Tiny French village tells hidden story of saving Jews

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Nazi soldiers lined 32 men of a tiny French village against a wall, pointed machine guns at their backs and threatened to execute them unless someone told where numerous Jews were hidden throughout the area.

Why did everyone in the village protect the Jews despite this frightening ordeal?

"I have asked myself that question for years now," said Oakland author David Klugman. His book, The Conspiracy of the Righteous, recounts how the people of Prelenfrey-du-Gua and surrounding areas saved close to 60 Jews from 1942 to 1945.

Many tiny villages throughout Europe sheltered Jews during the war, he said. But "this is a unique case to my knowledge where people were literally facing machine guns," Klugman added.

Yet the people of the village didn't bother sharing this story with any outsiders for nearly 50 years. Klugman is the first person to tell it in print.

Klugman's relationship with the village began well before the war, when he was a teenager in 1933. That was when he first visited its medical sanitorium, which treated young people who were likely targets of tuberculosis. He returned for treatment every summer until he was no longer a teenager, and the war forced him to flee the country and join Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces.

When the last portion of France fell to the Axis powers in 1942, Jews started trickling into Prelenfrey-du-Gua, an obscure village in southeastern France, occupied by fascist Italy. But when Mussolini fell in 1943 and German troops took over the region, Jews began pouring into the village to hide, led by the underground resistance.

The 150 residents of the remote village in the foothills of the French Alps didn't know anything about the war. Far removed from city centers, they concerned themselves mainly with growing and gathering food. Most of them were farmers, employees at a nearby cement factory or workers at the sanitorium.

What they knew of the war came from the newspapers or radio, Klugman said.

Despite an eventual bombardment of anti-Semitic propaganda in the newspaper and radio, however, the villagers knew that atrocities awaited the Jews, Klugman said. An innate sense of right and wrong among villagers is Klugman's only explanation for why they sheltered Jewish refugees in homes scattered throughout the region.

The German troops who arrived in Prelenfrey-du-Gua in 1944 outnumbered villagers. But led by town matron and resistance organizer Helene Guidi, townspeople told soldiers nothing. Germans threatened all the men with execution, then led them to Gestapo and French fascist headquarters in Grenoble for interrogation.

After the war, Klugman moved to California. He didn't visit Prelenfrey-du-Gua again until 1982 . Only then did he learn what had happened there. Over the next few years, villagers told him stories they hadn't told anyone in nearly half a century.

In 1994 the French government honored Prelenfrey-du-Gua with a plaque crediting it with saving the honor of France. But when Klugman asked all the villagers why they kept their story quiet, their responses baffled him.

"The basic answer was, `It was no big deal. Why talk about it?'" Klugman said. "They did what they thought was right and there's no use boasting about it."