Caroline Moorhead explains how she discovered the incredible story of Plateau Vivarais-Lignon – the village that defied the Nazis in Vichy France.
Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France, was born out of a feeling of unfinished business. In A Train in Winter, the first of what I plan to be a trilogy on resistance in and before the Second World War, my cast of characters – 230 women from the French Resistance – had left France for Auschwitz by January 1943. I wanted a story that would take me to liberation in the summer of 1944, and one in which the French came somewhat better out of their treatment of foreigners and Jews during the German occupation. I found it in the remote mountain villages of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, in central France, where, for a whole variety of reasons, an exceptionally high number of people hunted by Vichy and the Nazis were saved. Many of them were Jewish children.
But what made it all come alive for me was that many aspects of the story were in fact a myth. In the 1960s, an American historian, Philip Hallie, discovered that the main Protestant pastor in the area, André Trocmé, had left an unpublished memoir in Swarthmore College in the US. In it, he described the saving operation – but largely in terms of what he and a number of other Protestants had done. Being a pacifist, he attributed their success to his non-violent beliefs. Hallie, who was also a pacifist, based a book on Trocmé’s story. A legend was born: not only had there been a “conspiracy of goodness” in the area, but non-violence was seen as triumphing over evil. Other books, memoirs and films followed, each one of them fitting perfectly with the idea that the French had not behaved, after all, so very badly. In 2004, President Chirac referred to the plateau as the “soul of the nation… the conscience of our people”.
The story is one of courage, imagination, cooperation – but not non-violence.
It was not, however, all that it seemed. Other savers on the plateau – Catholics, members of a religious sect called Darbyste, non-believers, fighters in the Maquis – have emerged to tell their own stories. Not everyone, it transpired, had been saved: there were raids of Vichy police and Nazis, and some of the hidden people were discovered and deported. Not everyone was heroic: there were traitors and informers. For two years, I travelled around France and visited the US and Israel in search of survivors, then small children, now elderly men and women. I spoke to people on the Plateau who remembered the war years, and whose families had hidden Jewish children. In the archives of the organisations which had tried to save the persecuted Jews, I found accounts of the rescue operations. Local historians directed me to collections of papers and letters full of coded accounts and dramatic descriptions. I discovered accounts of the operations of SOE in the area, and of the bold activities of a remarkable woman in the field, Virginia Hall.
Wanting to understand the circumstances that had led so many people to seek safety on the Plateau, I explored the archives documenting the round-up, first of the foreign Jews, then the French Jews, raids that were carried out not by the German soldiers but by the Vichy police. Those seized were incarcerated in camps across France, in atrocious conditions, before being handed over to the Nazis for deportation to Auschwitz. I visited what remains of these camps, today crumbling barracks in isolated fields, with cemeteries full of those who died while in detention. My search for proof that France, during the years of occupation, had stood up boldly to the German occupiers was not rewarded. Everywhere were signs of collaboration: often the French did the Nazis’ business for them, anticipating their demands.
On the Plateau, however, something remarkable did take place. A great many people were indeed saved, though not the 5,000 claimed by Trocmé. The story is one of courage, imagination, cooperation – but not non-violence. It involved the rescue of people from the Vichy concentration camps, daring journeys up to the Plateau, the hiding of people in remote farmhouses, and a cat-and-mouse game with collaborators and the German and French police. From the saved and the savers in these remote villages I heard extraordinary accounts of ingenuity and survival. The Darbystes who still live on the Plateau, with their own places of worship and in many ways as apart from the rest of the villagers as during the wartime years, talked to me about their own part in the story. As so often, the reality was infinitely more interesting than the myth.
And yet the myth endures, as do the rivalries, the contested stories, the sense of entitlement and possession. No two versions of what took place on the Plateau during the dark and terrifying years of German occupation altogether tally. For the Protestants, it is a story about religious faith and centuries of religious persecution; for the Darbystes it is about doing your duty; for the Maquisards about bravely confronting the German soldiers. For everyone else, it is simply about behaving well in the face of danger. Not even those who were saved have similar memories: some remember their months on the Plateau with gratitude and happiness, others can recall only loneliness and hunger. More than anything, perhaps, this is a book about memory and its infinite variations.
Caroline Moorhead, for Waterstones.com/blog