A little French town and its dynamic Presbyterian minister saved Jewish lives in the Holocaust

Background: During WW2 the Vichy government in France collaborated with the Nazis. Their misdeeds included the Vel d’Hiv, an indoor bike track where at least 7,500 Jews were detained for several days with no lavatories and almost no water before being shipped off to extermination camps. This event was featured in the fine recent book and film Sarah’s Key. But you know about the Holocaust horrors.

Now for some good news…

Le Chambon, a mountain village in the south of France, saved 2,500 Jewish refugees. (And many others.) Though I’m reasonably well-informed about the Holocaust, I’d never heard of Le Chambon. I noticed a book about it on the ReadTheSpirit website.

The book: Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed—The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. I searched my Kindle. No luck. (The paperback was published in 1993, pre-ebook.) It was lovely to feel pulp and underline with a pen and dog-ear pages again. And this story was worth whatever part of whatever tree was sacrificed to print it.

A Protestant town in a Catholic country, Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon was led by an extraordinary Presbyterian minister, André Trocmé; his equally extraordinary wife Magda and dedicated assistant pastor, Edouard Theis. Because Trocmé preached non-violence, the town wasn’t deemed a threat to the Gestapo. (The town of about 3,000 was located in the Unoccupied Zone.) Townspeople lodged Jewish refugees in their homes, fed them from their own meager rations, forged ID and ration cards and conducted many to safety in neutral Switzerland.

The book’s fine title comes from the “city of refuge” passage, Deuteronomy 19:10. “Lest innocent blood be shed in your land… and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.”

Author Philip Hallie writes about Trocmé’s immersion in the lives of his parishioners. And about the power of sermons that “emphasized the need to obey one’s conscience when there is a conflict between it and the laws… of government.”

A month after the Vel d ‘Hiv, Trocmé preached, “It is humiliating to Europe that such things can happen.”

Hallie, who is Jewish, concludes: “From the point of view of the Jewish and other refugees who walked or rode up that steep incline to Le Chambon, the Chambonnais are higher ethically than many other people. They are higher than those who during the war years lived in lazy indifference, or fear, or hatred. From the refugees’ point of view, the Chambonnais are among the moral nobility of the earth, and the refugees know this as surely as they know the joy of being alive and as surely as they know the joy of seeing their children live.”

Trocmé was posthumously awarded a Medal of Righteousness by the state of Israel. The certificate described him as a man who “at the peril of his life, saved Jews during the epoch of extermination.”

A 1990 documentary about Le Chambon, Weapons of the Spirit, was produced by Pierre Sauvage, whose parents were among those saved. A new, re-mastered 25th-anniversary edition of the film will be available this year.

With antisemitism and other forms of discrimination on the rise globally, it’s a privilege to read about a man, a wife and a village with the courage to stand up. The town of Le Chambon restores your faith in humanity.

(Thanks, Read The Spirit, for a heads-up that was also a spirits-up.)

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