Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There
The little town of Le Chambon lies in the mountains of south-central France. It isn’t a particularly beautiful place, or a particularly prosperous one. Before the war, the population had grown used to living off summer visitors. For the rest of the year, the boardinghouses were shut and the population endured the battering of the snow-wind, the “burle,” with resignation. “Neuf mois d’hiver, trois mois de misères,” they said. It was, and is, a place outwardly dour and cold.
But there was one unusual thing about Le Chambon. It was a Protestant village. In an overwhelmingly Catholic country, only about a hundred of the three thousand Chambonnais were Catholics. The rest were Huguenots. Their ancestors had settled in Le Chambon three hundred years before, and there they had survived the centuries of persecution and discrimination—“le désert,” as the Huguenots refer to it in their private code—which only ended with the French Revolution. Their ethic was solidarity against the unjust laws of the state, expressed in mutual help and faithfulness to their pastors rather than through open resistance. At least one of the Le Chambon pastors died on the gallows for his religion.
In the late Thirties, the first refugees from the spreading plague of fascism found their way to Le Chambon. At first there were Republicans escaping from Spain. Then came people from the east, anti-Nazi Germans and Austrians, and above all Jews.
Le Chambon took them in. The flow thickened with the fall of France; now French Jews and their children were retreating to the hills to escape the anti-Semitic laws of the Pétain state, while, against growing difficulties, Jews who had managed to cross the frontiers from the Reich or made the journey from Eastern Europe continued to arrive. The village was now an important way-station on what was becoming an “underground railway” ramifying across the continent. False identity and ration cards were made in the village, and the arrivals on the one o’clock train were distributed around the boardinghouses of Le Chambon and the peasant farms. Even before the German occupation of the southern zone of France, in 1942, the refugees were being passed on to Switzerland, through “Cimade,” the network run by women which piloted so many people through the mountains and the barbed wire into neutral territory. By an agreement between the village pastor, André Trocmé, and the Quakers, Le Chambon came to concentrate on the long-term housing of refugee children.
A price was paid for this. The village was repeatedly raided for Jews, at first by the half-hearted Vichy police and then by the Germans. Although there was usually advance warning of such raids, so that the refugees could be packed off to the woods or outlying farms, there were losses. Le Chambon suffered arrests, internments, deportations, and some deaths, and the children of one hostel were taken to Majdanek and gassed, together with the French guardian of the hostel who refused to abandon them. Le Chambon would almost certainly have been given…
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