With the recent surge in hate speech and attacks on Jews in France, French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed a crackdown, noting that “anti-Semitism is deeply embedded in French society” and alluding to its long history in France, especially during World War II.
In view of this dark history, it is striking that one of the largest rescue operations for Jews in the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe took place in this country.
The little-known rescue saga unfolded from 1941-1944 in a tiny mountain village in south-central France known as Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon, whose French inhabitants saved about 5000 Jews from deportation and death.
Through an extraordinary campaign of nonviolent resistance, the townspeople of Le Chambon and nearby villages banded together to defy the Nazis and provide a safe haven for thousands of total strangers who would otherwise have died.
There are numerous stories of individuals in occupied France sheltering Jews, but this one tells of an entire community taking unified action, guided by a courageous pastor and his wife, Andre and Magda Trocmé.
Le Chambon was an island of human kindness in a sea of inhumanity. “Nobody asked questions, nobody demanded money. Villagers lied, covered up and concealed but most importantly, they welcomed,” wrote Peter Grose in “A Good Place To Hide,” a war-time history of the region.
“I’m alive thanks to the inhabitants of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon,” affirmed Ruth Golan, who lives in Israel. “They risked their lives to save us. No one can describe how much they sacrificed and how much they gave us.”
Today a museum-memorial, Lieu de Mémoire (Place of Memory), in the village center testifies to the shining deeds of “ordinary” people. A plaque on the building contains an inscription by the “Jewish Refugees of Le Chambon,” beginning with a verse from Tehillim, “Lezeicher olam yiyeh tzadik,” the righteous will be an eternal remembrance.
The French text below it extols the compassionate inhabitants of the Protestant community of Le Chambon and surrounding villages “who during the Nazi occupation, defied the authorities and hid and sheltered thousands of Jews at the peril of their lives.”
Heroes Who Shunned Publicity
The museum was erected just six years ago and it took years of persuasion to convince the villagers and their children to come forward with the personal testimonials that comprise the exhibits. Golan, who was hidden in a home near the village’s municipal building for four years, says this is not surprising.
“They were opposed to any public recognition… it was out of modesty. They say they were doing G-d’s bidding in protecting His chosen people, nothing that deserves publicity. Even when Yad Vashem named them Righteous among the Nations, not everyone wanted to come to receive the honor,” he said.
The villagers of Le Chambon (not to be confused with Chabannes in a different region where hundreds of Jewish children were saved in a chateau) were followers of the Huguenot religion, a Protestant sect that broke away from the Catholic church in the 16th Century.
In the 1940s, the Huguenots were a minority group in a France that was 95 percent Catholic. Their predecessors had been subject to bitter religious persecution by the French kings and Catholic clergy over a span of two hundred years.
Once numbering in the millions, the Huguenot ranks had been slowly decimated by periodic massacres, forcing almost a half million of them to flee France in the 18th century. Today they comprise only a tiny proportion of France’s population.
For the inhabitants of Le Chambon, the legacy of persecution their people suffered fostered a spirit of compassion toward other victims of oppression. When villagers led Jews through dangerous treks across the Swiss border to freedom, the guides were conscious that they were following the same route their persecuted Huguenot brothers had traveled centuries earlier.
The Huguenot experience of cruelty at the hands of the Catholic church shaped their descendants’ abhorrence for the armistice that France, after being invaded by Nazi Germany, had signed with the occupiers. Under the terms of the armistice, Vichy leader Marshal Petain had pledged to uphold Nazi policies including the surrender of all refugees. In particular, Jews were to be isolated and hunted down.
Petain, who enjoyed widespread support and was hailed as a savior of the French nation, signed the armistice with Nazi Germany on June 22nd, 1940. The next day was a Sunday. That morning, during church services, Pastors Andre Trocmé and Edouard Theis outlined the new political situation to their congregation. They urged their members to use the “weapons of the spirit” to refuse compliance with any government orders that went against the dictates of their conscience.
Inspired by Trocmé’s example of non-violent resistance, the people of Chambon refused to take the mandated oath of allegiance to the anti-Semitic Petain.
Vichy Imposes “Jewish Laws”
Conditions for Jews in France rapidly worsened after the collaborationist government set in motion the Statut des Juifs (Jewish Laws) in 1940. The new regulations demanded that all Jews register themselves and imposed heavy restrictions on their ability to earn a living, attend school, own property and move freely about.
The Vichy government began the arrests and internment of all “foreign” Jews into dreadful French-run internment camps. The roundups were carried out by French police in broad daylight in the streets of Paris. 3,000 Jews died in these filthy, disease-ridden camps, even before the Nazis began deporting the prisoners to the death camps in the east. Then began the mass arrests of the Jews of Paris and their internment in the notorious Vel D’Hive stadium in 1942.
Andre Trocmé and his wife, Magda began working to hide Jews in the homes of members of their community, at great risk to themselves. The Trocmés rallied their neighbors and friends, starting with their own congregation, in a bold plan to shelter Jewish refugees in attics, barns, hotels, cellars, orphanages and boarding houses across the Chambon region.
Its isolated geographic location proved providential to Jews fleeing the Nazis, as it had for the Huguenots escaping religious persecution during the 17th Century. The region is still referred to as ‘La Montagne Protestante’ (the Protestant Mountain). Nestled among hills, surrounded by forests, with villages few and far between, it was an ideal place to hide people.
Many of the hidden Jews were children who had been interned in the French camps with their refugee families, and through the intervention of humanitarian organizations had been removed from the camps and spirited away to hiding places.
Le Chambon Welcomes the Hunted and Destitute
Rumors began to spread among refugees about a village in the hilly regions of Loire where the hunted and destitute might find shelter. In her memoirs, Magda Trocmé would later recall her first encounter with a Jewish refugee. During a frigid winter night in 1940, a German Jewish woman arrived half-frozen at the parish door. She had fled Nazi Germany and blindly made her way through occupied France until she arrived exhausted at Le Chambon.
Organized efforts by humanitarian organizations soon brought many others to the village. Pastor Andre Trocmé approached a Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee, who planned to smuggle children to safety but needed a hiding place. Trocmé volunteered remote Chambon as their place of refuge.
Trocmé urged his congregation to give shelter to any Jew who asked for it. Between 1942 and 1944, a civil resistance mushroomed across the region with all the inhabitants taking part in fostering help for refugees. Pastors, civil servants, teachers, farmers, railway employees, doctors, boardinghouse owners, and local police officers of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon all joined in the rescue effort and in resisting the regime.
Magda, the pastor’s wife, and other women located families willing to accommodate Jewish refugees and prepared the town’s many residential schools for increased enrollment. Many others assisted in this work. Community activists reported to the railroad station to receive the arriving refugees; they would then be taken in by the villagers or taken to safe places on small farms in the region.
There they were given false identities, forged identity papers and ration cards, so that they were entitled to food allotments.
From Le Chambon, many refugees were smuggled across the mountains into Switzerland, where they would be met by other resistors in the tight-knit Protestant network. The resistance movement soon grew beyond the Protestant communities – not only in Chambon but neighboring villages like Tence and Fay-Sur-Lignon.
Finding Homes for Refugee Children
Madeleine Dreyfus, a French Jew, joined OSE, a Jewish children’s aid organization. She recalled in “Weapons of the Spirit,” a documentary by Pierre Sauvage about Le Chambon, how she would make the rounds of the farms in and around Le Chambon looking for hiding places for the children. Madeleine herself was later arrested and shipped to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp toward the end of the war. She miraculously survived.
“The farmers knew the children were Jewish,” Madeleine Dreyfus recalled. “But we wouldn’t say it to them. It was a way of protecting the farmers not to spell it out. The smaller ones were always easier to place. Small children are sweet, don’t eat much and don’t talk back. We always had much more trouble placing the older kids.”
Since the villagers and farmers were poor, taking in refugees meant sharing their daily bread or giving food that otherwise they could have sold. “They lived very near to the bone. Very, very simply,” the former OSE worker said. “They asked for very little money and made no profit on the children.”
Mrs. Dreyfus recalled visiting an elderly couple in an effort to place two 14-year old Jewish children.
“Nobody wanted them. They had valid reasons. They talk back. They’re not easy to handle. They eat a lot. And I remember saying, “Look, I’ll be honest with you. These children are Jewish, they’re being hunted. Their parents have been arrested.” The couple was dumbfounded. They said, ‘Why didn’t you say so earlier?’ And they took in my two kids.”
We Don’t Know Any Jews. We Only Know Human Beings.
“Under the leadership of Pastor André Trocmé, the village of Le Chambon was the nerve center and the symbol of the spiritual resistance of the area,” notes Pierre Sauvage in “Weapons of the Spirit,” a stirring documentary that recounts the town’s story. “But refugees were sheltered throughout this Protestant enclave, which stretched a dozen miles around Le Chambon in all directions and encompassed a dozen parishes.”
All the pastors in this Protestant region, and a few Chatholic ones, played key roles in providing a safe haven for the refugees, said Sauvage, who interviewed dozens of rescuers as well as many of the “hidden Jews.” But throughout the Plateau and in Le Chambon itself, he noted, “the conspiracy of goodness that developed was both collective and individualistic. And it was largely unspoken. People didn’t talk about what they were doing.”
It was, above all, a matter of one’s own conscience, Magda Trocmé, widow of the pastor of Le Chambon, remarked in the documentary. “I am often asked, ‘How were you organized?’ The answer is, we weren’t. If we’d had an organization, we would have failed!”
On August 10, 1942, Georges Lamirand, Vichy’s Minister for Youth and a spokesman for Marshal Petain, visited Le Chambon accompanied by Chief of Police Robert Bach. Trocmé and his colleague Edouard Theis arranged for a group of students from the nearby New Cévenole School to read a letter to Lamirand.
In blunt language, the letter denounced the appalling “Vel d’Hiv” roundup of thousands of Jews, conducted by the Vichy authorities in Paris on July 16, 1942.
“Minister,” it began, “we have been informed of the scenes of terror which took place three weeks ago in Paris when the French police…arrested all the Jewish families of Paris and dumped them into the Vel d’Hiv.”
The letter declared that the young people of Le Chambon refused to make distinctions between Jews and non-Jews and would seek to hide any Jews the French government attempted to identify or deport.
The Vichy authorities already suspected what was taking place in Le Chambon and surrounding villages; it was impossible over many months to hide such wide-scale rescue activities. A few days after Lamirand’s visit, the alert was given to hide “foreign” Jews because Vichy police were organizing raids in the unoccupied zone to hunt for them. Police arrived with empty buses to carry away the Jews they expected to be turned in.
Not a single Jew was betrayed. The authorities then summoned Andre Trocmé and ordered him to give the names and whereabouts of the fugitives.
“I don’t have such a list and if I did, I wouldn’t give it to you,” he responded, as recounted by his colleague Edouard Theis. “We don’t know which are Jews. We only know human beings.” Issuing ominous threats of reprisals, the police withdrew.
In November 1942, after the Allies landed in North Africa as part of “Operation Torch,” the German army swept across France’s demarcation line and occupied the southern zone. The people of Le Chambon and their Jewish friends were now directly under the Nazi swastika. As the noose began to tighten, German distinctions between “foreign” and French Jews were discarded and the Nazis and their Vichy henchmen grabbed whoever they could.
The French Resistance now became more active, and Nazi retaliation in turn grew more vicious. One French village, Oradur-Sur-Glane, was burned to the ground in a military reprisal, its men were shot and its women and children herded into the church where they were machine-gunned and set on fire.
In February 1943, shockwaves spread through Le Chambon. Trocmé and two colleagues – Edouard Theis and a teacher, Roger Darcissac – were arrested and interned at the Saint-Paul d’Eyjeaux camp near Limoges, hundreds of miles from their homes.
After a month of captivity, the men were called into the camp commandant’s office and ordered to take an oath of loyalty to the Vichy government or be deported. They refused.
Excerpts from Weapons of The Spirit, A Documentary About Le Chambon
In the mid 1970s, a Jewish filmmaker named Pierre Sauvage arrived in Le Chambon to make a documentary about the town’s wartime courage in defying the Nazi occupation and providing a safe haven for thousands of Jews.
Using interviews with Le Chambon villagers, the Jews they saved, and wartime photographs and footage, the film tells a gripping story about one community’s capacity for goodness in the darkest hours.
Sauvage had been born in Le Chambon in 1944 to Jews who had fled the Nazis after the slaughter of their families. Little Pierre and his parents were sheltered by a village couple named Roche. They survived the war in the mountain village and afterwards emigrated to the United States. Pierre reached adulthood never having heard the story from his war-traumatized parents of how or why they were saved in Le Chambon—or even that he was Jewish.
Discovering his Jewish roots as a young man, Sauvage was obsessed with finding the missing pieces to his background. He returned to Le Chambon in his early 30s to finally hear the story from the rescuers themselves. He wanted to unravel the mystery of why here? Why here in Le Chambon, of all Nazi-occupied lands, did an entire community continuously endanger itself to save the lives of total strangers?
Throughout Europe as the Holocaust raged, Jews were hunted down and betrayed by those they turned to for help. In so many places, bystanders watched indifferently as their Jewish neighbors were tortured and killed. In so many places, non-Jews participated in the slaughter or cheered and gloated at Jewish suffering.
What was different about Le Chambon? Sauvage interviewed dozens of Le Chambon villagers as well as some of the Jews they saved in an effort to understand the miracle that unfolded here. His documentary explores this mystery but it remains elusive.
One of the “hidden Jews” he interviewed was Joseph Atlas from Poland who as a young boy was interned for several months in one of the most dreadful French camps.
“At the age of 14, I suddenly found myself flanked by two gendarmes and put into the French internment camp of Gurs,” recounted Joseph Atlas. “After a terrible ordeal there, I was suddenly taken out and brought to Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself in a little house, surrounded by trees, in a village I never heard of….
“The extraordinary thing about Le Chambon is that in the course of four years, nobody there ever asked me the question, “Are you Jewish?” I was a young Jewish refugee who had suffered vicious anti-Semtism… and here I was being protected by a Protestant community.”
They Respected My Faith
Mrs. Marguerite Kohn and her family, Orthodox Jews, kept kosher throughout their stay in the area. She remembers the kindness and respect with which her Christian neighbors treated her. Sometimes she worried that her religious conduct and laws she observed might appear offensive.
“It happened that one day I was invited by a family to attend Protestant services,” Mrs. Kohn reminisced in the documentary. “I didn’t refuse. But they knew that I was attending as a Jew. The villagers were very pleased that I attended these services, but I explained to them that I would not be coming regularly, as these services did not meet my own needs.”
To her relief, the townspeople accepted her explanation and were not offended.
“The people in the village were always extremely kind to me and my children,” Mrs. Kohn recalled. “My children attended school with the village children but wouldn’t go to classes on Saturdays. And nobody ever made any comments about it, neither the teacher nor the parents. They knew we were observant Jews.”
“And they respected your faith?” inquired Sauvage.
“They respected it greatly.”
Mrs. Kohn added that although their hosts tried to make them feel safe, they lived in fear of being caught by the Germans as had so many of family members.
“When I left the area in December 1944, I was still hoping that my husband would come back,” Mrs. Kohn reminisced. “He died in the gas chambers on January 25, 1944. But I only learned that much later. A brother was also deported in 1943, a father of three children. A sister-in-law was deported in January 1944 with four children and her husband. Cousins I felt very close to, who were deported with their husbands and children. Aunts. Uncles. A large part of my family.”
“How many came back?” inquired Sauvage.
Secret Center for Forging Papers
“Not only were we accepted in Le Chambon despite our differences, but there was a feeling of affection,” recalled Oskar Rosowsky in “Weapons of the Spirit”.
Rosowsky had arrived in Le Chambon in 1942 as a teenager with a knack with typewriters who trained himself to become an expert forger. False identity cards and ration cards were essential for life in hiding under the Nazi occupation, and Rosowsky was immediately enlisted in this life-saving mission. Soon Le Chambon became a center for the manufacture and distribution of false papers.
“We produced false papers for about fifty people a week. New refugees were arriving constantly in Le Chambon. We would spend our days making them and our nights distributing them,” recalled Rosowsky whose remarkable story is also told by author Peter Grose in “A Good Place to Hide.”
This clandestine activity took place in the home of Henri and Emma Héritier who had taken in young Oskar, never imagining their houseguest would involve them in forgery—under Vichy laws one of the most dangerous crimes.
“When did you realize he was forging documents?” Sauvage questions the now elderly couple in the documentary.
“Very soon,” Henri Hertier answers. “Because he told me he had some things to hide; he couldn’t leave the papers lying around. The Germans were in Le Chambon. There might be a search.”
“So what did you do?”
“We put them in my beehives, in the woods. And when they needed papers for someone, they would just go over there and get it.”
“Was it difficult? You had to reach into the bee hives?”
“Yes, but there were no bees in those hives,” Mr. Heritier laughs. “The Gendarmes didn’t know that.”
“And weren’t you concerned about the danger in all this?”
“We never had any problems,” Mrs. Heritier responds.
“Did you know Oskar was Jewish?”
“He never mentioned it but yes, we realized.”
Paul Majola, then a very young shepherd, helped in the distribution of the false papers.
“Did you know what you were distributing?” Sauvage questions Majola.
“Not the first two times. Then Monsieur told me it was for refugees, for people who were being hunted and really needed to hide.”
“He told that to you, a young boy? He must have trusted you,” Sauvage remarks.
“Yes, he had complete trust in me.”
“What impression did these refugees make on you at the time?”
“Oh, a really sad one,” the Chambon farmer responded. “Most of them were really lost. Without money, without family. Absolutely lost.”
Historians say the inhabitants of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon and the surrounding area, totaling about 5,000 people, saved an equal number of Jews during the war. Almost every farmer and villager in Le Chambon harbored at least one refugee, and many sheltered multiple Jews in their homes, despite the danger of arrest, deportation or death.