In 2020, 60 years after Albert Camus’s fatal car crash, The Plague, widely regarded as the greatest novel of postwar Europe, was again jumping off the shelves. The world was reading The Plague, and so was I. Like Camus’s fictionalized population of Oran, we were in lockdown, under siege. It was (and still is) a dark time. We were reading for light, however dim. We were reading, as C. S. Lewis once put it, to know we were not alone.
It makes sense that—plague-ridden and isolated—we turned to a book written in exile, encircled by pestilence. In the autumn of 1942, la peste brune, the Nazi brown plague, was surging across Europe and North Africa. At 29, Camus found himself trapped—like a rat, as he put it—when the German Wehrmacht invaded and occupied France’s so-called Free Zone.
Several months earlier, spitting up blood from two tuberculosis-ravaged lungs, Camus had fled Algeria, where he’d lived since his birth, in 1913, and sought out the crisp, curative mountain air of the Massif Central in southern France. There, lodged in a boardinghouse in the secluded hamlet of Le Panelier, he wrote The Plague.
But what else was he doing?
At 29, Camus found himself trapped—like a rat, as he put it—when the German Wehrmacht occupied France’s so-called Free Zone.
The most tantalizing clue to Camus’s clandestine “extracurricular” activities is surely the coded message that finally reached his wife Francine, via Morocco. For the past year—he in Nazi-occupied France, she in Algeria, under Allied control—had lived apart, without communication. In this letter, dated September 17, 1943, Camus wrote that he had spent the summer “mostly with children, big groups of children.”
Who were all these children? And how was Camus spending his time with them?
It just so happens that the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a short walk from Camus’s desk in Le Panelier, was the center of an extensive Resistance network committed to the rescue of Jews, mostly children. At the same time, Le Chambon housed the headquarters of the local German garrison.
Somehow, in a village and surrounding area where German soldiers were as numerous as ticks, an estimated 5,000 Jewish children were given refuge, hidden in plain sight, issued forged papers and ration cards, and escorted to safety in Switzerland. No one was turned away, and not a single child was lost across the four years the network was active there.
Le Chambon was indeed, as it has been called since, a village of secrets, in which no one broke ranks and everyone knew and lived the truth of French novelist Andre Malraux’s words that “the only response to absolute evil is fraternity.”
In an area where German soldiers were as numerous as ticks, an estimated 5,000 Jewish children were hidden in plain sight.
As I re-read, researched, and wrote about The Plague in 2020, the first year of our ongoing plague, for my new book, Albert Camus and the Human Crisis, I kept in mind “the big groups of children” Camus must have had in his mind as he wrote his novel. In that light, I saw how the plague-fighting “sanitary squads” of Oran were embodied in the very real villagers of Le Chambon, Camus in their midst, side by side with the novel’s characters—Rieux, the plague doctor; Tarrou, the pacifist; Paneloux, the Jesuit Augustine scholar; Rambert, the journalist; and Grand, the embodiment of heroic common decency. Each had left their footprints in the pages of The Plague, as had Camus.
In The Plague, no moment is more pivotal than the death of Othon’s son—the incomprehensible demise of an innocent child. Dr. Rieux and Father Paneloux witness the child’s agony, and it dissolves their rivalry and estrangement. The death of a child is what unites them in resistance, as it did the Chambonais. “It’s the only thing that matters,” Rieux says to Paneloux. They were “in this together” now, for good.
If only the pestilence and death all around us, claiming even the lives of our children and grandchildren, would unite us in 2021. Instead, our plague provides just one more opportunity for division. Shame on us.
Robert E. Meagher’s Albert Camus and the Human Crisis is out now from Pegasus