A Protestant town's 'conspiracy of good' in Vichy France

Chambon-Sur-Lignon, France - The mostly Protestant villagers of this tiny mountain plateau didn't talk about it at the time. Today, they still mostly don't talk about it.

But during World War II, in defiance of the Vichy and Nazi regimes, they hid some 4,000 Jews, many of them children. Ordinary French farmers and shopkeepers risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Holocaust in the largest communal effort of its kind in Europe. What they did has been largely ignored or forgotten in France, experts say.

Yet in Israel, Chambon is one of two European towns honored at Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Opposite a stone Protestant church in this French hamlet sits a plaque presented by Jews to "the righteous."

Pierre Sauvage, born here of Jewish parents, says the church and its pastors sparked a highly conscious but silent "conspiracy of good" – to oppose Nazi policies.

At a time when targeting and deporting Jews was considered patriotic, residents of Chambon refused. Instead, they fed, clothed, and housed Jews; sanctioned an industry of false passports and identity papers; and developed an underground railroad to Switzerland.

But the deeply pious faith behind these acts has been lost in the complex politics and denials of postwar France and the shock that settled over Europe as details of the Holocaust emerged over decades.

For years, French students were smothered in myths of heroic war resistance – what British historian Tony Judt calls the nation's "tortured, long denied and serially incomplete memory."

France facing its Nazi collaboration

But in the past decade, France has faced its collaboration with Nazis as never before. In February, President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered fifth graders to adopt and study a Holocaust child victim next year. That proposal, considered pedagogically too harsh, has since been withdrawn.

However, France's education ministry this month is charged with offering alternative curricula for the Holocaust. In this context, Mr. Savauge and historians familiar with the Chambon story say the "rescuers" deserve another look.

For younger French students, the rescuers represent an affirmative story about the Holocaust without sugarcoating the scale of the inhumanity, some educators say.

If German political philosopher Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" was a main insight into Auschwitz, historians say, the rescuers illustrate the possibility of decency and natural goodness in dark times. In a world where man's inhumanity to man has hardly been stamped out, it's argued, such stories are even more relevant.

"Why would we ever want to forget the only people who remembered the Jews during the Nazi plague?" asks historian Patrick Henry, author of the recent work, "We Only Know Men." Mr. Henry's title is taken from the response of Chambon pastor Andre Trocme, who, when asked to identify Jews in the town, told Vichy officials that, "we don't know Jews, we only know men."

Save the popular film "Schindler's List," little attention has been given to Europe's rescuers. Jewish survivors haven't wanted the Holocaust itself reduced in scope. French rescuers were often lumped into the resistance. Yet fighting Nazis often had little to do with saving one's Jewish neighbors.

Tale muffled amid secularism

Perhaps one reason Chambon's response has not been more widely heralded, say those who know it, is that, for France, it has an awkward religious foundation.

In today's aggressively secular France, the tradition here that the Gospels have practical meaning in the face of evil often doesn't sit well. It was not until the 1980s that many Chambonnais shared their deeds – and then only when prodded by outsiders. Just as the central role of devout southern black churches in the US civil rights movement was airbrushed out of history classes – as Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch chronicles – so, too, France's official secularism, or laïcité, which rules out public discussion of faith, had a similar effect.

"I can't tell you how revolutionary it would be to get this story into French schools," says Sauvage, who was born here in 1944 to Jewish parents who met in Paris, fled south to Marseilles, then found refuge in Chambon. "A sympathetic view of religious people acting well to rescue Jews at that time is not something teachers in France easily gravitate towards."

Rooted in Huguenot tradition

Chambon has unusual roots as a town. Most locals are Huguenot descendents – Protestants driven out of Catholic France in the 17th century. Those not fleeing or sent to hard labor hid in the mountains, living off their wits, and living inside the Bible. They were deeply devout and studied Scriptures daily. They identified with the persecuted children of Israel, developed powerful narratives based on the parable of the Good Samaritan, of sanctuary, of the Pauline teaching that "faith without works is dead," and they retained strong skepticism of worldly authority.

These traditions were quite alive when France agreed in 1940 to rule its southern half under Nazi policies.

"The town gave sanctuary to Spanish civil war refugees, to orphans from nearby coal mining towns, to pacifists from Germany," says Catherine Aubin, a historian in Paris related to the Trocme family of Chambon. "The traditions of the Huguenots were always strong. They didn't try to convert people, they were just devout." The observance of Jewish high holy days took place, albeit in secret.

By 1942, Jews from all over Europe were arriving. They were accepted without question.

Some came for several weeks and slept on floors; others stayed on. "In four years, not a single ... Jew was exposed or denounced. Not one. That's incredible," says Henry.

"What was remarkable about Chambon is that nobody during four or five years asked me the question, are you or are you not Jewish?," notes Joseph Atlas a Jewish refugee who got a math degree here. "I was a young refugee of Polish origin, a foreigner, sheltered by a Protestant community."

Pastors' dissent

In some areas, French authorities went beyond Nazi policies. Jewish adults were to be deported. But French police sent entire families. Vichy propaganda openly described Jews as subhuman connivers bent on destroying the glory of France.

"Protestant pastors were the only ones to confront [Pierre] Laval, [the chief Vichy implementer]," says Fabrice d'Almeida, director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Paris, "to tell him to stop deporting children and mothers. But Laval said, 'It is not my business.' " Some 90,000 French Jews died in Nazi camps.

More than a dozen pastors in the Chambon region were part of the "conspiracy of good," Sauvage describes. Of these, Mr. Trocme and his assistant Edouard Theis were the two most prominent.

'Weapons of the spirit'

Trocme gave a dissenting sermon the day after the Vichy government signed an armistice with Germany: "The duty of Christians is to resist the violence brought on their consciences, through the weapons of the spirit. We will resist whenever our adversaries demand obedience contrary to the orders of the Gospel. We will do so without fear, without pride, and without hate," he said from the pulpit.

Trocme was a pacifist from Belgium who saw first hand the horrors of World War I and "never wanted to relive the ghastly brutality and killing," says Ms. Aubin. He saw the incredible ravages, and said we can't allow this again…. He had a deep scriptural piety and a modern progressive outlook. He said don't fight the Germans, but then said don't collaborate with them."

Trocme's sermon turned Nazi theology on its head.

If the Hitler youth handbook argued that "The foundation of the National Socialist outlook on life is the perception of the unlikeness of men," Trocme and Theis rallied Chambon "like a flame to the dry wood of the Huguenot town," says Aubin, to stand up for the equality and dignity of all human beings.

To a degree largely unknown outside France, the war and French anti-Semitism remains a sore point here.

Only when foreign historians, such as Robert Paxton of Columbia University in 1972, began to detail not just the scale, but the enthusiasm with which German policies were carried out, did the nation start facing this history.

Even in 1989 when Sauvage's film on Chambon – "Weapons of the Spirit" – was released, French reaction was mute, as it was when the town entered Yad Vashem: "An entire town is given the rare status of rescuers, a collective honor, virtually unique – but it hardly registers in France," he notes. In 2004 President Chirac visited Chambon and gave a stirring speech. "We are seeing a sea change on the Shoah in France today," he says.

"Maybe more even than the Germans today, we French are still dealing with this," says a high school teacher in Paris. "We still have a wound where our heart is. We all ask the question 'what would I have done? But it isn't fair to compare all France with the way a rural village treated Jews."

More than 'celebrating diversity'

To be sure, Chambon had natural advantages not found in cities. The area is hilly, rough, spread out. Jews hid in barns and fields, and saw the approach of danger. Some Huguenot hiding places were hundreds of years old. Aubin points out the crucial role dogs played – barking at strangers and allowing escape.

Huguenot locals created a spirit that allowed Catholics, Quakers, Darbyites, and the Red Cross, to join the "conspiracy."

Sauvage hypothesizes that some Germans officials posted there may have been "caught up" in that spirit. Trocme and Theis were arrested at one point, but quickly released; Nazis mostly left the town alone, though records later show they knew it was a center for the false papers Jews needed to move anywhere.

The Chambon example represents both a transcendence and a concreteness that Henry and others say is often lost in many current ideas of good. The rescuers stated plainly, in interviews before they died, that the Biblical injunction to love one another implies that something is owed to one's fellow man, regardless of race or creed.

"The Huguenots were not risking their lives to hide Jews in their barns in order to celebrate diversity," says Henry. "They felt deeply the humanity of the other."

Refugee returns as filmmaker

For Sauvage, making the film about Chambon was a transformative experience. After the war, he moved to Paris with his family, then New York. He wasn't told he was Jewish until age 17. He returned to do a documentary in the 1980s, thinking he would shoot for a few weeks, and quickly put the film out.

Instead, it took five years and much soul searching to complete. Sauvage was simply not prepared, he says, for the character of the Chambon people. It changed his life.

"Every cliché I had imagined about [the people of Chambon] was wrong," Sauvage says. "They were incredibly smart. There was no escaping the fact they were heavily Protestant. They made me ask questions about myself and my own faith, or lack of it. At some point I realized that their selflessness was not depleting but was what gave them strength. This was something new for me.

"They had such a bedrock sense of values that it shook me to the core. I had to ask who I was. My film clearly had to be a Jewish testimony … and I finally realized I had to become Jewish in order to make a film to praise Christians."

Today Chambon is a town of cafes, pizza parlors, stone houses. Tourists come for dappled hills and distant vistas. The air is fresh – a reason Albert Camus came here from Algeria during the war. He wrote "The Plague" in Chambon in 1942 while recuperating from illness.

Even now, Pascal Blanc, a real estate agent here says few locals think their acts heroic.

"It was normal for us to help. We have helped all the time in our past," he says. "This is who we are. We don't think of those we helped raise in the war as outsiders; they are part of our families. Many still visit.

As for the Jewish community in France, leading figures advocate the inclusion of the story of the "righteous" in education curriculum.

"Putting forward these 'pages of light' written by individuals who risked their lives to save the lives of Jewish children is, from our standpoint, very educational," writes Anne-Marie Recolevschi, director general of the Paris-based Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, in a statement to the Monitor. "The actions of the Righteous constitute a source of hope and enable the transmission of a spirit of responsibility and respect of one another. [Editor's note: The original translation of the quote included a grammatical error.]