During the horrors of The Holocaust a small French mountain village Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was the safest place in Europe for Jews. Not one Jew was taken by the Nazis. A story of a 'conspiracy of goodness': an entire town which at great risk sheltered 5,000 Jews. Committed to deception of the enemy and preservation of life ..
In occupied France collaborators delivered 83,000 Jews, including 10,000 children, to the Nazi death camps - only 3,000 ever returned. But the residents of the area of Le Chambon, quietly took in and saved as many Jews as their entire population, who came to them for shelter and refuge.
Ordinary people, often poverty-stricken themselves, protected the Jews at the peril of their own lives. They took the Jews into their homes, fed and protected them, right under the noses of the Gestapo. Defying the Nazi régime and the French government that was collaborating with the Nazis, the villagers of the area of Le Chambon provided a safe haven throughout the war for the Jews. Every home hid strangers, not for days, but for years. So deep was their humanity that no resident of Le Chambon ever turned away, denounced, or betrayed a single Jewish refugee.
It all started one cold, dark evening during the winter of 1940-41 with a knock at the door of Andre Trocmé, the Protestant pastor of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. He answered the door and there stood a hungry, cold woman. She was a Jewish refugee fleeing the Nazis, could she come in ?
The simple act of kindness became a beacon of hope for thousands of people fleeing the Vichy government and the Nazis during World War II. It is credited with inspiring a rescue effort that saved some 5,000 refugees - four years began when the citizens of Chambon welcomed Jewish refugees, sheltering them, educating their children, arranging for hundreds to escape to safety in Switzerland or Spain via a well-organized underground network.
Jewish children sheltered - and saved
Pastor Andre Trocmé served as a moral compass for the village. He was born in 1901 and came from a long line of Huguenots and Germans. As a teenager in the First World War he had been deeply impressed by a German soldier who was a conscientious objector. He came to Le Chambon, seeking a remote parish where his pacifism would not be conspicuous. In 1938 he helped to found an international pacifist school in Le Chambon. A year or two later when a national leader of the Reformed Church called on Trocmé to ask him to stop aiding Jews because it could damage French Protestantism, Trocmé refused.
Andre Trocmé showed the Chambonnais the most practical and effective way to resist Vichy and the Nazis. Le Chambon got away with various symbolic demonstrations of resistance. The staff of the school refused to pledge unconditional obedience to the Head of State, and the church bell was not rung, as ordered, for the Vichy leader Pétain's anniversary. And pastor Trocmé always responded to calls for help to hide Jews in danger of detection, even if this jeopardized not only his own life but those of his wife and children and members of his community.
The refugees were welcomed without hesitation. They were housed in private homes, on farms as well as in public institutions and were hidden in the countryside whenever the Nazis came through. One of the villagers later recalled: 'As soon as the soldiers left, we would go into the forest and sing a song. When they heard that song, the Jews knew it was safe to come home.'
The bible here belonged to Andre Trocmé. His handwritten inscription in French reads, in part, 'Happy are those hungry and thirsty of justice; for they will be satisfied ..'
The Vichy authorities knew what was taking place, since it was impossible to hide such wide-scale rescue activities over time. They demanded that the pastor cease his activities. His response was clear-cut: 'These people came here for help and for shelter. I am their shepherd. A shepherd does not forsake his flock. I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings.'
In the summer of 1942, two Vichy French police busses arrived at the village. The police captain went to Andre Trocmé and demanded a list of the Jews being sheltered in the village. The demand was accompanied by the threat of arrest, but the pastor refused to give the police the names. The next day, the busses left without prisoners ..
Eventually, Trocme was arrested along with a number of his friends, but he was released after a few weeks, without having signed a commitment to follow government orders regarding the Jews. The Nazis arrested his cousin, Daniel Trocmé, and sent him to the death camp Majdanek, where he was murdered. Andre Trocmé himself was forced to hide from the Nazis. His wife continued his legacy and many Jews resided in relative calm until the end of the war, with the aid and encouragement of the local residents in this hilly region of Southeastern France.
In 1990 Le Chambon-sur-Lignon became the first community to be honoured as Righteous Gentiles by the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. There are two trees dedicated to them at Yad Vashem. Mordecai Paldiel of Yad Vashem said 'the village was unique in that almost all the people of the plateau were involved in saving these Jews, and no one said a word.'
An old villager later recalled:
'We didn't protect the Jews because we were moral or heroic people. We helped them because it was the human thing to do ..'
States Holocaust Memorial Museum
USHMM COLLECTION (1990.238.1)
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