Letter from Le Chambon: Just to Say Merci
Last spring I happened on an online item about the imminent opening of a museum in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a picturesque village in the fastness of the Haute-Loire. What could a modest museum—Le Lieu de Mémoire—in a tiny French town possibly mean to me? Ah, but that clipping resounded as a reminder that my opportunities were narrowing. One of the promises to keep before I slept—dating from 1988, when Yad Vashem cited 76 inhabitants of Le Chambon and nearby villages as Righteous Gentiles—was now beckoning. I had promised myself a pilgrimage to this place.
Some 75 miles southwest of Lyon, the Vivarais (“Protestant Plateau”) of France’s Massif Central sits 3,000 feet above sea level but ranks low on foreign tourists’ must-see list. Its 9,000 mountain Huguenots are a tiny fraction of France’s 900,000 Protestants, who, in turn, represent no more than two percent of the country’s population. Like France’s Jews, Huguenots are a successful, literate and conspicuous minority.
Although other Protestant pockets exist in France, it is only on the volcanic soil of the Vivarais where Calvinists so predominate as to constitute it as a kind of Huguenot homeland. During World War II, under the leadership of Reverend André Trocmé and other pastoral advocates of nonviolent resistance, they made a compact to ensure that their rural redoubt would provide the most secure haven for Jews on the European continent.
Huguenots descend from pastors and parishes that converted to Calvinism in the 16th century. Later, between 1685, when Protestantism was declared illegal in France, and the Revolution of 1787, large numbers were slaughtered, their “temples” leveled and their faithful forced to worship in secret. Perhaps, inevitably, their leaders likened these trials to the 40 years the Israelites wandered the wilderness. And like 15th-century Jewish expellees from Spain, hundreds of thousands immigrated to the Netherlands, Britain and America, thus reinforcing the historical affinity between the two faith communities. Meanwhile, the Huguenot remnant in France made a sanctuary of the relatively inaccessible Vivarais.
Of the 76 honored by Yad Vashem, half are women; 8 are pastors. This abundance of heroism and benevolence constrained Yad Vashem for the first time to honor an entire community, embracing not Le Chambon alone but hamlets such as Tence and Le Mazet-St. Voy as well. (The only other such citation, also in 1988, was to the Dutch village of Nieuwlande.)
Le Chambon’s year-round population of 2,500 makes it the plateau metropolis. Snowbound in winter, for three months in the summer an influx of French tourists, most fleeing the heat of summer but others attracted by lectures, seminars and the companionship of fellow Calvinists or adherents of nonviolence, spike the local population four- to fivefold.
In preparation for my visit, I sent missives to village officials and the Chambon Foundation in Los Angeles, but it was the response of Astrid Bailo, a school principal in St. Etienne, an industrial city 35 miles north of the Vivarais, that was immediate and generous. Bailo’s grandparents were native Chambonnais; indeed, Bailo had spent her girlhood summers there. Acquainted with everyone in town, as my indispensable chauffeur, cicerone and arranger of interviews with the village mayor and a local historian, Bailo made my project her own. Suggestive of the experience of Holocaust survivors who never spoke of their ordeal, neither her parents nor her grandparents ever spoke about the war years.
Although Le Chambon enjoys rail service, it links only with other Vivarais villages. So I deeply appreciated being driven from St. Etienne over narrow, twisting hillside roads. One could easily see why, even though it was no secret that Jews were sequestered on the plateau, the Nazis were not keen to mount a sustained campaign in such terrain, since the Huguenots, who professed nonviolence, represented no direct threat to the German war effort. Only once, in the summer of 1943, did the Gestapo strike by surprise, heartbreakingly rounding up perhaps two dozen Jewish orphans and their caretakers at two boarding schools.
Soon after arrival at L’hôtel de la Plage, we set out on Le Chambon’s winding streets, passing one and then another, then yet a third bookshop in this tiny village! We paused at length at the Crickets and the House of the Rocks boarding schools, where, in time of war, Jewish kids once laughed freely. On our way to Le Lieu de Mémoire (not un musée, as if unconsciously hewing to Jewish modalities), we stopped at the local library and viewed its current exhibit, which featured a display of new books and pamphlets dealing with—what else?—the philosophy of nonviolence.
Le Lieu de Mémoire, dedicated in June 2013, two months before my visit, is two stories high and architecturally plain. It stands on a corner across from the French Reformed Temple, a barn-like structure with a vaulted roof and commodious, unadorned interior that the museum subtly echoes. At the museum’s reception desk an attractive young woman looked at my crocheted kippa and beamed. Her greeting startled me: “Barukhim Ha-ba’im. Eifo atem garim?” The only Hebrew speaker on the plateau, Virginie Genest had lived in Tel Aviv for a year. Our arrival had just made her day. Twice that week my colorful headpiece would precipitate auspicious exchanges with smiling strangers.
The museum, its aim to spread the values of tolerance and respect for all people, features posters and digital stations dealing with Huguenot history and the commitment of the plateau to harboring refugees. The most imaginative exhibit is a 12-minute filmstrip that utilizes silhouettes to dazzling effect: a child holding a suitcase is escorted onto a train; the train starts, stops, passengers come and go; it moves on and on until it arrives at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where the child is welcomed at the station.
In its first months, over 7,000 visitors came to this unique testament to Huguenot hospitality. Most are families with children who couldn’t make sense out of text-driven exhibits. The film, however, was riveting. In the course of 30 minutes I observed two sets of parents clarify to their children—one in German, the other in French—that the child on the train was a Jewish orphan whose parents had been sent away during the war. Good people from Marseilles [European headquarters of the American Friends Service Committee] arranged with good people in Le Chambon to care for these Jewish orphans. The visitors’ children asked questions. Pedagogically, that 12-minute filmstrip was a tour de force.
How many children took that melancholy journey from Marseilles to Le Chambon? For that matter, how many Jewish refugees of all ages, at grave risk to their benefactors, were provided with food, shelter and loving kindness during those precarious years? Some accounts estimate 5,000 (one even 8,000), but Genest labels these “beautiful legends.” No one kept a running tab, but over a period of 25 years historian Gérard Bollon—research assistant at the Collège du Chambon-sur-Lignon and secretary of the Société d’Histoire de la Montagne—has documented names of over 3,500 who took refuge for short spells or long among the Huguenots. But not all of these were Jews. The Chambonnais hospitality firm was in the “refugee business,” not the Jewish business. It opened shop in the late 1930s with an influx of Spanish Republican refugees. Over the next decade, they accepted communists, gays, Roma, deserters—anyone on the run from persecution.
So, how many were Jews? Genest estimates around 1,000. Of these, several hundred were orphans who were well housed, well fed, attended classes and played sports, games and music. But lest 1,000 sound like a decrescendo, it bears remembering: In a time of grave danger and intense hardship, the good will and extraordinary generosity of the Huguenot community of the Vivarais enabled some 1,000 Jews to survive the war. Moreover, 70 years later, this firm still operates. Le Chambon currently maintains a center for asylum-seekers. Today, 52 people are awaiting processing; meanwhile, they are comfortably housed, and their children attend a school where local children are taught to treat them with kindness and consideration.
At our meeting the following morning at a café, Bollon was earnest and taciturn. There were several myths he hoped I would not promulgate. “Yes, André Trocmé was a charismatic pastor,” he said, “but he could have achieved very little without the active cooperation of the Vivarais pastors and their flocks in the other nine villages. Moreover, contrary to some reports, the plateau’s Catholic minority was also supportive.” The plateau’s warm response to people in dire need did not arise in a vacuum. The historical tribulations and unique culture of Huguenots were preconditions of the Vivarais “miracle.” Bollon articulated what I had already come to sense: When a stranger rapped at the door in the middle of the night, these Huguenots did not have to rack their heads and hearts over how to respond. They had already worked that out in concert with one another.
At the railroad station that afternoon, Bernard Cellier, 83, spotting my kippa, approached. Like the Ancient Mariner, he had a tale to relate from his teens. Cellier’s parents, both pharmacists, lived in a house on the outskirts of Le Chambon. During the war they harbored Maurice Lewy, a 20-year-old who, aware of Le Chambon’s reputation, had come from Roanne, 100 miles to the north. Like other Roanne Jews, Lewy’s parents were in the textile trade. Cellier recalled Lewy, his parents and himself living as an extended family, eating together and at night sometimes riding bikes or fishing. At one point, Lewy had a severe infection and had to go to the hospital in St. Etienne. His documents were imperfect and Cellier’s mother was fearful. On his departure, Lewy left behind an essay detailing how Mme. Cellier had saved his life. Cellier wanted to enlist my help in persuading Yad Vashem to honor his parents as Righteous Gentiles. The following day we met again and Cellier gave me a copy of Lewy’s letter.
Encountering him on two further occasions—in the open-air market and near the temple—Cellier again importuned my assistance. Like myself, Cellier was driven to honorably dispatch an unfulfilled vow.
One hundred and fifty years of persecution has tempered the conscience and character of France’s Calvinists to a fine, sympathetic empathy. The result is a highly attractive, tolerant, intellectually vibrant, warmhearted community that instinctively opens its heart to the oppressed, a very embodiment of the Abrahamic mode of affording hospitality to the stranger. For Jewish visitors, the entire village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is un lieu de mémoire.
Mes amis, mes sœurs et frères, mes semblables, merci bien pour tout.
Book and Film on Huguenots
Pierre Sauvage’s splendid, award-winning documentary, Weapons of the Spirit, which tells the story of Jewish rescue during World War II, is coming out this year in a 25th-anniversary edition (available from the Chambon Foundation).
A Portrait of Pacifists: Le Chambon, the Holocaust and the Lives of Andre and Magda Trocme by Richard P. Unsworth (Syracuse University Press) documents the couple’s courage.