21 July 2010

Hidden on the Mountain

Deborah DeSaix and Karen Ruelle write children's books. In 2002 the pair took at trip to France where they visited a small museum in the south of France. This visit would result in years of research and personal interviews during which Hidden on the Mountain: Stories of Children Sheltered from the Nazis in Le Chambon was born. I am finding it very difficult to review this important book because each chapter, which contains the story of one child, could be, and also has been, written as a book unto itself. As an avid reader of Holocaust memoirs, I must confess that I had never heard of this refuge for Jewish children. The authors confirm that no children's book has ever been written on this topic.

To assist others who might not be aware of this small area of France, I would like to spend some time on the third chapter entitled "An Isolated Haven: Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and La Montagne Protestante" before going on to the meat of the book. The geographic area in question is an isolated mountain plateau in South-central France. Hundreds of years before the Second World War, this area had been a hiding place and refuge for French Huguenots who were persecuted by French Catholics. Ancestors of these Protestants still lived in this area and had a special understanding of the hardships of religious persecution. Fiercely independent, the Huguenot Protestants had a strong sense of right and wrong. They valued their own freedom and respected the freedom of others. They were modest and humble. They beoieved in tolerance and in sharing what they had with others. Every day they read the Bible. and they were committed to living their lives according to what they read. They didn't blindly accept the authority of the government if it contradicted their religious beliefs. (p. 12). After the Germans overtook France, the country was divided into occupied France and unoccupied France which, under the Vichy government, collaborated with the Nazis. In both areas of the country, Jews were rounded up and sent to holding camps and then on to their deaths. And so these often poor farmers and villagers were ready to hide Jews, especially young children, in their homes until they could be relocated to Switzerland or until the war was over. This entire French community of Le Chambon cooperated to keep these children safe, with some offering warnings if a round-up was coming so that the children could be hidden high in the mountains for a day. Today, this beautiful story has been told by one of the Jewish children who was born there - Pierre Sauvage made the documentary film Weapons of the Spirit (the name comes from a speech by Protestant pastor Andre Trocme who urged the parishoners to stand up against injustice in non-violent ways, using "weapons of the spirit" (p. 14)).

And stand up they did, with several thousand children hidden in these mountains. DeSaix and Ruelle interviewed many of these survivors and include their stories as first person narratives in the book. To provide a broader picture of the area and the times, the authors also include chapters, written in third person, of non-Jewish people who lived in the area or helped the children in some special way (many of whom were no longer alive). Each child's story jumps from the pages, with memories often in conflict with that of another child who lived in the mountains during the same time. The authors observe that both memories are correct. Some of the children traveled across countries to arrive in this haven. They traveled without parents or friends. Some came from the nearby camp at Gurs. One thing they all found in Le Chambon was a sense of normalcy - schools, hard work, fun, friendships that continue to this day. What amazing bravery of both the children and their protectors. These stories gave me hope that within us all we have weapons of the spirit and are capable of standing up for what is right.

The history of the area and war, along with the individual histories and memories of the children are enhanced by photographs of the children in their daily activities, maps, a glossary, timeline, and recommended readings. To learn more about this topic, visit The Chambon Foundation and the authors' website for the book.

This review is crossposted at Holocaust Resources which is my blog for Holocaust materials for children and young adults.

TITLE: Hidden on the Mountain: Stories of Children Sheltered from the Nazis in Le Chambon
AUTHOR: Deborah DeSaix and Karen Ruelle
PAGES: 275
TYPE: non-fiction
RECOMMEND: I thought this was a hopeful book - people did what they needed to do to save the lives of these children.

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