A remarkable story of bravery in wartime

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Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (C) Holocaust Memorial Museum

Many of us have heard of Oskar Schindler, of Schindler’s list Fame. This German industrialist saved thousands of Jews during World War II, thanks to a combination of bravery and cunning. Less well known, but just as remarkable, is the story of a small French village that saved thousands of others.

A story of persecution

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is located in a hilly part of south-central France, surrounded by forests and fields. This remote region is known as the The Protestant Mountain (the Protestant Mountain) because it was colonized a long time ago by French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution. Its isolation made it an ideal refuge and it sheltered other Huguenots during the Wars of Religion, helping many to flee to Switzerland.

This history of persecution and mistrust of authority led the villagers to oppose the Vichy government in times of war. They refused to cooperate with the regime, refused to take an oath of allegiance to Chief Marshal Pétain and refused to ring church bells in his honor. Villagers also opposed the government’s anti-Jewish policies, seeing Jews as another persecuted religious minority.

Save the Jews

This opposition quickly turned into action, when the villagers began to hide Jews and others whose lives were in danger. It didn’t start out as an organized effort, but rather as one person helping another. As Magda Trocmé will describe later:

“Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought needed to be done – nothing more complicated. It wasn’t decided overnight what to do. There were a lot of people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and that. We didn’t have time to think. When a problem arose, we had to resolve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, “How did you make a decision? There was no decision to make. The problem was: do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unfair to make the Jews or not? So let’s try to help! ‘ “

Pastor Trocmé
Pasteur Trocmé (C) Public Domain, Wikipedia

The efforts eventually became more organized, led by charismatic Pastor Andr̩ Trocm̩, his wife Magda and Assistant Pastor Edouard Theis. Pastor Trocm̩ contacted a Quaker relief organization to see how he could help the Jews who had been interned in the south of France. A plan was devised whereby the Quakers would remove Jews Рusually children Рfrom internment camps and Pastor Trocm̩ would find shelter for them.

Soon dozens of Jews were in hiding in homes, farms, schools and hotels in and near Chambon. As the news spread, more and more came, and soon there were many more mouths to feed. A villager bought a printing press and started making fake ration cards and fake IDs for the new arrivals.

Constant danger

Raids were a constant danger and the village was attacked on several occasions. But sympathetic police officers sent warnings ahead of time, and the Jews melted into the forests until the alarm bells were sounded.

Magda Trocme
Magda Trocmé (C) wagingnonviolence.org

Things got complicated when the Nazis took power, displacing the Vichy regime. Pastors Trocmé and Theis were arrested, then released after a month. But the risks eventually became so great that they went into hiding and the operation was led by Magda. Eventually, a Gestapo raid succeeded and five Jews were discovered in a school run by Daniel, Pastor Trocmé’s cousin. He was arrested, sent to a concentration camp and murdered.

The operation lasted from 1940 to 1944 and, remarkably, no one ever betrayed it. The risks taken by the villagers were extreme, for the penalty for harboring Jews was death.

An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Jews were rescued during the war, along with others such as members of the French Resistance and young men fleeing forced labor in Germany. Many were taken to safety in Switzerland, following the route once taken by the Huguenots. But no one knows the exact number, as no records were kept and people rarely talked about what was going on.

Tribute to Chambon

This quiet bravery became public in 1990 when the village and its surroundings were recognized as Righteous among the nations by the State of Israel. Le Chambon was also awarded during a ceremony at Pantheon in Paris in 2007.

Today the village has a small museum, the Place of memory, with testimonies from those who lived through the war. It’s a story worth telling over and over again.


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