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Salut!

Colin Randall on France, current affairs, travel, the media - and more besides


The gendarmes who kept children out of                   Nazi Hands



From the high but trembling moral ground of a Britain that never had to confront the events leading to capitulation and collaboration to France, we express our disgust at French officials who conspired with the Nazis to send Jews to the deaths in the Holocaust.

Stories abound of gendarmes being willing to do the Germans' dirty work. But there were other gendarmes who risked their lives to protect Jews from the round-ups and deportations.

In the beautiful setting of Saint-Martin-Vésubie in the French Alps, I watched a tearful ceremony in which the children of two such officers collected, in the place of their long-deceased parents, the status of Les Justes - the righteous among nations, an honour bestowed by the Israeli Yad Vashem institute on non-Jews who saved Jewish lives in the Second World War.

It does not require a fondness for Israeli policies on Palestine to shudder with horror at the treatment of Jews by the Nazis, or to salute the courage and humanity of such people at Gendarmes Landry Jules Mangon and Joseph Fougère, and their wives, Adrienne and Yvonne.

In 1943, the officers and their wives sheltered two Jewish children, five-year-old Cécile Dreymann and her brother of 15 months, Jean-Claude. The belated recognition of their selflessness came about because in 2007, Jean-Claude asked a French Jewish group to help him locate the family of those who had kept him and his sister safe.

The gendarmes and their wives appear to have got away with presenting the children as their own, though Jean-Claude tells a story of being hidden at one point in a large bread container.

Sixty-seven years on, in a marquee behind the Médiathèque in Saint-Martin-Vésubie, brother and sister (seated, below) were present as the posthumous awards were made.

The evening before, the woman who traced the officers' families, Danielle Baudot-Laksine (on the far left in my first photo from the ceremony, next to one of the four Fougère daughters) had presented the short film, made by her husband, André, telling through the spoken recollections of villagers of how one small area of France resisted the Nazis' evil.

Some of those witnesses will have died since the interviews were recorded and from behind me during the screening, I could hear of a chorus of recognition as elderly members of the predominantly local audience remembered them.

This was the second commemoration marking wartime occurrences of the kind that give the French reason to hold their heads high. As noted in speeches after the film and during the Justes ceremony, there were plenty of French people who were willing to denounce neighbours and acquaintances to the enemy.

Few in the West reading today of events so long ago have first-hand knowledge of the times in which these people lived, the pressures they faced and the everyday dangers and privation they experienced.

Officers Mangon and Fougère and their wives acted in accordance with high-minded French notions of humanity and valour. It meant disobeying the prevailing (occupying) authority, and its willing (domestic) enforcers - a touring exhibition called Désobéir Pour Sauver, which needs no translation, was part of Sunday's timetable of events in the Alps - and we can only hope that we would have done the same in comparable circumstances.

* See comments for a reference to Danielle Baudot-Laksine's separate exhibition.