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Book: 'The Plateau'


And finally today, we're in a moment when violence is very much in the news, especially violence motivated by fear or resentment of one group or several. But what about people who resist that kind of thinking even when those around them are supporting it? Or even more than that - what about people who risk their own well-being to help those being victimized?

That's the central question at the heart of Maggie Paxson's new book, "The Plateau." It's about a remote region in Southern France called Plateau Vivarais-Lignon. During World War II, residents of the area saved thousands of Jews from deportation and almost certain death. Farmers, shopkeepers and teachers hid Jewish people from the authorities in various places around the village at great risk to their own lives and livelihoods.

Today, the plateau is home to one of France's 300 centers where asylum-seekers are housed while they wait for their cases to be considered, and it has largely escaped many of the tensions that accompany other such facilities around the world. When we caught up with Paxson, she told us there are parallels between then and now, like the fact that migration was a huge global issue.

MAGGIE PAXSON: We forget that the 1930s and then the 1940s that followed in Europe, there was a huge refugee crisis. People were fleeing countries for many, many different reasons - for political reasons, for religious reasons. Of course, with Jewish people, this was the largest story of the time. But these were many, many people. People learned about this place where people were taking care of others, so they would find their way to this plateau through these organizations but also with the help of some very particular personalities that were in the plateau at the time.

There was pastors - these incredibly charismatic figures like Andre Trocme and others who galvanized the population and really said, you know, this is the time when we have to really act. We have to take these people in. We have to not do what we're being told to do by the state, but we have to shelter and protect these people.

MARTIN: You write (reading) during the Holocaust, communities all over Europe worked to solve the problem of the stranger. People who were once neighbors and friends and fellow countrymen and fellow human beings no longer belonged to one another. Over time and in degrees, they became strangers - lurking, monstrous thickets, swelling dangerous.

And you're obviously talking about the period of World War II here. But do you see parallels to the current moment - perhaps in France, perhaps in the United States with the rise of political movements that we see and language to describe people seeking refuge? Do you see a parallel?

PAXSON: I mean, we are in a period where I think these questions are very, very important. I mean, I actually really never wanted to just do an exploration about a time in the past where these beautiful people did this beautiful thing. I mean, for me, it is very much about how we live our lives today. I mean, I have this thought often that, like, history doesn't announce itself. It doesn't - you know, it's not like words light up in the sky that say, you know, beware, for you are living in terrible times, you know, where you will be judged.

And these days, like all of the days, I think we have to worry about, are people abstractions to us? Are strangers abstractions to us? Do they represent a religion or another country or an enemy? Are they just outlines to us of identity? Or are they human beings to us? And, I mean, I think about this a lot. I think, you know, the place, this beautiful plateau - it isn't magic. We can learn from this place. It's not magic.

But if there is magic in this whole thing, it's in that moment when you learn to see in the stranger, in the face of the stranger, a friend, a lovable person. Like, that transformation - to see that stranger at your door in need to whom you might fear and whom you might hate - but be able to see that stranger as a friend, that's the alchemy. That's the magic.

MARTIN: Well, it's not a hypothetical there because you, in fact, devote most of the book to new arrivals in the plateau over the past two decades - I mean, people from Algeria and Chechnya, to name just a few places, who continue to settle there. And you spent some time in the temporary housing facilities for asylum seekers getting to know some of the families there. Is there just something that you could talk about - what you learned there or or how people are responding to these new arrivals?

PAXSON: I asked people about this, the refugees - because actually, quite frankly, as, you know, given my background, I found myself spending more and more time with those asylum seekers and sort of was able to see the reflection of these villagers through their eyes. And, in fact, I saw how people didn't ask about the specific stories of these asylum seekers in their midst. And this is an old habit, actually. In the plateau, you don't ask where people come from or what their background is. You just sort of greet them, and you are open to them, and you are kind to them.

I saw people also be willing to - if the asylum seekers were refused eventually to get asylum status, these folks, local folks, would sort of help get them towards a new place to live and towards safety. They would teach them French. They would offer them clothing. They would give them money. They would befriend them. And actually, in some cases, they would live with them.

MARTIN: I know that you said that this - your reporting here posed a - sort of uncomfortable personal and ethical challenges for you as an individual and, frankly, for anybody reading your book. But the kind of a question hangs in the air is, is there something special about this place? I mean, is there something in the air?

PAXSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Is there something in the soil there that makes it this place?

PAXSON: Well, I mean, I can't believe in magical places. However, I do think that there are things that they know and they teach their children that we would very much benefit from knowing and from teaching our children - these things about, again, how the stranger becomes a human being to you.

There's a Protestant church in one of the villages of the plateau, and it is - it's a very beautiful church, and it was sort of important during this rescue of the Second World War. Many, many churches, Catholic and Protestant, were involved in this. But it has a single line etched on it in stone, and it is aimez-vous les uns les autres - love one another, which comes from the Bible. That's the only line.

And I thought a lot about this one line. I mean, we think about love as being - as meaning affection. We think about it in sort of those kind of elevated terms, and that's wonderful. But love is also action. Love is a social action. And I think in that sense, they learned how to love. And I have to believe that we can learn that, too (laughter).

MARTIN: Maggie Paxson's new book is called "The Plateau." We reached her in Louisville, Ky.

Maggie, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PAXSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.