The Surgeon and the Shepherd: Two Resistance Heroes in Vichy France

The Surgeon and the Shepherd: Two Resistance Heroes in Vichy France

by Meg Ostrum
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions


Of the thousands of people who escaped through the Pyrenees during World War II, at least one hundred owe their lives to a daring scheme that Belgian Charles Schepens masterminded in Mendive, a remote Basque village near the French-Spanish border. The story of this near-miraculous resistance effort, an epic undertaking carried out in plain view of the Nazis, is…  See more details below

Overview


Of the thousands of people who escaped through the Pyrenees during World War II, at least one hundred owe their lives to a daring scheme that Belgian Charles Schepens masterminded in Mendive, a remote Basque village near the French-Spanish border. The story of this near-miraculous resistance effort, an epic undertaking carried out in plain view of the Nazis, is recounted in full for the first time in The Surgeon and the Shepherd, an incredible, true tale of wartime heroism.

In 1942, in coordination with the Belgian resistance, Schepens stage-managed a highly secret information and evacuation service through the counterfeit operation of a back-country lumbering enterprise. This book traces Schepens’s gradual transformation from an apolitical young ophthalmologist into double agent “Jacques Pérot,” and his emergence in the postwar period as a modern folk hero to the residents of Mendive. Woven into the account are the stories of a remarkable international cast of characters, most notably the Basque shepherd Jean Sarochar, regarded as a local misfit, with whom Schepens formed his most unlikely partnership and an enduring friendship.

Part biography, part spy tale, part cultural study, The Surgeon and the Shepherd is based on more than ten years of oral history research. The saga of a Belgian “first resister” who, by posing as a collaborator, successfully duped both the Germans and the local French Basque population, it offers a powerful and illuminating picture of moral and physical courage.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

“An extraordinary story of wartime valor and comradeship.”—Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
H-Net Book Reviews H-Genocide

“Those interested in the role of the Belgian resistance during the war or in the history of the Pyrenees region will find The Surgeon and the Shepherd especially fascinating. Others will find a remarkable story of the effect of larger historical events on individual lives. . . . Ostrum has brought us a work that shows just how nobly individuals can behave. Her stirring account of wartime deeds reminds us that seemingly impossible tasks can be accomplished when we use our talents to best advantage.”—H-Net Book Reviews H-Genocide
The Boston Globe - Joseph P. Kahn

"With echoes of Schindler's List and other stirring wartime epics, [The Surgeon and the Shepherd] tells the story of a seemingly ordinary man who took uncommon risks to subvert the Nazi war machine."—Joseph P. Kahn, The Boston Globe
French Review - Colette G. Levin

"The result of many years of fastidious research, the work presents a tale of quiet heroism that, thanks to its author's efforts, will be of singular interest to those who seek exemplars in the reading of history."—Colette G. Levin, French Review
Publishers Weekly
During a hiking trip in the French Pyrenees in 1983, Ostrum stumbled upon a remarkable story of resistance to the Nazis. Now, two decades later, Ostrum, an arts consultant who has edited volumes of oral history, relies on oral histories to assemble the story of Dr. Charles Schepens, a Belgian eye surgeon who left Brussels early in the war and joined the Resistance. He moved to the Basque country and, using the pseudonym Perot, rebuilt a saw mill that he used as a front to transport both cargo and people to safety in Spain. One of his fellow conspirators was Jean Sarochar, an eccentric shepherd known for his loquaciousness and his storytelling. The author recounts how the two (and others) worked as members of the Resistance and then, when their scheme was uncovered by the Nazis, worked to save Schepens's life. Ostrum shows how war makes strong friendships, and how people, whether considered by others to be strong (the surgeon) or weak (the shepherd) can rise to the occasion. Their compelling tale is only part of the story, as themes of class, modernity and deceit are handled gracefully by the author. Ostrum also focuses on historical background-of the players and of the Basque region itself. In essence, this is as much anthropology as it is history, but whatever one may call it, Ostrum has created a compelling work of 20th-century European history. It makes an unusual diptych with another dramatic tale of Belgian resistance, The Twentieth Train, by Marion Schreiber (Forecasts, Dec. 8). 27 photos, 3 maps not seen by PW. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A chance tourist encounter 20 years ago led museum professional and historical preservationist Ostrum to first learn of the intriguing tale she recounts in this accessible study. Biography, war story, and cultural history combined, it tells of two unlikely heroes who worked together in the Belgian resistance during World War II. Charles Schepens was an apolitical ophthalmologist who risked his life and that of his young family when he masterminded a daring rescue operation in Mendive, a remote Basque village near the French-Spanish border. Assisting him in the dangerous work was Basque shepherd Jean Sarochar, who overcame a reputation as a "buffoon" to become a kind of local folk hero for his resistance work. Using a large logging and milling operation as a front, Schepens transformed himself into businessman "Jacques P rot" and with a network of associates assisted more than 100 people to escape France during the war years. Using the interviewing skills of an oral historian and relying on careful detective work, Ostrum has pieced together a compelling and inspirational narrative that heralds the transforming effects of war. This heretofore untold story should appeal not only to scholars but also to informed laypersons interested in Basque history and World War II historiography.-Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
French Review

"The result of many years of fastidious research, the work presents a tale of quiet heroism that, thanks to its author's efforts, will be of singular interest to those who seek exemplars in the reading of history."—Colette G. Levin, French Review

— Colette G. Levin

The Boston Globe

"With echoes of Schindler's List and other stirring wartime epics, [The Surgeon and the Shepherd] tells the story of a seemingly ordinary man who took uncommon risks to subvert the Nazi war machine."—Joseph P. Kahn, The Boston Globe

— Joseph P. Kahn

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780803236417
Publisher:
University of Nebraska Press
Publication date:
07/01/2011
Pages:
248
Sales rank:
1,124,411
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Surgeon and the Shepherd

Two Resistance Heroes in Vichy France
By Meg Ostrum

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.




Chapter One

Given his limited prospects for the future, Jean Sarochar likely regretted the end of the Great War and with it the termination of his service as a soldier in the French army. The return to Mendive, his native village in the Basque country, held few opportunities for one such as he, beyond the pleasures of a hero's welcome or once again ranging freely over the emerald pastures of the Pyrenees with his family's flock of sheep. Decades of indenture in his own household were certain to come.

When Manech (Basque for "Jean") left his pastoral mountain valley for the western front, his life had just begun as a shepherd-in-residence to his older sister and brother-in-law. Longstanding tradition in rural Basque society was a system of inheritance that transferred all of a family's ancestral assets - its homestead, furniture, land holdings, and rights - to one offspring. Usually the eldest child became the resident jaun (lord) under whose roof the rest of the family lived and worked. Other siblings simply received a monetary bequest to stake out their futures. Emigration to the Americas, preparation for the priesthood, or apprenticeship as a village artisan were the alternative avenues for Basque sons seeking independence and opportunity away from home, while lifelong security, servitude, and bachelorhood were the realities for thosewho stayed behind. Lacking ambition, Jean remained in the family fold.

Like the other young men from the neighboring villages of Lecumberry and Behorleguy called up in 1914 to serve in World War I, for Jean leaving the Laurhibar Valley must have been an adventure in itself. Until then his peasant geography was circumscribed by the landscape that his feet had traveled since boyhood: leading flocks from the valley to high pastures for the annual transhumance; crisscrossing animal paths along the upland meadows with the sheep in search of food; traversing the border in the dense, beech-and-pine Forêt d'Iraty on occasional nocturnal smuggling missions into Spain; or guiding oxen to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the market town approximately ten kilometers (six miles) away. Until Manech left the only official political division he knew was the path taken by the Rio Iraty, a short stretch of which formed the border between France and Spain.

Moving out of his familiar realm meant crossing into a foreign country, which according to a popular Basque proverb was "a land of wolves." He was no longer able to see the landmarks that served as his spatial coordinates - the stony crest of the Pic de Behorleguy towering above the surrounding peaks of the Basses-Pyrénées, the semicircular apse of the ancient Chapelle St.-Sauveur protruding from the brow of the mountainside, or the small streams veining the ravines - and could not easily judge distance. Surely he was not the first shepherd-soldier en route to the trenches in northern France to mistakenly believe he had landed in Paris upon his arrival in Bayonne (a bustling, river port city sixty kilometers from his valley).

Manech's adolescent years spent learning to survive the hardships and isolation of mountain life had hardened his mind to both physical danger and death, and fashioned him into a fierce and determined warrior. Captured during battle and taken as a prisoner to Germany, Manech escaped, intent upon rejoining his unit. His limited reading and orienteering skills, however, had set him on a northerly trajectory to (officially neutral) Holland, where an unlikely band of "wolves" - a group of schoolchildren - discovered and reported him to their teacher. He narrowly escaped capture during a manhunt organized by the Dutch schoolteacher, and once in France he immediately requested a return to the trenches. By the end of the war his physical feats of courage and sense of duty had earned him several military honors, including a croix de guerre, the highest accolade that could be conferred on a combat soldier.

Jean turned out to be a model soldier and patriot in more than one way. As a boy growing up in Mendive in the last decade of the nineteenth century he had formal schooling that probably lasted until he was only ten or twelve years of age, but during the winter months he received a continuing education through his family's veillées (nightly gatherings) to husk yellow corn. Seated with the elders around the hearth Jean listened for hours to descriptions of the pantheon of supernatural beings who tested the physical strength, religious faith, and cleverness of the human population of the Basque provinces or revealed the origins of the mysterious sites that dotted the region. Many of the stories, localized to a particular hamlet or village, told of the Laminak, the benevolent little people who lived in holes and caves, hoarded treasure, or would perform household miracles for a price. Other stories featured the giants, the Mairiak, responsible for the formation of a variety of monumental stone structures: dolmens, menhirs, cromlechs, chapels, bridges, and even chateaux. The list of their handiwork included the round stone that capped the dolmen of Chuberrasain-Harri (situated in the midst of a mountain pasture above Mendive). According to ancient legend, the boulder's placement was the result of a throwing contest between the superhuman Roland and a Basque shepherd. The shepherd won because, when it came to his turn, the object that he had thrown into the air never landed - it was not a stone, but a bird! The carnivorous and powerful Wild Ogre and Wild Ogress who inhabit the somber forests also figured prominently in numerous Basque myths. By turns comic and moralistic, the fables and folk legends repeated two central themes: the triumph of Christian belief over the forces of evil, and the heroism of a clever Basque shepherd in outsmarting a superior force.

Extended stays up in the high country tending the sheep during the summer months no doubt allowed Jean to absorb an additional collection of fantastic tales. During the occasional gatherings that broke the long periods of solitude, he would have heard the older shepherds reveal the source of the swirling mist, of the distant cries from the forest, of the terrifying landslides of boulders. As he sat huddled among them in the crude, smoke-filled stone shelters, he would have heard as well the stories of human encounters with talking animals and capricious spirits who terrorize the sanity of men living in the mountains - all told, of course, as gospel truth.

Jean Sarochar drew upon these tales of magic and miracles to maintain his own alertness in the trenches and to relieve the anxiety and boredom of others in his regiment. By narrating Basque legends for an audience of other peasant Frenchmen (unfamiliar with the terrain and the culture of his homeland), Jean discovered his gift as an entertaining raconteur. For hours on end the animated banter of the diminutive shepherd with a ferretlike mien could amuse the other poilus nearby. If his delivery failed to produce the intended response Jean likely recited the disclaimer invoked in Basque oral tradition: "There was once a crow, a very black crow. He had one wing that was much longer than the other; and if the short wing had been longer, so would this tale!"

Four years of outlasting the misery and suffering in the trenches and exemplary action on the battlefields earned Jean Sarochar new status among his French comrades-in-arms as both a hero and a storyteller. He was one of the lucky ones who emerged from the relentless artillery bombardments with a single permanent scar of a minor shrapnel wound in his leg. Unlike the men whose homecoming would be noted by an engraved marble memorial honoring "Enfants de Mendive, Morts pour la France, 1914-18," prominently placed on the church portal where all attending the daily or Sunday Mass would be reminded of their sacrifice, Jean returned with a pension and a chestful of medals. Just as important, he bore a new collection of dramatic stories in which he was the brave and resourceful protagonist who had outfoxed the powerful enemy.

But why was a decorated shepherd-soldier who was returning from the Great War met with such a disappointing reception in his own village? Perhaps it was too painful for those who had lost family members to hear the stories of Jean's exploits. Of the twenty men from Mendive killed in the war, twelve were under thirty years old and the rest between thirty and forty-two. They were not youths but rather the village's fathers and fathers-to-be, comprising more than 5 percent of the village's population. So great was France's loss - 1.5 million dead and an even greater number nonfatally gassed or seriously maimed - that during the postwar years, honoring the fallen took precedence over recognizing the still living. Only on the national holidays of Quatorze Juillet or Armistice Day, when veterans' groups assembled for the large parades in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, could a soldier like Jean enjoy the full glory of his achievement.

Perhaps the repeated tales of a war in a faraway "land of wolves" led to waning interest by Jean's neighbors. Perhaps they considered his moments of valor and daring exploits nothing more than simple demonstrations of manhood. In the Basque border culture, where smuggling was both sport and livelihood, eluding one's captors was a basic skill learned in youth. Perhaps Jean's monologues did not sit well with listeners accustomed to a narrator as transmitter of wisdom rather than narrator as protagonist.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Surgeon and the Shepherd by Meg Ostrum Copyright © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Meet the Author


Meg Ostrum is a museum professional and arts consultant based in Vermont who has worked in the heritage preservation field for more than twenty-five years. She has edited several documentary studies and collections of oral histories, including Visit’n: Conversations with Vermonters, an annual anthology published by the Vermont Folklife Center.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >