Last night by chance I came across the story of the French village of Le Chambon during WWII. I’d never heard it before, but it’s one of the most fascinating stories of rescuers during the Holocaust.
I’ve written about rescuers several times before, especially here. Different countries had different degrees of cooperation with the Nazi occupation in rounding up their Jews, and as a whole France’s role was a decidedly shameful one. There were individual acts of heroism, to be sure. But Le Chambon was very, very different because the village, as well as the surrounding area, was united in its courage:
From December 1940 to September 1944, the inhabitants of the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (population 5,000) and the villages on the surrounding plateau (population 24,000) provided refuge for an estimated 5,000 people. This number included an estimated 3,000–3,500 Jews who were fleeing from the Vichy authorities and the Germans.
Led by Pastor André Trocmé of the Reformed Church of France [French Huguenot], his wife Magda, and his assistant, Pastor Edouard Theis, the residents of these villages offered shelter in private homes, in hotels, on farms, and in schools. They forged identification and ration cards for the refugees, and in some cases guided them across the border to neutral Switzerland. These actions of rescue were unusual during the period of the Holocaust insofar as they involved the majority of the population of an entire region.
Pierre Sauvage, one of the saved children, grew up to become a documentary filmmaker. In the 1980s he made a film about Le Chambon entitled “Weapons of the Spirit.” Here’s a small clip:
The attitude of the couple is one that I’ve learned is not unusual among rescuers. They almost always deny heroism or any special sort of behavior at all, and act as though what they did was merely normal. The man in the clip says that at first it was not particularly dangerous to shelter the Jews, but then it became so. He’s referring to the fact that during the last year and a half of the German occupation, the Nazis began to crack down more on the people of Le Chambon, even murdering some of the leaders. But the village never cracked, and never betrayed the Jews whose rescue it had taken on.
SAUVAGE: …[They were a] singular group of people with a singular history: this Huguenot stock, this memory of their persecution, not only the fact that they had a history of persecution but that they remembered it, that it mattered to them.
…I think on the one hand, there was that sense of identification with somebody else who was persecuted. On the other, there was their particular slant on their Christian faith which both mandated deeds—that was essential—but also involved a certain, special kinship with the Jews.
MOYERS: Through persecution, through…
SAUVAGE: Well, even broader than that. Simply because the Jews, for many of the Christians of the area, were the People of the Book. These were Christians whose sense of roots went that far back that they were comfortable with the Jewish roots of their faith.
Sauvage’s parents ended up emigrating to the US, where he was raised. But in a great irony, they (like a small number of other Holocaust survivors) abandoned their Jewish identity to the point of not even telling their son that they were Jewish. This is what happened, as Sauvage tells it:
MOYERS: You grew up in New York. Did you hear growing up about Le Chambon? Did your parents constantly refer to it, make you mindful of that part of your story?
SAUVAGE: Well, I guess the answer to that is perhaps a big paradox about the making of the film. The answer is no, my parents did not talk much about Le Chambon. Oh, I knew I was born there. But I didn’t know that Le Chambon had mattered in any particular way.
They basically were people who had put the past behind them to the extent of not even allowing me to know that they were Jewish and that I was Jewish.
MOYERS: They didn’t tell you?
SAUVAGE: They did not tell me. Till I was 18.
MOYERS: You were 18? Nothing in the home had indicated this, nothing in the conversation had indicated this, nothing in your own intuition had indicated this?
SAUVAGE: You know when you were raised under a taboo, the power of that taboo is extraordinary. People sometimes can’t believe that I could have not suspected or known. But the truth is I did not. I did not.
It may not be meaningless that the film was not the work of a dutiful child fulfilling his parents’ fondest wishes. It was the work of a rebellious child, laying a claim to a part of the past, indeed to a heritage, indeed to an identity that he had essentially been deprived of.
MOYERS: In what sense, rebellion?
SAUVAGE: Well, the mere fact of becoming Jewish was a rebellion. I was sort of sent forth into the world as a “nothing.” I wasn’t a Christian, I was simply a “nothing.”
That satisfied me for quite a while, by the way. I was a student in Paris and it never bothered me. It took a long time for me to start measuring that that was not a productive way to live your life. I think two major influences–one, my wife, who is Jewish, and who sort of was working on me—a lot.
And the other, actually, was Le Chambon. Because I realized that a lot of what they did came out of their strong sense of self, their intimate knowledge of who they were, of what their history was. And I realized that, well, if they were getting such strength from being who they are, then I had to aspire to be who I was.
So for Sauvage it came full circle—Le Chambon saved his life, and then Le Chambon helped to give him back his Jewish identity.
[NOTE: If you want to learn more about the persecution the Huguenots had historically faced, see this.]