High in the mountains of the Cévennes is the plateau of Vivarais-Lignon. It is a cold, inhospitable place, covered for four months of the year in deep snow. Its isolated villages have for centuries been the refuge of persecuted Protestants: Huguenots at first, and then unusual sects whose lifestyles resemble the Amish or the Plymouth Brethren.

In the early years of the last century, the area’s pure mountain air began to attract summer tourists. By the start of the second world war, there were nine hotels to accommodate them in the village of Le Chambon alone. Albert Camus went there, to help him recover from tuber­culosis, and to write La Peste: he found it “a handsome country, a little sombre”. André Gide disliked its moroseness and “Calvinist rigidity”.

These very qualities contributed to the success of the remote plateau in providing a refuge for Jewish children escaping from Nazi persecution. Virtually inaccessible in winter, it was not a gossipy place. Its people were earnest and taciturn, modest and discreet. Led by several charismatic preachers, they stressed the importance of the Old Testament, obviously a point of contact for Jewish people. And they had become used to providing for seasonal visitors. By the end of the war, the plateau had helped to save roughly 800 Jews from the death camps, more than had any other comparable French region.

In Village of Secrets, Caroline Moorehead digs deep among the roots of this story. With the insistence on accuracy that characterises her work as a biographer and a journalist, she has discovered several personal diaries and travelled the world to find survivors, most of them with very long memories.

The result is compelling and authoritative, if often harrowing. Statistics become characters we learn to worry for, generally with good reason. Wherever Moorehead can, she gives names, and precise information. She writes about the 49th convoy, for instance, which took away more than 50 octogenarians, as well as tiny children, dragged from their mothers’ arms: she names just one, little Sylvie Mancker, who was gassed on arrival at Auschwitz, on her first birthday.

She also details the myths that grew up afterwards. People claimed that the crimes of the Vichy government were the responsibility of only a few traitors; that this one village saved 5,000 people; that the pacifist pastor André Trocmé was the supreme hero of the hour. Yad Vashem, Israel’s centre for Holocaust remembrance, honoured him on all 11 of the most important sites of “Les Justes” in France.

The truth is more complicated. People all over the plateau, of several religions and none, also helped the refugees, and many disagreed with Trocmé’s pacifism. The Vichy government was so disgracefully eager to help the Nazis deport Jews that it went even beyond their execrable demands. And once Vichy fell in 1942 and the whole of France came under direct German control, the situation worsened. We know about the many heroes of the Résistance and the Special Operations Executive but less of their opponents, the murderous band of French thugs and villains, petty gangsters and fanatics grouped loosely together as the Milice française, who energetically assisted the Gestapo in their hunt for Jews.

But nothing, of course, was black and white. As news of the atrocities filtered through, many in authority, German as well as French, began to help, and the plateau became a place of unusual safety, especially in winter. The “visitors” were sent to school with the local children, and many impressive teachers, themselves often refugees, shielded them from the anxiety and grief of the war.

With the thaw, they became more vulnerable to raids: a system of signals provoked their speedy removal to concealed hide-outs until the immediate crisis was over. There was precious little food, and foraging became a necessity, but nobody starved. A brilliant forger worked night and day to provide them with false papers, and several managed to cross the mountains into Switzerland.

Latterly, Moorehead writes, there has been an emphasis on “minimising collaborators and celebrating resisters”. She sets that record straight. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair, France had been famously accommodating towards minorities but everything was to change. By interning Jews in appalling camps, by “identifying, gathering, earmarking and preparing them”, Vichy “had made it far easier for the Germans to do their work”. Moorehead maintains that, outside Nazi Germany itself, France had become the most anti-Semitic nation in Europe.

At the end, Moorehead returns to the plateau, where a museum has just opened in the old school. The new mayor of Le Chambon hopes that it will remind tourists and visiting schoolchildren that there were, even during those terrible years, “places where people were decent”.

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