The dust jacket of the upcoming American edition of Village of Secrets, a new book by British author Caroline Moorehead—recently short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize, the richest and most prestigious award for nonfiction in the United Kingdom—claims that the book “sets the record straight” about what happened in and around the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during the Nazi occupation. Village of Secrets was recently published in the U.K. and in Canada, receiving rave reviews and making appearances on best-seller lists. (It was published in the United States by HarperCollins this week.) Publishers Weekly hailed it as “deeply researched” and “the definitive account” of the rescue effort, while Kirkus Reviews has praised the author’s “knowledge of the people, the area and the history,” saying that it made the book “one of the most engrossing survival stories of World War II.”
As it happens, it was two earlier works—trashed in the new book—that first brought what happened in Le Chambon to relatively wide public knowledge: Philip Hallie’s pioneering 1979 study Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, and my own 1989 feature documentary film Weapons of the Spirit. Since then, there have been a number of other books that have also dealt, sometimes memorably, with the story of Le Chambon.
The continuing interest in this story is understandable. Le Chambon and the surrounding area was one of the most densely Protestant areas of France, then still a very Catholic country. These French Protestants were the descendants of the Huguenots. They remembered their own history of persecution, and it mattered to them. They had their distinctive view of their Christian responsibilities—and of the Jews. They provided refuge for an estimated 5,000 people fleeing Vichy and German authorities. To a degree unique in Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews found shelter among them: Nowhere else during the Holocaust did rescue occur on this scale, for this length of time, with such extraordinary success.
The key question has always been why. What, then, is the central truth that Moorehead claims to have uncovered? The author ends her introduction by stating that what “actually took place … is also about [sic] the fallibility of memory.” In a British radio interview recently, Moorehead boiled down her great discovery most succinctly: “The Protestants [of the Plateau] had always taken the line that they had done the saving. But in fact, so had the Catholics, so had people who weren’t religious at all.” (The notion that these Protestants trumpeted their deeds is absurd.)
Moorehead concedes, as part of her concluding statement, that the pastor of Le Chambon and his family deserve “much honor” for the rescue effort. But, she quickly adds, no more than “all the modest Catholics, Protestants, atheists and agnostics” who joined in. Illustrating the point, Moorehead mockingly cites one of the reviews Weapons of the Spirit received upon its original release, noting that a reviewer for the Paris newspaper Le Monde at the Cannes film festival called it a “hymn” to the Protestant peasants who had behaved so selflessly. Her sarcasm even more apparent, Moorehead asserts that “the selfless behavior of pious Protestants” is part of a growing “myth of le [sic] Chambon,” which makes the inhabitants of Tence, Fay [actually, Fay-sur-Lignon], Mazet [actually, Le Mazet-Saint-Voy or Le Mazet] and the hamlets of the plateau “uneasy.”
But Moorehead has another big myth on her target list: the alleged myth around pastor André Trocmé, the brilliant and determined pastor of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, “hero to some, mythomane [pathological liar] to others.” She asserts that André and his extraordinary wife Magda “became legends … largely on account of Trocmé’s own memoirs.” Of those superb and hopefully soon-to-be-published memoirs, Moorehead writes that Trocmé’s words were “picked over, analyzed, ridiculed.” Finally, Moorehead also dismisses the notion that nonviolent resistance, which Trocmé and his friend Édouard Theis championed and exemplified as a very active and efficient pursuit, was anything more than “one small part of the story.”
That there are indeed tensions on the plateau becomes obvious to anybody who visits there and discusses local history. It is certainly true that many Jews did indeed find shelter here and there throughout the small Protestant enclave. (My parents themselves rented a room in a hamlet on the outskirts of Le Chambon.) There may well have been a few atheists and agnostics too on what was then known as the Protestant mountain, and it is possible that some of them may have joined in the rescue effort—though they have not been identified as yet by Moorehead or anybody else. And yes, some Catholics in the area were also admirably active in rescue; Moorehead specifically cites just one such rescuer, Marguerite Roussel—whose existence the author happens to have learned about from the very film she attacks.
But to equate Catholic, atheist, and agnostic efforts with the role of pastor André Trocmé and the role of the other Protestant pastors of the area and the role of the French Protestant population as a whole is to deny what virtually every single Jew who went through there then would tell you: That this was fundamentally a Huguenot undertaking, centered in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, and deriving much of its initial momentum and energy from the pastors of Le Chambon, André Trocmé and Édouard Theis—and their historic call to resist through the “weapons of the spirit.”
Indeed, nonviolent resistance is what most characterized the rescue effort in Le Chambon. While there was also, to be sure, armed resistance there toward the end, just as there was elsewhere in France, most of the participants in the rescue effort in the area of Le Chambon—most of the rescuers of the Holocaust, I would contend—were obstinately and sometimes explicitly engaged in nonviolent activity, fighting in their own way, leaving the use of weapons and the upholding of patriotic ideals to others, with not much overlap with armed and resistance movements.
Moorehead claims that the French, at the beginning of the Cold War, used the story of Le Chambon “as a perfect weapon in the struggle to find meaning for the Vichy years, by minimizing collaborators and celebrating resisters.” They certainly did the minimizing and the celebrating, but rescue continued to be downplayed—it underscored what could have been done—and what happened in Le Chambon remained barely known for several decades more. Thus, the notion that it was deemed then that “le [sic] Chambon could become [a symbol] of selfless morality” is completely groundless.
Moorehead refers to an obscure American pacifist publication called Peace News that published a story about Le Chambon in 1953. She writes that “In the wake of the Peace News story came eulogies, newspaper articles, memoirs, documentaries, and films.” This did not happen. The first significant attention to Le Chambon in France only came in 1979, when Jewish survivors from the area had a plaque expressing their gratitude placed in the village. (Moorehead says that the plaque has 144 Jewish names on it; it has no such names, as anybody can see who looks up at it.)
Of course, Moorehead is entitled to disagree with me as well as with virtually all the people who experienced that time in Le Chambon. Unfortunately, she does so in a book that is riddled with mistakes and distortions ranging from the relatively trivial to the major for a book with claims to historical scholarship by an author who allegedly drew on “unprecedented access” to unspecified “newly opened archives in France, Britain, and Germany.” Even the photograph on the cover of the book, under the title Village of Secrets, is not of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon! The stand-in is the tiny village of Borée, miles away.
Very few people figure more prominently in Moorehead’s account than Max and Hanne Hirsch Liebmann. Both experienced the French internment camps, and later both found shelter in Le Chambon, Hanne for a considerable length of time. They have been among the very first American readers of the book who know a lot about the subject. They indicate that they have expressed outrage to HarperCollins and to Moorehead. According to Hanne, she told Moorehead, “It is wrong, it is fiction, it is not history.” Max adds, “Had we known what was going to be done with our interview, we would never have talked to Moorehead.” For her part, Nelly Trocmé Hewett, daughter of André and Magda Trocmé, indicates that she intends to correct some of Moorehead’s errors. I expect that there will be more comments when others who knew Le Chambon or have a great interest in this story have the opportunity to catch up with the book.
What I readily admit to taking most personally is the fact that in the hope of elbowing her way past others who have contributed to the collective memory of Le Chambon (Philip Hallie, alas, is no longer here to speak for himself), Moorehead felt the need not only to ignore the first-hand testimony provided by Weapons of the Spirit but also to engage in a litany of false and malicious statements about my film. While the defamatory claim in the British edition that I was called a “revisionist”—a denier of the Holocaust—has been mercifully removed from the American edition, Moorehead in all editions goes so far as to invent—with stubborn disregard for the truth—that two key figures in the Le Chambon story authoritatively engaged in a “detailed critique” of the film—this never happened!—allegedly characterizing the historical documentary as nothing less than a “mutilation of historical truth”—a phrase that might be applied, with justice, to her attempt to repurpose a story that has been extensively and honestly told by others as her own original work.
Let’s start with Moorehead’s account of the late Madeleine Dreyfus. This admirable woman, working with an admirable Jewish organization, the O.S.E., helped hide Jewish children in the area of Le Chambon and appears extensively, as is appropriate, in Moorehead’s book. However, it should be noted that Dreyfus was first brought to public attention in Weapons of the Spirit, where she is one of the eyewitnesses to the events Moorehead purports to recount. While Moorehead does not acknowledge this—she does not cite the film or any of its eyewitnesses in the main body of her book—she doesn’t hesitate to filch an anecdote from it, as should now become apparent.
Here is Madeleine Dreyfus in Moorehead’s book, as Moorehead embellishes it:
Sometimes it was hard to find homes for boys over the age 12; the farmers told Madeleine Dreyfus that they “talked back.” One day, she was trying to place two teenaged boys. Going from farm to farm, she told her usual story: that these were sickly children from the mining communities who needed feeding up, this being the agreed policy at the OSE, who thought it safer that no one should know they were taking in Jews. No one volunteered to take the two boys. In growing desperation, Madeleine decided to play her last card. Throwing herself on the mercy of an elderly man and his wife, she confessed that the boys were in fact Jews, that they were brothers whose parents had been deported, and that they themselves were being sought by the Vichy police. “Of course we’ll take them,” the previously reluctant farmer replied irritably. “Why didn’t you say so immediately?”
Here is Madeleine Dreyfus in my film:
And I remember visiting a very elderly couple once when I was stuck with two 14-year-old kids. And nobody wanted them. “They talk back. They’re not easy to handle. They eat a lot.” And I can remember saying, “The fact is that these two children are Jewish, that they are being hunted, and that their parents have been arrested.” And they said, “Why didn’t you say so earlier?” And they took in my two kids.
This happens to be a somewhat well-known story from Weapons of the Spirit, and to the best of my knowledge it had never been told anywhere else. When Peter Grose cites it in his lively, highly readable new book about Le Chambon (the grand-standing British title, The Greatest Escape, is unfortunate), he credits the source, indicating, “There is a wonderful sequence in Weapons of the Spirit … where Dreyfus explains how she worked.” Scholar Patrick Henry, in his insightful 2007 book about the area of Le Chambon, We Only Know Men, includes a detailed and accurate account of Madeleine Dreyfus’ remarkable rescue activities. Referring to the notebook Dreyfus kept at that time, Henry mentions that “[Dreyfus] makes the same remarks about her notebook in Weapons of the Spirit, which contains the only filmed interview with her.”
Moreover, all of Moorehead’s embellishments to the story are regrettable. Madeleine Dreyfus would have been horrified by the suggestion that she actually lied to the peasants whose help she sought. What she explains in the film is that the peasants almost always knew that the children needing help were Jewish, but that she would avoid spelling it out—so as not to further endanger them. It might also have been mentioned in this regard that because Madeleine Dreyfus did not change her name during those times (despite her husband’s urging), the peasants knew they were dealing with “Madame Dreyfus.” Dreyfus is among the most recognizably Jewish names in France, and the likelihood that the children Madeleine Dreyfus was trying to place were Jewish would have seemed very high indeed to these peasants.
But the errors do not stop there. Despite the fact that correct information about Madeleine Dreyfus is available from many sources, the errors just keep piling up.
* Moorehead indicates three times (including in a photo caption) that Dreyfus was secretary general of the O.S.E. She never was.
* Moorehead describes Dreyfus’ participation at Vénissieux camp in the famous rescue effort that took place there. She was not at Vénissieux. (She did help place children who had been rescued there by others.)
* Moorehead has Dreyfus repeatedly working hand-in-hand with Madeleine Barot of another organization, the Cimade. They did not work together. Madeleine Barot’s contact at the O.S.E. was Joseph Weill, not Dreyfus.
* Moorehead speculates as to whether it was Dreyfus or Barot who was involved in getting children out of French internment camps and bringing them to the area of Le Chambon. Dreyfus was not directly involved with the internment camps at all.
* Moorehead says that one of the Le Chambon children’s homes of the Secours Suisse organization took in adolescents who had been gotten out of Gurs internment camp “by Madeleine Dreyfus and the O.S.E.” The O.S.E. had its own children’s homes, and Dreyfus had nothing to do with that particular children’s home.
* Moorehead lists Dreyfus as among those working on the Swiss border. Dreyfus had no activities on the Swiss border.
* Moorehead claims that Dreyfus would speak of needing to deliver “four ‘Old Testaments.’ ” This is language that she would never have used, and indeed that none of the Jews in Le Chambon or who dealt with Le Chambon would have used. In Weapons of the Spirit, it was recalled for the first time that it was the Protestants of the plateau who would sometimes designate Jews as “Old Testaments.”
At one point, Moorhead bizarrely goes out of her way to contradict the first-hand testimony provided in Weapons of the Spirit. One colorful example involves a Jewish couple who first met on the plateau during the war, refugees André Weil and his future wife Ginette (whom Moorehead does not identify). According to Moorehead, “One day on his scourings of the countryside, [André] met a young Jewish girl stumbling through the melting snow in very thin shoes.” As it happens, in Weapons of the Spirit the late André and Ginette Weil recount in some detail for all to see and hear that they, in fact, met at the post office. Does Moorehead have a more reliable eyewitness than the principals themselves? Is there a reason that the Weils would join together in lying on camera about meeting at the post office—and convey to others the new truth Moorehead now imparts?
It is unfortunately not rare for academics and scholars to ignore the evidence provided in documentary films. But usually they don’t attack them at the same time. I must acknowledge that Moorehead also makes no mention of the scholarly work done by others about Le Chambon. The only works she mentions are the two works she condemns: Philip Hallie’s book, and my film.
The errors also extend to the references to Varian Fry, the American Righteous Gentile who ran a remarkable rescue mission in France after France fell to the Nazis. He and the small group that worked with him is credited with helping to save some 2,000 Jews and anti-Nazis, many of them prominent. This effort had no direct connection with the rescue in Le Chambon, but Moorehead refers to it in the course of her survey of rescue in Vichy France. Because the Fry mission is the subject of my upcoming documentary, I was especially bothered by the slew of additional errors she manages to pile on.
Moorehead doesn’t realize that the “Daniel Bénédicte” to whom she refers is actually Daniel Bénédite, and that he didn’t represent a nonexistent “American Welfare Committee” at the first meeting of the Nîmes Committee, a group concerned with the conditions in the French internment camps. Anybody who has done the most elementary research on the Fry mission would know that Bénédite was, in fact, a key aide to Varian Fry; Centre Américain de Secours was the French name for Fry’s Marseille organization.
That first meeting of the Nîmes Committee to which Moorehead refers was not in Toulouse but in Nîmes, and was held not on Nov. 5, but on Nov. 20. Moorehead indicates that a proposal Bénédite indeed made was met with “an uneasy silence.” In fact, per the minutes of the meeting, the proposal was met with near unanimous rejection. Moorehead indicates that Gilbert Lesage attended that first meeting; according to the minutes and to other accounts, he did not.
Moorehead says that the Emergency Rescue Committee that sent Fry to France was set up to help “political figures”; this is misleading, since endangered artists and intellectuals were also a prime concern early on. Moorehead says that Fry was a “reporter” for Foreign Affairs; he was an editor.
Moorehead suggests that despite Fry’s efforts, he could not save Walter Benjamin; Benjamin’s tragic end occurred before Fry came on the scene. She says that Fry had been “unable to do anything” for Ernst Weiss and Karl Einstein—whose deaths also occurred before Fry arrived in Marseille.
Moorehead writes that Varian Fry was active in Marseille “all through 1941.” Fry was expelled from France in August 1941.
Moorehead writes that one of Fry’s passeurs was Dina Vierny. Vierny’s claims in this regard have been highly contested.
One of the Fry mission’s important escape routes was over the Pyrenees. In discussing this route elsewhere, Moorehead states that it took “two to five days on foot,” and involved “climbs of up to 3,000 metres.” Both assertions are incorrect. I followed this trail myself for my upcoming Varian Fry documentary: It can be very tiring, but only takes a few hours.
Indeed, in the course of her discussion of Vichy France, Moorehead frequently treads on thin ice historically. She thinks that the Wannsee Conference was where “the fate of Europe’s Jews was decided”; it was not. She says that Baden and the Palatinate were territories “newly annexed” to Germany; they were not. She refers to the Kunst Commission; it was the Kundt Commission. She claims that Marshal Pétain visited the French internment camps on more than one occasion, and then characterized the condition of the inmates; this may be a scoop. She states that these camps were “spoken of throughout France as ‘les camps de la honte’ (the camps of shame); by all other accounts, the camps were barely spoken of at all (and the expression she uses is the title of a book published decades after the war). She says that the southern zone was occupied by the Germans in late 1943; it was late 1942. She claims that “No other country [besides France] has taken such a clear anti-Semitic line.”
While some part of the large number of errors of fact and judgment in Moorehead’s book appear to be the result of the author’s own ignorance and sloppiness, what the reader has no way of knowing is that in most of Moorehead’s discussion of Weapons of the Spirit, she is simply engaging in a rehash of Oscar Rosowsky’s relentless Javert-like vendetta against me. Rosowsky was a prominent and splendid forger of false papers on the plateau and has shown much commendable devotion to the area. I greatly benefited from his advice when I first embarked upon the film, and he is appropriately prominent in it.
There is also a sad irony to his subsequent rage against me: He was forging his false papers in the very same hamlet and just up the street from where my parents and soon their baby son were living. The peasants who took Oscar in, Henri and Emma Héritier, knew my parents well and play a key role in my film. But unfortunately, something I did in the film so enraged Rosowsky that he has consistently done all he can to malign me and damage the film, seldom letting mere facts stand in the way. (I now also admire Rosowsky’s longevity, and his ability to delude a British author into casually picking up the mantle of distortion and calumny.) In a Dec. 14, 2010, email in which I had shared with the author what I knew about the families of Madeleine Dreyfus, and others, I had also warned her about Rosowsky:
Rosowsky has long waged a vendetta against me and I have not been in touch with him for a long time. He loathed the fact that I raised the question of Maj. Schmähling looking the other way. There is ample testimony to that effect. Rosowsky was entitled to disagree; he was not entitled to round up some people to sign a petition asking that my film be banned at the Remembering for the Future Holocaust conference in Oxford, because it “favored the spread of revisionism”!!! Fortunately, the wonderful Betty Maxwell, perhaps in touch with her Huguenot roots, ignored the petition.
The genesis of Rosowsky’s rage was a private screening of the Weapons of the Spirit work-in-progress that had been held at my cousin Samuel Pisar’s home in Paris in July 1986. I was subsequently deluged by protests from Rosowsky about what was then a much longer sequence about Schmähling and included testimony about an alleged meeting between the German officer and the pastor of Le Chambon.
Though the longer Schmähling section was soon hugely abridged—Schmähling was not, after all, the subject of the film—I nevertheless retained a single reference in the film to the German officer. In his fury that I was not completely omitting a reference to Schmähling’s probable role in what happened in Le Chambon, Rosowsky refused for years to see the actual film and wrote strident letters to the French press and personalities he sought to enlist in his cause. Elie Wiesel, for instance, didn’t answer Rosowsky’s letter to him of July 17, 1987, and forwarded it to me. Rosowsky had written the following to Wiesel, a longtime member of the Chambon Foundation’s board of advisers: “The entire [Jewish] community, because of the prominence of those that support [the Chambon Foundation] finds itself at the center of a small matter that risks becoming an ‘affair’ in the historic sense of the term.”
I might add that from the start I was absolutely right about Maj. Schmähling’s role, and I have the documents that indicate what a lukewarm anti-Semite he seems to have been—an attitude that helped make the rescue effort possible. Indeed, not long ago, famed Holocaust scholar and Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld wrote publicly what he had told me privately: The officer was “not a virulent Nazi—far from it,” and that in those times one “was better off dealing with a German Nazi who was not a fanatic rather than a German who was not a Nazi but was fanatically anti-Jewish.” The Klarsfeld family itself had in fact come to the district of Haute-Loire because they had heard that this was the case. Curiously, the cited text by Klarsfeld is from a major French work on the area of Le Chambon, La Montagne Refuge, published in 2013, which is omitted from Moorehead’s extensive but idiosyncratic bibliography.
For his part, scholar Patrick Henry writes in a forthcoming review of Moorehead’s book: “Regarding Pierre Sauvage, Moorehead repeats a litany of unsubstantiated charges, finding Sauvage’s original and inspiring Weapons of the Spirit guilty of having a 40-second portion (in this 93-minute film) in which the filmmaker ‘asks’ whether the rescue mission might have been helped because the head German officer in the region looked the other way.”
Among the dozen statements in the Chambon Foundation archives made by others about Maj. Schmähling, there is this one from Rabbi Jean Poliatchek of Jerusalem in 1992. He was himself the son of a rabbi who was active in Le Puy, German headquarters for the district of Haute-Loire of which Le Chambon and most of the plateau are a part. His statement began: “I am all the happier to provide you my testimony in favor of the commander of the place du Puy, Julius Schmähling, since my father, of blessed memory, and I probably owe it to him that we were never ‘interrogated’ (‘inquiétés’) during the whole German occupation.”
Poliatchek went on to explain that there was a constant stream of mostly foreign Jews to the modest family home, as his father was very active in helping foreign Jews. He mentions that his father had left a mezuzah on the door. “[Major Schmähling] could not have failed to know our address. He deliberately ignored us.”
During Rosowsky’s attempts to stir up controversy around the Schmähling matter, Schmähling himself “lay low,” according to Moorehead. He did indeed; he was long dead. Prominent Holocaust historian Michael Marrus, however, is very mistakenly referred to as “the late” Michael Marrus. It should be noted that Moorehead seems to have a very special relationship with the dead. In her acknowledgments, she expresses her gratitude for the stories that she says she heard from Léon Eyraud, Madame [Marguerite] Roussel, and “Lulu” [Lucie] Ruel. Eyraud and Roussel died, respectively, in 1953 and 1996, long before Moorehead made her first visit to Le Chambon in 2011. Madame Ruel was already deceased when I interviewed her daughter in 1982.
After several paragraphs attacking the late Philip Hallie’s widely acclaimed book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Moorehead comes to Weapons of the Spirit and to me: “Then, in 1987, Pierre Sauvage, a film-maker who happened to have been born on the plateau, decided to put together a documentary film on its war. He gave it the title Weapons of the Spirit.”
It was not in 1987 but in 1982 that I decided to “put together” the documentary (it’s called directing); the film was released in 1989. Nor did I just “happen” to be born on the plateau, as I indicated at the outset. The many favorable reviews the film received are summarized by Moorehead with one dismissively excerpted quote, after which Moorehead goes on to twist the knife: “In the film, Sauvage took up many of Hallie’s points about Trocmé’s remarkable actions and about the all-pervasive spirit of goodness that shaped and steered the minds of his parishioners.”
Beyond indulging in her usual sarcasm about the film’s celebration of the goodness of the area, Moorehead is thus alleging that the documentary merely copies points made by Hallie. There is no truth whatever to this assertion, but it is revealing nonetheless. In a blizzard of malicious documents preserved for posterity in the Chambon Foundation archives (and surely in Oscar Rosowsky’s as well), this has long been one of Rosowsky’s favorite forms of attack on me: to lump me together with Philip Hallie, for whom he has special contempt. (Rosowsky was not mentioned in Hallie’s book, and indeed Hallie mistakenly made a mystery about the source of the false papers that became so available on the plateau.)
While Hallie does not deserve the nastiness to which Rosowsky/Moorehead subject him—and deserves a lot of credit for having gotten a lot of things right about what happened in Le Chambon and for having almost literally put the village on the map—the fact is that anybody of good faith who has read Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed and seen Weapons of the Spirit will recognize that while I do indeed greatly admire André and Magda Trocmé and share the nearly unanimous opinion of Jews who came through the area of Le Chambon that there was indeed a “spirit of goodness” at work there at that time, my account differs from Hallie’s in significant ways. I certainly had no need to rip off Hallie’s points about Trocmé or about goodness to reach the conclusions that I did. The film simply reflects, to the best of my ability as a filmmaker, what I believe happened there.
Here is one example of how Moorehead skewers the work of Andre Trocmé:
Commenting on Trocmé’s memoirs, the Protestant writer Jacques Poujol told [Pierre] Piton, the former scout and passeur to Switzerland, that they were nothing but the work of “a poor man who had become paranoid writing far too long after the events to be credible.”
As mentioned, Moorehead also refers to Trocmé’s “words and deeds” being “ridiculed.” We are not told who was doing the ridiculing, except for the fact that the late Pierre Piton allegedly stated that Protestant scholar Jacques Poujol had expressed to him this critical view of Trocmé. I knew Jacques Poujol and have a debt of gratitude toward him. When Rosowsky had finally agreed to attend the premiere of my film in Le Chambon in 1990 (I had sat between two of my “stars,” Marie Brottes and Henri Héritier), the onetime forger was the first person to want to speak after the film, and he harangued me incessantly about Schmähling—the only subject that interested him. Nobody wanted to interrupt him, and I had decided that I would not do so either. Finally, it was Jacques Poujol who said just one authoritative word: “Enough!” (“Assez!”)
Was this truly the man who said what Moorehead says Pierre Piton wrote that he said? I have read some of Poujol’s work, and I am astonished that he could have expressed such an opinion—especially since Trocmé’s memoirs are brilliant and deeply affecting. But this is just one further instance of the unwarranted disparagement of Trocmé that keeps seeping through Moorehead’s book; as mentioned before, she also wants to demolish the “myth” of the central role played by Trocmé—a role on which most eyewitnesses to those times agree. (To counteract all this, I recommend Richard P. Unsworth’s 2012 A Portrait of Pacifists and the 2014 anthology Magda and André Trocmé: Resistance Figures, as well as Peter Grose’s new book.)
Furthermore, what Moorehead chooses not to mention is that the accusatory letters and oceans of calumny were entirely one-sided—directed by Oscar Rosowsky at Philip Hallie and me. Hallie chose never to respond but was so disheartened by the attacks that he abandoned his planned book on Maj. Schmähling. For my part, rightly or wrongly, I responded at every turn, as I do now, exhaustively but presumably for the last time.
Of course, the heart of the debate around Moorehead’s book will be about her claim that she is, at last, and for the first time, recounting “what actually took place.” She is, she asserts, correcting the “myth” that “has much diminished reality.” She also claims to be underscoring “the fallibility of memory” that she considers herself to be singularly well-equipped to identify. The HarperCollins dust jacket for the book aggressively proclaims: “Just why and how Le Chambon and its outlying villages [sic] came to save so many people has never fully been told [emphasis added]. [The book] sets the record straight [emphasis added] about the events in Le Chambon. … The village and its parishes” [sic] saved “resisters, Freemasons, communists, and, above all, Jews.”
In a BBC Radio 4 report on Aug. 2, 2014, Moorehead spelled out the myth further: “I think the myth has always been that it was mostly Protestant pastors, descendants of the Huguenots, who did the saving. But when I started looking into it, I discovered that that was only a very small part of the story. And out of the woodwork came Catholics, nonbelievers, and particularly these people called the Darbystes.” In the book, Moorehead refers to “the Catholics and Protestants on the plateau, whose generosity of spirit and courage was about to be tested”—as if Catholics as a whole on the plateau met the challenge of those times as effectively as the Protestants did. (This in no way diminishes the merit of those Catholics who did indeed join in the rescue effort.)
Despite her thesis, Moorehead occasionally slips up to acknowledge the importance of the French Protestant dimension of the story: Of one couple, she writes that they “were Protestants, believers, and with that belief had come a certitude that hiding people sought by Vichy and the Germans was the right thing to do.” Why then does Moorehead claim that the Protestant dimension of the rescue on the plateau is exaggerated? As for Catholics and the independent Protestants known as Darbystes coming “out of the woodwork,” this is yet another of Moorehead’s fraudulent myth-busting discoveries.
As has been mentioned, a forceful and compelling Catholic woman is featured in Weapons of the Spirit, Marguerite Roussel—as it happens, the very same Catholic family on which Moorehead lavishes attention. Indeed, referring to the Bloch family that was helped by Madame Roussel (the Blochs are also featured in Weapons of the Spirit), Moorehead slips up again and writes, “The story of the Blochs is a Catholic story, not a Protestant one, rare on the plateau [emphasis added], but not unique.”
If Catholic rescue was “rare on the plateau,” how did Catholic rescuers come “out of the woodwork” for Moorehead? And why, since she claims to be the first to have discovered the unacknowledged importance of Catholic rescuers in the story of Le Chambon, does Moorehead’s main example happen to be a Catholic family first presented to the world in Weapons of the Spirit?
Also coming out of the woodwork just for Moorehead are those “fundamentalist” Protestants known as darbystes (or Darbyites). Moorehead lavishes many pages on these Christian sects that were indeed among the most welcoming to the Jews. But her claim to have discovered them is utterly without basis; their role has always been known by everybody who lived through those times on the plateau or who has a special interest in what happened there during the war.
To underscore her ground-breaking discovery, Moorehead first picks on Philip Hallie’s 1979 book, of which she writes, forcefully, that “The Darbyists are nowhere to be seen.” Unless, that is, you look in the index: Darbystes, 24, 32, 95-98, 182-183. Of course, these groups are also represented in my film, which includes the eloquent testimony of one such member of these Protestant sects, Marie Brottes. When Madame Brottes is introduced, it is mentioned that one-third of the population belonged to these sects (the French version of the film specifically refers to the darbystes by name).
But it’s not enough for Moorehead to claim that she discovered the existence of the darbystes. In order to further diminish the fundamentally Protestant nature of the rescue effort, Moorehead refers several times to the darbystes as if they were not Protestant! In one congregation, Moorehead writes, it was said “that there were as many Darbyists as Protestants.” (The statement makes no sense on any level: Darbystes and “mainstream” Reformed Protestants had distinct congregations and practices.) Elsewhere, Moorehead writes, ecumenically but no less absurdly, “Catholics, Protestants and Darbyists alike awaited …”
The notion that the darbystes and the members of other such local Protestant sects should not be included among the Protestants—or indeed among the Huguenots—will come as news to them and to anybody who knows anything about them.
But Moorehead is indeed the first self-proclaimed Le Chambon scholar to praise the allegedly significant atheist and agnostic participation in the rescue effort, nor am I aware of any villagers or Jewish survivors ever mentioning such participation. What everybody states and remembers was that this was a deeply religious community.
Also puzzling is Moorehead’s extensive reliance on the testimony of Pastor Alain Arnoux, one of Trocmé’s successors in Le Chambon. It must not have been easy to follow in Trocmé’s footsteps, and Arnoux’s hostility to Trocmé is well known in the village. Debunking Trocmé was one of the clear but unacknowledged objectives of the 1990 colloquium that Arnoux had helped organize (and that Moorehead praises), taking particular pleasure in asserting there, according to Moorehead, that “once someone made a profit from the story, ‘then the spirit that reigned here would be betrayed.’ ”
I had had an earlier run-in with Pastor Arnoux. When, with the help of Max and Hanne Liebmann, the Chambon Foundation had organized in Le Chambon in 1986 a reunion of Jewish survivors from the area, we had ardently sought the pastor’s participation. He made it clear to me, without explanation, that he had no interest in showing up, and indeed he boycotted the gathering. I couldn’t help remembering this when Arnoux virulently protested the planned presence of the Israeli ambassador to France at a ceremony, after the colloquium, where Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem memorial to the Holocaust, was going to honor many of the villagers as Righteous Gentiles—and single out Le Chambon for collective honors. (Moorehead mistakenly claims it is the only community to receive this honor.)
This is how Moorehead recounts Arnoux’s mean-spirited outburst: “[Arnoux] announced that he sincerely hoped that, since Israel was honoring the people of the plateau for what they had done, they would now undertake to blow up no more Palestinian homes, expel no more Palestinian families, close no more schools to Palestinian children. Not surprisingly, perhaps [sic], anger followed. In an Israeli paper, Arnoux was called a ‘Nazi pastor’.”
I was there (I had initiated these honors in discussions in Jerusalem), and I remember all this well, though I had not heard that an Israeli newspaper had been so dim-witted as to label a Le Chambon critic of Israeli policies on the West Bank as a “Nazi pastor”—nor do I believe it. (Moorehead’s only source for this is apparently Arnoux himself.) Why Moorehead chooses to recall this uncomfortable moment is not clear, but I cannot detect in her account the slightest hint of disapproval.
Whatever Moorehead’s own feelings about the plight of the Palestinians, does she really think it was appropriate for the pastor of Le Chambon to spoil a ceremony honoring rescuers during the Holocaust because the Israeli ambassador was present?
I must finally underscore that prior to the thunderclap of her book, Moorehead and I had engaged in a long and very cordial email relationship that ended shortly before her book’s publication. During this time, she was seeking my help with leads and later photographs. I gladly complied. Toward the end of our email correspondence, on July 1, 2013, Moorehead informed me that “Only a few paragraphs, at the end of the book, touch on Weapons of the Spirit. I say nothing but nice things!”
This last email had been part of Moorehead’s effort to obtain, at special rates, photographs from the Chambon Foundation archives that she wanted for her book. We agreed on a discounted rate, and—in blissful ignorance of what was in store for me—I provided 11 photographs from the Chambon Foundation archives for the British edition of the book. I had provided leads to her and throughout those years continued to answer her very limited questions as best I could. She never called or emailed to convey the slightest hint about how unhappy I was going to be with at least a part of her book—a part that dealt directly with me and my film—and never indicated that in her view my film had ceased to be an “extremely good film” (her email characterization of it) to become instead a controversial and scandalous one, while my involvement with the plateau, far from being “crucial” (as it seemed to her in her email), had become, in her published retelling, trivial and entirely negative. Didn’t she ever fear that if her methodology became public, scholars might raise questions? Wouldn’t they all agree that it’s proper scholarly practice to seek to ascertain from the available sources the facts about a matter that you wish to address in print?
In light of Village of Secrets’ disparagement of Weapons of the Spirit, I am especially gratified by philosopher Patrick Henry’s kind words at Yad Vashem, when he gave an address in conjunction with a screening of the new 25th-anniversary edition of the Short Version of the documentary:
No matter how many times one sees Pierre Sauvage’s masterpiece, it never fails to move us deeply. Weapons of the Spirit is a living monument and the most compelling document we possess regarding the rescue of Jews during the Shoah on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in south-central France. As we look into the faces of the rescuers, we experience first-hand their peaceful demeanor, their modesty, simplicity, and serenity, and, 40 years after the events in question, their absolute astonishment that anyone could possibly consider what they did anything other than normal human behavior. No written account could ever have more convincingly passed this information on to future generations.
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