The day after the Vichy Government in France, made an agreement with the Nazis to hand over all Jewish refugees, Andre Trocme, Pastor of the Protestant church in the tiny village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon gave the following sermon in his church
“Tremendous pressure will be put on us to submit passively to a totalitarian ideology. If they do not succeed in subjugating our souls, at least they will want to subjugate our bodies. The duty of Christians is to use the weapons of the Spirit to oppose the violence that they will try to put on our consciences. We appeal to all our brothers in Christ to refuse to cooperate with this violence… Loving, forgiving, and doing good to our adversaries is our duty. Yet we must do this without giving up, and without being cowardly. We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the gospel. We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate.”
From that day in 1940, every Chambonnais who was asked to hide a Jewish refugee did so. They helped them to make false identification cards, told everybody that all new arrivals were cousins who had come to live with them and had a policy of never asking any refugee whether or not they were Jewish. The most amazing fact of all was that, not one villager ever handed over a Jewish refugee to the Nazi authorities.
The Chambonnais were particularly interested in the child refugees, educating them alongside their own children. The residents of Le Chambon helped to set up and operate an underground operation smuggling refugees to safety in Switzerland. All of the residents of the village and surrounding area had a hand in this shielding of the refugees. The local Quaker community and many other individuals and organisations took an active part in this process. Whenever the residents knew Jewish refugees were expected they would discuss how many Old Testaments were arriving and on the many occasions when the Nazis arrived to search, the refugees were hidden in the countryside. When the soldiers left, the locals would go into the forest and countryside, singing loudly as a signal that it was safe to come home.
“I know no Jews…”
In the summer of 1942, a Vichy government official arrived demanding that they hand over the Jewish refugees that the government knew were hiding in the village. When questioned about the new arrivals in the village, Pastor Trocme said he knew no Jews – only human beings. Two weeks later the furious Vichy police and Nazis arrived with buses to take away the Jewish refugees but after weeks of constant searching and harassment, the police left empty-handed.
Eventually, however, Andre Trocme and his associate Edouard Theis had to go into hiding and in 1943 – Pastor Trocme’s cousin, Daniel Trocme, and the children and teenagers he was hiding were discovered and deported to Maidnek Concentration camp where they were killed. The Chambonnais continued, however, to shelter any and all Jewish refugees who sought their help.
French film-maker, Pierre Sauvage, was one of the Jewish children saved by the Chambonnais. Sauvage was born and grew up in the village and he was eighteen years old before he discovered that he and his family were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. When Sauvage returned to Le Chambon in the late 70’s to make a documentary about this remarkable period– Weapons of the Spirit – he tried to find out exactly why these people had risked everything to save strangers.
Interviewing Henri and Emma Heritier – a peasant couple then in their 80’s, who had helped to look after him when he was a child – Sauvage found them shy and unwilling to answer more than just a simple – “When people came, if we could be of help…” This from a couple who helped many refugees, and who, when the Germans raided, hid the village forger’s documents and equipment in their beehives.
Part of the solution
So why did c. 5,000 Protestant French villagers and farmers decide to help save the lives of 5,000 Jews at such enormous risk to themselves? Why did they decide to defy the Nazis, as well as their own government, and run the risk of being imprisoned, tortured, dispossessed or even killed for strangers?
The village pastors who led the resistance and protection of Jews, Andre Trocme and Edouard Theis, believed that if they failed to protect the Jews they would share in the guilt of the evildoers. It would appear that this belief was widely shared by their friends and associates in Le Chambon. What they did took enormous courage, but it also gave the Chambonnais back some of the power they had lost during the Nazi occupation because, as Viktor Frankl said,
And that is exactly what the ‘good people’ of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon did, they chose their own way and decided not to let evil succeed. Instead of ‘nothing’ they did ‘something’ – in the face of overwhelming odds. And their courage and commitment to doing what they believed was right saved 5,000 innocent lives – quite a result when you think about it…