The Great Escape – Le Chambon-sur-Lignon – Peter Grose and Shelley Posner

At first glance one would expect this book to be a tale of fiction ‘based on a true story’ as is the way with movies – Hollywood style. However from the outset, the prologue makes clear that this is not just a story; it is a factual account of the events that occurred on the plateau in the Auvergne – a region in central-eastern France not far from Lyon – during the difficult days of the Vichy Regime and the subsequent German occupation of France during the war.

This extraordinary story introduces us to a cast of characters responsible for saving the lives of around 5000 men women and children – not all of whom were Jews – who were hidden by the local villagers and farmers in many of the small villages and hamlets scattered through the Plateau.

Foremost in co-ordinating the entire operation was Andre Trocme, a pacifist pastor – a conscientious objector who, despite being a soldier in the French army, refused to carry his rifle. His appointment to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in 1934 put him in a perfect place from which to play a key part in the rescue operation. Charles Guillon, who was born in Paris, became involved in the French equivalent of the YMCA, which gave him an international network of political, religious and youth organisations that would prove invaluable later on. His organisational skills were exactly what was needed to direct the clandestine movement of large amounts of people through the area.

It was ultimately the geography of the Plateau and their villages that made it the perfect place for refugees to hide out before making their final escape to safety. Off the beaten track, it straddles no strategic route from anywhere to anywhere of import. The inhabitants of the Plateau are of Huguenot descent with strong Protestant values having been persecuted and victimised themselves in the past. A full background to the people of the Plateau is given in Appendix 1 at the end of the book; it may have been more useful for the reader to put it at the beginning.

The arrival of Oscar Rosowsky, a young Russian Jew fleeing the roundups in Paris, was also pivotal. He was responsible for producing literally thousands of forged papers due to his background repairing typewriters and printing presses – a job he had taken because he was refused training as a doctor because of his religion. Other key figures include Edouard Theis who was personally responsible for smuggling many refugees into Switzerland. Virginia Hall was an American radio operator with a wooden leg who was trained as a spy and arrived in Le Chambon in June 1944 to organise the French Resistance, which by that time was highly active in the area. Indeed, as the refugees were moved out, the Resistance moved in to the hostels and farmhouses they vacated to carry on their attacks.

It must be said that there were two different streams of refugees arriving daily in the area; many were Jews desperately looking for safe haven but there were Spanish Republicans crossing the Pyrenees fleeing from the Civil War and also young Frenchman desperate not to be conscripted into the German Army. All were taken in by the villagers, given new identities and ultimately moved to safety across the border into Switzerland. They were not always successful, occasionally being picked up by military patrols, but the majority seem to have made it through to safety. Exact Numbers are hard to estimate. In the conclusion, Grose calculates with the help of letters, memoirs and original documents that the figure of 3500 Jews is probably the most accurate, along with approximately 1500 other French and Spanish refugees. Indeed, France had the highest Jewish survival of any of the occupied countries, not least due to the superb quality of the forged documents.

Chambon Sur Lignon

The Great Escape – Chambon Sur Lignon

Desperately looking for safe haven but there were Spanish Republicans crossing the Pyrenees fleeing from the Civil War and also young Frenchman desperate not to be conscripted into the German Army. All were taken in by the villagers, given new identities and ultimately moved to safety across the border into Switzerland. They were not always successful, occasionally being picked up by military patrols, but the majority seem to have made it through to safety. Exact numbers are hard to estimate. In the conclusion, Grose calculates with the help of letters, memoirs and original documents that the figure of 3500 Jews is probably the most accurate, along with approximately 1500 other French and Spanish refugees. Indeed, France had the highest Jewish survival of any of the occupied countries, not least due to the superb quality of the forged documents.

Grose’s lively and occasionally amusing narrative belies the enormous danger and sheer terror of the situation. Once the Germans took over the Unoccupied Zone from the Vichy Government in 1942 they moved into the hotels and chateaux in the area and the situation became far more serious. Trocme and several other key figures were arrested and held, but fortunately ultimately released. Others were deported and never returned. A section at the back of the book draws a conclusion to the narrative, along with a fascinating review of what happened to all of the main protagonists of the story. Almost 50 were declared Righteous Among The Nations. In 1990 Yad Vashem declared that ‘the residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and its neighbouring communes’ should also be so honoured, the only French village to receive such an award.