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 that stretches back to early Christianity, and has animated figures as disparate as many Church Fathers, reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin and their respective disciples, the Inquisition as an agent of the Counter-Reformation, as well as Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers. Indeed, as David Nirenberg has pointed out in his Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition:

An observer of western politics around 1900, asked to predict where mass political violence against the Jews was most likely to erupt, might well have nominated France.5

Just how hatred of Jews was transformed into a relentless campaign to leave no Jews alive anywhere remains a question still to be answered. But as Nirenberg has also pointed out, the long history of broadly shared anti-Semitism in Europe can “explain why the Germans found so many willing collaborators for their projects of extermination in many of the lands they occupied.”6

Paradoxically, but consistent with Nirenberg’s observation, nowhere was this more true than in France, which was the first country in Europe to emancipate Jews. Seen against the background of the oppression of Jews elsewhere, and the legal disabilities to which they were subject, the progress made by French Jews was breathtaking: in 1789 the National Constituent Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which declared that “all men are free and equal in their rights”; and the successor legislative body granted, by a decree of September 17, 1791, citizenship “to all men who take the oath of citizenship and undertake to fulfill all the duties imposed by the Constitution.” Jews flocked to mass oath-swearing ceremonies.

The speed of assimilation of French Jews, and their success across the entire spectrum of occupations, was no less astonishing, whether in banking (as in the case of the proverbial Rothschilds), the universities, the liberal professions, literature and the arts, high levels of civil service, politics, and even the army. At the turn of the century, out of the French population of 39 million, some 86,000 were Jews. The army included three hundred Jewish officers on active duty and five Jewish generals; seven out of 260 members of the Institut de France were Jews; there were Jewish deputies and senators and professors at the Sorbonne, Polytechnique, École normale supérieure, and École pratique des hautes études.7


These successes did not come without resentment by the non-Jewish population, or costs and painful consequences to French Jews. The emancipation of Jews by the Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte provoked violent riots, killings, and arson in Alsace that continued sporadically until 1830. The promulgation in 1870 of the décret Crémieux granting French citizenship to Algerian Jews (Algeria was considered juridically a part of metropolitan France) stoked rabid anti-Semitism among the non-Jewish Algerian population of European origin. During the 1880s a new extreme right in France rejected liberal and rationalist doctrines, including faith in progress, human perfectibility, and an optimistic vision of history. Jews became its target, excoriated as epitomes of progressive ideas responsible for centralization and industrialization, along with the corruption and greed that were their attendant evils.8

The failure of Union Générale in 1882, a bank with strong ties to the Catholic Church, which was mistakenly blamed on machinations of Jewish bankers, personified by Alphonse de Rothschild, the head of the Rothschild bank, did much to exacerbate anti-Semitism, as did the Panama Canal Company scandal in which was implicated, among numerous non-Jewish political figures, the Jewish banker Jacques de Reinach (who may have committed suicide on account of it). Reinach was the father-in-law and cousin of Joseph Reinach, an important Third Republic politician and a foremost defender of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish artillery officer who was convicted of high treason and sentenced to imprisonment for life on Devil’s Island on the basis of forged and perjured evidence.

In the end, in 1906, Dreyfus was completely exonerated by France’s highest court; but in the meantime the Dreyfus Affair tore France apart, dividing French society into opposing camps that no amount of proof that Dreyfus was innocent or that the true culprit was Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, who sold French documents to the German military attaché, ever reconciled. The leading anti-Semitic and anti-republican organization of the period between World Wars I and II, Action Française, was born and grew to maturity during the troubled years of the Affair.

Anti-Semitic agitation abated during World War I, with its vision of the union sacrée of all Frenchmen, and the comparative quiet continued through the 1920s. The next upward spiral of anti-Semitic fever in France came in the early 1930s. Among the factors contributing to it were a prolonged and severe economic contraction coupled with high unemployment; the electoral victory in 1936 of the Popular Front, which was loathed by the right, and the formation of a government headed by Léon Blum, a Jewish prime minister; and a flood of immigrants—by 1931 there were three million of them living in France. They made up about 7 percent of the population and were joined toward the end of the decade by political refugees from Franco’s Spain.

Kristallnacht and the Anschluss brought an added influx of Jews fleeing persecution in Germany and Austria. The refugees were perceived as a threat to employment and to French culture, and as likely to involve France in unwanted international complications with Germany, Spain, and Mussolini’s Italy.9 It was a rich medium for the growth and spread of the virus of anti-Semitism and anti-republicanism. A particularly French phenomenon was the highly articulate and vehement anti-Semitism of important gifted writers, among them Robert Brasillach, Louis-Fernand Céline, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, and Marcel Jouhandeau; they lent a respectability to the crassest anti-Jewish slogans and proposals.

Thus, well in advance of the defeat of France and the arrival of the Vichy regime, there were proposals for pushing Jews down into a subordinate form of citizenship, limiting their access to professions, and indeed deporting them, for instance to Madagascar. Such anti-Semitism became a part of political discourse, as did the notion of stripping “undesirables” of their French citizenship. In March 1939, the French government interned thousands of Spanish exiles, many of them members of the International Brigades, in concentration camps built near the Spanish border, the most notorious of which was Gurs. Soon the government was interning them as well hundreds of thousands of other refugees, among them Belgians, Luxemburgers, Dutch, and German Jews fleeing the advancing German army.

After the defeated French signed the armistice agreement with Germany in June 1940, France was divided into the Occupied Zone run by Nazi officials and unoccupied France with its capital in Vichy, governed by the Pétain regime. The demarcation line, as finally established, ran from the Swiss border west and southwest to the Spanish border, passing through Dole, Chalon-sur-Saône, Digoin, Moulins, Vierzon, Angoulême and Mont-de-Marsan. The coast along the Channel and the Atlantic were under exclusive German control. The Mediterranean littoral, from the Italian border to Toulon, was initially occupied by Italian forces, the rest of the coast, including Marseille, being part of the Unoccupied Zone. Germans seized control of that territory following the November 1942 invasion by the Allies of North Africa.


In Vichy France and the Jews, Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton report that in September 1940, two months after France signed the armistice with Germany, there were no fewer than thirty-one concentration camps in the Unoccupied Zone, and some fifteen camps in the Occupied Zone; in addition there were concentration camps holding interned Jews in Algeria and in Morocco, which were under French administration. The number of internees has been estimated at 50,000 Jews in camps in France, and 14,000 to 15,000 in North Africa. Internees died of starvation, neglect, cold, and lack of medical attention.10

A sentence in Article 19 of the armistice agreement obliged the French government to deliver on demand to the German government all German nationals designated by it found in France or in French possessions or territories administered by it. This provision directly affected German Jews who had taken refuge in France and presumably was inserted with them in mind. The first paragraph of Article 3 authorized Germany to exercise the rights of an occupying power in the Occupied Zone and required the French administration in that zone to conform to the regulations of the German military authorities and to collaborate with them in a correct manner. Nothing else in the armistice agreement can be construed to call on the French side to take any measures against Jews. The Vichy government in the Unoccupied Zone subjugated Jews and assisted in the Final Solution on its own initiative.


Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Vichy leaders Philippe Pétain (second from right) and François Darlan (center) with Pierre-Marie Gerlier (left), archbishop of Lyon, 1941

Already at the end of August 1940, Vichy repealed the loi Marchandeau, dating back to 1881, that forbade attacks in the press against racial and religious groups intended to arouse hatred against them.11 The floodgates releasing anti-Jewish venom were opened wide. On October 4, 1940, Vichy adopted the first statut des juifs, a law that defined Jews more broadly than the Nuremberg laws. It closed to them the higher grades of the civil service, the officer corps and the ranks of noncommissioned officers, and positions in teaching, the press, radio, film, and theater. Lower grades of the civil service remained open to Jews who had served in World War I or distinguished themselves in the 1939–1940 campaign or were members of the Legion of Honor by reason of military service, or had been awarded the Médaille Militaire. A quota system was to be devised in accordance with the law to limit the number of Jews in liberal professions. A law passed the next day gave prefects the power to intern Jews in concentration camps or assign them to residence in remote areas.

Three days later, another law stripped Algerian Jews of French citizenship, revoking the décret Crémieux of 1870. As though the vise hadn’t been sufficiently tightened, Vichy passed a second law on the statut des juifs on June 2, 1941, which added criminal penalties for engaging in the prohibited activities and shut Jews out of banking and real estate brokerage among many other occupations.

The sadism of these laws, which were enacted without any German involvement in their elaboration or pressure for their passage, is self-evident, and it was reflected throughout the Vichy administration, including all branches of its police, and its notorious Milice, a paramilitary force specialized in ridding France of the “Jewish leprosy” and the Resistance.

Only two significant anti-Jewish measures that the German authorities adopted in the Occupied Zone were not copied by Vichy or put into effect before the Germans had gotten around to them. The first was the regulation requiring all Jews over the age of six in the Occupied Zone to wear the Star of David. The other was the “Aryanization” regulations allowing Jewish businesses and property to be seized and placed under Aryan administration—in practice, the administration of a well-connected Frenchman—before being sold. But Vichy authorities took two steps that made hunting down Jews in the Unoccupied Zone easier. They carried out a census of Jews in Vichy France, thus providing a means of finding them unless they went into hiding, and, if they were hidden and hadn’t been deported, impetus for a search. And they stamped their identification papers and the all-important ration cards with a large-font capital J.

The French public, as well as the Catholic Church and initially the Protestant churches, reacted calmly to these draconian steps: they accorded with the prevalent mood of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and Marshal Pétain, under whose aegis they were adopted, was popular and trusted. There was a consensus that the disastrous decline of France that resulted in the defeat of its army was due to moral and social rot for which Jews could be fairly held responsible, and that expelling from France foreigners—whether they were refugees or more ominously Jews who had been imprudently naturalized—was necessary in order to restore France to health.

A gradual change in the public’s attitude came with exposure to the horror of deportations, especially when they involved women and children or forcible separation of families. Everyone knows about the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv, the roundup of Parisian Jews on July 16–17, 1942, when the French police arrested some 12,800 men, women, and children and packed them into the indoor sports arena in conditions of unspeakable squalor, without water or toilets, for transshipment to Drancy and eventually Auschwitz.12

But this was only a prelude to accelerating and increasingly brutal deportations from internment camps in the Occupied and Unoccupied Zones, with the French police in the Occupied Zone and Vichy authorities in the Unoccupied Zone collaborating with the German command to meet specific quotas calling, as if for merchandise, for tens of thousands of Jews to be delivered to Drancy on specific dates corresponding to availability of transportation, to be loaded there into cattle cars by French policemen. The euphemism employed for their destination was “labor in the east.”

Caroline Moorehead’s account of the decency and courage that were astonishingly the norm on the Vivarais-Lignon plateau some seventy miles south of Lyon has to be viewed against this terrifying tapestry. Exactly what happened in Le Chambon and the neighboring hamlets? The plateau was a place of forests and open pastures straddling two departments, Haute-Loire and Ardèche. Cut off by snowdrifts during its harsh winters, it became a place of rescue for waves of Jews and others running for their lives, a way station for those lucky enough to cross the Swiss border (in August 1942 Switzerland closed its border against Jewish refugees) and for others a haven in which all but an amazingly small number lived out the war. According to Moorehead, barely a few dozen were taken by the French or German police.

The circumstances that made this near miracle possible, in addition to the plateau’s geographic characteristics, included an almost exclusively Protestant population imbued with a tradition of dissent; the charismatic presence and preaching of two pastors, André Trocmé and Édouard Theis; and the unconditional courage of the former mayor of Le Chambon, Charles Guillon. Other men of exceptional courage were Roger Darcissac, a teacher at the École nouvelle Cévenole in Le Chambon where Jewish children and children of local Protestant families were taught without distinction, and the local doctor, Roger Le Forestier.

Guillon and Trocmé were probably the first to recognize that Jews would be in need of saviors, and they set about creating a system within the plateau for finding host families for children as well as adults and, occasionally, entire families. Some of the Jews were brought to the plateau by the charitable organizations that the Vichy government allowed to function. Others made their way to Le Chambon attracted by its reputation, which spread by word of mouth.

It was of no small moment that in September 1942, Pastor Marc Boegner, president of the National Council of Reformed Churches in France, the leading Protestant organization, declared at a church congress in Nîmes that the time for pleading with Vichy to change its ways had passed; the task at hand was now to save Jews. It was also important that some members of the Catholic hierarchy began to voice their outrage, especially at the treatment of converted Jews. Finding homes for children was facilitated by the old tradition of farmers’ giving shelter to children from the Assistance Publique in exchange for their help with chores and small cash payments. Sometimes, the farmers treated the children roughly. In some families, as food grew scarce, they were the ones to go hungry.

The work of relief organizations was also of great importance. Among them were the Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE) and the Protestant CIMADE (Comité inter movements auprès des évacués), as well as two Jewish organizations that Vichy surprisingly permitted to continue to function: an old established emigration agency and the Jewish Boy Scouts. Moorehead justly singles out and praises three prodigiously courageous and active women, Madeleine Dreyfus and Liliane Klein-Liebert of OSE and Madeleine Barot of CIMADE, for their part in bringing Jews, especially Jewish children, to the plateau and watching over them. The resilience and ingenuity of some of the Jews was impressive. One young man, a medical student, became an expert forger, preparing countless false identity papers and ration cards for Jews whose own papers had been stamped with the J.

It is unfortunate that Moorehead employs in Village of Secrets what, for the want of a better term, I will call a pointillist style of narration. About the numerous Jews who pass through her pages, she mainly gives snippets of information, much of which is inconsequential and distracting. The people who should engage our entire sympathy and who need characterization remain gray and indistinct.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The real heroes of the story are all the inhabitants of the Vivarais-Lignon plateau, regardless of their names and individual characteristics. Two incidents will show what I mean. There was to be a roundup of Jews in Le Chambon in August 1942. The police arrived with a list of seventy-two names. Although ordered to produce its own list, the village failed to do so. A police search discovered no Jews: they had been so well hidden. Three weeks of searches followed, in the course of which only one Jew was found. Then in January 1943, three of the most important leaders on the plateau, André Trocmé, Édouard Theis and Roger Darcissac were arrested and sent to the dreaded concentration camp at Saint-Paul d’Eyjeaux, where they were held until mid-March. Not a single Jew was arrested on the plateau during their absence although throughout France there was no letup in deportations. There were no denunciations and no betrayals. Malice, in the gravest theological sense, did not beset the people of the plateau.

They were good neighbors, willing to take great risks. I found it impossible to think of their goodness without remembering an example of its opposite, rampant malice in that time of affliction, and murder of neighbors by neighbors. It is the account given by Jan Gross in his Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2001) of the slaughter on July 10, 1941, by the Catholic men of Jedwabne of practically all the Jews in their village (some fifteen hundred people) in an orgy of torture and mutilations that culminated in locking the remaining Jews in a large barn, dousing it with kerosene, and setting it on fire. Apparently some of the ringleaders had been told by German policemen that the time had come for a massacre of the Jews, but the people of Jedwabne were up to doing the job themselves. They needed no help from the Germans.