A former journalist, literary agent and publisher, Peter Grose is an Aussie expat living in France, who writes histories of WW2. I have read and reviewed both his previous books which focussed on the stories behind the occasions when Australia came under attack on home soil: An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin and A Very Rude Awakening: The night the Japanese midget subs came to Sydney Harbour. This new history, A Good Place to Hide is a departure for Grose because it focuses on events in France. And it’s not about military strategy or lack of it, it’s about the heroism of ordinary people who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.
I think it’s fair to say that in general Vichy France embraced German anti-Semitism with enthusiasm. Grose acknowledges that the Vichy authorities cooperated fully with German demands to identify Jews and to put repressive measures in place to restrict their freedom of movement, to exclude them from certain occupations, to appropriate their property, and to deport them to the death camps. If you’ve seen that shocking film The Round Up (2000) you have some idea of how Jews were arrested en masse, herded into the stadium and imprisoned there for three days without food, water or medical help before being forced into cattle cars and despatched to their deaths. I myself have seen a plaque in Paris that was a chilling reminder of these terrible events, but it wasn’t until 1995 that Jacques Chirac got round to apologising on behalf of the nation for this perfidy. So it was a surprise to me to read about the brave people of the upper Loire Valley who throughout the war, sheltered Jewish refugees, and facilitated their safe passage to neutral Switzerland.This remarkable and inspiring conspiracy came about because the upper Loire Valley had long been home to religious dissenters, going back to the days of the Huguenots. It’s an inhospitable part of France with little in the way of resources worth coveting, and the terrain of the plateau protected it from invasion and conquest. It was one of those places that was easier to bypass than attack. A helpful couple of maps at the beginning of the book show its strategic position as a hideout and a staging point en route to Switzerland. And so it was that when a pacifist Protestant pastor preached that it was the duty of the community to help those who came knocking on their doors seeking refuge, the people of the Plateau agreed.
It’s an extraordinary story. Grose has a raconteur’s style, and tells the story with enough information to keep the reader interested and to establish credibility, without drowning it in detail. Drawing on a wide range of sources including diaries, interviews and archives, he brings to life a period when people feared not only the German occupiers but also their own countrymen yet sustained the villages of the Plateau as sanctuaries without breaking the silence that was essential to survival. They protected not only Jewish refugees but also Frenchmen avoiding conscription into the German army and also, as the tide of the war turned, members of the Resistance.
At times it reads like a Boys Own Adventure – except that some of the bravest were women. There was, for example, an American woman who organised parachute drops of arms and ammunition. But there was also a teenaged boy who lead troops of middle-aged ‘boy scouts’ across the mountains to safety. Forgers provided fake identity cards and ration books that enabled some people to stay in France in relative safety.
Black-and-white photos bring these people to life. Especially moving is the shot of young people dancing the Hora at Hanukkah, outside, in the open. There can’t have been many places anywhere in Europe where Jews could feel safe celebrating their culture like this, but the villagers of Le Chambon ensured that the conspiracy of silence was maintained by all. In 1990 Yad Vashem named this village as the only French village to be recognised by Israel’s Righteous among the Nations award, it is one of only two such villages in the world, the other is Nieuwlande in Holland.
Grose concludes with a summary of the situation for 11 million refugees around the world, and deplores the current ‘toughness’ that characterises policies for dealing with them.
You might expect that this would lead to a wave of sympathy and compassion around the world, with people lining up to comfort the oppressed and give shelter to the homeless. Not so. Around the world, political parties compete to see who can be the ‘toughest’ handling desperate refugees.
He hopes that people who read his book will approve of the actions of the people of the Plateau, and that if they do, they will be motivated to want to emulate their courage, decency and humanity.
Their story offers a ready alternative to selfish indifference, to the pitiless mantra of nothing-to-do-with-me. For those of us lucky enough to live in a liberal democracy, we can vote. If we followed the example of the people of the Plateau and vowed to be part of the resistance against injustice, we could do it. How? A vote against ‘toughness’, and a vote for anybody with a credible policy for let’s-do-something, would be a start. (p.279)
You can hear an interview with the author on the ABC at this link.
Author: Peter Grose
Title: A Good Place to Hide
Publisher, Allen and Unwin, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin.