scholars of rescue during the Holocaust are very familiar with the story of Le Chambon, the French village that sheltered many Jews during the Second World War. Its success as a haven for the persecuted and its international recognition as a recipient of Yad Vashem’s title of Righteous among the Nations add to its distinction. Yet, accounts of this rescue effort are marked by inconsistent interpretations. Some suggest that individuals and families acted singly and silently to shelter Jews; others show that religious leaders directed operations and that networks funneled people into the region. Secrecy was paramount and many Jews used false identification papers; yet Le Chambon had a reputation as a safe haven and its activities were an open secret known to French and German authorities. Religion motivated the pious, mainly Protestant, rescuers, although people of different faiths were involved at all levels. These sometimes discordant claims help to explain the continued interest in the region by scholars, politicians, local memory custodians, and the descendants of rescuers and survivors.

moorehead-villagePhilosopher Philip Hallie wrote the first study of Le Chambon in 1979, and his work continues to shape the writing of this history. Using the framework of ethics, he sought to understand “how goodness happened” in Le Chambon by evaluating the behaviour of the villagers, and attributing a special role to the Protestant pastor André Trocmé. His explanation is that this was a religious community guided by a shared conscience and the principle of non-violence, so that sheltering Jews seemed “natural and necessary.”[1] The next significant contribution was Pierre Sauvage’s 1989 autobiographical documentary film Weapons of the Spirit. His interpretation aligns with Hallie’s and they share a moral tone, but the film introduced important nuances including the essential support provided by people and pastors in surrounding towns on the plateau as well as a variety of outside individuals and welfare organizations. Although Sauvage presents the rescue as a primarily Protestant endeavour, his film includes Catholic and Jewish rescuers. Following the film and a 1990 colloquium held in the town, interest in Le Chambon increased, as did dissent over what happened there and why. For instance, Hallie and Sauvage put the number of rescued Jews at several thousand, while others offer the more modest figures of 800 or 1,000. Other subjects of debate include the role of non-violence versus the presence of different forms of resistance, and the singling out of Le Chambon from the surrounding localities on the plateau. Some scholars have de-centred Le Chambon by referring to the entire region, the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, reflecting the breadth of the rescue effort. Still, the standard view of a non-violent, Protestant rescue effort led by Pastor Trocmé in Le Chambon continues to dominate popular memory.

Caroline Moorehead’s Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France claims to offer a new interpretation of the subject. Despite the title, her book accents the variety of inhabitants of the plateau who cooperated to help the refugees arriving there. She situates her narrative within the broader context of occupied France by treating French attitudes toward Jews and the Vichy regime, anti-Jewish measures including camps and deportations, self-help and rescue efforts in southern France, and French resistance. Her narrative of an increasingly persecuted Jewish population is compelling, if unsurprising to anyone familiar with this topic. Moorehead’s strength is her ability to trace individual stories throughout the entire period, weaving them into the larger historical narrative. For instance, she begins with the saga of the Polish Liwerant family in Paris, follows its two sons as they struggle to connect with each other while sheltered on the plateau, and the last we hear is of the older boy, Simon, waiting for his parents to return from the east.

Moorehead casts her work as the complete, never-been-told-before story. Certainly, she expands the standard scope of rescue in Le Chambon. Rather than rescue activities centered in one village, she shows how the surrounding areas also welcomed refugees. She insists that the rescuers were not just the descendants of the Huguenots, but rather a more diverse group of Christians that included Catholics and followers of a little-known Protestant sect called Darbyists. Most controversially, Moorehead minimizes the influence of André Trocmé by emphasizing the role of all pastors in the region and highlighting the variety of attitudes present on the plateau beyond non-violence. Her concluding explanation for the rescue includes a list of commonly cited reasons and “a felicitous combination of timing, place and people.”[2]

Although elements of Moorehead’s thesis are worth exploring – and indeed have been explored before – overall, it is weakened by problematic argumentation and a lack of methodological rigour. She seems unaware of the many discrepancies that her text generates. For instance, in order to establish her point about the diversity of religious groups involved in the rescue, she often refers to the self-effacing Protestant sects in the region, the largest of which were the Darbyists. She presents few examples, generally just referring vaguely to “Darbyists.” These were pious people, isolated from political concerns, who agreed to shelter children whom they may or may not have known to be Jewish; yet elsewhere she asserts that these same people were actively “defying the Nazis” and playing “a crucial role in the battle against Vichy for the Jews.”[3] It remains unclear just how they understood their own actions. Her claim that this modest group, too humble to seek recognition or accept the honour of Yad Vashem’s Righteous among the Nations, are among those who now feel bitterly shut out from the glory of Le Chambon, seems uncharacteristic.

Moorehead argues that faith was an important motivating factor for the rescuers, but she calls into question this point at the end of the book. Notwithstanding her insistence on a fresh interpretation, hers is a laudatory study of individuals motivated by faith to act bravely and with love, similar in tone to the early works by Hallie and Sauvage. Moorehead devotes a section to the history of the religious denominations in the area and her categorization of rescuers by faith suggests that she attributes significance to this factor. Then, in the Afterword, she adds “atheists and non-believers” to the mix of people involved in saving Jews, despite not mentioning anyone who fits those categorizations in the body of the work.  And she leaves out Jews from this concluding list, even though the book covers several key Jewish figures.

Throughout, Moorehead paints vivid tableaux of daily life on the plateau. Her descriptions of scenes and terrain, personality quirks and physical features, evoke the period, the setting, and its characters. Yet it is in these details that she undermines the value of her work. Pierre Sauvage has already pointed out egregious errors to be found throughout the book.[4] One that stuck out to me appears in a poignant scene in the chapter on internment camps: Moorehead mistakenly identifies a relief worker who encountered many desperate mothers begging her to help their children as Mary Elmes, an American Friends Service Committee representative who spent time at the internment camp at Rivesaltes. She cites the well-known memoir by Vivette Samuel as her source, but having recently consulted this text I know that it was Samuel, not Elmes, who experienced this episode.[5] Such errors will likely be visible only to those familiar with the detailed history of this period, but scholars and others will worry about how trustworthy are other details, particularly since the author is not bound to the conventions of scholarly citation.

Some interpretive points that Moorehead raises are valuable, such as her challenge to the idea of Protestant exceptionalism and the attention she calls to the shaping of the memory of Le Chambon. However, she is not the first to make these claims. In a recent article pre-dating Village of Secrets, historian Marianne Ruel Robins considers alternative explanations to the standard view of Protestant faith-based hospitality. One of her findings is that local economic patterns (that is, habits of receiving seasonal paying visitors like sickly children and tourists) make it difficult to distinguish between hosting visitors and rescuing Jews. Significantly, Robins shows that her chronological look at the reception of Jews does not contradict the thesis of a region of morally courageous inhabitants: what was primarily an economic habit “took on a different meaning” as the situation for Jews and those who helped them changed over the years of occupation.[6]

Ultimately, Moorehead’s contribution does not get us much closer to understanding the contentious history of Le Chambon, nor does it help explain any of the lingering inconsistencies in its representation, such as the degree to which the plateau was ordinary or exceptional. In her final pages Moorehead claims that it was both: the plateau was exceptional in the scale of rescue and the unity of the inhabitants, but Le Chambon and the surrounding villages were just a few of many across France that did similar rescue work. The urge to turn this historical episode into a lesson about altruism reminds us of the different ways this story is used; some prioritize the understanding of the past on its own terms, while others see its commemorative and prescriptive possibilities. Moorehead’s book does not fully satisfy the first objective, but perhaps it will serve the second by eliciting some ethical reflection amongst its readership.

The author would like to thank Doris Bergen, Stacy Hushion, Michael Marrus, and Marianne Ruel Robins.

[1] Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), 284.

[2] Caroline Moorehead, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2014), 338.

[3] Ibid, 106.

[4] See Pierre Sauvage, “Does ‘Village of Secrets’ Falsify French Rescue During the Holocaust?” Tablet Magazine Online, Oct. 31, 2014.

[5] Moorehead, 57, 352n57. Vivette Samuel worked for the Œuvre de secours aux enfants, and in 1941 and 1942 she was a resident social worker at Rivesaltes. The previous sentence, also based on information pulled from Samuel’s memoir, is about Mary Elmes smuggling children out of the camp. She continues to use this source for the following sentence, but forgets to switch the subject back to Samuel. See Vivette Samuel, Rescuing the Children, A Holocaust Memoir (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 43, 78.

[6] Marianne Ruel Robins, “A Grey Site of Memory: Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and Protestant Exceptionalism on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon,” Church History 82 (2013): 329-30. Pastor Trocmé’s wife, Magda, makes a similar point about the arrival of Jews in the region: “At first, they were paying guests in the hotels and at the farms. Later they became refugees.” See Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers, eds., The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 101.