”People who agonize don’t act, people who act don’t agonize. Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon was both very special and very ordinary. Their serenity, reflected in their posture toward each other, toward you and toward the world.” — Filmmaker and Holocaust survivor Pierre Sauvage
During the Holocaust in France, in a tiny mountain Huguenot village 350 miles from Paris called Le Chambon-sur-lignon, 5,000 Jews, mostly children, found shelter with 5,000 Christians, almost the entire population of the village.
Defying the French government which was collaborating with the Nazis, the villagers of Le Chambon hid Jews in their homes for years. They provided the refugees with forged identification, provided education for the children, ration cards, and sent them to safety in Switzerland.
The Chambonnaise were descendants of the Huguenots, the first Protestants in Catholic France. Having endured persecution in France they were able to understand the plight of the Jews.
Under the leadership of a young French pastor, Andre Trocme, the people of Le Chambon felt it their duty to help people in need, never considering their actions heroic or dangerous.
Born in 1901 out of a Franco-German marriage, Trocmé came from a long line of French Huguenots. As a teenager in World War I he had been profoundly influenced by a German soldier who was a conscientious objector.
Andre Trocme and his assistant pastor Eduoard Theis were pacifists. In1938 they founded Ecole Noubelle Cevenole, an international pacifist school that educated Jewish children. Attendance grew from 18 in 1938 to 350 in 1944.
Trocme and Edouard Theis inspired the non-violent rescue activity in Le Chambon between 1940 and 1944, enlisting the involvement of 13 Protestant ministers.
Residents of the town were unaware of the rescue efforts of their neighbors. They neither talked about it during the war, nor after, when the refugees had already left. No records were kept.
By the middle of the Occupation, there were seven houses in Le Chambon, financed by Quakers, Catholic clergy, the Red Cross and Sweden, for children whose parents had been deported. The Vichy police frequently searched houses and farms in the village.
The head of one of these schools was Daniel Trocme, Andre’s, cousin, head of one of France’s finest elementary schools, House of Rockes, who had a heart condition which made it difficul for hin to do strenuous work.
When the Nazis discovered the school, they arrested Daniel, and questioned him all the way to the prison camp, Maidenek in Eastern Poland, where he was gassed and incinerated, in 1944.
The village was known to the Germans as ”that nest of Jews in Protestant country,” where no villager denounced a refugee or a person concealing refugees. When a national leader of the Reformed church asked Trocme to stop aiding Jews, because it would damage French Protestantism, he refused.
As Jews in Paris were deported in 1942, he delivered this sermon, ”The Christian Church should drop to its knees and beg pardon of God for its cowardice.” While the Vichy government allowed 75,000 Jews to go to their deaths and made informing on Jews patriotic, the French police cooperated with the Nazis.
The abandonment of the Jews prompted Elie Wiesel to write ”What hurts the victim is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander. Villagers in Chambon, armed with their beliefs, in view of storm troopers, saved the lives of 5,000 refugees.”
In Le Chambon women played a key role in the rescue. They were faced with the decision to whether or not take a stranger into their homes whose presence could imperil the lives of their families. The women of Le Chambon were the backbone of much of what occurred there.
Pastor Trocme always responded to calls for help to hide Jews, even if it jeopardized his life, his wife or children, because Huguenots believe in the dignity of all humans, without using their influence to convert Jewish refugees.
Once Chambon became ”a city of refuge,” they felt compelled to diminish suffering and put into action the principles in which they believed, that faith without works is dead. No violence, not even the violence needed to defeat Hitler, was permissible to them as Christian pacifists.
Trocme told a Vichy official who had threatened him about the sheltering of the Jews: ”We do not know what a Jew is,” he told him, ”we only know men.”
Andre Trocme was eventually arrested, and released, without having been persuaded to sign a commitment to follow government orders regarding Jews. Many Jews resided in relative calm until the end of the war, with the aid of local residents.
While Andre was in hiding his wife, Magda, continued taking trips with Jews to neutral Switzerland. Many involved in the rescue efforts received a medal from Yad Vashem that contains a Talmudic saying, ”Whoever saves a single life is as one who saved an entire world.”
”The responsibility of Christians” they said, in Church after an armistice with Nazi Germany was signed, ”is to resist violence through the weapons of the spirit.”
In 1990 Le Chambon , became the first community to be honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem. Two thousand French Righteous Among the Nations have been recognized for their help of Jews during the Holocaust, 40 of them in Le Chambon.
A garden and plaque were dedicated to the people of Le Chambon, the only place in France where the entire population has been collectively recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. The Trocmes have also been recognized as Righteous among the Nations. There are two trees dedicated to them at Yad Vashem.
A child survivor of the Holocaust, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Pierre Sauvage was born in Le Chambon, in 1944, when much of his family was being murdered in Nazi death camps. It wasn’t until the age of 18 that he learned that he and his family were Jewish and survivors of the Holocaust.
Sauvage founded Le Chambon Foundation in 1982, which is committed to exploring lessons of hope along with the Holocaust’s lessons of despair, and produced ”Weapons of the Spirit,” a story about the lives of the people in Le Chambon.
In June 2004, the foundation organized ”Liberation Reunion,” in Le Chambon for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, which French President Jacques Chirac attended. It ended a thirty five year silence by people on the plateau regarding rescue efforts during the war.
Sauvage became an expert on rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, or ”righteous Gentiles.”
”The Holocaust occurred in Christian Europe aided by the apathy of Christians and a tradition of anti-Semitism infesting the soul of Christianity,” he said.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, about his documentary Sauvage said: ”Stories like Le Chambon, of rescuers, are a banister kids can hold onto, while looking at evil in this world. If we don’t feel deeply that we are capable of good, we will be reluctant to face the extent we are capable of evil.”