I was very moved yesterday to witness a news item about the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France, recently honoured for saving between 3,000 and 5,000 Jewish children and young people from the Nazis during World War 2.
This tiny Protestant farming village is situated in the mountains of south-central France. Many of its citizens are proud descendants of the Huguenots, the first Protestants in Catholic France. These people understood what it meant to be victims of persecution, so reaching out to the victims of the Nazism came naturally to them.
The people also read the Bible, putting the principle of loving your neighbour as yourself into practice on a daily basis. Village Pastor during the war years, Andre Trocme wrote...... “the humblest peasant home has its Bible and the father reads it every day. So these people, who do not read the papers but the scriptures, do not stand on the moving soil of opinion but on the rock of the Word of the Lord.”
The day after France surrendered to Nazi Germany, Pastor Trocme reminded the people that their responsibility was “to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit.” Thus, in defiance of the Nazis and the Vichy government which collaborated with the Nazis, Le Chambon became a village of refuge for whoever found their way to it.
This persistent and powerful moral consensus continued throughout the war and beyond. Pastor Trocme and his assistant, Edouard Theis were arrested early in the war. Later released, their activities were continually monitored by the Gestapo. By summer 1943, the Gestapo forced Trocme into hiding. A reward was offered for his capture. While many knew his location, no one turned him in.
The’ Facing History’ website records that: “When interviewed forty years later, the people of Le Chambon did not regard themselves as heroes. They did what they did, they said, because they believed that it had to be done. Almost everyone in the community of three thousand took part in the effort. Even the children were involved. When a Nazi official came to organize a Hitler Youth camp in the village, the students told him that they “make no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. It is contrary to Gospel teaching.”
Pierre Sauvage, is a Jew whose parents were hiding in the village at the time he was born. He later made the feature documentary ‘Weapons of the Spirit’, documenting the efforts of the unsung heroes and heroines of Le Cambon.
Sauvage believes that the villagers’ courage must never be forgotten: “If we do not learn how it is possible to act well even under the most trying circumstances, we will increasingly doubt our ability to act well even under less trying ones. If we remember solely the horror of the Holocaust, it is we who will bear the responsibility for having created the most dangerous alibi of all: that it was beyond man’s capacity to know and care. If Jews do not learn that the whole world did not stand idly by while we were slaughtered, we will undermine our ability to develop the friendships and alliances that we need and deserve. If Christians do not learn that even then there were practicing Christians, they will be deprived of inspiring and essential examples of the nature and requirements of their faith.”