In the catalogue of genocide and barbarism that was the Holocaust there were heartwarming instances of people and communities risking their lives to rescue Jews. One thinks of the rescue of Danish Jews, the work of Oskar Schindler and many other cases of individual bravery. However, one of the largest, best organised and remarkable rescues has barely registered on the radar, despite the fact that the people of a small French village and its surrounding area managed to protect thousands of Jews throughout the war.
The efforts of the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon have not gone unnoticed at official level - it is one of only two villages in Europe to be given the accolade of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. However, the villagers' heroics remain little known, even by their own countrymen.
Australian author Peter Grose is attempting to correct matters in his book, The Greatest Escape, which tells the story of the indefatigable villagers and their efforts to save around 3,500 Jewish lives.
The experience of French Jews in the Second World War was a mixed one. A large proportion found a way to survive but more than 70,000 were deported to the death camps, many with the enthusiastic assistance of their countrymen. In the so-called unoccupied portion of France administered by Marshal Philippe Petain's Vichy government, the anti-Jewish edicts of his regime were actually more draconian than those formulated by the Nazis themselves. Yet in the enclave of Le Chambon, sometimes referred to as The Plateau, things were different. The Protestant inhabitants of the area were descended from Huguenots, who had their own history of persecution and a consequent sympathy for the plight of the Jews. The town's pastor was a remarkable man named Andre Trocme who preached non-violent resistance against the Nazis. He instigated the rescue and sheltering of Jews and his actions were endorsed and copied by thousands in the area.
Grose, who has lived in France since 2008, was told the story by a fellow academic. He immediately felt it was a likely subject for a book. And the more he discovered the more fascinated he became. "As I started preliminary research, I could see this was an amazing tale, yet my French neighbours knew nothing about it," he recalls. "The most extraordinary thing was that there was this intricate network of homes and farms all sheltering Jews. There were forgers creating false identity documents and ration cards and there was an established route for guiding Jewish and other refugees to the Swiss border. Yet there were no committees and no organisation to speak of. This was mainly spontaneous action."
Grose adds that another remarkable aspect was the almost total co-operation of everybody in the area. "Not a single Jew was denounced or betrayed during the course of the entire war."
Geography was on the villagers' side as The Plateau is a remote, mountainous area away from major transport routes. There was never a German garrison in the district, even when Vichy France was occupied later in the war. And although there were sporadic attempts to round up Jews, the local gendarmerie were deliberately slow and inefficient, allowing the Jews time to flee. The few German incursions were also largely thwarted.
There remain a few survivors who owe their lives to the villagers. Hanne Hirsch and Max Liebmann were among the only group of German Jews who were deported west to France rather than to the east. They were housed in the Gurs internment camp in the south of France, where conditions were brutal and many died of starvation and disease. But social welfare groups did have some access. A number of children and teenagers were removed from the camp and sent off to new homes. Hirsch and Liebmann, who had become friends while in the camp, managed to leave at separate times and found their way to Le Chambon. They were amazed at what awaited them.
Speaking from her home in New York, Hirsch recalls being told she could leave Gurs in October 1941. "I knew nothing of Le Chambon. I was put into a children's home there. Most of the other children went to school. I didn't because I didn't speak a word of French. I learned the language and we had a normal kind of life, as normal as you can imagine."
Liebmann followed in 1942. He was housed in a hay loft by a local family and invited to eat dinner with them daily. Both Hirsch and Liebmann were given false identity documents and ration cards. It was an overwhelming experience for the teenagers, who had grown up under the Nazis. "The people of Le Chambon gave us back our faith in humanity," Liebmann says.
Hirsch adds: "The people were extraordinary. The whole world was against us. We grew up in Germany and were sent to a concentration camp. Then we were taken to Le Chambon and became human again. We were respected and treated like everyone else."
Locals helped them to separately make their escapes to Switzerland, where they were reunited. They spent the rest of the war there before marrying and moving to the US in 1948.
Another child owing his life to Le Chambon is Pierre Sauvage, whose parents were Jews who fled south from Paris. When they ultimately arrived in Le Chambon, his mother was pregnant with him. "My mother was born in Poland which put her even more at risk," he says. "They not only found a place in Le Chambon, where they were relatively safe. In addition, they had a gifted doctor taking care of my mother, who was suffering from peritonitis. I was born under special circumstances."
Sauvage's parents also moved to the US after the war and he grew up in New York knowing nothing of his extraordinary start in life. His parents only told him that he was Jewish when he was 18. He later became a documentary maker and in the 1980s returned to the place of his birth to make a film about the people of Le Chambon, Weapons of the Spirit.
Sauvage has come up with a phrase to describe the benevolent work done by the villagers, most of whom were poor peasants scratching a living from the land, "a conspiracy of goodness. I was struck by the fact that people got sucked in. Those who might have acted badly acted better because a momentum had been created. So no one was denounced. Under those circumstances it was almost easier to go along with what the people of Le Chambon were doing than to counteract it.
"If the Germans had gone into the area they would have had a village of martyrs on their hands. And they wisely stayed away. The people I spoke to there felt they had to help. And yet they were also aware that in other places the Jews were not saved. They could not imagine why everyone didn't behave as they did."