War always brings tales of heroism, courage, defiance of the odds, and humanity. And as so often happens these stories often aren't fully revealed until years later, two to three generations later, when the participants themselves have passed on, and truths begin to emerge. So it is with this story. But as well as the truths, plenty of myths also surround this extraordinary and horrific period in modern history. Well known biographer Caroline Moorhead states at the beginning of the book that her intention is to try to put right some of the myths, sift the fact from the fiction, and address the 'fallibility of memory'. In the process she pulls together an enormous amount of research material and first hand accounts from some of the many children that were saved, and descendants of those who did the rescuing. However it would seems that even she has also got the facts wrong. There are a number of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon from some of these people, none of them complimentary, disputing what she has written. All this, of course, makes a book such as this even more fascinating and intriguing to read.
During the period 1940-1944, Vichy France collaborated with the Nazis in the governance of what was essentially the southern half of France. It followed that the French police in this area were expected to carry out the orders of the Nazis to arrest dissedents, resistance fighters, Jews and anyone else seen as a threat or simply unwanted. The Haute-Loire is a region south of Lyons, so well and truly under Vichy France control. It is mountainous, very beautiful and scenic, lots of little villages and hamlets tucked in amongst the slopes, the hills, the plateaux, valleys and gullies. Before the war it was a tranquil holiday region, with many inns, pensions, and other accommodations. As it is now. Because of its geography and its isolation, this area during the war was the site of much resistance activity. The population of the area was essentially Protestant, a sect of the church that believed strongly in being pacifist, and helping out one's fellow man. Which is how the small towns and villages came to be places of refuge and hiding, as well as a transit point for thousands of people, mostly Jewish, and mostly children. The courage of these very ordinary farming families, small business owners, deeply spiritual and humble people in their defiance of the regime they found themselves living under is, in a word, awesome. And not without tragedy as the Nazis and French collaborators gradually tightened their net around the area.
There is so much to write about this whole shameful period in French history, and the author, having been a human rights journalist, fills her narrative with many stories of what life was like in Vichy France during this time. Still, aside from the comments made by survivors and descendants, I am not entirely sure if she does succeed in telling the real story. There are so many people involved, and with the absolute necessity of a code of silence, there are bound to be myths and distortions of the truth occuring. Nevertheless, this is yet another side of WWII that we don't know a great deal about, and is a story that should be told.