A Conspiracy of Goodness Saved Thousands
In a country where anti-Semitism has a long, malignant history that reaches into the present day, the story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small French village that saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis at the risk of their lives, offers a striking contrast to that bitter history.
The extraordinary rescue tale also counters the conventional belief that in the face of the Nazi onslaught, resistance during the Holocaust was futile, that rescue was not possible.
The Vichy regime set up in southern France by French collaborators with Hitler delivered 76,000 Jews, including 10,000 children, to the death camps. But the residents of the area of Le Chambon, that included a handful of villages and small farms, quietly defied the Nazis and sheltered 5000 Jews—as many refugees as their entire population.
The was the largest-scale, most long-lasting and successful haven of refuge anywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe
The 1989 award-winning documentary Weapons of the Spirit by Pierre Sauvage, tells how under the dynamic leadership of pastor André Trocmé and his wife Magda, as well as several other Protestant leaders in the region, the villagers protected the Jews, provided them with false papers, and enrolled the children in local schools under false names to deceive authorities.
Lest Innocent Blood be Shed (Hallie, 1979), and A Good Place to Hide (Grose, 2015), further explore this extraordinary phenomenon, describing how villagers took serious risks by smuggling many of the Jews past checkpoints and through secret mountain routes to the border with Switzerland.
Until the winter of 1942, sheltering Jews in Vichy France was against the law but was not punished with severe reprisals. That changed after the Nazis swept into southern France and launched a reign of terror. At that point, even insular Le Chambon and surrounding villages where Jews had found a safe haven were endangered.
Arrests, disappearances and sudden deaths shattered the tranquility of the region. The noose tightened with the arrest of pastor Trocmé and Edouard Theis, colleagues and partners in rescue work. Also arrested was Roger Darcissac, the local headmaster who was sheltering hundreds of Jewish children in his school. Darcissac was also involved in the photographing of counterfeit documents that were used to supply false identities to Jewish refugees.
Antechamber To Death
Trocmé, Theis and Darcissac were taken to a police station far from Le Chambon, photographed and fingerprinted. Their noses were measured to ascertain whether they were Jewish (a line on their dossier began with “Nez,” French for nose, asked for the size in centimeters of the prisoner’s nose.) Their belongings were then confiscated and the men were thrown into an internment camp at Limoges, consigned to deportation.
Seeing the camp, low grey wooden barracks surrounded by high barbed wire fences and watchtowers manned by guards with machine guns, the men felt the pinch of fear in their hearts for the first time.
Trocmé and Theis had heard of the starvation, torture and the mass killings in the camps in Germany and Poland from refugees and escapees who had taken refuge in Le Chambon. Some of it had sounded too fantastic to believe. Now the suspicion grew with the pastors that it might be all too true, that the French interments camp were the antechamber to the killing sites in the east.
A few weeks before the cattle trains arrived, Trocmé was summoned by the camp commandant and given an ultimatum: “Take an oath you will cooperate with authorities and you’ll be released. Refuse, and you’ll be deported.”
Trocmé refused and was herded back to the camp barracks to await deportation. The same scenario was repeated with fellow activists Theis and Darcissac. The three understood their fates were sealed. To their astonishment, however, a week later the three friends were put on a train by French and German police and returned to Le Chambon, unharmed. Nobody knew how they had escaped deportation—or if it was some kind of trick that might backfire.
A Vichy Stooge and a Town’s Solidarity
Research by documentary-maker Sauvage revealed that the three activists had been released through the intervention of a senior Vichy official, the local police commandant, Robert Bach. Sauvage discovered wartime documents that contain a report from Bach to his superiors, urging the release of the three men, even lying that the village had been won over to the Vichy policies and was no longer harboring Jews.
Bach in his report went on to assure his commanders that the accounts of Jews hiding in Le Chambon were grossly exaggerated, and the number of refugees was “relatively minimal.”
Robert Bach was a Vichy supporter who carried out many other arrests of “undesirables.” Why would a Vichy stooge step out of character to intervene on behalf of Le Chambon’s leaders whom he had to know were hiding Jews? Various political motives have been suggested but for the overjoyed villagers, their leaders’ release was an outright miracle.
Decades later, one of the townspeople, Mrs. Marion, described in an interview with author Peter Grose the moving sight that met Trocmé and Theis when they stepped off the train at the Le Chambon station.
“There were the villagers, waiting in absolute silence, with an open path through them. The two returning leaders strode through the open path and the villagers silently closed ranks behind them, and accompanied them away from the station.”
“The Gestapo were there, and so were some collaborators from Vichy,” continued Marion. “It was clear they were looking for an excuse to arrest the men again.”
The villagers’ mass demonstration of solidarity with their pastors was not lost on the authorities.
Trocmé’s superiors agreed he was in grave danger and pressured him to go into hiding, yet he resisted, believing his duty was to stay with his parishioners. In the meantime, Theis left Le Chambon to join the workers of a rescue organization that smuggled refugees across the Swiss border, while Roger Darcissac resumed his position—and clandestine rescue activities—at the local school.
In the face of mounting danger, the people of Le Chambon continued providing sanctuary to the Jews in their midst. “Despite the absence of Edouard Theis, a key activist, it was rescue business as usual right across the Plateau, with groups of children and adults continuing to flow down the two “pipelines’ (escape routes) to Switzerland,” writes Grose, adding that they were sometimes led to the border crossing by Pastor Theis himself.
Jews continued to arrive by train and bus, and all were taken in and sheltered. No one was turned away, no one was asked why they were there, and no one was asked if they were Jewish. They were supplied with false papers, including ration cards.
“The hospitality of the villagers at times went to incredible lengths,” notes the author. “For example, Jewish religious ceremonies survived with the active support of the Protestant establishment. Rudi Appel, a young refugee, ‘remembers a Chanukah party in December 1943 in which the Jewish children lit Chanukah candles and sang Maoz Tzur’ as the school director, coached by Rudi, accompanied them on the piano.
There was no shul in the village so the Protestant church designated a room for the Jews to use on Shabbos. Andre Hano, one of the refugees and a teacher at the school, conducted the services.
The Plague Reaches Le Chambon
Spared for the most part for the first three years following the outbreak of war, the village of Le Chambon in 1943 began to feel the boot of the dreaded Gestapo. In June of that year, heavily armed German soldiers burst into a local boys’ school where Jews in their upper teens and early twenties were being sheltered. Four policemen armed with submachine guns were posted around the house to make sure no one got away.
The director of the school, Daniel Trocmé, a cousin of the pastor, was arrested along with two dozen students. The Jews were separated from the group and sent to concentrations camps Germany and Poland. None survived.
Daniel Trocmé was deported to Buchenwald and then to Dora, one of its subsidiaries where slave laborers worked in underground factories building secret weapons for the Third Reich. Around 60,000 prisoners passed through this hellhole, attests Grose. 20,000 died from torture, starvation and murder. In February 1944, 2000 of the most sick and disabled Dora prisoners were shipped to Majdanek in Poland to be gassed. Daniel Trocmé was one of them.
With the deportation of his cousin and 20 of his students, Pastor Andre Trocmé finally understood that his own re-arrest was a certainty, and that his family would be targeted as well. He shaved his moustache, assembled a hasty disguise and with false papers provided by Roger Darcissac, went into hiding in a distant town.
Into The Lion’s Den
A few months later, Le Chambon lost another key humanitarian leader and member of the French Resistance with the Nazis’ capture of Dr. Roger Le Forestier. The doctor had tried to obtain the release of two fellow activists who were imprisoned in nearby Le Puy. Against the advice of his friends, he traveled straight into the lion’s den to plead the case of the two men.
Tragically, he was arrested and sentenced to death by a military court. Le Forestier was then transferred to Fort Montluc prison in Lyon, where Klaus Barbie, “the Butcher of Lyon” presided as senior commandant during the Nazi occupation. Barbie was a sadistic monster even by Gestapo standards who derived pleasure in torturing and murdering his victims, including children.
On August 20, 1943 on Barbie’s orders, 120 Montluc prisoners including Le Forestier were taken to the village of Saint Genis Laval on the southwestern outskirts of Lyon. With Barbie issuing the commands and supervising the operation, Gestapo officers crammed the prisoners into an empty two-floor house and systematically machine-gunned them to death. Then they set the house of fire with petroleum and phosphorus so that the bodies could not be identified.
This atrocity was replicated on an even bigger scale in other parts of the Plateau region. Not far away, at Oradour-sur-Glane in June 1944, a village of 642 men, women and children was massacred in a similar way. But Le Chambon, the very nerve center of the rescue effort including the forgery operations, was not touched. Why? To date, no one has satisfactorily unraveled that mystery.
The liberation of France began on June 6, 1944, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy on France’s northern coast. The Allies began moving south and east, gaining control of French territory and moving toward Germany. Paris fell to the French 2nd Armored Division and Allied troops on August 24, 1944 and by early September, nearly all of France had been cleared of Germans.
Although it was a great symbolic victory, the liberation of Paris, according to some historians, was responsible for prolonging the war. Allied fuel reserves had been depleted, and those German forces who escaped reached the safety of the Siegfried Line where they regrouped and mounted an offensive. Massive battles still lay ahead, including the Battle of the Bulge where the Allies would suffer huge losses.
It would be almost a year before Germany unconditionally surrendered. During that time, Nazi death trains continued to rush their victims to the crematoria, snuffing out more than a million more Jewish souls.
For most of the French, however, the war came to an end at the beginning of September 1944, when the Germans in southern France surrendered to the French Resistance. Joyous celebrations rang out throughout Le Chambon and all the villages in the Plateau.
Joy and Bereavement
For the Jews who still remained in the village, however, joy was tempered with pain and bereavement. A week earlier, on August 27, the press had been allowed into Majdanek, the first of the Nazi death factories to be liberated. Shocking pictures of gas champers and crematoria, of piles of dead bodies and emaciated prisoners were filmed across the world.
The rumors about the industrialized killing machinery that had wiped out European Jewry—and that the Nazis kept operating until the very last possible moment—were confirmed in all their horror.
Justifying their raids in search of Jews in Le Chambon and its vicinity, the French police had peddled the lie that the Jews were being “transferred” to Poland were they could live in peace. The adults did not believe these lies but a stubborn little “maybe” had kept the Jewish children—who comprised the majority of the refugees–clinging to the hope of being reunited with their families after the war.
Now they had to grapple with the unthinkable: their parents and all those shipped off from French internment camps to the “east” had probably been murdered. In general, young children from countries outside France remained with their adopted families until the end of the war and often beyond, writes Grose, unless and until relatives came forward to claim them.
The others seized the first opportunity to leave, most to the United States or Israel. While some stayed in touch with their adoptive families, many did not.
Joseph Atlas, who was a young boy when he was spirited out of one of the worst French internment camps and brought to Le Chambon, spoke for many of the “hidden” children when he described his conflicted emotions about what he had been through in the village.
“When Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was liberated by the French Army, I lived through it,” Atlas reminisced in Weapons of the Spirit. It was clearly a cathartic moment for him. He recalled how most of the Jews left but he had stayed on to pursue his studies (perhaps having no family to return to). A few years later, he said, he left for South America.
“I forgot Le Chambon. I forgot it deliberately, because I was emerging from a nightmare,” Atlas confessed. “The Chambonnais may have been hurt by that. They may have thought that we didn’t fully appreciate their kindness and hospitality. This was not the case; I hold their hospitality very close to my heart. But it was necessary for me to absorb, understand and surmount the tragedy that the Jewish people (and I myself) had lived through. That took many years…”
In email correspondence with Yated in which he shared a great deal of material, Mr. Sauvage noted that while “Weapons of the Spirit” is no longer in circulation, it will soon be released in a newly reformatted edition under the same title.
Le Chambon Survivor Comes Full Circle
Among the refugees was a French couple who had come to Le Chambon for medical reasons. The wife was pregnant and complications had set in; she was advised to move to a quiet, stress-free environment where proper food and rest were available if order to regain her health. They found such a haven in Le Chambon, where a kindly couple named Roche offered them shelter.
Dr. Roger Forestier—one of the quiet heroes of Le Chambon’s rescue work, and later a member of the French Resistance, presided over the birth of the couple’s child—Pierre.
This was Pierre Sauvage who, in a striking twist, would grow up to create the gripping chronicle, Weapons of the Spirit, that celebrates the chasidei umos ha’olam of Le Chambon and the humanitarian doctor who helped him take his very first breath.
Pierre and his parents, Barbara and Leo Sauvage, survived the war in the mountain village and emigrated to the United States in 1948, settling in New York. 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.
It was only at the age of 18 that his parents revealed to him this shocking information. He discovered that his mother was a Polish Jew from Bialystok who had shed her Jewish identity during the war and consciously chose to never reclaim it. The same was true for his father, a journalist for a prominent French paper.
The young Pierre discovered that the isolation of his childhood years where aunts, uncles and cousins were wholly absent, was intentional, because his Jewish relatives—some of whom lived close by—could not be trusted by his parents to keep up the conspiracy of silence.
Long after the taboo had been lifted and Pierre knew he was Jewish, he still felt rootless, suffering an inner emptiness that he couldn’t explain. He returned to Le Chambon in his early 40s, hoping to pick up clues from his parents’ rescuers.
Probing The Mystery of Goodness
What exactly happened in this tiny mountain village? Who came there and why? Who were the people of Le Chambon who welcomed Jews when everyone else wanted them dead?
Why, in Le Chambon, of all Nazi-occupied lands, did an entire community continuously endanger itself to save the lives of total strangers?
Sauvage interviewed dozens of Le Chambon villagers as well as many of the Jews they saved, probing the mystery of how in a world gone mad, love and sanity continued to reign among these simple folk. He came to believe that it was their deeply rooted, ancestral faith that inspired them to preserve life when others sought to destroy it.
In addition, the Huguenots’ long-running history of bigotry and persecution at the hands of the Catholic church vividly recalled, the villagers were quick to empathize with the persecuted Jews. They did not view their actions as heroic, but simply “the human thing to do,” as one of the rescuers put it.
Sauvage’s encounter with the inhabitants of Le Chambon showed him how being a link in a cross-generational religious chain built strong identities and moral clarity. Ironically, this ignited his interest in exploring his own spiritual roots. His journey of self-discover is reflected in the script he wrote for Weapons of the Spirit.
“I am a Jew,” he proudly declares in the opening sequence. “I was born in Nazi-occupied France. At the time, a spiritual plague was still sweeping through the western world. It produced the Holocaust…that mutilated my family, burned my roots and wiped out one third of my people.”
A captivating photograph of a Jewish family fills the screen. “This is my mother’s family in Poland before the war” continues Sauvage, the film’s narrator. “They killed her mother, her younger brother, her sister, her little niece…”
The documentary was created at a time in his life when Sauvage’s parents were still hiding their Jewish background. They objected to their son exposing their secret before the world with the release of his film, but he found he could no longer prop up his parents’ deceptions.
Sauvage confided in an online interview that he decided to defer to his mother’s requests to remove her family name and the town of her birth from the film, to minimize the chances of her being identified. All the martyred relatives featured in that luminous photograph who might have been memorialized in the film, thus remain nameless.
How sad, and what a reminder of the enduring scars of the Holocaust, that a prime opportunity to honor the memory of loved ones who have no graves or matzeivos was repudiated—an opportunity that many survivors, even those far from Yiddishkeit, would have eagerly embraced.