The Good Place in Vicious France

US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Jewish children sheltered by the Protestant population of the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, circa 1941–1944

Caroline Moorehead’s Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France is an account of how people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and nearby villages in south-central France, and a handful of their admirable leaders, rescued people from the Nazis. Estimates vary from as many as five thousand saved to Moorehead’s guess that the number was probably closer to eight hundred.1 They included men, women, and children, principally Jews but also other undesirables marked by the Germans for deportation and murder.2 The book leaves one with a mixture of elation and great sadness. And it obliges the reader to stare at facts each of which is like the head of a Gorgon.3

First, the project itself of exterminating all Jews, not just in Germany but in every square inch of Europe occupied by the German army or subject to German power. While the project in its full enormity, which was given the regime’s green light at the Wannsee Conference near Berlin on January 20, 1942, may have been hatched in the mind of a single psychopath and elaborated by his camarilla, it could not have been executed without the participation or at least acquiescence of countless Germans in all walks of life—policemen, soldiers, lowly state employees, bureaucrats, businessmen, judges, physicians, lawyers, teachers, and so forth—the large majority of whom were neither members of the SS nor of the Gestapo, or even of the National Socialist Party.

Nor could it have happened without the relentless fervor with which they went about the killing, as illustrated by such facts as that the last train carrying Jews from the concentration camp in Drancy, outside of Paris, to Auschwitz left as late as July 31, 1944. Allies were by then in full control of Normandy. On August 19, 1944, the insurrection in Paris was in full swing, and the city was liberated six days later. The Eastern Front having collapsed, the Soviet army stood within a short distance from the banks of the Vistula and the eastern suburbs of Warsaw. In these circumstances, rolling stock was surely needed for military purposes, but the Germans didn’t allow such considerations to distract them from the central task of killing Jews.4 The crimes committed by the regimes of Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot against their own people, however monstrous, are of a different order. No other state has used its power to extirpate an ethnic group outside of its own borders.

Second, neither Hitler’s obsessive and absolutist anti-Semitism, learned in the gutters of fin-de-siècle Vienna, nor the anti-Semitism of his entourage and large segments of German society is sufficient to explain the scope of the Holocaust project. Certainly, their anti-Semitism grew out of a strong, ancient tradition of virulent hatred of Jews and Judaism…

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