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 the full treatment of total destruction and massacre if the Allied invasion of the south of France had not supervened.
Those are the dry bones, about as much as the outside world knows or remembers about what happened in Le Chambon during the last world war. But Le Chambon, after a thirty-year interval, was to rescue one more human being. Philip Hallie, who wrote this book, is an American-Jewish intellectual who lectures in ethics. More accurately, he is a philosopher who spent many years trying to understand human cruelty, about which he wrote two books. One day, while reading around the subject of Nazi experiments on Jewish children, he came across an account of an incident in a small town in southern France. The police came with buses to round up the Jews. They told the pastor that he and his helpers would be arrested if they did not give the Jews up. The pastor refused. The police searched, but after days of hunting found only one Jew. As he sat alone in a bus, the village people passed little gifts of food to him through the window.
Hallie found that he was weeping. Something was happening to him which was to change the course of his life, alter his view of ethics and humanity, and make him the historian of Le Chambon. And curiously enough—although he does not make this point—what was happening to him was something very Protestant and Huguenot. Hallie was undergoing a conversion experience. His own language about his feelings is unmistakable. “When I was not desiring to be cruel with the cruel, I was a monster…who could look upon torture and death without a shudder…. Reading about the damned I was damned myself, as damned as the murderers, and as damned as their victims. Somehow over the years I had dug myself into Hell, and I had forgotten redemption, had forgotten the possibility of escape.” Then came the touch of grace, the self-conviction, the redeeming tears.
So he went off to Le Chambon to discover the nature of the good that had happened there. He insists that his purpose was not to make the place an “example” of virtue, but to find out, really, why and in what spirit the Chambonnais did what they did. Other people, even other Protestant villages, were indifferent to the fugitives, or preferred armed resistance to the nonviolent altruism of Le Chambon. What was different about this particular community? As an ethics teacher he writes that “my own passion was a yearning for realistic hope.” After his conversion, Hallie knew that an assurance of “realistic hope” was streaming toward him from Le Chambon. But he was not sure why.
The first special factor was the personality of the pastor and his wife. André Trocmé, who had died some years before Hallie went to France, once described himself as “un violent vaincu par Dieu.” He was a big, passionate, domineering man, sometimes violent indeed in his words and actions, but a man who committed his whole life to two ends: to the claim of the poor and to the preciousness of individual human life.
From the long autobiographical manuscript which he left behind, and which Hallie has extensively used in his reconstruction, we learn that he was born of a half-German family in northern France, in one of those better-off Protestant clans who physically wall themselves off—and in parts of France this can still be found—from the Catholic masses about them. Trocmé broke away, a young Christian rebel who sought to establish evangelical communities among the poor. The death of his mother in a motor accident and the sights of the First World War had taught him his reverence for human life, but for some years he wandered. In America, where he passed a strange interlude as tutor to the children of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., he met his Italian wife Magda, an earthier but equally generous character. They returned to France, and worked for some years in industrial parishes; Trocmé helped bring about a local religious revival which became known as “the Awakening at Sin-le-Noble,” after the haunting name of the mining village where it took place. Then he moved to the parish of Le Chambon.
The frame for what was to happen was set when he founded a school there, in which his old friend Edouard Theis taught the principles of nonviolence. As the Thirties advanced, this naturally became an unpopular position in France. The Protestant church authorities, while aware that nonviolence was central to their own tradition of moral and physical survival, reproached Trocmé. He lost many disciples, but the local presbytery continued to support him. And it was to the school, even before the war broke out, that refugees from fascism in other countries began to find their way.
France fell. The regime of Marshal Pétain enacted anti-Semitic laws. Magda Trocmé opened her door one snowy night and found a trembling Jewish woman, the first arrival who was in the full sense helpless, on the run, with no papers. She said: “But of course, entrez et entrez: come in, and come in!” This woman was to be the first of thousands.
But the transformation of Le Chambon into a “city of refuge,” in which those who gave shelter to the fugitives and their children risked deportation and death for themselves and their own children, was not achieved by the Trocmés alone. The congregation went willingly with them, responding not only to the Christian commandment but to the antinomian traditions of their fore-fathers who had disobeyed an unjust state without lifting hand or weapon against it. Their resistance evolved, starting with a rather Schweikian evasion of orders to greet the flag with a fascist salute and developing through a refusal to ring the bell of the “temple” (church) for a Pétainist celebration. But matters came to a head when Georges Lamirand, Pétain’s dapper minister for youth, visited the town and was handed a petition protesting against the round-up of French Jews in Paris. Lamirand left in a huff, and Trocmé was subjected to a raving harangue from the prefect about his duty to hand over the Jewish fugitives. He replied: “We do not know what a Jew is. We know only men.”
Le Chambon continued to receive, to shelter, and to pass on the refugees to Switzerland. Trocmé, Theis, and the headmaster of the state school were arrested and briefly interned, then mysteriously released again. Trocmé once again resisted desperate pleas from the Protestant leadership in France, alarmed that he was compromising the survival of the church. The ineffectual raids of the Vichy police were followed by the Gestapo and deportations to the Polish death camps. After a murder threat, Trocmé himself had to leave for a time, and escaped arrest in Lyon by a hair’s breadth. And yet the Chambonnais would not turn the fugitives away.
It is a proud story. Hallie discusses it in two ways, examining first the stubborn characters of those who made it possible—Trocmé and Theis, the volcanic and instinctive Magda, the romantic Le Forestier who disgusted the local maquis with his debonair ways but died in a Gestapo massacre in the last days of the Occupation, the women who ran the hostels. And then he tries to understand and codify the way the Chambonnais behaved well. The portraits are memorable; his understanding of the political background less penetrating. He attempts to interpret the behavior of Vichy supporters in the light of the old Huguenot struggle against the French state, and underestimates the extent to which the political struggle between the Pétain regime and the Resistance was another repetition of the historic opposition of Red and White, reaction and revolution, which culminated in those years. These were categories into which the French Protestants did not fit, and did not wish to. The non-violence and the moral austerity of the Chambonnais were part of their aversion to that sort of political commitment; Trocmé’s relations with the armed partisan bands were edgy, though tempered by mutual respect, while the people mourned the “lost candor” sacrificed even by forging identity papers, by inking the name “Cohn” into the French name “Colin” on a ration card. Magda said: “Helping Jews was more important than resisting Vichy and the Nazis.”
Hallie recalls two sorts of ethics. The classical conception is that of Kant, that nothing is entirely good except a good will. “Life-and-death” ethics, in contrast, is concerned with deeds, with a response to a situation—a desperate Jew at the door—which must be dealt with at once. Some at Le Chambon responded instinctively, directly to the appeal, so that now they can only explain to Hallie that they acted “naturally—what else could one do?” The comment that they could have done nothing puzzles them. Others, like Trocmé and Theis, acted equally decisively but on what Hallie terms “a vertical commandment”: they were concerned, extraordinary as it sounds, to prevent the Germans as human beings from violating the commandment not to kill, and considered that if they did not prevent them they would share their guilt.
And it’s that sort of attitude, not just the generosity and courage, which makes the tale of Le Chambon so astounding. In time of war, the delicate of conscience tend to retreat to the cellar with their Bible. But the people of Le Chambon took action in the world of war because of their very moral fastidiousness. They did not kill or wound, they almost did not lie. They saved thousands, and their principles too.
June 14, 1979