We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France During the Holocaust

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813214931
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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The Rescue of Jews in France during the Holocaust

By Patrick Henry
The Catholic University of America Press
Copyright © 2007

The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1493-1

Chapter One Rescuing Jews in the South of France

There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose [goodness] continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. Hannah Senesh

How French people acted and reacted during the 1940-44 German Occupation of France has been the subject of fierce, diverse, and radically conflicting debates from the very first day after the German Army exited the country. One might even claim that the myth of a united French resistance, later ironically dubbed Résistancialisme, began with de Gaulle's June 18, 1940, BBC speech urging the French not to give up in their struggle against the occupier and included, dramatically, at the moment of the liberation, his August 25, 1944, march down the Champs-Elysées. In any event, in an attempt to unify a terribly fragmented postwar population and to restore its dignity and integrity, de Gaulle promulgated the myth that France had resisted the occupier and had liberated itself. Even if only a small minority had actually done the fighting, so went the myth, all Frenchmen, la France éternelle, in their collective dedication to freedom, supported the Resistance. This is a myth that the French were happy to accept.

With de Gaulle back in power in the 1960s, this myth reached its zenith, emblematically highlighted in 1964 when the general had the remains of the legendary Resistance hero Jean Moulin transferred to the Panthéon. That same year, the Resistance historian Henri Michel published his biography of Moulin. In 1969, Jean-Pierre Melville followed his earlier Le Silence de la mer (1947), a film about individual, isolated, passive, and silent resistance to the occupier, with a second film, entitled L'Armée des ombres, which presented an epic view of the struggles of the Resistance. This myth located "true France" in the Resistance, which had been generated by la France éternelle. Within Résistancialisme, therefore, there is a clear distinction between Vichy and the French state. As Julien Jackson points out in his masterful synthesis of the period, France: The Dark Years 1940-1944, while the Gaullists and Communists argued throughout the 1960s over who played the greater role in the Resistance, "the history of Vichy was largely ignored."

This absence of critical scrutiny of Vichy ended abruptly at the beginning of the 1970s when the myth of Résistancialisme came tumbling down. Marcel Ophüls's 260-minute documentary, Le Chagrin et la pitié, released in 1971 but not shown on French television until 1981, pretty much ignored de Gaulle, emphasized collaboration as well as resistance, and depicted the majority of the nation as more or less indifferent to the horrors going on around them. While it did not in fact create a countermyth whereby all Frenchmen, except for a few resisters, were collaborators, it was interpreted as having done so. Then in 1972, Robert O. Paxton's Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, which was published in French in 1973, documented the active and vigorous collaboration of the Vichy leaders with Germany and delineated the specific agendas of Vichy itself, one of which was collaboration with the deportation of Jews from France. Paxton's seminal work, which thirty-five years later is still the best study of the Vichy regime, paints the French themselves, in a book that focuses on the government, as passively collaborating. Finally, in 1974, the film Lacombe Lucien appeared. Directed by Louis Malle from the screenplay by the novelist Patrick Modiano, this disturbing film displays the murky nature of the Occupation and depicts the links between collaboration and criminality.

In short, the myth of resistance was unexpectedly and completely shattered. France was now seen, not as a nation of resisters, but as a nation of collaborators. The French were forced to look at themselves in an unflattering mirror that reflected collaboration and self-interest at every level. In particular, the ultranegative view of Vichy established itself and developed in part because of a new Jewish self-consciousness, an attention to Jewish memory that continued unabated and, among many other manifestations, produced the greatest Holocaust documentary of all, Shoah, directed by Claude Lanzmann in 1985. An extraordinary output of books, articles, and films that deal with the Occupation years began to appear in the mid-1970s and continue to appear into the new century, all giving the lie to the still popular notion that France refuses to examine its 1940-44 history. On the contrary, even in 2007, the evils of Vichy are still a national obsession.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, scholars began to study French society of the years 1940-44, rather than simply the workings of the Vichy government. It soon became apparent that the idea of a "nation of collaborators" was as simplistic and reductive as that of a "nation of resisters." Each myth magnified a reality, resistance and collaboration, but left the overwhelming majority of the population out of the picture, for only a small percentage of people had been actively involved in either political collaboration or organized resistance.

Philippe Burrin's France under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise and Robert Gildea's Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France during the German Occupation present a nuanced and convincing picture of French society during the years 1940-44. Burrin's widely and deeply informed analysis documents both organized resistance and active collaboration in a politico-ideological sense but presents the great majority of the French as accommodators, attentistes, and adapters whose sole desire was "to get through it." He acknowledges that "collaboration" was the most obvious manifestation of accommodation. Vichy was not dilatory in carrying out the Nazis' program and sometimes even anticipated it. He also examines other examples of "opportunistic accommodation" that he considers "collaboration." But not all forms of accommodation (establishing public services, creating a working economy, seeking out survival needs for one's family) can be called collaboration. Burrin sorts out the moral categorizations of individual acts on the accommodation spectrum.

Burrin finds that Vichy's politics were supported by a small minority and that support was "fragile, shaky, and dwindling." Until mid-1942, he claims, one-sixth to one-fifth of French people favored collaboration. But many did so out of expedience, with suspicion and resignation. This did not mean, however, that the others favored resistance, even after mid-1942 when support for Vichy fell drastically. Burrin concludes that "the great majority of French people had no faith in collaboration and wanted none of it ... they did behave worthily, even if their uncertainty and passivity in the first two years allowed a certain latitude to those who were venturing further towards accommodation ... To be a hero is honorable; not to be one is not necessarily dishonorable."

Whereas Burrin concentrates on high politics, big business, leading intellectuals, professional people, and publishers, Gildea writes about ordinary people hailing from la France profonde. He analyzes workers, peasants, manufacturers, landowners, women, children, Catholics, and Jews in the Loire Valley. Like Burrin, Gildea writes "to break out of the straitjacket of interpretations based on the Resistance/ collaboration version of events, while also refusing to reduce the French to passive victims of the Occupation, cold, hungry, and fearful." Again, like Burrin, having discarded an overall Manichean view of things, Gildea sets up a more credible grey zone, focuses on strategies adopted and networks created, examines what was and was not considered acceptable behavior in the ambiguous moral universe of the Occupation, and finds that the great majority were just trying to survive as best they could in cohabitation with the occupiers. "What is most striking about the French under the Occupation," he writes, "is not how heroic or villainous they were but how imaginative, creative, and resourceful they were in pursuit of a better life."

Only by comprehending the complex grey zone in France as a whole during the Occupation can one make sense of the confusing and contradictory puzzle that historians, novelists, and filmmakers have tried to solve. Gildea concludes that Franco-German relations were not always as brutal as they are regularly portrayed; and despite the repressive policies of Vichy and the Germans, at least the façade of a civil society remained, with the arts, theater, cinema, sports, and an upsurge in religious activities. While a very small minority resisted and another small minority actively collaborated, the great majority of the French sought survival during an extraordinarily troubled and difficult time when, as Eugen Weber points out, "The caloric intake of the French may have been the lowest in Europe, less than half what it had been before the war." In Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944, Ian Ousby speaks of what the French call la débrouillardise. When seen in a positive light, this connotes an "admirable resourcefulness"; when perceived negatively, it suggests the ability to "accommodate oneself to officialdom." Ousby explains that the slang expression le système D, refers to la débrouillardise and concludes that "the Occupation was the golden age of le système D."

* * *

The preceding, prefatory, evolving critical overview of France during the Occupation will serve in many ways as a point of comparison as we examine and define the World War II legacy of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the plateau Vivarais-Lignon. From 1940 to 1944 on this plateau in south-central France, several thousand relatively isolated mountain people risked their lives and, in some cases, those of their children by sheltering thousands of refugees from the Nazis and the French police. Most of the refugees were Jewish and a large number of them were children. No other communal effort on this scale occurred for this length of time anywhere else in Occupied Europe. The groundbreaking study of this rescue mission is Philip Hallie's Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. Hallie's book, however, has been severely criticized because of factual errors, historical inaccuracies, and various lacunae in its account. But Hallie never saw himself as a historian: "I knew that I could not tell the story," he writes in the original "prelude" to his book, "as thoroughly as a careful historian might tell it" [1979; p. 7]. Hallie wrote as a moral philosopher trying to grasp the phenomenon of nonviolence and the ethics of rescue in Nazi-dominated France. In writing about how goodness happened in the midst of evil, Hallie was a pioneer. Very little was known about the rescuers at the time he did his research and writing. Like most Holocaust survivors, the rescuers had not yet come forward to tell their stories. For one thing, most of them did not think they had done anything exceptional. As a result, Hallie was exploring uncharted waters.

While the moral evaluations in Hallie's narration are unassailable, it is unfortunate that he concentrated solely on André Trocmé and the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. By focusing on one village and a few important people therein (André Trocmé, Magda Trocmé, co-pastor Edouard Theis), Hallie unwittingly gives the erroneous impression that other people, pastors, and villages were not also at the heart of the rescue mission. Just as many camp survivors did not come forth until the Holocaust deniers had spoken, so too many of the rescuers in this area did not speak of what they had done until it was implied that they had done nothing. A three-day colloquium held in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in October 1990 underscored a forty-five-year silence by the people on the plateau Vivarais-Lignon regarding rescue efforts during World War II. Speakers alluded to the "Chambonisation" of the phenomenon of rescue in this geographical area and worked to set the record straight a half-century after the events in question.

Despite the historical and geographical limitations of Hallie's study, it is a brilliant analysis of the ethics of rescue, exactly as its author had intended. Hallie's pioneering study also brought international attention to the phenomenon of nonviolent resistance against the Nazis. As such, and given the fact that it was among the earliest and most widely read books about rescue, it unquestionably played a significant part in the collective determination to give a central role to nonviolent resistance in Holocaust museums throughout the world.

The 700-page volume containing the proceedings of the three-day 1990 colloquium held in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon constitutes our greatest single source of knowledge regarding the extent and nature of rescue work on the plateau. Although many issues, including statistical ones such as the number of refugees hidden on the plateau, have yet to be resolved and may never be resolved, this volume is our best source for moving beyond the legends into a true history of the plateau from 1939 to 1944. It is important that issues were faced squarely at the colloquium and that the editor, Pierre Bolle, recorded the debates as well as the papers delivered. It is equally important that we now attempt collectively to write as objective a history as possible in terms of both violent and nonviolent resistance against the Nazis and Vichy on the plateau Vivarais-Lignon while some of the witnesses and participants of that history are still alive to share their memories with us. While fully acknowledging the collective contributions of people across the plateau, my basic interest in the moral dimension of this rescue work has led me to concentrate mainly but not exclusively on nonviolent resistance in and around the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

* * *

As is indicated by the title of the volume of the proceedings of the 1990 colloquium, Le Plateau Vivarais-Lignon: Accueil et Résistance 1939-1944, the entire plateau contributed to the rescue of the refugees during the years of the Occupation. Ministers, policemen, farmers, shopkeepers, field workers, and people of all social classes participated in the sheltering and rescue work. This was acknowledged by the Jews rescued on the plateau who placed a plaque in 1979 in the square across the street from the Protestant church in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon that reads: "Praise to the Protestant community of this Cévenol land and to all those led by its example, believers of all faiths and non-believers who, from 1939 to 1945, uniting together against the crimes of the Nazis, at the risk of their lives, during the Occupation, hid, protected, and saved thousands of those persecuted." Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, awarded dozens of Righteous Gentile medals to individual people living on the plateau and also offered homage and the title of "righteous" to the people of the plateau in general. Situated in a small garden, the Yad Vashem plaque reads: "And your people, all of them, are righteous." Isaiah 60:21. "To the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the neighboring villages who saved the lives of a great number of Jewish people."

The Protestant pastors André Trocmé and Edouard Theis were the catalysts for much of what happened in and around the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon between 1940 and 1944, but the rescue mission was a collective effort that involved not only thirteen other Protestant ministers and their followers in all twelve Protestant parishes on the plateau, but also Darbyites, Catholics, Swiss Protestants, American Quakers, Evangelicals, Jewish organizations such as Oeuvre de secours aux enfants (Children's Rescue Network, OSE), other organizations such as La Cimade and Secours suisse aux enfants, nonbelievers, students, Boy Scouts, underground railroad workers, farmers, city people themselves refugees, and other people from all walks of life. To a large degree, it was an ecumenical effort uniting Catholics, Protestants of many denominations, and Jews in a collective struggle against a powerful common enemy. No similar ecumenical endeavor has ever been undertaken on French soil.


Excerpted from WE ONLY KNOW MEN by Patrick Henry Copyright © 2007 by The Catholic University of America 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.

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Table of Contents

Contents List of Illustrations....................ix
1. Rescuing Jews in the South of France....................1
2. Daniel's Choice....................45
3. Madeleine Dreyfus: Righteous Jew....................65
4. Albert Camus' The Plague....................105
5. The Rescuers of Jews....................137
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