The ghost of Tourtour

Almost everybody who comes to stay with us gets taken up to the village of Tourtour about half an hour away to the north of us. No one ever complains: indeed almost everybody falls in love with the place. It is one of those little Provencal hilltop villages that has somehow escaped the building blight of the last fifty years and where it is still possible to imagine that you are in the long vanished old France of the Citroen 2CV, the onion seller, old men with black berets and even the horse and cart.

Tourtour from a distance taken in early autumn

There are magnificent views all the way from the coastal range to the south across a vast expanse of hills and forests to the isolated peak of Mount Ventoux to the north.

Being on the way to precisely nowhere Tourtour gets little traffic and such as there is has been largely diverted around the village leaving it effectively pedestrianised. And where many old French villages have acquired a drab and anonymous outskirts of villas and supermarkets, Tourtour remains largely unchanged; a cluster of tight-knit terraced houses, twisting narrow streets and tiny passageways set among fields and woods. It is a village that rejects the straight line and the right angle: walls curve, roads meander, roofs undulate and doorways sag; the result is that no two houses are the same. Whenever we have been there the sun has always seemed to shine, making the café au lait coloured stone and orange tiles come alive with warmth.

Tourtour is the archetypal French village with everything that imagination demands: remains of turreted towers, old olive presses, a washing place, flowing springs, a main square shaded by great plane trees. It is an organic settlement on a human scale that seems to model the sort of place we would all like to live in; it has appeared on these pages before and probably will again. Tourtour bills itself as “Le village dans le ciel”, ‘the village in the sky’, which has an appropriately celestial overtone; after all “le village du ciel” would be ‘the village of heaven’. It’s a phrase that even in mid-January one would be reluctant to argue with.

However, recently we have become aware of something about the history of Tourtour that is a chilling reminder that even here, you cannot escape from evil. Wandering beyond the main church the visitor will notice the small primary school which now bears a new sign Ecole Nelly Ovadia. Reading the sign carefully you will notice the dates 1942-44 but no other information is given. The story, which we only came across by accident, is appalling and heart-wrenching. In January 1944 the Germans took over Provence from the collapsing Italians who had been running it and immediately began rounding up the Jewish population. Some members of a Jewish family in Tourtour were denounced by the Nazi-appointed mayor and were arrested by the Gestapo. One of the family, the young Annette Barbut, fled with her niece, 15-month-old Nelly Ovadia, into the woods. Some locals found her and told her that unless she surrendered the Nazis would kill the ten hostages they had taken. She returned to the village trying unsuccessfully to give the baby away: “I knocked on all the doors to have the baby taken from me … everyone was afraid…” The entire family were then taken away and put on a train (which would have passed within earshot of where our house is) to Marseille. They were then shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Somehow the aunt survived to tell the tale but the rest of the family including Nelly were gassed, shortly after their arrival, on 27 March 1944.

So nearly three quarters of a century later in the presence of Annette Barbut, now in her nineties, the school was renamed after the infant. It was a courageous decision: it’s not exactly a selling point for tourists and there are many in the south of France who would prefer to forget the way that at least some French people were involved in the Holocaust. Indeed there are those who would prefer to forget all about it. Here we simply note the story not to pass judgment but to note the lesson (sadly apt for these troubled times) that however sunlit a place, evil is never far away and to offer the challenge to make sure that such things never happen again. Ever.

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1 Response to The ghost of Tourtour

  1. Angharad Brown says:

    Thank you for sharing this moving story.

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