The Town That Defied the Holocaust

Class of Nonviolence – University Essays
Lesson 11, Reading 1

By Grace Scales Yoder

We must set the scene. The year is 1943. Icicles hang like gloom from roofs in the remote French village. In better weather, it is a six-hour drive to Paris. During this dreary winter, however, few persons brave the tortuous roads as far as the next town. The village is Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a fleck on the French map with little to distinguish it from similar villages throughout the Cevennes Mountains. Le Chambon is in the free zone; it has escaped German occupation. But not for much longer; the Nazis swarm through central France seeking to eradicate Jews and the underground.

Le Chambon is in Protestant country. In Roman Catholic France, small enclaves of Huguenots still practice the Calvinistic religion of their forebears. These are peasants, but they are performing a heroic task: they are concealing several hundred refugees, most of whom are Jewish. They do this knowing that anyone caught hiding Jews is subject to arrest, deportation, and even death. The clandestine effort is led by the fiery Huguenot pastor, Andre Trocme and his soft-spoken assistant, Edouard Theis. They collaborate with American Quakers and the Salvation Army.

Vichy officials know that Le Chambon is nicknamed the “Jewish nest in Protestant country,” but they have been loathe to prosecute fellow countrymen. So as long as the Chambonese cover their tracks well, Vichy police look the other way. But not so the Germans. As the Nazi presence grows, the two pastors periodically slip out of town to avoid arrest. But their clandestine network continues. Le Chambon is the main way station in an underground railroad spanning convents and farms from southern France to Geneva.

Some 2,500 Jews will pass through Chambon before the war ends. The 1,000 inhabitants don’t expect recognition for their efforts, but in a generation they will nonetheless be immortalized. Five years ago, Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed popularized the story of Le Chambon. Hallie, a philosophy professor at Wesleyan University, had become disillusioned — even cynical — as he explored ethical rationalizations for the Holocaust. Le Chambon’s weaponless resistance to the Nazis convinced him that humanity is capable of genuine good.

Two years after Hallie’s book hits U.S. bookstores, I am in France on a grant to study French Protestantism. Several pastors tell me that Le Chambon is their spiritual capital. I trek to Le Chambon to see whether it is as Hallie portrayed it. I have written to 82-year-old Edouard Theis, the quieter of the wartime pastor-leaders (Andre Trocme died in the mid-sixties.) Theis has retired to a hamlet 30 minutes from Le Chambon and offers to accompany me on visits to elderly Chambonese who led the refugee effort.

Our first stop is the home of Mme. Barraud, a slender widow no more than four feet eight inches tall. Her story unfolds as it surely must have for Hallie — how she operated a boardinghouse for students who were, in the main, East European refugees; how an anonymous phone call would warn of a raid, and her boarders would flee to the woods as Gestapo trucks pulled in at the presbytery; and finally, how during a raid, her daughter was accidentally shot to death.

The conversation veers to Hallie’s book. Mme. Barraud says she knows enough English to make out most of it. Her reaction: “What’s the big deal? Mr. Hallie acts as if we did something extraordinary. We did the only decent thing.”

Everyone I talk with in Le Chambon — including Pastor Theis — shares this business-as-usual attitude about risking one’s life for others. Mme. Barraud’s modesty aside, Le Chambon’s effort truly was exceptional.

But why did it happen? Perhaps the extraordinary effort was rooted in the Reformed faith of the inhabitants. Certainly religious commitment was central to saving the refugees. But there must have been more to the effort. Other towns within a fifty-mile radius — as Protestant as Le Chambon — did little to help refugees. Many Frenchmen willingly hid Jews when they happened by. But Pastors Trocme and Theis did more: they asked the Quakers to send refugees their way. Also, the pastors found money and supplies to make the project feasible, first from Quakers and later from the Cimade, an ecumenical service organization whose sole mission was to help refugees. At the ministers’ behest, the Cimade set up a refugee center near Le Chambon. After the Nazis invaded southern France, the Cimade manufactured false identity cards and negotiated with Swiss officials to gain asylum for the refugees, who were led along an underground railroad into Switzerland. Theis worked closely with the group in smuggling refugees. For this, he spent many a night in Swiss jails.

The inhabitants of Le Chambon knew early something of the stake involved in saving Jews. Theis recalls a talk given to regional Reformed Church leaders soon after the 1940 surrender, warning that Germany’s anti-Semitic policies could lead to disaster for European Jews. The speaker was Andre Philip, leader in the nascent Resistance movement. “That meeting convinced Trocme that Le Chambon should become a haven for anyone persecuted during the war,” Theis said.

Trocme took his idea to the town’s officials and the church presbyterial council. Both groups were easily persuaded that Le Chambon should become a refuge.

Miss Lesley Maber, a British teacher who has lived in Le Chambon since the thirties, believes that the Huguenot tradition of clandestine workshop, developed during centuries of persecution, contributed to the Chambonese’s sensitivity to persecution of others.

“When I first moved here, I was struck by how the Camisard wars — the oppressions of two hundred years ago — were recounted as if they were yesterday,” she says. (The Camisard wars of 1702-1704 pitted makeshift Protestant insurgents against royal French troops, who finally won.)

Andre Chamson, a Cevenole Protestant and member of the elite Academie Francaise, observes that Protestants of southern France are marked by persecution unlike that anywhere else in the world. This theme pervades many of his novels and essays. Moreover, during the war, the French Reformed Church encouraged its leaders to oppose fascism. The teachings of Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, provided spiritual impetus. His emphasis that one must obey God above all other considerations fitted conveniently with the tales of Camisard insurgence that were still popular in Le Chambon. Protestants often are regarded as political mavericks in France, fitting in neither Right nor Left. “Here in the south of France,” said Jean Valette, a regional director of the Reformed Church, “Protestantism has traditionally been strong. One also finds more local governments opposing the status quo. The two are interrelated.”

While Trocme and Theis were hatching a grand scheme for their tiny parish, many French were rationalizing that Germans were fighting the Communists and that it must be a good thing. Vichy was their punishment for the political evils of the thirties — such as paying higher wages to workers and flirting with Communism during the Popular Front years. It was for history to determine which view was right.

Publication of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed has not changed Le Chambon. Though its elderly citizens seek no publicity, they are obviously glad their work is not forgotten. One wonders, though, whether Chambon youth realize what their grandparents did. Le Chambon is still little visited; most strangers are just passing through. Occasional Jews still make a pilgrimage here, if only to read the Hebrew plaque across from the Reformed Church.

Perhaps the biggest change since the war is demographic: the population is now about evenly split between Protestants and Catholics. One leaves believing that the elderly Chambonese — most now in their eighties — would harbor refugees again. But not because an American professor wrote a nice book about them. They would do it because it is the decent thing to do.

As Pastor Theis and I finish chatting with Mme. Barraud and gather our things to leave, she invites me to return. “Next time you visit,” she says with a heavy Cevenole accent, “Just let me know. I have plenty of room upstairs; I’d love to have you.”

She means it.


The Class of Nonviolence – University Essays is an sixteen session curriculum developed by Colman McCarthy, founder of the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. It uses classics in peace and justice literature to teach peacemaking. Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372

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