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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.