Risking Death to Rescue Strangers

By Robin Jacobson.

One day, anthropologist Maggie Paxson suddenly decided to “study war no more.” Weary and dispirited from fieldwork in violent, strife-torn countries, Paxson resolved to switch her research to human decency and altruism. This led her to a cluster of mountain villages on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in south-central France – one of only two communities honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the Holocaust. From 1939-45, these French hamlets collectively hid approximately 800 refugees and smuggled perhaps 3000 more to safety in Switzerland. As a social scientist, Paxson wanted to understand why French villagers risked their lives for strangers. A captivating blend of history, memoir, fieldwork, and philosophical reflection, Paxson’s new book, The Plateau, explores whether there were unique factors at work in the French highlands.

An Extraordinary History

The inhabitants of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon are heirs to a remarkable, centuries-long, ongoing tradition of providing refuge to the persecuted. During religious wars in the 16th Century, Paxson explains, villagers sheltered Protestants. Then, in the 18th Century, during the French Revolution, they hid Catholic priests. In the 1930s, they aided refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War. Today, the Plateau houses one of France’s 300 welcome centers for asylum seekers from Africa, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

But the Plateau’s time of greatest valor was during World War II. As Nazi and Vichy persecution and deportations intensified, the Plateau became a haven for Jews, particularly Jewish children. Farmers hid Jews in barns and attics; other villagers pretended the Jews were family members, sharing their scarce food with them. Still others crafted forged identity cards. Some valiant villagers served as passeurs, smuggling Jews across the border to Switzerland. One courageous school director, Daniel Trocmé, distantly related to Paxson, refused to abandon his charges to Gestapo capture; he died in a concentration camp. Paxson painstakingly traces Daniel’s life and choices, trying to channel his world view.

Why did the villagers shelter Jews?  In part, the answer is because they could. During the snowy winter months, the roads up the mountains became impassable, limiting Nazi raids on the area. Housing, including guest houses and hotels, was plentiful due to the region’s pre-war popularity as a summer resort. But most crucially, the time-honored ethos of the community, passed down from both persecuted people and protectors, was to help people in need. Confronted by the police, Pastor André Trocmé (Daniel’s cousin) spoke boldly for his community, “We don’t know Jews, we only know human beings.”

The Plateau in Fiction

Not surprisingly, the wartime heroism of the French mountain villages has inspired not only social scientists, like Paxson, but novelists too. Two new novels, The World We Knew by Alice Hoffman and The White Bird by R.J. Palacio (a graphic novel for teens) are largely set on the Plateau.

The World We Knew is a dark fairytale, a haunting work of magical realism that speaks to the enduring love between mothers and daughters. Hanni, a Berlin widow, is so desperate to protect her teenage daughter Lea from the Nazis that she creates a female golem, Ava, to accompany Lea to France and protect her as fiercely as a mother. But France holds dangers that Hanni did not anticipate.

The White Bird centers on Plateau dwellers, Julien and his parents, who hide Sara, a Jewish girl, in their barn. A polio survivor, Julien walks with a sideways gait that has earned him the nasty nickname “Tourteau” (crab). Interestingly, it is Sara, the hidden Jew, who learns to stand up against cruelty over the course of the novel.

Look for all three books in our library.