The Greatest Escape: How one French community saved thousands of lives from the Nazis by Peter Grose
|The Greatest Escape: How one French community saved thousands of lives from the Nazis by Peter Grose|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: This book has a great core, of a community rallying against the whole Vichy/Nazi ideology in their humanitarian way, but too much is attempted by the author, leaving a feeling of bloated mis-focus.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 352||Date: July 2014|
|Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing|
We've read it before and been grateful, and now we can read it again, and for the same reasons – educational, entertainment, moralistic – we can be grateful. We've probably all heard how one place or circumstance – most famously, Oscar Schindler's factory – led to a major underhand rescue operation to keep Jews from being the victims of the Final Solution in World War Two. This book is a further example, but one of a whole French district being complicit in helping defy the Nazi authorities. Centred around Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the heart of southern France, a very rural community based around Huguenot Protestants with their own experiences of religious persecution decided en masse to act as shelter for a whole host of people – mostly children rescued from transit and internment camps elsewhere in France, and the Jewish victims of the Vichy government rules demanding they be stateless or, worse, victims of a certain one-way train ride. But beyond becoming an idyllic place to hide out in plain view, the towns and villages also conspired to actively export the Jews themselves – to places of safety.
This book certainly told a story unknown to me, however familiar it might feel alongside the righteous acts of other anti-Nazi activists and their subterfuge being known elsewhere. And it's a great story, when all is said and done – like I suggest one can only be grateful to read it – grateful that it happened, that people are survivors to this day to testify in favour of those who helped them, and grateful that stories like this have not been forgotten. It's a piece of the patchwork quilt of the war, and a very overlooked piece – even the Nazis, when they rolled across the puppet government of Vichy France and took over the whole country hardly turned up here, and when they did it was for R&R from the Soviet front and the recuperating squaddies were in complete ignorance of the Jews hiding right next door.
As befitting such a brilliant story, I wanted a brilliant telling, but unfortunately that was not quite achieved. There's the sense in the best non-fiction books that the author is telling us a story because (a) it is the most important story he can tell us and that (b) he is the one, most vital, most perfect person to tell it. Here (a) is quite evidently achieved, but (b) falls short. By starting with a prologue on the fore-pages concerning one small family unit struggling to find succour and reaching Le Chambon, but then diverting to the tenuous background details of some of the major players in the community and their religious upbringing, the idea that this is the ideal way to convey this narrative is lost. Grose seems more intent on selling his research rather than his uniqueness, and as we pick apart at his story and see how much must have been in the public domain (albeit in our ignorance) before this book, we get the impression that he's gone for overkill on minutiae – that, despite the lack of index, this book is trying to be the authoritative, most heavily-detailed and academic version of the story possible.
But, luckily, things change. There is still a small prevalence to jump pell-mell up and down the timeline, and a weird choice of idiosyncratic idiom at times (and not just in translated colloquial documents), but both the book and our sensibilities do settle down to the important parts of the telling. Before too long, thankfully, the author's career behind the scene in books begins to shine, and we see the real narrative, the real import that the story – and all its players – holds. But just as we're eagerly lapping it all up, and looking forward already to the what-happened-afterwards appendix for our new friends, the book drifts focus again. The lead character becomes the region, and Grose uses it as a lead-in to the general French story – the rise of the Resistance, the gall (and de Gaulle) of the Allies and life during the last two years leading to VE Day.
All of which is OK, but it doesn't quite befit the title and the general feel that this book should be primarily about the rescue and succour operations. He's clearly hampered by the fact that no records or tallies were kept, so there is little way to show even the progression of the operation, but in putting too many details around the fact that these villages and towns saved several thousand people, and by putting too many of the wrong details within that fact's telling, the book becomes a little too loose and woolly. It's styled as a straight history tale, and doesn't work as a moody biography of the region, yet tries to encompass everything and everyone. That fault aside, there is still the gratitude that I now know of this whole town's history, and one can look on that previously blank space in one's mental map of France with fond reflective gratitude.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz: The Extraordinary Story of the Lilliput Troupe by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev is one of the better stories of Holocaust survival.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Greatest Escape: How one French community saved thousands of lives from the Nazis by Peter Grose at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Greatest Escape: How one French community saved thousands of lives from the Nazis by Peter Grose at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.