The French Village That Saved Hundreds Fleeing Nazi Persecution

Maggie Paxson on Refuge and Resistance in WWII

It is the spring of 1943.

In the photograph, Daniel is seated outside. Behind him, the limbs and leaves of trees are outlined in mottled black and white. His face is turned three‑quarters away from the camera, his dark hair swept back. Daniel is dressed in a white button‑down shirt here, a jaunty striped tie loosely knotted at the neck. Over his shirt, he wears a dark sweater that’s been patched with incongruously bright thread near the shoulder. His glasses are round, dark circles, the lenses thick enough to magnify forward the dappled light of the trees. Someone just out of the frame—a woman—rests a hand on his back.

He smiles softly.

Daniel has one of those puzzling faces, truth be told. In nearly every one of the few photographs I’ve seen of him, he looks like a slightly different person. Yes, there is always the dark hair and the curly big ears. There is always the full mouth, and a wistfulness behind the eyes. But if you hold the photographs up close, if you really examine them, you see many tiny worlds, all different, in that one face. And then, if you pull the photographs back and squint, the aggregate alternates between soft and hard, bright and blank, lovely and unlovely.

As a toddler, Daniel is standing next to his sister Suzie within the crowd of boys of Les Sablons at École des Roches. Suzie and he are both in lacy white dresses; she wears a bright flower in her long hair and leads with her forehead, perplexed. He is looking up, but also straight into the camera, already, at two years old, with a direct, furrowed brow.

Then, at eight years, Daniel tilts ever so slightly away from the rest of his family in the velveteen fuss of the Sablons drawing room: patently handsome, patently intelligent, and pale.

At twelve or so, Daniel wears wire glasses, and his face is softer, more open. By thirteen and fourteen he is in a suit and tie, and something more dazed, and even a little dark, passes across his face. Then, later again, Daniel is outside working on some construction for the school. This could be from when he was diagnosed with pericarditis: His cheeks are bloated, his back awkwardly bowed. I can’t see inside his face at all here. I know of no pictures from Daniel’s later years between Verneuil and Paris, when his inner life was growing richer with every passing day, with every passing ponderous walk to the train station, alone under the heavy gray skies, among the single bird calls.

In nearly every one of the few photographs I’ve seen of Daniel, he looks like a slightly different person.

But then there is, from 1934 or 1935, an image of Daniel on a boat off the coast of Lebanon, the sun blasting and blurring his features, turning his glasses to dazzling white circles. And, from 1937 or so, a snapshot of Daniel in Rome—the days of the on‑again‑off‑again pretty little box—where he is standing in a slim suit, wearing white shoes and the hint of happiness. What lies ahead?

The Plateau. The Little Crickets. Decisions.

Daniel’s face is different everywhere. But here, on the Plateau where he now lives, seated at three‑quarters, looking down, aged thirty‑one or thirty‑two, a hand on his back, the softest smile, relaxed and full, that face is finally beautiful. It finally contains all the multitudes.

I know what is coming. But I don’t know how Daniel did what he did next. I strain to see evidence in the picture—in his face? in just the eyes?—or hear it somehow. I look everywhere for signs, for a cause. In every tiny mote. His face is smooth, like a boy’s. I hold the picture close, then far, then close again.

But how do you see the sum of something that changes so markedly with the changing of the light? When, really, the readiness is all?

*

Spring in the Plateau brings snows and rains, fog and winds, clear skies and then the rush of buttery daffodils that crowd fields and forest floors. Spring comes to the Plateau after the very long winter, after the long, hard, crushing cold. It comes in fits and starts, in the crashing yellows of sun and wildflower, in the harsh new shadows of full light and open winds. It comes with the sticky buds, and the rushing rivers, and the sultry whiff of the morel. It comes in May and then June, the Scotch broom bending brightly and savagely on the sides of mountains. Spring comes in the return of the skylark. The return of barn swallow. The violent sweeping return of the kite. Spring comes and you feel your insides warmed, finally. You sway a little under the newness of it all.

Locals had a solid familiarity with the technologies of rescue, knew how to take in families and children.

And if you are a young man named Daniel Trocmé, and it is the spring of 1943, you are now spending hours every day walking through this spring, between Les Grillons and La Maison des Roches, which is three kilometers away, over the Lignon River, tucked in a craggy spot under the train tracks. The quickest route between them takes you along a highway lined with large stones and mosses, and then dips you into quiet paths, under the narrow canopies of heavy pines, past fields of pretty, brown Limousins and their calves, wobbling on their spindly new legs. You walk uphill and then down, then up again.

Daniel had agreed to direct Roches with the stipulation that he would continue to spend evenings and mornings with the children of Les Grillons. The Little Crickets, tempest tossed, were now thriving. Whatever glamour there had been in the wild ride of his rebellious youth had finally receded behind their faces, and behind the greater sense that Daniel was, little by little, creating a family with them. That he was needed. He was home here, with them; and this was his very first real spring. The stories of his new charges were harder, though. La Maison des Roches, known formally as the Foyer Universitaire des Roches, had been supported by the Geneva‑based Fonds Européen de Secours aux Étudiants, and the American Society of Friends. An enormous old fortified house with thirty‑two rooms and enough space for fifty‑odd inhabitants, it was now intended as a residence for male students, many of whom had been released from concentration camps in the South of France. They were closer to Daniel’s age, more like peers. And, like him, they were often from everywhere and nowhere, all at once.

For years, it had been so strangely safe up in the backwoods of the Plateau Vivarais‑Lignon, the war so relatively distant and muted. Even with the total occupation of France, and the new drive to hunt down foreigners, even with all those terrible lists that had been tapped out, one by one, in every town, the population here on the Plateau kept taking people in, kept hiding them, kept bracing themselves when police would come calling, trying not to peer over to the wall behind which a child was hiding. For years, people on the Plateau had gone from sermon to Bible study group, plotting the protection of the refugees. For years, they had brought parcels of food out to barns or corners of the forest at night, and, even more boldly, had brought strangers over their thresholds, into their homes, seated them at their hearths, and shared with them their bread.

Villagers had taken risks, yes, but the risks so far had made sense. Locals had a solid familiarity with the technologies of rescue, knew how to take in families and children, how to use farmsteads as way stations for people in flight. They had warning systems that weren’t perfect but had kept the greatest disasters at bay so far. Even in these most unhinged times, they were able to use the directive to “love neighbor and stranger alike” as a kind of living lodestar: Go this way, not that.

But now something was changing. Some center of gravity shifting.

Things were somehow darker and prickling. Worse.

In February 1943, when the Germans finally lost the Battle of Stalingrad, a new law was put into place in France requiring all men over the age of twenty to enlist for work for the German cause. This law, referred to as the STO, or Service du Travail Obligatoire (Compulsory Work Service), was a direct result of the devastating human losses to the German army on the Eastern Front. Hundreds of thousands of workers were needed in Germany itself, so by that winter, there was good cause for all young men—not just Jewish young men, or communist young men from Spain, or German young men who had gone AWOL—to rush into hiding and out of the way of the new lists that were being tapped out in every town.

Consequently, the Plateau—with its reputation for shelter, and with its manifold craggy hiding spots, and in its proximity to the center of resistance in Lyon—was becoming a destination not only for children and families who sought quiet shelter from the maelstrom, but for those very young men who were of no mind to go to Germany, of no mind to be placid or defined by their fear. And among those young men, there were plenty who didn’t care about philosophies of nonviolence, or loving your enemy, or one whit about the Good Samaritan, and who didn’t need or want to take cues from any provincial pastor.

Hundreds of these young men arrived on the tiny Plateau, of all different national backgrounds. Among them were those who had already been in hiding for many years, and those who, by contrast, were only now finally feeling the outrage of displacement. They were not only saving their own lives, but also committing themselves to the violent destruction of a merciless enemy. Many of them were, in fact, quite dangerous to German plans. Coming and going into forests, into schools and homes, then back into forests again, they were hard to account for and hard to control. And, despite the quiet of this place, and the hush of the nights, several of them, angry and afraid, were badly behaved. This, too, had its consequences.

There was the time that “a certain gentleman”—“thin, with slicked back hair” who was known to go around wearing shiny, well‑oiled chaps—was overheard saying that it’s all “just Jews and Spaniards here, so we have to content ourselves with whatever food we can find.”

That complaint, perhaps uttered more than once, then inspired the splashing of graffiti on the walls of Le Chambon, with that gentleman’s name and the letters P and D—French slang for pédéraste, homosexual. And that P.D., not to be taken lightly, inspired the corresponding outburst from the man with the slicked‑back hair: Je me vengerai. I will have my revenge.

And then there was the indelicate moment involving the convalescing German soldiers who had been living mostly peaceably in the center of Le Chambon after their time on the Eastern Front. André Trocmé told the story many years later of how those soldiers had a military band that would play from time to time in the center of Le Chambon—oompah, oompah, oompah. The leader of the band had an “enormous stomach”—so enormous that it was reported that a young man in a car couldn’t even get down the street with it in the way; he had to back up little by little to a wider place before he could get by. Apparently, this band and this belly could not be borne, soberly, by onlookers. The musicians were mocked with great merriment and no mercy.

In earlier centuries, these homes were often built with tunnels that led out toward safety.

These days, André Trocmé and the others were just coming out of prison, their future uncertain. Locals were still palpably unnerved by the raid of February, enough so that their unrest was noted in the police reports (“Operations were uneventful but caused a certain emotion in the population”). Inspector Praly, who had finally nabbed skinny Jacob Lewin only to lose him again after Daniel and Dr. Le Forestier pleaded his case, would come around day after day, questioning villagers, making up his lists, putting them in the mail to the prefecture in Le Puy. The young men would watch him, narrowing their eyes. They would laugh, paint the walls, spend the night in the forests when they felt like it.

This was the context in which Daniel took over the direction of La Maison des Roches, which was attached to the Cévenol School, and, like other homes for children on the Plateau, under the jurisdiction of the French Ministry of Labor. The previous director, a Monsieur Pantet, had, after a year of service there, begged André Trocmé to find him a replacement for “health reasons.” Even before Daniel arrived at Roches, the police visits had become more frequent. Monsieur Pantet and his wife would labor through interview after interview: Where is Franz Lipschutz? Where is Herman Lowenstein or Klaus Simon? They were here, but they left, we don’t know why. Or, on another visit, what about Alexandre de Haan? Or Camille Wouters? What about Henry Mylarz? Gone, we don’t know why.

Old homes sited like this had their natural majesty—you could sit outside at the great entryway and look down at the rushing Lignon River—but they also had their practical benefits. From La Maison des Roches, you could hear the trains chugging deep into the night; you could dash into the great pine forest above, if need be. One of the back windows nearly touched the hills behind; you could jump out and scramble up and away. But you could also benefit from one of the oddities of fortified structures like this: In earlier centuries, these homes were often built with tunnels that led out toward safety, if and when the need arose. La Maison des Roches had one such tunnel that led down from a secret door on its ground floor to a waterway below, and then back into the forest. This tunnel had been used, on and off, for centuries. And it was used, to great effect, now.

It quickly became clear to Daniel that the young men at La Maison des Roches would come and go with a kind of looseness that made it awkward when the authorities came calling—raising the question as to whether or not he really had control over them. It was unnerving, on the whole, this large, mutable group with its many agendas. By April 9th, on Daniel’s first finance report for La Maison des Roches, there were, among his charges, several young men from Spain, several others who were Jews fleeing Poland, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, and Austria. There was also a man named Azizollah Sadigh Ershadi, a Persian from the Jewish and Bahá’í center of Hamadan, who must have somehow found his way across the plains south of the Caucasus, over Anatolia, up into Europe, to France, then, after a stint in Rivesaltes,  up into the craggy hills of the Plateau—a marvel of a journey. It was a veritable Tower of Babel, La Maison des Roches, with at least a couple of the young men there nom de guerre–bearing fighters in the French Resistance.

Soon, Daniel was subject to his own police visits about the disappearing Lowenstein and Simon and de Haan, who had now returned to Roches and were under threat. When asked by police why these young men had left in the first place, Daniel would himself now flatly answer: I don’t know the motive of their departure, having been director of Roches only since the twenty‑fifth of March.

And a number of the young men of La Maison des Roches began, right away, causing extra trouble. Daniel had to answer for that, too. Some of the Spaniards at Roches had “mocked and taunted” the convalescing soldiers. According to testimony by one of the Rocheux, “Furious, a junior officer came to [Daniel] to make a detailed report on the subject of the hostile behavior of the students. [Daniel] managed to appease him, but then he came back, threatening to write us up if the same thing happened again.” It didn’t look good that his charges were defiant in this way. Didn’t look good that they seemed to come and go as they pleased. In late May, one young German named Ferber, a loner who rarely spoke to anyone except to say, quietly, that he was against Hitler and wasn’t a Jew, was arrested for having gone AWOL. This gave the police a nice look at La Maison des Roches from the inside—and might well have gotten them thinking harder about what function the home really served.

These new young men, some hardened by years of war in Spain, or in camps, some bearing names trumpet‑blasting their Jewishness, were no Little Crickets. They were on their own wild ride—like Daniel, they were in the process of becoming, fully, men.

_________________________________________

From The Plateau by Maggie Paxson. Used with the permission of the publisher, Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2019 by Maggie Paxson.

Maggie Paxson
Maggie Paxson
Maggie Paxson is a writer, anthropologist, and performer. She is the author of Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village, and her essays have appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, Wilson Quarterly, and Aeon. Fluent in Russian and French, she has worked in rural communities in northern Russia, the Caucasus, and upland France.





More Story
The Quiet Renaissance of India's Community Cookbooks My mum is a kitchen conjurer. You never know what will spill out of her kitchen on any given day. Today it might be coconut-spiked...