Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a small village in south-central France. Along with the surrounding villages, the total population of the area was about 5,000 in the 1940s. Yet these villages, under the leadership of their Huguenot (French Protestant) pastor André Trocmé and his wife Magda, was responsible for saving up to 5,000 Jews from deportation to concentration camps during World War II.
André Trocmé was born in 1901. During WWI, he developed pacifist sentiments from meeting a young German pacifist who had come to Le Chambon looking for a place where he could live in peace without participating in the war. Trocmé was eventually ordained in the French Protestant Church. In 1938, he and fellow pastor Edouard Theis founded the Collège Lycée International Cévenol, a pacifist school that was intended to prepare country students for university studies.
Saving the Jews
In 1940, France was overrun by the Nazis and a collaborationist government was set up in the French city of Vichy. That winter, a woman came to their door. She was a German Jew fleeing the Nazis, and she thought perhaps the pastor would help her. The Trocmés took her in and fed her, and Magda realized the woman would need false identity documents to avoid capture. The next day, Magda approached the mayor to obtain the false papers, but he was concerned that if a German Jew were found in Le Chambon, the local Jewish community would suffer for it. As a result, he refused to issue the papers. Magda was devastated. She did what she could, giving the woman food and the names of some people who might be able to help her, but she was forced to send her away the next day.
Inspired by this incident, Pastor Trocmé began to exhort his congregation to shelter the “People of the Book” who were fleeing Nazi persecution. He told them, “We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the gospel.” He led them in a variety of symbolic resistance activities—the staff of the school refused to pledge unconditional obedience to the Head of State, and he refused to ring the church bells to celebrate Vichy leader Marshal Petain’s anniversary—but he was particularly concerned about protecting the refugees who were coming into the area from France, Germany, and Central Europe.
The Trocmés began to organize an underground network to protect the refugees and provide for them. The Collège Lycée International housed children, and the Trocmés identified families who would be willing to take in Jews. Magda was particularly active in making the arrangements, picking up Jews at the train station, and seeing that they were taken care of. When Jews arrived in Le Chambon, André would announce from the pulpit that X number of “Old Testaments” had arrived, and asked his congregation who would be willing to take them. There were always volunteers.
Whenever the Nazis came through, the Jews went into the countryside; one villager later explained, “As soon as the soldiers left we would go into the forest and sing a song. When they heard that song the Jews knew it was safe to come home.”
Some of the Jews stayed in Le Chambon for the duration of the war; others were smuggled out, usually to Switzerland, on secret paths through the mountains known only to the locals. We will return to these paths later in the article.
The Response of the Vichy Government
The Vichy government had a good idea of what was going on. They demanded that Trocmé stop his activities. His response was to the point: “These people came here for help and shelter. I am their shepherd. A shepherd does not forsake his flock. I do not know what a Jew is. I only know human beings.”
The year 1942 saw the beginning of mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps. Trocmé urged his congregation to take in any Jews who came seeking help. In August, the Vichy government sent gendarmes to Le Chambon to round up the Jews that they knew (or suspected) were hiding in the area. Trocmé preached a fiery sermon on Deut. 19:2-10, which discusses the right of the persecuted to shelter, and urged his parishioners to “do the will of God and not of men.” The gendarmes left without finding a single Jew. In fact, during the war no Jews were captured in the Le Chambon area.
Not all the Jews connected to the Trocmés were so fortunate. André Trocmé’s cousin Daniel Trocmé was sheltering Jews in a school in Verneuil, about 400 kilometers from Le Chambon. The Gestapo raided the school in 1943 and found the Jews. Daniel was not there, but he turned himself in, since he believed it was his duty not to abandon those he had sheltered. He died at the Majdanek death camp in 1944.
André himself was arrested in February 1943, along with Edouard Theis and the headmaster of the school. They were taken to a detention camp near Limoges. The commandant demanded that Trocmé sign a document committing him to obey all government orders. He refused. Nonetheless, he was released after five weeks of imprisonment. When he was returned home, he went underground, but the community continued its work even without his visible leadership. Many Jews were thus saved and given the opportunity to live a relatively peaceful life through the end of the war.
Virtually all the people in the region were involved in the effort one way or another, yet not a single person said a word about it to the Nazis.
How do we explain the “conspiracy of goodness” at Le Chambon? The people in the area were taking great personal risks to save strangers of a different religion, and had the potential for great reward if they would betray the Jews to the authorities, yet no one did so. Why?
At its most basic level, the answer is that they simply believed it was the right thing to do. A documentary titled “Weapons of the Spirit” interviewed some of the old people of the village to try to figure out why they did what they did. It is fascinating to watch the reaction. The couple that was interviewed was clearly uncomfortable in front of the camera, and it was obvious that on some level they did not even understand the question: It was the right thing to do, so why wouldn’t they do it? As another villager commented, “We didn’t protect the Jews because we were a moral or heroic people. We helped them because it was the human thing to do.”
Yet so many others did not do “the human thing.”
Another aspect of this is the history of the Huguenots in this region. Many Calvinist churches have been philosemitic (that is, they were pro-Jewish). The Huguenots even called their churches “temples,” and strongly identified with the Jews because of their own history of persecution.
In the 16th century, there were a series of Wars of Religion in France between the Catholics and the Huguenots. King Henry IV tried to resolve the religious problem by issuing the Edict of Nantes (1598), which gave the Huguenots limited rights to worship. After his death, the terms of the edict steadily eroded. Louis XIV persecuted the Protestants so badly that many ended up converting to Catholicism to save themselves and their livelihood. Then in 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes on the grounds that there were no more Huguenots left in the country.
In actuality, there were about 1 million Huguenots left. They went underground, establishing what they called the Church of the Desert in memory of the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness following the Exodus.
In the area around Le Chambon, the Huguenots made secret rooms similar to the priest holes in England, and secret paths through the mountains to Switzerland to smuggle pastors and Bibles into France. Even after Protestantism was legalized, the people of the area kept the locations of these rooms and paths secret since they never knew when they would need them again. They were put back into service to save the Jews from the Nazis.
The strong moral sense of the people of Le Chambon, fortified by their philosemitism and their history as a persecuted people, provided the motivation for their resistance to the Nazis and rescue of the Jews. The secret rooms and paths were providentially available to them for this task, but even without them, the villagers would have worked to save the targets of Nazi persecution.
After the War
After the war, Pastor Trocmé continued his ministry and his promotion of Christian pacifism. He was active in the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and during the Algerian War, he and Magda set up a group called Eirene (Greek for “peace”) in Morocco to help French conscientious objectors.
André Trocmé died in 1971; his wife Magda died 1996. Both of them and Daniel Trocmé were named among the Righteous among the Nations by the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Memorial Authority in Jerusalem.
Image copyright Chambon Foundation.