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Caroline Moorehead says critics of her book 'don't like that I've put the truth down'
IT IS one of literature’s most prestigious competitions but this year’s Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction is embroiled in controversy after an author on the shortlist was accused of producing a book “riddled with errors”.
Caroline Moorehead, a respected biographer who has been appointed OBE for her services to literature, is among six shortlisted writers who will discover on Tuesday if they have won the £20,000 prize.
Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France has been described by critics as “compelling and authoritative” but some of those Moorehead interviewed for the book, which tells the story of how villagers from Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, near Lyons, risked their lives to shelter hundreds of Jews, complain that her research was “sloppy” and the book contains a litany of errors.
The book recounts how the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon helped save Jews from the Nazis
Moorehead, whose “insistence on accuracy” was commended in a review by the Financial Times, insists that her account is correct and her critics “don’t like the truth that I’ve put down”.
The spat has resulted in unsuccessful attempts to have the book disqualified from the competition. In a letter to the judges — including the chairwoman, Claire Tomalin, a biographer of Charles Dickens, and the Labour MP Alan Johnson — Hanne and Max Liebmann, a couple saved by the villagers, wrote: “This book is a scandal... It should not have been published.”
The level of collaboration French nationals may or may not have had with the Nazis during the war has long been a point of contention for villagers who survived the conflict in that mountainous region.
Hanne Liebmann accused Moorehead of wrongly stating that her mother had bartered for cognac in a French internment camp and was forced to eat rats.
She said the writer had wrongly identified her mother as a concert pianist, when she was a singer, and inaccurately stated that paper was stuffed into cracks in hut walls to keep out draughts. “We didn’t even have paper for the latrines,” she said.
The Liebmanns, now in their nineties and living in America, are also angry about Moorehead’s portrayal of André Trocmé, the village’s Huguenot pastor, who urged his flock to help the Jews. Pierre Sauvage, whose parents were sheltered near Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, is similarly dismayed by the depiction of Trocmé. The pastor is honoured by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, as “righteous”, but in an online denunciation of the book Sauvage accuses Moorehead of characterising him as “a self-aggrandising pathological liar”.
The French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
Sauvage, the director of Weapons of the Spirit, a documentary about the heroism of the villagers to be released in the UK in January, said he was furious at what he described as Moorehead’s “many dozens of misrepresentations and errors”.
Nelly Trocmé Hewett, the pastor’s daughter, said: “You don’t need to read the whole book. Go straight to the postscript to feel the mean streak of Moorehead’s work.”
Defending the book, Moorehead, whose previous works include a biography of the philosopher and activist Bertrand Russell, said: “Every word is documented in my notes... These events took place 70 years ago... This is what the memory of wars is about. Different people have truths of the past. These people don’t like the truth that I’ve put down.”
She said that the reference to cognac was in a letter and mentions of rats and the use of paper to fill cracks appeared in memoirs and reports. Moorehead said her notes showed that Hanne Liebmann’s mother “sang and played at concerts”.
“It’s deeply upsetting for a writer, particularly if, like me, you try to get everything right,” she said.
Chatto & Windus, the book’s publisher, said: “Caroline documents her research with care and is always scrupulously balanced and fair in all her books, as in this one. We regret that some individuals appear to have chosen to mistake a valid interpretation of events as a dispute over facts.”
Moorehead’s rivals include a biography of the politician Roy Jenkins by John Campbell and H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a book about how she coped with her father’s death by training a goshawk.
A spokesman for the Samuel Johnson prize said: “Claire Tomalin and the judges had been made aware of allegations against Caroline’s book. They responded directly to Pierre Sauvage, and the book remains under consideration by the judges.”
The Samuel Johnson Prize was awarded two days after this article was published; it did not go to Village of Secrets. The winner was Helen Macdonald's widely-acclaimed memoir H is for Hawk.
· Moorehead writes that Hanne’s mother, Ella, “had been a concert pianist.” (P. 36.) Hanne states that her mother had only done some concert singing. Moorehead’s response to the Times was that “her notes showed that Hanne Liebmann’s mother sang and played at concerts.” Hanne insists that her mother was never a concert pianist—and that she would never have said that she was.
· Moorehead writes that on January 6, 1941, Hanna's mother Ella wrote “to her brother in America” and “reported that she…had been bartering what little she had for some cognac and eggs.” (Pp. 46-47.) Zeroing on this sample detail, the Times reported that “Hanne Liebmann accused Moorehead of “wrongly stating that her mother had bartered for cognac” in Gurs internment camp. The article then gave Moorehead’s side of the story: the reference to Cognac “was in a letter.” But despite Moorehead's notes, this is not at all what Ella wrote on that day—not to her brother, who was in the camp as well, but to her brother-in-law. What Elle wrote was that to get eggs or Cognac “would be impossible.” Ella added that even if such items were available the prices “would be astronomical.” There is no reference whatever to any successful bartering. Hanne adds: “Cognac? In Gurs? Ridiculous!”
· Hanne is indignant about Moorehead’s statement that the starving inmates in Gurs would eat "anything, including cats, dogs and rats." (P. 48.) Madeleine Barot and pastor André Dumas, who were relief workers in the camps, describe in my upcoming documentary short Three Righteous Christians how terrible the conditions were—but made no mention of any such extreme measures. Hanne points out: “There were no dogs in Gurs then, except one at one point. And nobody would eat rats!” Moorehead’s response to the Times was that the reference to rats came from “memoirs and reports,” which were not identified any further.
· Moorehead states that at Gurs, “paper was stuffed into the cracks between the planks [of the barracks] to reduce the “draught” (British spelling). (P. 38.) Hanne scoffed at this notion to the Times: “We didn’t even have paper for the latrines.” Moorehead’s response to the Times was that this detail too came from “memoirs and reports,” which were not identified any further.
Letter to the Editor that was not published:
I will not go into the fraudulent and defamatory remarks that Moorehead makes about my feature documentary, Weapons of the Spirit. The film, being re-released in 2015 in a new, remastered 25th-anniversary edition, will be screened in London at JW3 on Jan. 24; viewers will be able to judge for themselves whether there's any truth to Moorehead's characterization of it.
I will limit myself here to mentioning a few of the historical mistakes in Village of Secrets, a book widely praised thus far by critics for its allegedly meticulous research (Yale historian Carolyn Dean, writing in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, hailed the book as "deeply informed.")
Moorehead writes that the Wannsee Conference was where “the fate of Europe’s Jews was decided”; it was instead where the implementation of the Final Solution was worked out. She says that Baden and the Palatinate were territories “newly annexed” to Germany; they were not. She refers to the Kunst Commission; it was the Kundt Commission. She says that the southern zone was occupied by the Germans in late 1943; it was late 1942. (If this was a typo in the British edition, it was preserved in the American HarperCollins edition published on Oct. 28.) She states that the French internment camps were “spoken of throughout France as "les camps de la honte" (the camps of shame); by all other accounts, the camps were barely spoken of at all (and the expression she uses is the title of a book published decades after the war). She claims that “No other country [besides France] had taken such a clear anti-Semitic line” and that the antisemitic Vichy regime became "the harshest in Europe." My own understanding is that Vichy France had the most active antisemitic program of any Western European occupied country, but not more so (on paper) than Italy, and not more so than a number of Eastern European countries.
Oh, and then Moorehead claims what would be an extraordinary scoop if it were true. She says that Marshal Pétain visited the French internment camps on more than one occasion, and then characterized the condition of the inmates. I was so stunned by this absurd detail that I consulted Dr. Robert O. Paxton, the great Vichy scholar. He confirms that no such visits ever took place: "All Pétain visits were organized for positive newsreel coverage such as big crowds acclaiming him or carefully staged visits to peasants or boy scouts."
If this is an acceptable way of researching, writing and publishing a book these days, then we're all in trouble. (Lists of many dozens of errors in the book are available on the Chambon Foundation's website at www.chambon.org.)
President, Chambon Foundation
More information on Caroline Moorehead's Village of Secrets
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