Tag Archives: France

Caroline Moorehead – Village of Secrets (2014)

VillageofSecretsIn her previous work, A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorehead profiled a group of French women instrumental to the resistance in France. She followed their journey to concentration camps where many perished. Her newer work, Village of Secrets, looks at the French resistance from a different angle focusing instead on the residents of the French Village Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon.

In 1990 this town was one of two that were recognised as righteous among nations by Yad Vashem for being a safe haven for Jews during the Second World War. According to Moorehead, residents of the village secured the survival of at least 800 Jews by hiding them (many of them children) and helped an additional 3,000 get safely across the border to Switzerland.

There is an impulse to celebrate the Resistance, especially in France as the country struggles to cope with the existence of the Vichy regime and those that were complacent or even supportive of the Nazi’s. Celebrating an entire village is difficult however and there are naturally those that exist in a grey area. The world was not divided into Nazi’s and the Righteous and many kept their heads down in order to simply keep themselves alive. Still the efforts of those that risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi hands are extraordinary and they must be applauded.

At the end of her work, Moorehead follows those that were saved and survived, but the book ends on quite a melancholy note. Even in stories of the resistance and the good they did, the stories of the children get lost. Many of the children’s lives were saved but often they didn’t have a life to go back to. Instead they had to live with family they never knew, family they ceased to know, survivor’s guilt. Those who banded together in grief often fared better than those reunited with family. The Holocaust, and the efforts to save Jews, created an entire generation of orphans because the impulse to save the lives of children is often the strongest. Many of the survivors are quoted about how they struggled with being grateful to those that rescued them while also combating feelings of resentment for being torn from their families even though staying together meant an almost certain death.

Tilar J. Mazzeo – The Hotel on the Place Vendome (2014)

HotelOnPlaceVendomeIn general, if a book is written about Paris during the Second World War, there is a very good chance that I am going to love it. With this book however, I started out loving it, then I didn’t like it, then I liked it, then I didn’t again, before finally deciding that I couldn’t decide if I liked it or hated it.

This is mostly because Mazzeo tries to present a history of the Ritz during the Second World War without actually talking about the Ritz during the Second World War. She starts off with the founding of the Ritz, then the German invasion of Paris, before jumping immediately to D-day in the third chapter. I assumed that maybe she wasn’t going in chronological order, which turned out to be only half true. The events going on at the Ritz are alluded to, but are not explored fully, which is crazy because you had high ranking German officers living in the same hotel that became a hub for clandestine activities for the French resistance.

Where Mazzeo does exel in in her profiles of the rich and famous people who lived at the Ritz either before or during the war including, but not limited to Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, and her favourite, Coco Chanel. Because her focus is on these personalities, she writes at length about the press battle that waged with covering D-Day and the Allied invasions. I’ve seen all the famous photographs, but never really stopped to think about the process reporters, like Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa, went through to get them. I also learned that Ho Chi Mihn worked in the kitchens at the Ritz, and interesting factoid that Mazzeo threw in during the last chapter.

It was interesting, and I liked parts of it, I just wish that Mazzeo had done more on the events that took place at the Ritz during the war, especially regarding the resistance movement that so many of the staff were involved in. She captures the spirit of the Ritz during the war, the eternal glamour that the hotel sought to maintain, but I wanted more regarding life “behind the scenes.”

This seems to be a period of time that is of interest to Tilar J. Mazzeo and she has written another book solely on Coco Chanel’s dubious life during the war. Because the chapter regarding Coco Chanel was one of my favourites, I think I will add it to my TBR list.

Caroline Moorehead – A Train in Winter (2011)

ATraininWinterHow does one begin to explain the unexplainable? Convince others to believe the unbelievable horrors that awaited the women of the French Resistance, Les Convoi des 31000, once they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the hundreds of women sent to Nazi death camps only a handful survived to tell the story. This is their story.

This book was so hard to read, I found myself stunned at times needing to put it down. I couldn’t read too much in a day or else I would end up too depressed. While the first part details the involvement of the women in the French Resistance, the second part deals with their lives in Nazi death camps. The horrors they witnessed and the helplessness they felt watching their friends die.

Reading about the Holocaust however, and other historical atrocities should be uncomfortable and hard to read. Even though the death camps have been common knowledge to me ever since middle school, I don’t think I have ever really truly grasped the full extent of the horror, nor do I think I ever will. Moorehead writes in so much detail about the conditions in the camps, the rampant disease and lice, the lack of food and emaciated bodies, the cold, the mud, the wet, and still I cannot begin to comprehend that anyone was able to survive this for 2 and a half years. Most did not, but some did.

Moorehead’s story is optimistic about the strength of women’s friendship and their lasting bond. She interviewed as many surviving women as she could and writes that no one would have been able to survive in the camps on their own. They all stuck together and helped one another, pooling rations, hiding sick or injured women, as much as they could. Moorhead also writes that “The French as a national group were more cohesive than other nationalities and more prone to look after their own.” She credits the survival of a number of women to this fact.

While Mooreheads story is one of women, friendship and survival it does not necessarily have a happy ending. The women who survived had returned to France but discovered that they had forgotten how to live. Many came home as widows, finding out that their husbands who were also involved in resistance activities were shot, or to children who did not even recognize them. Combined with the nightmares of the camps and the lack of a support network, many of these women withdrew into themselves finding it impossible to be happy again. While life went on, many women could not. Survivor Charlotte Delbo wrote, “Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive … I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.”

Moorehead’s book shed important light on the important role that women played during the Second World War through their involvement with the French Resistance, and the sobering reality that many paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to their country. She deals briefly with the aftermath of the war, and the treatment of war crimes in France, but her main focus us on Les Convoi des 3100, the 42 women who managed to survive out of the 230 that did not.

Rating: 4.5/5