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Stories about ordinary people risking their lives during wartime to help persecuted strangers fill the pages of The Plateau, a new book by anthropologist Maggie Paxson. She depicts the Vivarais-Lignon plateau in France, whose inhabitants sheltered hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Jewish children during World War II, and who today welcome African and Middle Eastern refugees. Much of The Plateau follows the life and death of Paxson’s relative, Daniel Trocmé, who headed a school there which took in persecuted children, despite Nazi attacks. Trocmé himself was eventually sent to Majdanek, a concentration camp in Poland, as a political prisoner, and he died there. For his heroism, he has been recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in Israel, along with 50 other people, “farmers or teachers or merchants or pastors,” from the plateau.
As an anthropologist, Paxson uncovers the plateau’s history, dating back to the wars of religion, of extraordinary assistance to victims of political and religious oppression. The locals do not talk about it much. Like the hero of the film Hotel Rwanda, who saved so many Tutsi people during the genocide, they simply say, “I did what anyone would do under such circumstances.” But in fact what the people of the plateau have done over the centuries is extraordinary and definitely not “what anyone would do.” Paxson traces this heroism in part to the locals’ profound Protestantism, but that does not explain it entirely. Indeed, why Daniel Trocmé and others, including resistance fighters, risked their lives for people they did not know doesn’t yield to analysis. Paxson eliminates obviously false explanations, like, “they did it to feel good about themselves,” but in the end what their sacrifice meant to these remarkable people is contained in the deceptively prosaic idea: They risked and gave their lives because they believed it was right.
“Let’s just say that suddenly you are a social scientist and you want to study peace,” Paxson begins her book. “Could there be communities that were somehow resistant to violence, persistent in decency?” She had spent years in Russian villages, one of them close to Chechnya, and had witnessed the effects of war and violence. Now she focused on the opposite. “To me this is what counts here: Did a person open the door to a stranger, when it was hard to open the door? Did they do it once, twice, ten times? Did they teach their children so well about opening doors that those children learned to do it themselves, as a matter of habit?”
During the Nazi occupation, the plateau became a magnet for resistance fighters. Albert Camus spent time there. Other fighters slept in the woods, where Trocmé’s students hid during Gestapo raids. Though resistance fighters used guns and bombs, many in the plateau practiced nonviolent resistance. “You can’t say that this weapon of the spirit, as [pastor André] Trocmé famously called it, is of no consequence. Nor that it is for the faint of heart. Not in Ku Klux Klan America. Not in the Raj. And not in the Reich.” Nonviolent resistance is what Daniel Trocmé practiced when he decided to face the fascists who came for his students. It led directly to his death. It is unclear that he knew it would, but certainly he understood it could.
Today on the plateau Vivarais-Lignon, there is a center for refugees. The 63 residents come from Congo, Rwanda, Angola, Guinea, Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Chechnya. Memories of unspeakable violence haunt many of them. They have difficulty merging with the locals, but “the children are the bridges between the locals and the asylum seekers.” Children from the two groups become acquainted at school, and then drag their parents together.