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Albert Camus and the Secret of Le Chambon

Did the rescue efforts in the French hamlet influence ‘The Plague’?

Patrick Henry
June 22, 2020
photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman; photo source: UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM
Jewish youths living at the La Guespy refugee home in Le Chambon, circa 1941photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman; photo source: UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM
photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman; photo source: UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM
Jewish youths living at the La Guespy refugee home in Le Chambon, circa 1941photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman; photo source: UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM

In July 1942, Albert Camus’ doctor in Algeria informed him that he had tuberculosis in both lungs. Camus then went to the mountains in south-central France for the winter. He settled in Panelier, a hamlet in Le Mazet-Saint-Voy situated about two miles from the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the Massif Central on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon. In October, Camus’ wife, Francine, went back to her teaching position in Oran, their home in Algeria. Camus remained on the plateau to continue taking treatments for his lungs, intending to return to Algeria shortly thereafter. Instead, he would remain in the remote village for over a year.

On the night of Nov. 7, the Allied armies invaded North Africa. Four days later, the Germans headed south to occupy the formerly Vichy-controlled zone of France. As the entry for that date in his Notebooks indicates: “November 11. Like rats.”

Camus was trapped. He would remain in Panelier until late 1943 when he moved to Paris where he co-edited the Resistance newspaper Combat. During his time on the plateau, he wrote the bulk of his novel, The Plague, which he had begun in Oran. In that novel, mirroring his own experience, the plague becomes synonymous with separation, isolation, and exile.

The text of The Plague can be read at three levels: At the literal level, it is the story of a fictional outbreak of the disease in the city of Oran; at an allegorical level, it depicts the 1940-1944 German Occupation of France; at its most general level, it is an allegory of the human condition.

Although his biographers and critics have neglected this aspect of the novel, as an artist attentive to what was going on around him Camus subtly incorporated local people and events into the narrative he was composing. He was fully aware of the violent Resistance activities in the area and of the remarkable nonviolent rescue mission on the plateau where, mainly from June 1940 to the end of the war, roughly 5,000 refugees were assisted or sheltered, 3,500 of whom were Jewish. No other communal rescue effort on this scale occurred for this length of time anywhere else in Occupied Europe.

His earliest biographer, Herbert Lottman, maintains that Camus knew hardly anyone on the plateau: “Outsider that he was, Camus didn’t know these good people and they had little opportunity to get to know him.”Yet this assertion, which is generally repeated by Camus’ biographers, is false. None of his three main biographers, Lottman, Patrick McCarthy, or Olivier Todd, for example, quote Oscar Rosowsky, who, while hiding in the area, forged several thousand false identity papers. In Rosowsky’s own writings about his underground activities, he talks about a certain farmer, Jean Bouix, who searched for Jews in the area who didn’t have false papers and convinced them to obtain them. Rosowsky refers to Bouix as “a friend of Albert Camus.”

Only Todd interviewed Pierre Fayol (né Lévy) who was one of the top Resistance leaders in the area. Fayol, who often visited Camus and on occasion stayed at Panelier for reasons of safety, speaks of Camus often in his writings, noting that “our relationship became a very friendly one.”On the other hand, only Lottman interviewed André Chouraqui, Camus’ Jewish friend from Algeria, who worked clandestinely for OSE, the Jewish Children’s Welfare Organization, bringing Jewish children to the plateau for shelter. Chouraqui, a biblical scholar and future assistant mayor of Jerusalem who later translated the Hebrew Bible into French, helped Camus decipher the significance of the plague in the Bible as he worked on his novel in Panelier. When I asked André Chouraqui whether Camus was aware of the rescuing of Jews in the area, he wrote in a letter to me: “Albert Camus had always known about the resistance that Pastors Theis and Trocmé conducted in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.”

In response to critics who charged him with being “ahistorical” and creating “a politics of solitude,” Camus himself responded unequivocally that while the novel can be read on several levels, one of those levels obviously portrays “the struggle of the European resistance against Nazism.”The novel bears him out copiously. There are constant references to the Occupation and to everyday life under Nazi rule: The date, “194-” and the “brutal [invasion of the disease],” are accompanied by dozens of allusions to wartime conditions in France: the hoarding of foodstuffs, the requisitioning of schools, the reruns of old films, the black market, the rationing of gasoline, the long lines in front of stores, the control of the food supply, reductions in the use of electricity, and “a system of patrols.”

There are also numerous unmistakable references to the Holocaust in France. The most consistently sustained Holocaust image is that of “the isolation camps” set up for those suspected of having the disease. They are clearly allusions to the entirely French-run internment camps throughout the country where foreign Jews were held under horrific conditions and in which 3,000 foreign Jews died during the Occupation. Camus knew about the existence of these camps and about the legal and illegal activities to evacuate children from them because André Chouraqui’s organization, Oeuvre de secours aux Enfants (OSE), was heavily involved in them, and many of the children from those camps were sheltered on the plateau.

Although the general meaning of The Plague necessarily transcends any specifics regarding the plateau, it is interesting to point out the marks of the area that Camus left in the text either deliberately or unwittingly. One thinks immediately of the names of the characters. “Rieux,” the name of the doctor who narrates the text, came most likely from a Doctor Paul Riou in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon but substantively may have been loosely based on another doctor in the village, Roger Le Forestier, who worked in Africa with Albert Schweitzer. The name of the Catholic priest, Father Paneloux, may have been based on “Panelier”; far more importantly, his first sermon is reminiscent of those commonly delivered in France during the Occupation, sermons in which humility, culpability, and resignation to the “plague” were stressed. Paneloux’s first sermon in the novel would have immediately struck the inhabitants of the plateau as perfectly antithetical to the sermons given by their pastor, André Trocmé.

Trocmé, a committed nonviolent Christian pacifist who arrived in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon as pastor of the Église Réformée in 1934, was well known for his sermons. From the first sermon he gave on the plateau, on May 27, 1934, he preached his pacifist dogma: “No government can force us to kill; we have to find the means of resisting Nazism without killing people.” Throughout the war, he preached the gospel of nonviolence, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.

The one address/sermon we have from the years of the German Occupation that he and his co-pastor delivered the day after the armistice was signed with the Germans contains words of resistance against any practices by the government that violate the Gospels. It was delivered on June 23, 1940, before any anti-Jewish legislation had been promulgated by Vichy. In it, Trocmé and Édouard Theis define their spiritual resistance in quasi-aphoristic terms: “The duty of Christians is to use the weapons of the Spirit to resist the violence brought to bear on their consciences. … We will resist whenever our adversaries try to force us to act against the commands of the Gospel. We will do so without fear, but also without pride and without hatred.”

Camus’ most gifted biographer, Olivier Todd, suggests that the name Rambert might have been derived from Montrambert, a lower-class section of Saint-Etienne, the city where Camus went for his medical treatments.This suggestion evokes “Mon Rambert” (“My Rambert’) and links the character to the author. Camus told Roger Quilliot that Rambert was the character to whom he felt closest.Why not? Rambert is a journalist trapped in the city when the gates are suddenly but definitively closed. He tries everything to escape but when he finally has the chance to do so, he decides to stay. “I know that I belong here,” he exclaims, “whether I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.” While Rambert joined the “sanitary squads,” Camus joined the Resistance. Both were exiled, trapped away from home, separated from the women they love and both experienced a deep, growing awareness of human solidarity.

Joseph Grand, like four other major characters (Rambert, Paneloux, Tarrou, and Rieux), is a man living alone who joins the “sanitary squads,” voluntary teams willing, at the risk of their lives, to fight the plague. But the notion of heroism is consistently downplayed. The narrator makes this a leitmotif by insisting on the naturalness, logic, and ordinariness of fighting the plague. What is needed is health, not salvation; men, not saints; and the practice of a simple, everyday morality. It is precisely Joseph Grand, carrying the surname of the peasant friend of Camus who lived in Panelier, who illustrates this simple morality of ordinary people doing the right thing when he cuts down the would-be suicide Cottard and saves his life. When Rieux says they must find someone to watch over Cottard for the night, Grand replies: “I can stay with him. I can’t say I really know him, but one’s got to help a neighbor, [right]”?

In his self-effacement, ordinariness, and kindness to strangers, Grand incarnates the rescuers of the plateau, the average people of the area who were Camus’ neighbors, and who, by their “small daily efforts,” unself-consciously simply did what needed to be done. Grand “prefigures” the rescuers of Le Chambon as depicted in Pierre Sauvage’s documentary masterpiece, Weapons of the Spirit, who simply cannot understand “all the fuss.” Like Georgette Barraud, among others, these real-life heroes repeatedly insist that what they did was natural and human—nothing more, nothing less. The character’s name, “Grand,” is at once ironic because he, like the majority of rescuers in the area, certainly come from “les petites gens” (“ordinary people”), and fitting because he found the courage to practice the simple ethic of helping one’s neighbor.

Rambert is not the only character linked to his creator. Camus opposes two characters, Tarrou and Rieux, who incarnate his own ethical struggles. Camus leaned toward nonviolence. He was a lifelong opponent of the death penalty and desperately sought nonviolent solutions to threatening political situations. But he discovered that he hated violence less than the institutions of violence and joined the Resistance. Tarrou is a nonviolent pacifist who aspires to become “a saint without God.” He is obsessed with all forms of the death penalty and “denies [human beings] the right to condemn anyone whomsoever.” As a result, he lives in exile: “Once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to make history.”

Rieux, on the other hand, is equally committed to the cause of justice and the struggle against human suffering but, as he tells Tarrou: “Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me. What interests me is being a man.” His “limited” aspirations and solely human perspective suggest the broadening of options, the impossibility of sanctity, the dirtying of hands, and the necessity of violence in fighting the plague.

For those familiar with the leaders on the plateau, it is tempting to identify André Trocmé with Tarrou and to see the relationship between Tarrou and Rieux as similar to that of Trocmé and Pierre Fayol. Like Tarrou, who organized the “sanitary squads,” Trocmé headed the nonviolent rescue mission in the area of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Tarrou’s painful isolation, which is caused by his complete dedication to nonviolence, is mirrored in Trocmé’s memoirs where he relates his own exile within his country and his church. More striking still is Tarrou’s decision to side with the victims. “I decided,” Tarrou tells Rieux, “to take, in every predicament, the victims’ side, so as to reduce the damage done.” This was obviously the case of Trocmé and Theis, who risked their lives, were arrested, jailed, and forced to go into hiding to protect individuals from the Nazis.

In many ways, including his anguished quest for peace in the service of others, Tarrou can be seen as a secular version of André Trocmé. Just as Rieux and Tarrou, despite their differences, worked together “for something that unites us,” so too did André Trocmé and Pierre Fayol, the local resistance leader who realized that the fate of the villagers and of their nonviolent rescue of Jews depended in large part on how they did business. Had they killed Germans indiscriminately, there would have been massive retaliations in the area. In his Mémoires, André Trocmé speaks of “his friend” Fayol and their visits together. “He came to see me often,” writes Trocmé, “and why not? We both had moderate views. I believed it was insane to attack Germans detachments in the area. Doing so would only incite reprisals. He agreed.”

The Plague reproduces the dominant form of resistance—rescue—which was taking place in the area where Camus was composing his novel. Whether one was fighting a disease or rescuing potential victims from the Nazis, the aim was the same: “The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying.” On the plateau, as well as in the text, this goal was achieved nonviolently.

But The Plague does more than simply mirror the nonviolent resistance on the plateau. It represents allegorically the violent struggle against the Nazis also taking place there, thereby justifying the author’s claim that the narrative portrays “the struggle of the European resistance against Nazism.”

Disease was certainly on Camus’ mind as he composed his chronicle in Panelier: He had come there in the hope of defeating his own tuberculosis; he was writing a work of fiction about a plague in Oran; when he moved to Paris in late 1943 and sent a Jewish woman to be hidden in the village, in his coded language to Pierre Fayol, he wrote that she suffered from “an hereditary infection.” Nazism was like the plague that had to be defeated and all the main characters, except Cottard, ultimately join in the fight against it. The ramifications of fighting disease were similar to those of resisting the Nazis; death was a real possibility for those who resisted the plague both violently and nonviolently on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon.

At the end of the narrative, Rieux claims that what we learn in a time of pestilence is that “there are more things to admire in human beings than to despise.” Many people who lived in Occupied Europe during the Nazi plague would not agree. But most of them did not spend fourteen or fifteen months of that time, as did Camus, on the plateau Vivarais-Lignon.

Adapted from We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France during the Holocaust, by Patrick Henry, with permission of the Catholic University of America Press.

Patrick Henry is professor emeritus of philosophy and literature at Whitman College. He is the author of, among other books, We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France During the Holocaust and the editor of Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis.