Even before the Second World War began, there was an increase in anti-Semitic activity in France, and Jews were blamed for many of the economic and social problems the country was facing.
After northern France was occupied by the Germans in 1940, the government of southern France was centred in the spa town of Vichy. Camps were set up there to house Jews from the north, as well as from Germany and other occupied countries.
In Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (out Tuesday, Aug. 5), historian, author and human-rights worker Caroline Moorehead breaks down the myths and shares many of the facts about the work done in one small region of France to save hundreds of Jews from German occupiers and French collaborators.
Moorehead tells the stories of several families who had to face relocation and deprivation after German occupation. The Liwerants and the Stulmachers and their young children, for example, had lived in Paris and were forced south, while 15-year-old Hanne Hirsch and her family were deported from Baden in Germany to a camp in southern France.
Eventually, aid workers began to organize and worked to rescue children and adolescents from the camps as well as those surviving in hiding. Soon joined by priests and ministers from Protestant and Catholic churches as well as others, children were secreted from custody and sent to convents, schools and private homes.
Many were taken to the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, a remote, often-inaccessible and independent region made up of several small villages and communities in the northern Cevannes mountains.
Protestant pastor Andre Tocme was one of the best-known workers on the plateau, and received recognition from Israel. But he was not the only person in the community to take a stand, and the publication of his memoirs in the late 1970s brought about many hard feelings in the region.
Moorehead takes an objective stance, focusing on thorough research and first-hand interviews with survivors without relying on opinions or speculation. Yet there is a sense of compassion and a softness in her tone, especially when telling stories involving children.
"What actually took place on the plateau of the Vivarais-Lignon during the grey and terrifying years of German occupation and Vichy rule is indeed about courage, faith and morality...", she says, noting, "...it is also about the fallibility of memory."
While Moorehead mentions the myths about what happened in the village of Le Chambon and the rest of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, she doesn't really address them until near the very end of the book.
She notes Tocme's perspective focused on the pacifism he ascribed to, and many who had played a large and important role were either misrepresented or left out completely. Even today, she says, "the sniping continues, between historians and academics, pacifists and resisters, bystanders and rescuers."
However, she does an excellent job of quickly acknowledging contradictory information, and works hard to provide more than one side of the story. Morehead also focuses on the difficulties survivors had returning to post-war life, and how the reality of collaboration was swept under the rug for decades.
In Village of Secrets, Moorehead tells fascinating stories of hardship and hope, bad luck and good, while detailing the close calls and the bravery of those standing up and doing what they felt was right in order to spare the lives of hundreds of fellow humans, no matter their religion.
Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer.