A French village which saved 3,000 Jews from the Holocaust was admitted last night to the state memorial for national heroes.
The heroism of Chambon-sur-Lignon was largely unknown, or ignored, in France for many years after the end of the Second World War. Two Protestant pastors in the Cévennes mountains in south-east France persuaded thousands of villagers to hide Jews, including many children.
The story of the village still remains little known abroad, except in Israel. Chambon-sur-Lignon is the only place – rather than individual – listed in Israel’s official roll-call of the Righteous of Nations: Gentiles who rescued Jews from Nazi persecution.
It is estimated that 3,000 Jews were saved by the people of Chambon-sur-Lignon, compared to the 1,200 rescued by Oskar Schindler, the Austrian businessman celebrated in the 1993 movie Schindler’s List.
Last night the village was honoured along with 2,739 French individuals who risked their lives to save Jews from 1940 to 1944 on a plaque unveiled by President Jacques Chirac in an elaborate ceremony at the Panthéon in Paris.
”Ignoring all risks, they embodied the honour of France, its values of justice, tolerance and humanity,” the plaque read.
The mostly Protestant village has always been reluctant to be celebrated for its heroism. The present mayor, Francis Valla, declined to attend last night’s ceremony, preferring to attend a commemorative exhibition at the village railway station where hundreds of Jewish children and other refugees were welcomed by local people during the war.
”Here we don’t boast. We don’t like to put ourselves forward,” M. Valla said.
The village was included in the list of the Righteous of Nations by the Israeli government in 1990. But it had to wait until 2004 for official French recognition, when M. Chirac chose to travel to the village to make a speech against racism and anti-Semitism.
After the war, France drew a veil over French treatment of Jews, both good and bad. It was 1979 before the story of Chambon-sur-Lignon became widely known. There have since been books, a television documentary and a fictionalised film, La Colline aux Mille Enfants (The Hill of a Thousand Children).
Chambon-sur-Lignon was in the Vichy-controlled, ”free” zone of France. A number of Jews fleeing arrest by the Germans and by the French police turned up in the village at random in the autumn of 1940. When the villagers helped them, the word spread to other refugees and to a Swiss organisation which smuggled Jews across the border.
Hundreds of mostly young Jews were hidden for the duration of the war by farming families. Others were hidden and then taken to Switzerland. Two Protestant pastors, André Trocmé and Edouard Theis, persuaded their parishioners – and the pastors of surrounding villages – that it was their Christian duty to ”oppose violence against their conscience”. They sent out an edict that the Nazis should be resisted ”without fear, without pride and without hatred”.
When President Chirac went to Chambon-sur-Lignon in 2004, he was greeted by, Joseph Atlas, 77, who was a Jewish teenager saved by the villagers. He praised the courage of the local people but asked the President: ”Why was there only one Chambon?”