The Little French Village that Cared

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Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The picturesque town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon may look like an idyllic French village, tucked among the hills of the Loire and filled with quiet people wholly committed to the contentment found in daily routine. But this town is “Righteous Among the Nations,” and its population can count many heroes in its ranks. Together, its people saved thousands in a country divided by war. What seemed daring and different to many came but naturally to this French ville with a heart for resistance and faith.

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Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, by Huguenot painter, François Dubois, c. 1572-1584. Source: Wikipedia.

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon has a long and torturous history with its home country of France, dating back to at least the 1600s when the town became a site of refuge for Protestants shortly following the French Wars of Religion. From the time Protestantism gained followers in France until 1598, “Huguenots” had no legal right to freely practice their religion and no protection against hostility on the basis of their faith. The Edict of Nantes, declared by former-protestant and King of France at the time, Henry IV of Navarre, changed this in a legal sense, but persecution still continued.

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Henry IV of Navarre during his coronation. Formerly a protestant, he converted to Catholicism, famously stating: “Paris is worth a mass.” Nicolas Bollery, c. 1593-1600. Source: Wikipedia.

Louis XIV revoked this Edict with his own Edict of Fontainebleu, which called for the destruction of Protestant churches and the closure of Protestant schools. It was at this time when many Huguenots left Europe for the New World, to create their own settlements where religious tolerance constituted the principal foundation of their new communities.

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A picture of power: Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. Pierre Patel, 1668.
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Louis XIV receiving his crown from the Virgin Mary, illustrating the perceived “divine right of kings” and the significant relationship between the Catholic church and the French throne. Philippe de Champaigne, 1643.

Louis XVI passed the “Edict of Tolerance” one year prior to the French Revolution’s beginnings (6 years before he and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were sent to the guillotine), and from this point on, France began to formally emancipate religious minorities. Two hundred years later in 1985, the French President, François Mitterand, publicly apologized on behalf of the nation for the persecution of Huguenots, now scattered all around the world.

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The last official Huguenot church in the United States, located in Charleston, South Carolina. The congregation dates back to the 1680s. Source: Wikipedia.

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon’s ancestors thus knew centuries of persecution, leading to a persistent distrust of the government and pacifist views among its population. When Germany occupied northern France in World War II, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon–below the line of demarcation–fell under the new French “Vichy” regime’s territory. Though this new government claimed neutrality, they collaborated with Nazi Germany and supported many of their policies and wartime efforts.

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Head of the Vichy government and WWI hero, Philippe Pétain, meets with Hitler in 1940. Source: Wikipedia.

So Vichy followed in the Nazis’ footsteps, creating anti-Semitic legislation (including revoking Jewish individuals’ citizenship), interning Jews in Vichy-made camps, and sending many of the interned off to German concentration and death camps. Pastor of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, André Trocmé, acting on his convictions, traveled to internment camps in Marseille to meet with fellow concerned Protestants from around the world. There he and his wife Magda decided Le Chambon would become a city of refuge to Jews and others persecuted by the Vichy regime, just as it had served as a city of refuge to fellow Protestants hundreds of years ago.

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A Vichy propaganda poster, where “le Juif” (“the Jew”) is portrayed as an animal preying on “good” French citizens. Source unknown.

Upon returning from his trip, he addressed his congregation and the town, calling on them to help save the “people of the Bible,” God’s chosen people, telling them to “obey God rather than man when there is a conflict between the commandments of the government and the commandments of the Bible.” A small minority of mostly Catholics expressed their fears of carrying out such a task, but the majority of the Chambonnais agreed to risk their lives for the sake of the persecuted.

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André Trocmé and his wife, Magda. Ironically, Trocmé was posted in Le Chambon because his “radical” pacifist views were unpopular with the Reform Church of France. Source: Yad Vashem.

And so the people of this little French town opened their doors to thousands of Jews, as well as Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco’s regime, members of the French Resistance, and political dissidents. Through their efforts, somewhere between 800 and 5000 Jews were saved. They did not keep records, and generally acted like a “clandestine cell system,” where neighbors were not aware of each other’s efforts on behalf of the refugees. Such a system makes it more difficult for outsiders (namely the government) to extract a large amount of information from one individual; they only get a very small piece of the puzzle. This method was also used by the French Resistance at the time.

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Some of the Jewish children sheltered in Chambon, pictured here one month after the infamous round up at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

If individuals had to communicate with each other about the goings-on, they would use pseudo-encryption, often using terminology familiar to other Protestants, but not to the largely Catholic French population. In addition to housing, feeding, and protecting the refugees, the Chambonnais provided education to the children, forged identity papers to help them reach less hostile countries, and guided many on treks into neutral Switzerland. It only made sense that the Huguenots of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and France, at large, once took the same trek to Switzerland many years prior on a quest for religious freedom and tolerance. In an act of highly visible resistance, the townspeople also refused to salute the flag or swear allegiance to Vichy.

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Jewish children out in the snow in Le Chambon, with one brave boy sporting shorts. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In the summer of 1942, a cabinet secretary’s visit threatened Le Chambon’s clandestine operation. Many outside the town knew Le Chambon harbored “enemies of the state,” but so far no arrests had occurred. General Secretary of Youth, George Lamirand, ordered Trocmé to hand over the Jews hidden in the village, to which Trocmé responded: “These people came here for help and for shelter. I am their shepherd. A shepherd does not forsake his flock… I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings.”

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The church in Le Chambon, where Trocmé preached. The Jewish refugees in the village attended services as a pretense; Trocmé encouraged them to conduct their own Jewish services in secret. Source: Wikipedia.

The pastor then proceeded to shuffle around all of Le Chambon’s Jewish inhabitants over the course of Lamirand’s three-week-long search. The search turned up one person determined fully Jewish and another half Jewish; the latter was released, but the former was loaded onto a bus and deported, surrounded by gifts from the Chambonnais. After this instance, Trocmé and the other villagers decided it best to abandon their inflammatory political resistance of not saluting the flag or taking oaths, and instead focus all of their efforts on saving Jews and other refugees. By drawing as little attention to themselves as possible, they hoped they could save others from the fate Lamirand served one man.

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Dilapidated barracks of Camp de Rivesaltes, an internment camp in the south of France near Spain. Used by the Vichy regime to intern Jews, gypsies (Roma), and others during WWII. Source: Wikipedia.

When the Germans expanded their French occupation to include Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in 1942, things became more difficult for the town’s mission. In early 1943, Trocmé, two other church leaders, and the head of Le Chambon’s primary school were arrested and interned in French camps. The French arresting officers–police of the now more or less “puppet” Vichy regime–released them a month later, even after they all refused to sign an agreement to abide Vichy law. But the worst came in June of the same year at one of the town’s schools.

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Daniel Trocmé (back center, wearing glasses), cousin of Pastor André Trocmé, with some of the children he sheltered and taught, c. 1941-1943. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

On the 29th of June, Gestapo officers led a raid on a secondary school in Le Chambon. They arrested five Jewish children and André Trocmé’s cousin, Daniel. Deported to Germany, the children died in Auschwitz. Daniel Trocmé was sent to Majdanek concentration camp, where he was interrogated and killed. Soon thereafter, Trocmé and his assistant pastor received a tip that the Nazis intended to arrest and execute the two men, forcing both into hiding. Left without their church leaders, the town still continued the great work they started–reminding some, perhaps, of Philippians 1:6.

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Trocmé’s Bible. He wrote sermon notes on many of the pages. On this page he jotted down one of the Beatitudes: “Happy are those who are hungry and thirsty for justice; for they will be satisfied.” Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The last tragedy to befall the town happened shortly before its liberation in 1944. On August 20th of that year, the Gestapo arrested Le Chambon’s physician, Roger Le Forestier, who had assisted in obtaining falsified papers for refugees. He was shot in Montluc prison in Lyon the same day by fellow Frenchmen, on Gestapo orders. In September, the Free French First Armored Division liberated the town. The faith and commitment of the Chambonnais even unto death, like Le Forestier, led them to save possible thousands of Jews, not counting other refugees and resisters they harbored. Never has there been a more certain modern example of being “saved by faith” through grace. Salvation from the hands of the Nazi and French governments came through the faith and grace of a little French town that decided, like Jesus, to care.

Sources: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, Yad Veshem, Swarthmore’s Global Nonviolent Action Database

You can listen to one of Le Chambon’s saved individuals talk about her experience in the village here.

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