A World War II example of solid faith in the face of powerful evil
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Above all it must be emphasized that the peasants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon did not think their actions extraordinary. Monsieur and Madame Héritier, the beekeepers, said it. So did Georgette Barraud, who ran a pension for children. So did Magda Trocmé, the pastor’s wife, whose house, like the others, was a revolving door of Jewish refugees from 1940 to 1944—about 5,000 in all, roughly one Jew per resident.
The village of Le Chambon in south-central France, high on the burle-lashed Plateau du Haut-Velay, was not altogether unused to visitors even before Jews from all parts of Europe started streaming to it. At the turn of the century it had embraced poor children from surrounding working-class cities; in the 1930s it absorbed those fleeing the Spanish Civil War. This hospitality was notwithstanding their own meager living, eked out on small farms in a remote enclave of generations of Protestants known as the Huguenots. “In a severe test of affliction … they gave … beyond their means, of their own accord” (2 Corinthians 8:2-3).
We must say they were accustomed to suffering. Preserved in such hymns as “Cevenol” were centuries of persecution for faith in Christ dating from even before the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes: stories of churches torched, men forced onto galleys, women locked in towers scratching messages for future generations: “Resiste!” Therefore when Marshal Petain’s Vichy government was ordering Jews into French internment camps for transport to Germany, the villagers were not predisposed to knee-jerk obedience.
“If we didn’t obey Petain … it’s not because we were clever,” said Magda Trocmé to documentary filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, when he returned in 1982 to the place where he had been born to Jewish parents on the run. “We had seen Nazism develop. We reacted not just as Christians but also due to our backgrounds. … In a way, we were prepared, if you will.” “It happened so naturally, we can’t understand the fuss,” said Madame Barroud.
The matter-of-factness of Sauvage’s interviewees is what strikes us—the unselfconsciousness of courage. Looking bemused by the presence of a camcorder, and that someone would ask for their analysis of anything, the villagers, in their 70s and 80s at the time of documentary filming, are laconic.
Monsieur Héritier: “We never asked for explanations. Nobody asked anything. People came. If we could be of help …” His voice trails off. Sauvage: “But you were taking risks.” Héritier: “At first not that much … but towards the end it did start.” Sauvage: “But you kept them anyway. Why?” Héritier: “I don’t know.” Héritier’s wife, with a shy chuckle: “We were used to it.” One Jewish man who went to the village at age 14 recalls: “No one ever asked me the question, ‘Are you Jewish?’”
The unexplainables remain: How did the village get away with it for four years, under the very noses of the gendarmes before 1942 and the Gestapo afterward? How was a forgery operation supplying fake ration cards and IDs able to turn out papers for 50 people a week? Why was the nearby town of Oradour-sur-Glane leveled while this hotbed of resistance was untouched?
Why did the limousine Gestapo raid of 1943 find nothing? Why did the mailed reports of the Vichy policeman finally stationed in Le Chambon bring not a single raid, though he surely knew of Émile Sèche’s boarding school full of Jewish children, which he regularly passed on walks to the post office? When Pastor André Trocmé and his assistant Édouard Theis were arrested, why were they released from the camp after a month, though refusing to sign a pledge of allegiance, and just before other detainees were shipped off to their deaths?
“It was not a sentimental faith, or something extraordinary,” recalls Lesley Maber, a British schoolmistress in the village. “It was a very solid faith that was put to the test and was not found wanting.” A Jewish couple interviewed agreed: “They were the most solid people on earth.”
It is a compliment the Chambonnais might just shrug off.
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