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.